Exit Stage Left

With Lincoln Hall undergoing a $28 million makeover, Portland’s contemporary dance scene takes to the street.

By Martha Calhoon May 19, 2009 Published in the August 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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FOR NEARLY A CENTURY, Lincoln Hall has loomed large and stately at the corner of SW Market Street and Park Avenue. The brick-and-mortar edifice with a façade of majestic Corinthian columns started out as Lincoln High School in 1911 before being folded into Portland State University’s metropolitan campus in 1953. Despite its age, however, Lincoln Hall has spent most of the last 20 years as the hub of the city’s contemporary dance scene and a vital mainstay of Portland’s arts community.

But next month, a two-year, $28 million renovation will address 97 years of wear and tear by furnishing the building with new plumbing and seismic renovations. It’s great news for Lincoln Hall, but for the experimental dance troupes that call the place home, the long-term shuttering means a forced exodus that will challenge not just their tiny budgets, but the very way in which they approach their performances.

“There just aren’t a lot of places in the city for independent artists who don’t have a lot of financial backing to go and put on a show,” says Daniel Kirk, a dancer and choreographer for BodyVox, an innovative company that has regularly used Lincoln Hall as a venue. Thanks to the theater’s small size (it seats about 500) and relative affordability (groups are charged a reasonable $800 fee per show), it makes a perfect staging ground for more boundary-pushing projects. By comparison, the Newmark Theatre charges $1,135, plus union expenses, to use its facility, while traditional performance halls like the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Keller Auditorium start at $3,340 per night.

“It’s difficult,” says Chris Roesing of White Bird, an organization that specializes in importing dance acts to Portland. “But we’re looking at every part of this as an opportunity.”

The impending closure has inspired White Bird—which has staged an annual showcase at Lincoln Hall for the past eight years—to develop an entirely new approach to presenting its fall series. This season they’ll build sets and rig lighting to stage elaborate performances in nontraditional venues like Portland Opera’s rehearsal studio near the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, and the YWCA on SW 10th Avenue—a place more accustomed to hosting pickup basketball and volleyball games than high art. Fittingly, they’ve dubbed the departure “White Bird Uncaged.”

With the constraints of the typical proscenium setting loosened, White Bird co-founders Paul King and Walter Jaffe have scouted groups whose work is perfectly at home outside the confines of the footlights. The piece Two-Faced Bastard, by Australian ensemble Chunky Move, will feature simultaneous, dueling performances played out on a stage situated in the center of the room; where you sit will determine what you see. But thumbing your nose at tradition comes at a fairly lofty price: While renting the YWCA gymnasium won’t exactly break the bank, outfitting it with stage lights and a complicated set will cost thousands of dollars. All told, White Bird will exceed its annual $200,000 budget for the fall series by 44 percent.

A well-funded organization like White Bird might be able to handle the cost of forced migration, but the prospect of a Lincoln-less existence is a more tenuous situation for companies operating on a shoestring. Alexandrous Ballard, artistic director for Bouand DanceCompany, a local ballet ensemble, has already canceled half of the troupe’s performances for this season and has spent one-third of its entire budget booking the rest of the shows in the Newmark—a roll of the dice that could make the company, or ruin it. “At Lincoln Hall, if you sell 200 to 300 tickets, you’re doing great,” Ballard says. “At the Newmark, you’re talking about having to sell at least 600 tickets. That’s a hard thing to do with a company that’s this young.”

But most directors and coordinators, like Roesing, seem resigned—and maybe even a little energized—by this upcoming period of displacement. “It’s like that Chinese character,” he says, searching for the word. “The one that symbolizes both danger and opportunity. What is it again?” The character he’s thinking of is weiji, formed from the symbols for possibility and peril. For the next two years, anyway, they’re two words that perfectly describe Portland’s independent dance scene.

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