Dirty walls, dancers moving in unison, check marks happening on the back wall.
Dirty walls, dancers moving in unison, check marks happening on the back wall. Suzette Smith

Since Friday, Morgan Thorson’s Still Life has been playing at the Portland Art Museum, on the second floor of the Modern and Contemporary Art Building for five hours at a time. Thorson has 10-plus dancers working with her, running through an ensemble piece that acts out “the death of choreography” by erasing elements of a piece as the performers cycle through it.

I arrived on a Sunday, near the middle. Museum chairs lined the room’s edges and seven dancers stood illuminated in lavender light. Music playing sounded curiously like the underlying hook of Lil Wayne’s Lollipop. The three sets of dancers ran repetitive movements with partners, including but not limited to: brisk walking, slamming into the wall, erratic gyrations that (depending on the dancer) approached twerking, slowly raising an appendage, treating a partner’s appendage like a ball of light at a rave, synchronized scuttling and so forth. A strip of chalkboard ran around the room and the dancers intermittently leaned over the audience to make unexplained tallies. By this point there were scores of tally marks. The walls were covered in dirt bruises from the dancers’ hands and feet.

I sat quickly, without much thought, and noticed Lu Yim to my left. Yim is involved with the Portland dance collective Physical Education. Since Yim didn’t look at me and was wearing knee pads, I decided they were probably in the performance. The dance seemed to occupy not only the area of the room but beyond it and the space of the chairs, where the audience sat uneasily. One set of the dancers slapped the floor and a teen jumped, startled. These dancers were dangerous.

Lu Yim jumped up with about six others. There were at least double the performers I'd originally thought. They dragged their chairs into center of the room and began creating a cacophony of scrapes. Abruptly they sat and then jumped up in groups or alone to perform more gyrating, scuttling, and leaping. Despite the earnest, dangerous vibe there was a playfulness to it that often accompanies improvisation, the child games mindset. I was fixated on what the dancers were doing and failed to notice the room’s slow hue change, from purple to blue to yellow to cream. The music changed too, from the Lil Wayne hook to pulsing bells then a sort of distant train chugging and then some heavy breathing. The dancers returned the chairs to the wall and created a braid of their bodies, long on the floor.

Pictured: gyrating, chairs, sitting
Gyrating, chairs, sitting. Suzette Smith

The performers wore a variety of black outfits, festooned with gold fabric no two same ways. Most were wearing sneakers, knee pads or braces, totems against the hard cement they were trying to perform an extremely physical five-hour dance upon. Brisk walking returned; sometimes three or more performers sought to ram themselves into a corner like maddened swifts into the Chapman chimney, alarming audience members who responded by trying to make their bodies small or just dodging to another seat.

I realized I’d been there for over an hour. The whole situation reminded me of sitting on the beach and thinking about how I might prefer the beach in total darkness if I just waited long enough for the moon to go down. An audience baby began to make the best possible sound it could make in that situation: a low guttural grinding similar to that of the revenge ghost from The Grudge. I wondered if the tally marks on the wall carried over from one day to the next and what the end of the piece could look like. It was easy to make up stories about the piece as it was happening but if I focused too much on any pair or group of performers, I inevitably missed what someone else was doing. I tried to relax my eyes and watch everything. I realized there were several non-performing people I knew in the audience, unnoticed for this entire time.

Abruptly, a warning of the museum’s closing sounded through the halls. The performers left in an non-uniform fashion—a loose, slippery ending. You have two more days to see it or part of it. To see all of it we probably would have needed all five days and all five hours. Like the thing Thorson's trying to capture—life and decay—Still Life is a big piece with many moving parts. Dip in where you can, but don't ignore it.