Jann Dryer (1947–2013)

March 19, 2013


Jann Dryer with set by Henk Pander circa 1980.


Jann Dryer, who was a major force in the development of contemporary dance in the city of Portland, Oregon, died on February 25 after a brief illness.


She helped to found the Portland Dance Theatre, Portland’s first modern dance company, in 1970. It was a collective of  “scary wimens” (Bonnie Merrill, Catherine Evleshin, Pat Wong, and Judy Patton) with Dryer as artistic director. Her vision was richly textured, rebellious, fearless, and humorous. Her work was intensely theatrical and visually oriented: Costumes were as integral to her repertoire (she created more than 40 pieces) as choreography. Performances integrated props and set pieces, many of which required split-second timing. A lapsed Catholic, she had once said that when she danced, every movement was a prayer.


The company soon had 11 members and began touring the western states under the imprimatur of the National Endowment for the Arts touring program. Audiences were sometimes mystified. Company member Gregg Bielemeier’s favorite headline, from a Montana review, was: “Portland Dance Theatre Ran Around, Fell Down and Got Up Again.”




Jann Dryer rehearsing in tennis court at Willamette Park circa 1980.



In 1978, long before any Portland ballet company produced a show there, the avant-garde troupe performed an evening-length work called Ear-Heart at the Civic (now Keller) Auditorium, narrated by novelist Tom Robbins.


In 1980, Dryer founded the short-lived Cirque as a vehicle principally for her own choreography. Joan Findlay, a company member, offered some insights into Dryer’s choreographic methods. “She created on the spot…She drew on the strengths of the dancers.” What Findlay loved about Dryer’s work were the surprises it inevitably contained, the juxtaposition of disparate images you’d find in a Fellini film or a painting by René Magritte—what Findlay called her “flowing kinesthetic style.”


Dryer gave her last Cirque concert in 1983, when the lease was up for renewal. A new home for Cirque wasn’t found, and Dryer and her husband moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1985, Portland State University presented a full evening of Dryer’s work at Shattuck Studio Theatre. The concert was centered on ritualistic movement and dream images. “I choreograph emotionally, five hours a day,” Dryer said in an interview.



Jann Dryer rehearsing climbing cyclone fence in tennis court at Willamette Park, circa 1980.  



In the late ’80s Dryer and her husband returned to Portland, but Southwestern imagery stayed in her work. Her Retablitos (the title refers to the Mexican tradition of painting portraits of saints on tin) were stunningly beautiful, especially the one based on the life of Alicia Alonso. She continued to make dances but also shifted her focus to clothing and costume design—at which she was equally adept.


Dryer was a brilliant artist, one of a kind, a “scary western wiman,” proud of it and funny about it. She taught me, and countless others, a way of seeing dance, of looking at the landscape, of knowing the human condition.


This obituary has been adapted from a longer tribute written by Martha Ullman West for
Oregon Arts Watch.


All photos by Robert Reichers, Courtesy Joan Findlay