Commission accomplished: Portland performances to present new works funded by the pandemic program
Samuel James said he hasn’t felt so anxious about playing music for people since he started performing live two decades ago.
“Maybe I’ll rethink it with a bit of romance, but right now I’m nervous. And I’m generally very comfortable up there,” the singer-songwriter said last month. of Portland, 43 years old.
James will perform his latest work, “Already Home Recordings Volume 2,” at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Brick South Beer Garden at Thompson’s Point in Portland. Apart from a handful of outdoor shows last year, he hasn’t toured much, hence the apprehension.
The upcoming concert and the creation of new music was made possible through a partnership with Portland Ovations, a local nonprofit arts organization. In the summer of 2020, after the pandemic disrupted the lives of performing artists around the world, Ovations used a portion of its funding to create a five-project commission program to support artists in Maine. They include music, theater and dance with a commitment to showcasing diversity.
Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director of Portland Ovations, said the organization has commissioned work in the past, but the economic impact of the pandemic makes supporting local artists even more important.
“We wanted to give artists a way to have money in their pocket when they wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform,” she said. “We wanted to invest in their creativity.
Two other people selected for commissioned work were dance choreographers Riley Watts and Heather Stewart. They will present their collaboration, “Hour Wolf in the Lighthouse,” for three shows May 18-20 at the historic Mechanics’ Hall.
The performances also mark the debut of the Little House Dance Company, which Stewart founded in 2020 and which Watts has since joined. Portland hasn’t had a modern dance company in over 20 years, and Watts and Stewart said Ovations’ support was instrumental.
“As an artist, it’s so valuable to feel a level of confidence,” Watts said. “They trusted us to come up with an idea and also gave us the time to develop it. It was really liberating.
For many months during the pandemic, Watts had to put his dancing career on hold and work as a gardener just to pay his bills. Now he creates again.
Stewart said Ovations’ support for her work has also allowed her and Watts to connect with others in the community about additional sources of funding and collaboration.
“We’re artists, so we would still do it in a way, but it gave us some momentum,” she said.
THE GOOD MOMENT
In the spring of 2020, James, like so many other musicians, saw his entire touring schedule evaporate.
“It wasn’t postponements either, it was just gone,” he said. “I really had to think about how to build that momentum again.”
For artists, there’s the creative side and the business side, and they don’t always align perfectly, even in non-pandemic times.
Portland Ovations, who had worked with James in the past, came at the right time. The organization was looking for local artists to support with a new program that built on the past success of commissions.
“I had already done this project, ‘Already Home Recordings Volume 1,’ and they asked me if I was interested in pursuing it,” he said.
James, whose dynamic guitar playing and gravelly voice often merge blues and folk music, had been thinking more and more about American roots music and how his own story fit into it. Born to a black father and a white mother, he said he was drawn to traditional pieces of music that “appropriate black and white American folk traditions”.
His father was a musician and he grew up learning drums, piano and, much later, guitar. He also found refuge in older country blues styles which he considered his father’s music.
“A lot of music dies because of fads or trends. That’s not what happened to this music,” he said. “It fell out of favor because of the Depression, because the people who made it had to go to work.”
There are some similarities between this time and the pandemic, when performers’ livelihoods were disrupted.
With the latest project, James took traditional songs and made his own arrangements. As part of the concert, he will perform solo acoustic music, which he has been doing for years, and others alongside recordings of him playing other instruments, which will create the feel of a full band. He will also tell stories, which are as much a part of his performances as they are of his music.
“They really just said, ‘What do you want to do? ‘” James said of Ovations. “I’m an artist, so I changed my mind a couple of times, and they just rolled with everything.
“Just the relief to say that I can do this thing and not freak out about the road or the presentation or whatever. That’s the most creative support I’ve ever had.”
James said that during the pandemic it was safe to play in crowded spaces. If, as an artist, he was the reason people were gathered together, he didn’t want to be responsible for the disease, or worse.
He said he was lucky that the public always supported him, and he also knows what they missed.
“I did a show last summer in Biddeford, and there was someone who came up to me crying, crying out loud after the show. Just because they got to go out and see a live show,” he said.
Watts, who grew up in Bangor and now lives in South Portland, spent most of her pre-pandemic time touring as a professional dancer, both across the country and overseas.
When performances ended in the spring of 2020, he took a landscaping job to pay the bills.
By the time fall rolled around and Portland Ovations was looking for new work to commission, Watts was somewhat out of hand.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” said Watts, 37, a graduate of the Thomas School of Dance in Bangor and later the Julliard School. Her most extensive experience comes from dancing with internationally renowned choreographer William Forsythe.
Stewart, meanwhile, had only recently moved from Canada to Maine following the death by suicide of her collaborator and composer, Marc Bartissol, with whom she had worked for a decade. Then the pandemic hit.
“I had kind of quit dancing and spent a lot of the pandemic in therapy to take care of myself,” she said.
Stewart, 32, had also recently won a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, somewhat unexpectedly. She had applied a year earlier and had not been selected, but was then contacted when additional funds became available.
“I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do dance again,” she said. “I had really moved on to choreography.”
But Watts, who knew Stewart through the dance community, reached out to her and they began spending time together at Casco Bay Movers’ studio. He then joined the company she founded, Little House Dance.
Their work is similar in that they both explore themes of mental health and bereavement, and they both have a lot of physics in their movements.
Stewart’s dance will be performed by members of the company. Watts will perform his piece with Stewart.
“Our works are good companions; I think they’re meant to be considered one experience,” she said.
Like James, both dancers said they can’t wait to perform again.
“I haven’t shown work like this in three years,” Stewart said. “And it’s the first thing I’ve ever done without my partner; so everything is new. I’m excited about the work and sharing the process we’ve been through, but I’m terrified too, because this is my job and it’s personal.
Watts added, “It’s different because I’ve been performing against the work of other choreographers. It really comes from my own choreographic work. It’s a vulnerable experience whenever an artist shows their work.
After their May 18-20 performances, Watts and Stewart will refocus their attention on their new company and support collaborations with other dancers and creators.
“It’s interesting to see, because life has been so intense for all of us, how the arts community has changed and how audiences have changed,” Watts said.
Portland Ovations has commissioned three projects to premiere later this year and in early 2023 – by Dee Clarke, activist and playwright who died in 2021; theater artists Kerem Durdag and Andy Happel; and a collaboration with the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor to present staged versions of Wabanaki stories for schools and families.
The initial investment was approximately $25,000 in direct support to artists, plus in-kind support from the organization for marketing and other resources. The artists will also be paid once the performances are over.
Throughout the year, Ovations has been providing a wide range of performances to Portland audiences for 90 years.
Petrin, the director, said being able to commission local artists has been very rewarding. Ovations has commissioned work in the past, but often on a smaller scale, one at a time.
Before the pandemic, Ovations commissioned an opera called “The Summer King” by Maine composer Daniel Sonenberg which has since been produced in Pittsburgh and Michigan.
“We haven’t figured out the next release, but we know we want to continue to be able to order artists,” Petrin said. “The funding for this came from our own resources; we had to dig into the piggy bank. Now we have to think about what we can do to make this sustainable.
Petrin said she thinks the pandemic has spurred a lot of new and compelling art that audiences will consume for years to come.
“The other reality is that a lot of artists had to make a tough decision and leave their field,” she said.
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