Rachel Tess's Small World of Dance

The former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer returns from performing around the world to preview a new work on a transportable set made by Opsis Architecture. Sept 6–7

By Heather Wisner August 1, 2014 Published in the August 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Rachel Tess on the Souvenir set at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York

Dancer Rachel Tess has restless feet. In the past decade, the former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer has hopscotched from Juilliard to international companies known for their innovative work: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal and Sweden’s Göteborgand Cullberg Ballets. In 2006, she started Rumpus Room, a dance company based both in Oregon and Sweden. These days, the 34-year-old runs an artistic research center on a farm in rural Kivik, Sweden. 

The Portland native’s latest work reflects her itinerant lifestyle: Souvenir, a dance set on a transportable stage of interlocking pine boards (right), enough to fill a 40-foot shipping container. Tess created the piece in Sweden, premiered it in Manhattan, and will stage a new version of it in Portland next spring after a preview this month. She calls the traveling stage “a mobile choreographic environment.” 

Souvenir germinated in 2011. Having previously choreographed dances for nontheatrical locales such as galleries and unfinished retail spaces, Tess wanted to push the limits of mobility and interactivity by building a set that was both stage and seating. She collaborated with a cabinetmaker in Sweden to create a structure from hand-planed planks connected by pegs—something the dancers could assemble on-site. The self-contained theater has built-in cubbyholes, which viewers occupy, while dancers perform contemporary solos and duets set only to localized sound—the scuff of a dancer’s foot, distant traffic noise—which means Souvenir changes with every location.

“What comes with space is context ... you get a particular audience, and they’re part of the performance,” says Tess, who informs viewers that they can sit in a chair or on the floor and move if something’s in their way. How people interpret those instructions varies. “In general, people in Sweden are very good rule-followers, so they won’t really challenge the premise, whereas in New York we had someone who built a fort out of the seating.” 

That Tess would embark on such an adventurous project doesn’t surprise Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving, who hired her nine years ago at Göteborg Ballet (now GöteborgsOperans Danskompani) when he was its director. “The site-specific work she’s doing, creating an intimate atmosphere for dance—I don’t know anyone who is doing it in quite the same way,” he says.

The stage isn’t coming to Portland just yet. In September, Tess will perform Souvenir’s dances in a similarly scaled space, accompanied by an exhibit documenting the project. It will include designs for Souvenir II, which she is developing with local firm Opsis Architects to debut in Portland next spring. In between, she’s headed back to New York, then to her Kivik base, where she’ll host visiting artists, including Portland choreographer Gregg Bielemeier. While a Swedish farm might seem an unlikely artistic hub, Tess has become philosophical about her place in the world. 

“What makes me feel grounded and stable is having the right conditions to work on what I want to work on. I have a home base now,” she says of the seaside town. “I have finally put my feet down somewhere.”

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