Dance in Portland: White Bird flies high

Globe-trotting dance producers Paul King and Walter Jaffe bring innovation, class, and community to the Rose City's now-flourishing dance scene.
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Walter Jaffe and Paul King of White Bird Dance.

Globe-trotting dance producers Paul King and Walter Jaffe bring innovation, class, and community to the Rose City's now-flourishing dance scene.

Paul and Walter are big fans. Sitting down for coffee in the lobby of Portland's hipster-happy Ace Hotel, the couple quickly launch into a breathless list of Rose City people and things they adore. They talk excitedly about the "honor" of shaking maracas onstage with Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl. They tell me they think the founding of PICA was "the most exciting thing to happen in Portland" in several years. They wax rhapsodic on Portland's restaurant scene.

But don't think about moving the conversation in the direction of the Portland dance scene. Unless you have a few hours on your hands.

As Portland's most approachable cultural power couple, Paul King and Walter Jaffe are flush with the kind of frenzied Portland fandom reserved these days for the pages of The New York Times. As co-founders of Portland's invaluable contemporary dance presenting organization, White Bird Dance, they're perhaps the most visible faces of the city's burgeoning dance community.

Ten years ago, the couple moved from New York to Portland with no such ambitions anywhere in mind. Paul is a Cordon-Bleu trained chef with a keen love of food; Walter's background as a publisher and board member of Paul Taylor Dance left the door open to a variety of opportunities. They briefly considered opening a chocolate shop. But something else sang out to them - in the voice of a little snow-capped parrot named Barney, their house pet and now organizational mascot - and White Bird Dance took flight.

In the intervening decade, the couple - who take no salary for their work but now employ a full-time staff of three and several part-timers - have moved White Bird to the front of the national dance presenting scene. Traveling to scout exceptional international and national dance talent, presenting dance legends (Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones) that Portland audiences wouldn't otherwise see, commissioning new works, and - this is important to Portland - retaining strong relationships to the local community are part of what has kept White Bird flying ahead of the flock.

Some touchstones of their work:

  • When White Bird presented the Portland debut of acclaimed Vietnamese choreographer Le Vu Long, the organization partnered with local Vietnamese community organizations for outreach activities. Additionally, Long taught classes for Portland dancers at Conduit Dance - this is a tradition for most of White Bird's visiting artists, and a good one.
  • Walter and Paul's pre-show curtain speeches have become legendary, as they spend as long as 15 or 20 minutes hawking upcoming shows, thanking sponsors, and plugging other local dance shows.
  • Their "White Bird@PSU Series" - which in 2008-09 and 2009-10 will be called "White Bird Uncaged" as the PSU Lincoln Hall undergoes renovations, forcing the bird to fly elsewhere - features more adventurous dance fare like hip-hop innovator Rennie Harris (Dec. 6-8), and often incorporates multi-media elements. The series has attracted a noticeably young and diverse audience, has helped to strengthen White Bird's relationship with local colleges, and they frequently sell out. Oh yeah, and they've been known to sell Voodoo Doughnuts at halftime.

But like the entire community, White Bird still struggles for support. "It's a challenge for us to keep the bar raised" with scarce resources, Jaffe says, and King jumps in: "It's just that in Portland, there aren't those people to write those checks." That hasn't stopped White Bird from steamrolling ahead with a tenth-anniversary season which may be its most ambitious yet.

Among the 12 dance concert offerings this season - including a Nov. 14 Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie performance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall - it's their ambitious "4x4: The Ballet Project" initiative which stands out most. This May 8-9, evening-length performances by four of the West Coast's top classical ballet companies - Eugene Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Portland's Oregon Ballet Theatre - will offer Portland premieres of new work, in the first-ever time these companies share a stage.

It's a landmark dance event for Portland and the Pacific Northwest. Ten years ago, it wouldn't have been dreamed of. "That's the big difference over ten years," Jaffe says. "Everyone in Portland wants to work together now."

The duo also point to the great leaps that OBT - Portland's top-flight classical ballet company - has taken until the inspired leadership of former San Francisco Ballet wunderkind Christopher Stowell. If that name sounds familiar to Seattleites, it's because Christopher is the son of Pacific Northwest Ballet co-founder Kent Stowell.

"OBT is back as a serious ballet company," Jaffe says with real enthusiasm. "They've raised the bar enormously. Christopher's bringing his own aesthetic" - new story ballets by his hand, classic 20th century works by Balanchine, and contemporary masters like William Forsythe - "and he's thinking big."

Jaffe and King are thinking big too: the two have dreams of opening a creation and support center for the Portland dance community. A White Bird Dance Center. "It would be a creation center for dance: a resource space, a support network, an open stage, there are so many possibilities," King says. "Portland is ready for this."


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