Albany native leads the West Coast premiere of the mass dance, Le Grande Continental
How to make your own Le Grand Continental:
Start with 160 Oregonians of all ages, sizes, shapes and backgrounds. Mix with a variety of musical and dance styles, including 1940s Lindy-hop, rhythm and blues, country-western, 1960s-a-go-go. Shake for three hours a day, two to three days a week, for close to three months.
On Sunday, Sept. 30, serve it up hot on the pavement of Pioneer Courthouse Square. Extra helpings for people who want to come to the 4 p.m. performance as well as the premiere at 2 p.m.
Former Albany resident Jamie Benson, 32, is the director and head chef for this visual smorgasbord. The 1998 West Albany High School graduate is fresh off a job as an assistant for the New York version of Le Grand Continental, which will be marking its West Coast premiere with Sunday’s Portland shows.
Montreal choreographer Sylvain Émard created the 30-minute Le Grand Continental as a mix of traditional line dancing and contemporary movements, performed by people who are about as far as you can get from the term “professional dancer.”
Benson is working with people ages 9 to 73, all with different abilities, which can be a challenge, he said. But in the end, that’s the beauty of the show.
“It’s an incredibly inclusive event, because anyone can do it,” he said. “I’ve got grandparents. People with Parkinson’s. Every type of Oregonian you can imagine is dancing together, because dancing is the common denominator. It brings the community together.”
White Bird Dance is bringing the show to Portland. Dancers have been working together since the first week of August, many of them preparing to perform in public for the first time.
Benson’s mother, Verla Benson, is one of them. The 62-year-old, who moved to Salem from Albany four years ago, hasn’t been involved with dance since her cheerleading days. But when Jamie asked her to get involved, she didn’t hesitate.
“Basically, since he was the director, and I love to dance, I thought, I’m going to go ahead and try this,” she said. “It’s worth every minute of it. The people are so nice. We have a very diverse group, and they’ve just been wonderful. They’re not really dancers, it’s just people who enjoy dancing.”
Jamie’s twin brother, Casey, is also part of the ensemble. He’s doing his own work, but Verla said she studies rehearsal videos and asks for pointers from Jamie when she can.
“I’m getting extra help at home, because once you get the moves there’s all the focus things, like where your head goes and how you hold your hands,” she said. “I take all the advantages I can get.”
She acknowledges “a lot of huffing and puffing” during the first few practices, and wasn’t sure she’d make it through. Now, she said, she’s looking to find other dance opportunities once the show wraps up.
“It feeds the soul,” she said. “It’s just made me happier.”
Jamie Benson said he’s hearing the same from his other dancers, many of whom commute hours to be part of the show.
“They’re having an incredible time,” he said. “People are having rehearsals outside our officially-ordained rehearsals.”
Benson said he’s been delighted to see his participants making new friends, feeling healthier, losing weight, gaining momentum, and, in one case, even being able to better deal with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He hopes, he said, that the people in the audience at the Portland show will see themselves reflected in the dancers — their own ages, their body structures, their abilties or lack thereof — and in turn, like his mother, be inspired to find ways to add dance to their own lives.
He hopes, he said, that they’ll watch the show and say, “‘That looks like a lot of fun. Why am I not doing that?’ And sort of discover that same kind of rush.”