Categorized | Community Spotlight

White Bird celebrates 15 yrs of world class dance presentations.

Posted on 31 August 2012 by Jason

White Bird
by Robin Will
White Bird is the sole dance-only presenter west of the Rocky Mountains. This year marks their 15th anniversary in Portland—fifteen years of world-class dance presentations, artistic growth, involvement and investment in the community.
The celebration starts this month and will culminate next Spring 2013 with a big anniversary gala on April 7.
White Bird isn’t holding back. A huge, free-to-the-public event, Le Grand Continental, will be held on Sunday, September 30 in Pioneer Courthouse Square. The advance notes say, “150 amateur dancers of all ages and backgrounds dance as one, driven by the rhythms of country, techno, cumbia, waltzes, and R&B music.” Non-professional dancers auditioned for the production, and members of Portland’s dance community have been supervising rehearsals for weeks.
“It’s the largest dance event ever held in Pioneer Courthouse Square,” says White Bird Co-Founder, Paul King. White Bird has a tradition of showing Portland things it has never seen before, and this event will not be an exception. Le Grand Continental has been seen only a handful of times elsewhere in the world: in Montreal, New York and Mexico City.
White Bird’s indoor season will begin just a few days earlier, September 26, at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, with the world’s second appearance of the L.A. Dance Project, fresh from their world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Benjamin Millepied, who gained worldwide acclaim in Black Swan as featured actor and choreographer, founded the group. Tickets for this show and all White Bird performances are available through their website, whitebird.org.
So how in the world did White Bird land in Portland, and how does it thrive here? It is an improbable story, or, as King explains, only partly in jest, “… it was one heck of a midlife crisis.”
White Bird’s Co-Founders King and Walter Jaffe met in 1982 in New York City, where Jaffe was laboring in an obscure corner of the publishing world and King was utilizing his Cordon Bleu training as a pastry chef. The men wanted a situation where they could work together, and Portland was on their list of cities to investigate as a future home. “We got to Portland in 1996, just a couple of weeks ahead of the great floods of that year, and it poured rain the entire time we were here,” Jaffe reports. “We loved it.” Before long, they were Portlanders—not knowing a soul in town. At that point, King chimes in, they were thinking about starting a deluxe chocolate truffle business.
That changed at an annual gathering of West Coast presenters at the Oregon Convention Center. Jaffe had been on the board of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, and he and King went to the conference to catch up with the company’s general manager. They came away with the idea that they should—and could—host a presentation of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Portland in 1997.
So they did. Starting without much more than a clue, they formed a nonprofit presenting organization, named it “White Bird” after their cockatoo, Barney, and learned their business as they went along. Portland was receptive; the Paul Taylor program was a success, so they decided to see if they could do as well with another artist, and then another. Somewhere along the line, they forgot about chocolate truffles.
Jaffe and King tend to attribute White Bird’s success to Portland. That is generous. They don’t say much about the artistic judgment, fundraising wizardry and coalition-building that keep the organization alive and involved all over the community.
This year the White Bird Dance Series offers, by subscription, six events between September and May, not counting the free Le Grande Continental public performances in Pioneer Square. A second subscription series, called White Bird Uncaged, features four events in a smaller venue, with artists who bring an adventurous point of view but whose work is not appropriate for the huge Schnitzer auditorium. Two additional White Bird Exclusive events will take place, MOMIX’s spectacular “Botanica” and CIRCA from Australia.
Additional student outreach activities including dance workshops and a student matinee performance at the Schnitzer will involve more than 3,000 area students, from elementary school through college. Over the years, White Bird has commissioned 29 new dance works.
An innovative program called NEST—which stands for “No Empty Seats Today”—donates unused tickets to social service organizations. Due to other budgeting wizardry, season subscriptions for students and seniors cost nearly the same as a similar number of movie tickets.
King and Jaffe continue to find new ways to make dance exciting, educational and accessible. Portland should give thanks that these men turned away from truffles.

Plan to attend Le Grand Continental on September 30 and help celebrate White Bird’s 15th anniversary season. Visit whitebird.org for more information about their offerings, and for a picture of Barney the cockatoo, the original White Bird.

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