Samuel Hobbs’ push/FOLD dance company prepares for a Mexico City festival


After months of hibernation, push/FOLD bounds into action with a restaging of an recent work

JULY 22, 2021 // DANCE // ELIZABETH WHELAN

It’s been a quiet year for most Portland dance companies. With performance venues shut down and studio rental capacity for dancers often capped around 5 or 6 people, the conditions for gathering—let alone thriving creatively—have been far from ideal. For local choreographer Samuel Hobbs and their company push/FOLD, the aftereffects of the past 16 months are very much real. Hobbs named the challenges for the company of six: “Time constraints caused by earlier shutdowns, dancers coming out of hibernation, and all of us trying to rediscover what dance means while doing it with even fewer resources.” Despite the obstacles, push/FOLD is emerging from the whirlwind performance ready and on the verge of a huge leap. The 5-year-old company makes its international debut at two renowned festivals this July and August. Before heading to Mexico City to share Early, push/FOLD is scheduled to perform the work locally at Old Moody Stages at Zidell Yards on July 30-31 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available here. After their international debut, the company returns to Portland to prepare for their third annual Union PDXFestival of Contemporary Dance at the Hampton Opera Center this November 4-7.

Samuel Hobbs (left) in rehearsal with Holly Shaw (in green) and Ashley Morth (in pink)./Photography by Jingzi Zhao The highlight of those travels takes push/FOLD to the Teatro Raúl Flores Canelo in the National Centre of Arts of Mexico City, Mexico. for the 2021 Festival Internacional De Danza Contemporánea De La Ciudad De México (FIDCDMX). Prior to that August date in Mexico, the company virtually shared a 50-minute selection of dances in the 33rd annual Dancing on the Edge Festival (DotE), screened at the historic Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver, BC, on July 15. As the company now shifts focus to preparing for their Portland and Mexico City showings of Early, they are doing so with a bit of extra confidence from positive feedback on their virtual performance at DotE. “A few people I know who were able to watch our section of the festival shared afterward that they enjoyed the variety [of repertoire] and really liked the duet from Early,” Hobbs commented. For Hobbs, the performance at FIDCDMX presents an opportunity for a re-staging of the company’s 2018 evening-length work, Early. An intimate reflection on the human condition, Early’s original cast featured Hobbs as the pivot for a series of duets with the rest of the cast. For the upcoming festival, Jordan Kriston, Heather Hindes and Ashley Morton join original cast member Briley Jozwiak to recast the work with Kriston stepping in for Hobbs. “I love the fact that we are here able to share this work as the world starts to reemerge, and that Early will be the piece that debuts as our first international in-person engagement,” Hobbs remarked in an email.

Samuel Hobbs in the 2018 rendition of Early/Photography by Jingzi Zhao Recently, I stopped by Columbia Dance in Vancouver–where push/FOLD has been rehearsing–to watch a run of the recast Early. To preface, this was the first live “performance” I’ve seen in more than a year, and more than three years since I sat in A-WOL Dance Collective’s warehouse venue–pen in hand–reviewing Early’s inaugural run. That version of Early was viscous, tenacious, and pulsing, like a distant memory and a stark reality all at the same time. Hobbs’ self-composed score helped re-establish the ambience of the work, bridging the gap between that first performance and the rehearsal in Vancouver. Still, within the first 10 minutes of the piece, I began grasping the newness of this iteration. The movement remained: with the same orbital partnering and entracing repetitions. The energy, however, was transformed with the new casting, and I became fixated on what each dancer brought to the piece, both in aesthetic and movement quality. Prior to the run-through, Hobbs mentioned casually in conversation that they had originally envisioned Early as a four-person cast. Back in 2017, when they began setting the work, the company consisted of three dancers and Hobbs. But, as the creation process began, “I did try to write myself out of my part numerous times,” Hobbs remembered. “Interestingly, every time we replaced me with one of the other dancers, something about it felt ‘correct’—the term we use to describe something that can only be in this moment. However, because we only had three dancers and myself, removing me required mixing the roles of the other dancers and that seemed to muddle the story of Early.” And thus, Early was born featuring Hobbs alongside company manager Holly Shaw and dancers Briley Jozwiak and Jessica Evans. The topic of gender did arise during one of the artist-talks back in 2018, Hobbs recalled. “Someone acknowledged the presented male-female duets and asked if I had considered a female-female duet. The response I gave then was about how we tried [the three-person cast variation], that Early wouldn’t allow for it, but I would love it if a female-bodied person took my part. With the fact that I am myself plural in gender, I think the idea of gender in Early is an odd concept. But being male-presenting, it is a context and feature that I cannot ignore.”

Briley Jozwiak and Samuel Hobbs in the 2018 iteration of Early/Photography by Jingzi Zhao It was Hobbs’ vision that Early would provide the audience member with an understandable, tactile experience. While the 2018 iteration would face the audience with gender presentations, Hobbs counters that the work at its core “must be told in a series of matter-of-fact statements—simple and without flourishes or tricks. I wanted to see bodies in motion.” Fast-forward to 2021, with Jordan dancing Hobb’s role, and the audience is able to see a version of Early where the biases and prejudices of gender and societal teachings that a viewer brings to the table are different than in 2018. “I do think that Early is different with an all-female cast, but I don’t believe the meaning and story has morphed,” Hobbs wrote. “Maybe we are just seeing it from a different angle.” In the new staging, Kriston brings collected strength and precision to the work, while Morton offers a wandering curiosity that invites the audience into her explorations. Jozwiak retains the vulnerability I originally noted in 2018, while stepping comfortably into a role she’s now old friends with. Hinds, who is celebrating her first year with company, brings a swift and unrelenting power—fueled by the hammering bass of the score. After sitting in on the company’s run of the piece, I let myself mull over my initial review of the work, returning to the sections I’d been drawn to and reflecting on how the new casting had rebirthed the piece. I recalled Hobbs’ hesitancy to divulge much about their personal narrative for the creation. Curious if the distance that now existed between the original performance of the work and this reworking had overcome Hobbs’ reluctance, I wondered if Hobbs might be willing to share more about its creation. I sent a few questions to their inbox, and they replied. What is it like to remove yourself from a seemingly deeply personal work? Do you feel distanced from the work? Or do you feel as though you understand it more fully having danced it yourself and now witnessing it on a regular basis? If you had asked me in 2018 if Early was deeply personal, I probably would have shied away from answering. Now, through this process of resetting it, and pulling myself out of the role originally built for me, it is revealing that Early is far deeper and more personal to me than I think I can still understand. When Jordan first came in to see if she would want to take on my role, it was a huge moment for me when she said yes–that she believed in the work. It was a moment of vulnerability and relief. As I watch it, and as I watch three new dancers learning their parts, there is something that wells up in me that reminds me that I want to be in it and performing it. My life was very different when I created Early. I started creating the music in 2011, the original duet premiered 2014, and the process of chasing its full creation culminated with the premiere in 2018. Whenever I hear the music, there are aspects of my being that find a younger version of myself lost in time. I am immediately transported into every performance with my partners. The sensations of working with them, the struggles, the connection, the context within which the piece was created, and the many couches I sat on as I developed the music—everything. I don’t know if I can say that I understand Early more now than I did. I see it as I did back then, plus all of the time since. There are parts of witnessing Early that make me immensely sad—contemplative, appreciating my memories, knowing that though they feel like yesterday, I only hold them in my mind today. That is a very similar feeling that comes up when I let myself watch Early and not just rehearse it. What’s been the most surprising, or challenging, part of resetting and re-staging Early? Working with different dancers than those in the original leads to interesting intersections all the time. For Early, not only are three of the dancers new to the work, but Jordan is taking over a role built on someone with a very different body. For Jordan, she also needs to partner three very different bodies, in three very different ways, all of whom are new to her. She does this all the while almost never leaving the stage. It is a huge ask. As the dancers step into the momentum-based movement of Early, I think it takes a bit for the dancers to realize that they must look like their bodies and not look like mine as they execute the movement. Yes, the choreography is set for Early. But the technique is built around a person’s unique structure, especially with the partnering. The movement is all about transition and using sensation to find the path of greatest strength. What that looks like in my body can be very different in someone else’s. But, when done correctly, they will both achieve a movement that can only exist in that moment and they will look the same—what we call “the correct path.” Just focusing on the rehearsal aspects of resetting Early, only Briley remains as an original dancer in the work, and both Heather and Jordan are new to working with our company. So not only are we resetting the work on them, we are also teaching technique along with it. They have done an incredible job in stepping into that space and I am truly thankful. For Ashley, she is taking on probably the hardest role in the work. She is the only character besides Jordan who shows up throughout the piece. Her duet with Jordan also closes Early, and the energy must slowly ramp up through the whole of it. The movement and partnering is incredibly entwined, and I remember it being exhausting. Back in 2018 when I performed the role, I danced with Holly Shaw. I was thankful for Holly because as I was exhausted, I knew I could rely on her to do what was needed to help us close the piece successfully. Ashley is taking over Holly’s part, and is now the person Jordan can rely on to help bring it home. I honestly cannot envision anyone more appropriate for the role. All of the dancers are powerhouses. In general, each person brings in their own movement proclivities, interpretation of the movement, and their own experiences, and it becomes a potluck of dance. Even the language and analogies we use around movement and sensations offer interesting moments for us. So I think this process has leant us many opportunities for surprise and challenge. Though challenges and surprises arose throughout resetting Early, the crew is running strong and cohesion is happening. We are in a good spot. In 2018, when I asked you about the particulars of your own interpretation of Early, you declined to answer, sharing that you’d like the work to be experienced “unadulterated.” Now, three years later with an almost entirely new cast, does the work convey the same meaning to you? Are you ready to share it? I think Early is a reflection—which I mean to say that I learn more about what Early is when others tell me what they experienced from it. When Early premiered, it elicited some very strong reactions. Several people even told me that they had book-club style meetings with others for weeks after seeing it because of its impact and they wanted to dive into it further. Others still tell me now that they think of the piece. It is strange to have something I created have that effect, especially as I am still learning about it. Today, I still feel the same about not wanting to put my words onto someone else because I could be wrong in what I say. After witnessing what Early is saying today with a new cast, I feel confident that is still the correct choice. Ultimately, I have ideas and thoughts about what Early is, but what those are still look like what was created. Depending on the day, Early says something different to me. I think that is what fascinates me about movement and movement-oriented communication—the nuance and simplicity. If I was pushed into speaking to the interpretation of Early I would probably say that it is an opportunity to reflect. It is for me.

Ashley Morton in Ash/Photography by Jingzi Zhao What pieces did you share for the virtual showing Dancing on the Edge Festival? As new faces to this festival, what about these works made them essential to share? What does each piece bring to the table that says “push/FOLD” ? We chose an array of works from 2016 to 2021 to share—November, the middle duet of Early, a solo from Ash, and a recent dance-for-film we created to Portland musician Anna Tivel’s music. I wanted to respect anyone watching these works virtually and keep the program interesting. So they are very much selected in relationship to each other. I also wanted to share the breadth of our body of work. I try to change the musical and movement style for each piece I create. So, three of the works feature music from us, and all of them are different in the movement style and feel: Ash is my first contemporary Ballet piece, and Early is very much not Ballet. November is the first piece created after I formed push/FOLD and the music is utterly haunting (a number of us still hum the music). The dance-for-film is a first for us as well, and I think is indicative of our current times. A wonderful aspect to being an emerging company is that it feels special to include a program of all firsts that highlights us and our variety. This was 33rd annual Dancing on the Edge festival, which is the longest running dance festival in Vancouver, BC. It is truly an honor to share the festival program with so many notable companies (Shay Kuebler’s Radical System Art, Wen Wei Dance, Rachel Myer, and Lesley Telford, among others) this year. I want to make sure that push/FOLD steps into our future with strength an this program was a part of that. I am grateful to Donna Spencer, the Artistic Director for DotE, for inviting us.