Celebrating 20 Years of White Bird Dance
“The Day Dance Died, Foolishly.” So decreed the Oregonian in April 1995, mourning the end of a decade-long series at Portland State that brought some of the greatest figures of contemporary dance to our city.
Local dancer Gregg Bielemeier recalls the vacuum. “There was one producer who brought Trisha Brown, but nobody knew she was in town,” he says. “There were maybe 500 people at the Schnitz. It was quite shocking.”
Along came Walter Jaffe and Paul King, accompanied by a chatty cockatoo named Barney. The couple had ditched New York for Portland, with designs on—no joke—a chocolate company or gourmet takeout shop. Instead, in the fall of 1997, they brought the Paul Taylor Dance Company to town. Under the name White Bird, Jaffe and King have spent the past two decades presenting hotshot troupes from around the globe, from big-time companies like Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham to young talent such as Camille A. Brown, a choreographer who centers African American experiences in her work. “This is a young woman who’s dedicated to truth and voice,” King says. “These are the kinds of people you want to support.”
White Bird has also commissioned 36 works, more than half from Portlanders—including Bielemeier, whose Odd Duck Lake opened the 1998–99 season. But their success isn’t due just to Jaffe and King’s critical discernment and tireless commitment to the form. (Now in their 60s, the two travel regularly to scout the scene.) Their audiences are well-heeled dance fans, schoolkids at matinee performances, and clients at human-service organizations that receive unused tickets. And then—well, then there are the parties.
“They pick people up, there’s food, there’s good hospitality,” Sarah Slipper, artistic director of NW Dance Project, says of the way White Bird treats its visiting artists. “That’s old school. There’s respect to the art, and to the artists. It creates a good feeling.”
Steps in Time
Big moments from two decades of dance
1999 White Bird brings Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Project for a two-night run. Subscribers, who get priority seating, leap from 761 to 1,800.
2002 France’s avant-garde Compagnie Maguy Marin stages White Bird’s most divisive show to date: “it held some audience members in thrall and sent others scrambling for the exits,” notes the Oregonian.
2008 Lincoln Hall, the presenter’s primary venue, closes for maintenance. For two seasons, White Bird roves the city, bringing Australia’s Chunky Move to the downtown YWCA and Amsterdam’s Anouk van Dijk to the Oaks Park Dance Pavilion.
2012 French-Canadian choreographer Sylvain Émard corrals 164 Portlanders of all ages—overwhelmingly nondancers—for Le Grand Continental. They rehearse twice weekly for 10 weeks to prepare for the free half-hour performance at Pioneer Courthouse Square.
2013 White Bird launches the $15,000 Barney Creative Prize to commission new work by choreographers from western states. Recipients so far include Alonzo King, Portlander Tahni Holt, ODC/Dance, and Diavolo.
2016 King and Jaffe curate the inaugural American Dance Platform, selecting eight companies from across the country to perform at New York City’s Joyce Theater. From Portland, they invite NW Dance Project.
White Bird’s 2017–18 season commences this month; see whitebird.org.