THE TALL WINDOWS rising on up the sides of the Pythian Building in downtown Portland soak in so much light that even on a dreary fall afternoon, the dancers on the fourth floor inside Conduit Dance Inc, Portland’s 15-year-old epicenter for contemporary local dance, look like they are rehearsing in the incandescent glow of a television studio. Murmuring in knots of twos and threes, trying out gestures, they are starting and restarting the short sequences of movement that choreographers call “phrases.”
Even if she weren’t perched in a corner, tracking the smallest movement with an eagle eye, it would be clear this is a Mary Oslund dance. Shoulders often lead the action, then arms stretch and retract, torsos fold into themselves, legs step, twist, and bend. Velocity is key: bodies constantly using one another for extra propulsion, as launchpads or sweeping centrifuges. Yet, when I mention these signature characteristics, Oslund notes that what she likes best about “Childhood Star,” the tentatively titled work taking shape before us and set to premiere in January as part of White Bird’s Uncaged dance series, are the parts that “aren’t like Mary.”
She says this softly but firmly, and turns back to the dancers.
If Portland honored “cultural treasures” as the Japanese do, Oslund could wear the label. She’s made ever-more intricately powerful performances here for more than 25 years, nearly exclusively for the city’s small clan of passionate modern-dance devotees. Critic and historian Martha Ullman West, who has chronicled Oslund’s career for Dance magazine, among other outlets, casually mentions Oslund in the same sentence with Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, choreographers “who have a brainy, intellectual, curious bent.”
“Mary is a member of the club of true artists,” West says, “those with a distinct point of view, who are true to themselves and their own aesthetic.”
For all of her work’s idiosyncrasies, Oslund is clearly a branch of a particular family tree: as she once told me, “I am such a Merce baby.” At Ohio State in the ’60s and ’70s, she studied with Viola Farber, one of Cunningham’s greatest dancers, and those methods have informed her work ever since—whether closely collaborating with composers and designers or embracing dance as an abstract form, free of narrative.
From the first dances she made in Portland after moving from Eugene in 1984, I mostly remember Oslund as a performer. Slender and long-limbed, she moved with a spirit that evoked Cunningham—smoldering and almost feral but with her own sense of grace. As her choreography has evolved, Oslund has reached well beyond the techniques of “high” modern dance, drawing on, among other things, the rough-and-tumble grappling known as “contact improvisation,” a form built on random collisions and close attention to one’s partner.