Ordinary Devotions, a new contemporary dance work by veteran Portland choreographer and performer Linda Austin, is meant to do two things: find glamour in everyday objects and honor the ordinary—and extraordinary—qualities of the aging body.
Now 65 years old, Austin has had time to consider both topics. She has been a working artist for more than 35 years; in 1999, she established the well-known Foster-Powell DIY arts space Performance Works NorthWest with her technical director and partner, Jeff Forbes, to host performances, offer residencies and workshops, and provide affordable rehearsal space for Portland artists. By the time I arrived there to talk with her about this new work, the everyday objects she spotlights in the piece had spilled out onto the performance space from her living area, which is separated from the venue by a door on the back wall. A white vinyl tarp, a twig, stones, a lamp, cassette tapes, multiple spools of thread, some shoes, and various knickknacks were carefully placed across the floor with a seemingly methodical, even devotional precision.
Linda Austin looks for the extraordinary in “Ordinary Devotions.” Photo by Jeff Forbes.
“It was kind of organic,” mused Austin, recalling how she accumulated these particular objects. She’d started working with the spools of thread in the beginning, spurred by her desire to be slightly levitated off the earth. Throughout the work, Austin rearranges the spools to support her body as she lies on her back or walks across the floor. “I’ve always had this fascination with the extraordinary in the ordinary. I like doing something weird with a matter-of-factness,” she laughed. “I’m interested in the ‘thingness’ of the body versus the animated nature of things. Finding this commonality and endowing each [thing] with the qualities of the other intrigues me.”
This ability to see beyond the static nature of objects, and the motions of everyday living has allowed Austin to mine a deep well of creativity and possibility wherever she looks. While some would ask, “Why?” Austin asks, “Why not?” In Ordinary Devotions, she considers not only the tangible nature of things, but the more intangible idea of being. She is interested in ephemeral nature of it, “the idea that everything is passing, nothing lasts, and includes, more particularly, mortality, death,” she said. “For some reason, probably because of a series of family deaths and also conditions of the world, since 2012, a lot of my work has touched on the fact that we’re all gonna die.” From this perspective, she examines what she calls “the ‘thingness’ of the body and the pleasures of weight, compression, release into movement, tactility, and touch. There’s a kind of sadness to the ephemeral, but it is also the grounds for an attentiveness.”
Because dance itself, particularly as a professional pursuit, tends to be ephemeral, I asked Austin if she believed in the idea that dancers have a climax in their careers: that coveted year, that perfect season, the project everyone talks about or that one moment when they truly feel as though they’ve arrived at the apex of their work. Many people would guess that moment coincides with peak physical ability and rigorous work. But when I posed the question, Austin, who was lying on her back with her legs floating above her, paused for a moment before casually responding, “If there is, I haven’t reached mine yet. Physically, I’m certainly past my highest abilities, but I was never a fancy dancer anyway … never multiple turns and big leaps. There’s aches and creaks, but it doesn’t seem to interfere with my creativity. I feel like I am still growing.”
Austin considers the aging body in her new work. Photo by Ian Douglas.
It’s clear, in fact, that Austin’s creativity has bloomed with age. Ordinary Devotions has been under construction for about two years now: its first iteration was performed on a mixed bill at PWNW, during which Austin’s cat, Delanie, wandered into the show, mesmerized by the spools of thread. (The pursuit of intrigue apparently runs in the family.) The piece grew after Austin’s 2018 residency at Wyoming’s UCross Foundation and work-in-progress showings through New York’s Judson Church Movement Research series and Physical Education’s Say When Mini-Festival in Portland.
To create a sound score for the show, Austin collaborated with Portland-based experimental musician Juniana Lanning. “When I look for collaborators, I always think, ‘Who are the women?’” Austin noted. “One of the reasons I asked her to collaborate is that she bases her work on field recordings of both natural and man-made environments.” The mix includes recorded sounds from actual objects used in the piece (sometimes tapped against surfaces, rubbed together, or even snapped into pieces) as well as non-related sounds from the outside world. While Austin did a run-through of the piece, I found myself trying to find the links between sounds and objects, scanning the room to see if I could locate the source item whenever a new sound was introduced into the environment. This listen-and-look puzzle underscores Austin’s ability to see and use objects in unconventional ways.
Projections, too, add a layer of surrealism to Ordinary Devotions, although in the interest of preventing spoilers, I won’t reveal the content of the video work, which you should experience for yourself. I will say that what Austin and projection artist Kelly Rauer have devised points to the simple power of repetition, and transports viewers beyond the white walls of the space. “We wouldn’t have come up with the ideas alone,” Austin said. Rather, they were born of the time the pair spent conversing and collaborating.
Throughout Ordinary Devotions, Austin wanders around the space, sometimes walking, sometimes dancing, and interacts with the objects in ways most people wouldn’t think of. Standing on a glass vase, wearing a lamp as a necklace, or levitating on her spools are a few ways Austin revels in ordinary things with her quirky and charming way of being. Her creativity is both childlike and mature, melding wisdom in both movement and content alongside a carefree and investigative approach to the world around her. The work is a peculiar playground, where both objects and the body have endless potential. Austin’s meditation on everyday things will take you on a journey of aging, life, death, and discovery, just in time to return you to your ordinary life, questioning how you ever saw it as anything but extraordinary.
Ordinary Devotions runs March 14-16 and March 20-23 at 8pm, and March 17 at 5pm. Tickets are very limited, 28 per night.