There's a growing opinion that theater in Portland is becoming more sophisticated or is, at least, willing to be more daring than in the recent past. Though there may be many reasons for this, one cannot help but see that this rise in maturity has accompanied the increasing popularity of the Portland International Performance Festival.
Now in its 10th year, PIPFest continues to bring the world's stage and its new theatrical innovations to our humble banks. Yet it's not just the opportunity to witness this work that has made PIPFest invaluable; it's also the amount of workshops and lectures the festival offers that has convinced local artists that there's more to theater than Lend Me a Tenor or flesh feasts. PIPFest has also proven that there is a discerning theater audience in Portland that demands better art. And as this audience grows, standards and demands for higher quality will inevitably follow, as a recent New York Times article on the 25-year-old Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., has made clear. In fact, PIPFest's long-term goal should be to emulate the phenomenally successful Spoleto, which has put Charleston (a city smaller than Portland) on the world's cultural map. This, of course, will take more financial and moral support than many in this town are willing to give. But it is an investment opportunity that would pay off handsomely.
As with last year, the festival begins with an opening-night gala of Portland performers at Portland State University's Lincoln Performance Hall. Politics being what they are, some of the evening's contributions will be more yokel than local, but the roster of real artists participating is impressive. As with last year, musicians Obo Addy and 3 Leg Torso's new sextet will perform along with dancers Gregg Bielemeier, Ruby Burns and Minh Tran. Mary Oslund and Company will also take the festival stage, as will Leanne Grabel, Lyndee Mah and Lisa Miller, and the Lions of Batucada, who ended last year's show with a bang (literally).
Of the festival highlights, perhaps the most important is the Primetime Theatre Company of Mumbai's production of Mahesh Dattani's Dance Like a Man. Dattani has contributed to PIPFest's success over the last six years, so it's fitting, if tardy, to showcase the award-winning Bangalore, India, playwright's work here. Dance Like a Man, which received an acclaimed production in New York last summer, looks at a generational conflict between two Bharatnatyam dancers and their brilliant daughter. The production features some brief Bharatnatyam dancing, as well as an original Carnatic score (the classical music of Southern India). Dance Like a Man will play four nights at the Artists Repertory Theatre.
The festival's Main Stage series begins with a visit from the Hungarian troupe the Shamans. PIPFest has forged many important relationships with Eastern European companies over the years, and the Shamans' approach to theater--fusing drama, dance and folkloric images--shares an aesthetic with past visitors Wierszalin Teatr and Gardzienice's Wlodzimierz Staniewski. The Shamans, who have received high praise from Edinburgh audiences and critics, will perform two pieces, Amine and House of Deer, the last based on an old Romanian tale.
If PIPFest has succeeded in introducing Portland to the important developments in Eastern European theater, it has also shed necessary light on the modern choreography coming out of Japan. Three representative troupes of Japan's post- and pop-butoh new wave hit the stage with some U.S. premieres: op.eklekt, Yan-shu and Nibroll. op.eklekt is, as the name implies, eclectic in its approach. Founded in Kyoto in 1991, op.eklekt has created an original physical theater that meshes Eastern and Western influences. Its piece for PIPFest, Looking at Far East, analyzes Japanese society from the vantage point of outer space.
The young troupe Yan-Shu (taking its name from the Song Dynasty poet) performs the poetic ZUNJJA, while the multimedia group Nibroll presents the U.S. premiere of No Parking, a work that examines urban life in Japan.
Finally, for those of us who value the work of our neighbors in Mexico (the most exciting and innovative culture on this continent), the festival hosts Contempodanza, which will perform two pieces: Marea de Arenas (Tides of Sand), which evokes the Sephardic Jewish culture of Moorish Spain, and Espejo de Linces (Lynx's Mirror), another U.S. premiere, based on poems by Zapatista poet Oscar Oliva.
Workshops and lectures are also an important component to PIPFest, giving Portland audiences a chance to meet and learn from the visiting artists. The popular free noontime lectures have been moved this year to the new Urban Center Gallery on Southwest Mill Street, a stop on the new trolley's route. Another feature this year will be a visual art exhibit of Jarrell Kaplan's photographs of contemporary dancers and choreographers, most of whom have passed through Portland with White Bird or PIPFest.
For 10 years, PIPFest has been organized and run by Michael Griggs, with the help of a handful of volunteers and students. It's a Herculean task, and not one that has always been properly appreciated in the community. But Griggs' efforts, and those of his unsung and underpaid aides, have given intelligent Portlanders a chance to stay in town for the summer and still see the world.
The PIPFest runs June 25-July 29. For details, visit www.extended.pdx.edu/pipf/index.html . 725-3307 (PSU box office),
The opening gala will be held at PSU's Lincoln Performance Hall at 8 pm Saturday, July 7. Tickets are $20-$35.
Main Stage performances begin with the Shamans' Amine at 7 pm Thursday, July 1, at Lincoln Hall.
Keep an eye on WW's Performance listings for more information.