Photo by Andy Batt

When Christopher Stowell, the director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, heard that Greek and Roman statues would fill the Portland Art Museum under the title The Body Beautiful,  he instantly saw synergy. OBT already had two pieces based on Greek myths in the repertoire: Apollo by George Balanchine and Orpheus by Stowell’s father, Kent. A dance by the popular contemporary choreographer William Forsythe, whose highly athletic pieces call for superhuman feats by the dancers, seemed an easy third. But Stowell wanted more: a centerpiece collaboration with a visual artist. PAM’s chief curator, Bruce Guenther, gave him a list of names, but he didn’t have to look beyond the first one: sculptor John Grade.  

“It was the simplicity of it,” says Stowell of his first glimpse of the Seattle artist’s massive, organic installation sculptures, which won Grade PAM’s Arlene Schnitzer Prize last year. “He takes one good idea and develops it, and that’s something I try to embody myself.”  

Coincidentally, Grade had just finished designing a pair of sculptures that an Atlanta choreographer then created a dance around. Collaborating from the ground up was the natural next step. “It’s not as though I’m designing something for Christopher, or he’s designing something for me,” says Grade. “The most significant part of it is that Christopher and I are beginning this thing together.”

The two settled on the myth of Echo and Narcissus to explore the themes of reflection and transformation. Grade designed an floating forest of giant paper-lantern-like tree trunks that will hang from the ceiling, rising and falling with the dance. He then made the components out of Tyvek in Seattle and brought them to Portland in September to be assembled by some 150 volunteers. Meanwhile, Stowell went about choreographing how the dancers’ interact with the sculptures—between them, inside them, and manipulating them like bendy straws—and giving Grade feedback on design.

“I like to take a material I’m very familiar with and another I don’t have experience with,” Grade says. “In this case, I’m working with Tyvek, but the other material is the body, and that’s completely unknown to me. Christopher is the conduit.”

The Body Beautiful opens on Friday and runs through October 20. Below is a slideshow documenting the creation of the sculptures, photos courtesy of OBT.

Ed Note: This preview first ran in our September Fall Arts Preview.

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