Quinn Wharton

The Music That Keeps Emma Portner Inspired—And How She Really Feels About That Justin Bieber Collab

As anyone who follows her on Instagram knows, when Emma Portner isn't working on high-profile projects—like Netflix's "Umbrella Academy" and a collaboration with Vogue and Saks—she's in the studio, dancing to a wide array of music that the word "eclectic" doesn't even begin to capture. She describes her taste as: "Audio-theater meets spoken word meets lo-fi meets classical. I could hop from Carnegie Hall to a jazz club to an underground DJ set to a Mitski concert all in the same night if I ever wanted to."

As part of our playlist series, we talked to Portner about her favorite songs, how she finds new music and how she really feels about the Justin Bieber video that launched her into the spotlight back in 2015:


On Her #1 Go-To Song

"'Love' has been the first track on most of my playlists for many many years. Mica Levi is an utter genius. It feels neutral—as far as sound can go—but still so emotionally potent. If the word 'melt' were a song, this would be it. Mica's entire 'Under the Skin' album is one of the best film scores I've ever heard."

How She Finds New Music

"I am searching for new music 50 percent of the time. That is not a joke. Music can regulate my emotions and that is a difficult thing for me to do on my own. I make a lot of Spotify radio stations and do a lot of Soundcloud stalking. It's often a lengthy process that feels somewhat invasive. But it is worth it when you find something really special. I'm often looking for artists who haven't yet been discovered, or NYC-based musicians I can collaborate with in real life."

What Robyn's "Missing U" Means to Her

"Robyn took an eight year hiatus and came back stronger than ever. It really encouraged me to look at myself on a deeper level to evaluate how much I can handle. Bending and breaking are very different things. Sadness and depression. Pain and damage. She acknowledged these differentiations and that is radically powerful. I dance to this almost every day because she manages to get such positive musical energy around some pretty sad ideas. She is basically the queen of making me bop while I weep."

Why She Loves Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"

"One of my favorite Canadian choreographers, Linda Garneau, choreographed an incredibly moving piece to this song for my studio back when I was a competition student. I've always related to it. I dealt with a house fire when I was a kid and the first line of the song is 'I remember when I was a little girl, our house caught on fire.' Ouch. I love her idea of dancing through life's pain."

Her Relationship to Music In the Studio

"Sometimes it drives everything and sometimes I completely ignore it. I don't often like to be tied to one track when creating. I like being able to take a phrase that was made to Max Richter and put it to Missy Elliott. "

Yes, There's A Song Called "Who's Afraid of Justin Bieber"

"I mean, come on. That's hilarious. I often feel mild embarrassment towards my Bieber appearances within the concert dance world now. I have really changed over the last few years and this track just makes me laugh."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021