Raw Power: An Interview with Emma Portner

You hopefully have seen Emma Portner dance. If you have you know what raw energy looks and feels like, you know why she is a force of nature and why she is unstoppable. Originally from Ottawa, Ontario, and currently a New Yorker, she has won several prestigious awards so far. Emma’s dancing first found an audience while collaborating with exquisite dancer and dear friend, Matt Luck. Their short dance film – Dancing In the Dark went viral and was screened at film festivals across Europe. She continues to pursue dance on film, recently choreographing and performing for the indie sensation Blood Orange. At the same time, she manages and directs her New York based contemporary dance company, teaches across North America and Europe, and is on faculty at Broadway Dance Center, Peridance, and Intrigue Dance Convention. She performs regularly with Michelle Dorrance‘s tap dance company, Dorrance Dance.

KB: How did dancing come into your life and how about choreography?

Emma: I grew up in Canada. More specifically – a smaller suburban area of Ottawa, Ontario. Having two brothers, I got to play in the dirt and be “one of the boys” all the time. My brothers really instilled a sense of “fearlessness” within me at a young age — whether it was jumping off of slides at the playground or having the bravery to break my curfew so that I could stay out biking. I haven’t always been drawn to dance. I would have much preferred to be a hockey player growing up. My mom put me in dance when I was three. I was that kid that would cry and run out of the room. Dance didn’t quite stick with me, or, I didn’t quite stick with dance until my teen years. What DID always stick with me was the idea of “performance” though. Singing under the table at family gatherings, putting on shows in the front yard for by-passers, creating ticketed pieces in my basement etc. My love for dance is deeply rooted in my natural love for performance. I’ve been choreographing for as long as I can remember. My way of being able to control the uncontrollable world around me.

KB: Your style and physical narration approach is more than inspiring. What do you get inspired by?

Emma: I’m inspired by dance as a vessel for story telling. A typical “narrative” is something (usually verbal) that connects, and expresses events of a story. This is something I’ve always wanted to be able to achieve physically, too. It’s not easy to tell a good story, and it’s even harder to do so without verbal language. This sort of improbable feat is really attractive to me. Dance being able to make someone cry, laugh, feel, understand, move, and think without having to speak – is why I do it. There’s this palpable level of heightened existence when someone is speaking through movement. I’m really inspired by that place. I’m also really inspired by music, the human spirit, and climate change.

KB: “Last thoughts on woody guthrie” premiered on the 22nd of december. Can you tell me more about it? And how challenging was it to choreograph to spoken text?

Emma: I love dancing to spoken word and when someone sent me this live track by Bob Dylan, I just couldn’t resist to jump on it right away. I knew it would be a fast and intricate piece that would try to mimic the pace of his speech. So, I had to pick a partner that I knew could keep up with this track. Aiden (my partner in this video) is such a physically adept and smart mover and I knew we should take this on together. When choreographing to spoken word, it takes much longer to embody the musicality as the choreography is set because we literally have to learn how to recite the poem ourselves. And not just recite it, but be able to emulate it fully. Diction becomes musicality, emphasis becomes bass, and pace becomes metronome. It’s honestly much more of a mathematical process than an emotional one.

KB: Is the camera an important element in your work? How is it different when you dance for the camera vs on a stage?

Emma: It’s a huge part of my work. I’m using a camera, I get to edit, re-try, and manipulate how something feels, seems, or looks through a screen. With this said, there is really nothing like live exchange. I miss that. I’d prefer to fault-find right in-front of you than to become an online/dehumanized art making machine, of sorts. Online performance is definitely much more convenient. I think about the camera as I move and I try to think about my potential audience as I edit. When I perform live, I’m much more conscious of my eyes. I do hold myself to a high performance standard no matter who’s in the room though. I don’t slack off if my audience happens to be a camera and vice versa. That’s for sure.

KB: What would be your ultimate dream project to work on?

I have many dream projects. Here are a few:

Dance on broadway.

Dance/choreograph for Adele, Sigur Ros, Solange, Jaden Smith, Max Richter, Bon Iver etc)

Co-Create a Fleetwood Mac Musical

Be cast in a film

Choreograph for a major ballet company



Photos by Alexander Black

Styling by Courtney Ogilvie

Hair & Makeup by Rachel Vang



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