When the folks at White Bird decided to present a free performance of Le Grand Continental in downtown Portland, the first problem they had to solve was where to rehearse.
Le Grand Continental is Montreal-based choreographer Sylvain Émard’s contemporary take on the line dance, a group dance where dancers execute the steps in unison. Émard’s piece uses more than 150 non-professional volunteer dancers in an energetic 30-minute performance that incorporates the rhythms of country, techno, cumbia, waltzes and R&B.
“There just aren’t many spaces in town that can hold that many people and for the number of weeks we needed to rehearse the piece,” says White Bird President Paul King. After many inquiries around town, they finally found a suitable location in one of the exhibit halls at the Portland Expo Center.
The cavernous space, normally used for RV and boat shows, gave the dancers plenty of room to move as they learned the complicated choreography and bonded with their fellow performers.
The dancers’ 10 weeks of work will culminate this Sunday with two free performances in Pioneer Courthouse Square. It will be the West Coast premiere of Émard’s piece, which has been performed by other groups in Montreal, New York, Philadelphia and Mexico City. According to King, it will also be the largest dance event ever held in Portland’s living room.
Known for bringing national dance companies to Portland audiences, White Bird is presenting Le Grand Continental as a kickoff celebration for its 15th anniversary season and as a thank-you to the Portland community for their years of support.
This production of Le Grand Continental gave White Bird the added challenge of recruiting and training amateur dancers for the performance. The dance was conceived as a celebration of community and diversity, and King says the organization worked hard to get a balance of people with different backgrounds and levels of dance experience. They started with an open call in August, then dug more deeply, tapping into their connections throughout the city to recruit people from a variety of communities.
Although all of the dancers had to audition, no previous dance experience was required and no one was turned away. Participants rehearsed twice a week with Émard and a group of Portland-based dancers and choreographers.
For the volunteer dancers, many of whom had limited or no performance experience, Le Grand Continental has provided an opportunity to learn challenging choreography from professional dancers, culminating in a very public performance.
The whole project has taken on a life of its own, says Rehearsal Coordinator Jaime Benson, and developed into a community of people with a shared goal and love of dance.
“Dance is the thing that they all understand. They are all bonding over the challenges and excitement of learning this massive amount of choreography. It creates a family atmosphere which you normally wouldn’t have in that situation.”
The group has started its own Facebook page to stay connected, and are also recording their memories on video and talking about ways to continue dancing together after the performance is over.
You can watch the White Bird dancers perform Le Grand Continental at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday, September 30th in Pioneer Courthouse Square.