It was a sweltering, 66-degree day incompatible with Portland’s typical freezing November months, when I made my way up the studio ramp and entered Performance Works Northwest for the Linda Austin series from October 17 to November 2 3 miles possible (the first mile), the first third of a long-lasting piece. The space was warm and the air purifiers hummed softly as the small masked audience took their seats.
As I took off my coat and silenced my phone, my eye was caught by the pairs of black folding chairs lining the edges of the stage – alternative seats for adventurous (or courageous) viewers who wish to change their point. view of the roundabout. show throughout the evening. “Don’t hesitate to change your point of view as you wish”, I remembered Jeff Forbes, lighting designer, art collaborator and longtime Austin partner, saying we walked in.
Across the room, choreographer and performer were seated Allie Hankins, another close artistic collaborator of Austin, in a button-down shirt and sneakers, hands carefully crossed on her knees. I wondered if Hankins was there just to watch or participate in the performance. My eyes moved to the center of the room, where a small piece of paper wrapped around a stone hung from the ceiling by a string. Austin, donning an olive-green jumpsuit, walked over to the string, removed the paper, and began to walk on the spiral pattern of thick rope coiled at his feet. The show had started.
Performance Works Northwest, whose mission is to advance the arts by encouraging artistic experimentation, was founded by art director Austin and technical director Forbes in 1999. Originally from Oregon, Austin returned home to Portland after a successful 20-year career as a movement artist and designer in New York City before establishing PWNW as the local center of dance and community it is today.
“If this … then that?” “ Austin repeated with a gesture, “… or if this … then, this?” She continued the piece, and after a while, swung the rock on her head while crossing the spiral of the rope; paper in hand. “Is it a snake?” An archive ? A path? A scar? ”She read, asking the same about galaxy, tangent, tunnel, link, poem, echo, opening, and smile with a look both puzzled and convinced. Like an iceberg passing glacially across the North Atlantic, it was clear that there would be nothing superficially swift or flashy about this serious, thoughtful display.
Presented as an exploration grounded in our “world of fluctuating personal, material, political and artistic contingencies,” the first mile of Austin’s three-chapter performance featured an investigative exhibition of dance, poetics, art. performance and playful public participation.
Later, over an electronic soundscape, Austin quickly wandered through space, stopping to erupt into episodes of Forsythe-esque choreography; arms extending from its center, anchored curves of shifting weight, trailing shapes resembling pretzel-shaped symbols drawn on chairs and signposts around the room. Her depth perception appeared eerily precise as she made choreographic changes to onlookers’ feet and handbags, calmly testing the limits of her own sense of space. Fueled by an obvious source of determination, she showed no signs of energetic collapse as her arms repeatedly relaxed to the side before collapsing completely to the ground.
Throughout the evening, Austin played with rhythm and syncope, using walking patterns in which she flapped her arms like wings, later singing Hello, I love you by The Doors in a capella, interpreted by a phrasing in triplets in three repetitive choreographed sections. Small hand bells, each stationed in a different corner of the room, became the hallmark of the room as she picked them up to initiate her unique tone. The bells, apparently also a guideline in Austin’s work, reminded me of his Shaking The Tree Theater premiere of The last bell rings for you almost five years ago at the date. A collaboration between Austin and 18 community participants ranging from non-dancers to professional performers, the work used a bell-sounding score made increasingly familiar by 3 miles possible.
Austin embarked on a spiral race before slowing down for a long, balanced traverse of the ground to the sound of audio crackles, water droplets and the faint call of seabirds (a field recording of the melting of the last winter’s ice storm, says the artist). That brings it to mile .67, a square shaped white paper temporary marker glued to the wall and drawn in the water. She was keenly aware of his horizon line and she leaned down and straightened up to dip her brush. The soundscape ended as the traces of water dried up, becoming imperceptible again. “All the birds go away; how do they know it’s time to go? Austin sang.
After a trip to the 0.75 mile across the room we were treated to a change of tone as Hankins appeared to join Austin in a vibrant vineyard dance break at ABBA’s Dancing queen. My speculation was confirmed: Hankins and Austin Line danced, jumped, clapped and smiled, acknowledging both the viewer and each other. And just as my joyful bewilderment reached its climax, Hankins sat down again and the music calmed down.
“I wrote this book in a circular house on a hill, overlooking the city…” Austin continued, citing Renée Gladman‘s Ana Patova crosses the bridge, “… it’s important because it shows where people exist.” She held one end of the rope in her hand again and walked out towards the theater desk, returning moments later through the kitchen. She managed to loop the long rope inside the building, turning the scene into a sort of clasp for the lasso she had created. As she pulled the rope through space, a Rorschach test of moving figures became visible on the ground, giving the appearance of liquid being poured over the marley. Her cat, Delaney, felt welcomed by the open door and entered the theater, just in time for Austin to take a sip of water and speak directly to the audience. We were invited to engage in a participatory task while attempting “the impossible feat of ignoring the cat”. It has been suggested that we ask ourselves the following questions: under what conditions am I … a yellow wheel, or a siren, or wrinkled, etc.
Following Fear and loathing in Las Vegas than Catch Me If You Can, 3 miles possible (the first mile) is a kaleidoscopic exercise to defend the present moment; educate your audience in the inevitable overlaps between life, performance and our often overstrained biases against the passage of time. With performances like this, it’s clear that Linda Austin is playing the long game. Time and time again, her particular choices align perfectly with the concept of connection as she transcends typical definitions of dance performance to. through daring and psychologically touching undertakings. Without being overly emotional, the passionate and personal nature of her work rings clear. With his head against the wall, Austin ponders unanswered questions of identity and existence that we all ask ourselves at some point. “Under what conditions is the following true? She reflects: “Under what conditions is this neither true nor false?”
As we returned to our seats from the conga line of cautious steps onto the stage floor, Linda coiled the rope and faced the risers. “Thanks; it’s a mile,” she said, smiling, “There will be more… probably longer.”