Some works of art seem too much with us. A Christmas Carol. The Scream. Pachelbel’s Canon. The Nutcracker. Boléro. But they are too much with us partly because they resonate. The trick is to see and hear them with original eyes and ears, with something of the freshness of a first encounter.
Or, if not a first encounter, then a fresh take, a new way of looking at something overly familiar. That’s what Ihsan Rustem, Northwest Dance Project’s endlessly inventive resident choreographer, has accomplished with his bright and witty new Boléro, which he’s rescued from the graveyard of pop-culture banality and restored affectionately to its pedestal of seductively oddball expressionism.
Boléro was the big crowd-pleaser as NDP opened its 13th season Thursday night, rocking the house and bringing the crowd cheering to its feet at Lincoln Performance Hall. The program, which repeats Friday and Saturday nights and is titled Boléro+, follows essentially the same format as what the company for several seasons called New Now Wow!: three dances by three choreographers, all of them premieres.
We’ll get back to Boléro. First, the +es.
German choreographer Felix Landerer kicks off the program with his Post-Traumatic-Monster, a long piece that’s almost two separate dances joined at the hip: in fact, part of the opening-night audience thought it was over when the piece paused for its transition, and began to applaud, tentatively. Set to a crunching score by Christof Littman and cast moodily in long looming shadows by lighting designer Jeff Forbes, PTM is about the relationship between two dancers – the dramatically paired Ching Ching Wong and Franco Nieto, dressed by designer Cassie Ridgway in bright red – who are surrounded by an amorphous sludge of outsiders dressed in gray. The gray gang represents the things that get in the way – “an organism that at some point might develop a dynamic of its own,” as Landerer explains in his program notes, “so what we intend to form and build might eventually turn into something that gets out of control and shapes us instead.” In other words: no fairy-tale ending for this love affair. It’s a struggle of memory, fear, and regret.
As with his restless and fluid What We’ve Lost Along the Way, which Landerer created a year ago for Northwest Dance Project, PTM is filled with sharply angled, full-bodied moves, a compact choreography that stays close to the ground and radiates raw strength. And the dancers own it. But the piece seems overly long and unrelenting, particularly its first half, when the trauma of the title is being grown: after the pause it pares down mostly to the superb Nieto and Wong, and becomes not more intense but more emotionally involving. Still, a little less would be a little more.
Salt, which comes before intermission, is the fourth work that Lucas Crandall, ballet master of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and a veteran of Nederlands Dans Theater, has created for Northwest Dance Project, and the familiarity he and the dancers have with each other is pleasingly evident. This time around it’s a pared-down work, a pas de trois for company veterans Samantha Campbell, Elijah Labay, and Lindsay McGill, and it displays the kind of understated wit that translates as elegance. Crandall took his inspiration from a quotation by Karen Blixen, the Danish author who wrote Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast under the pen name Isak Dinesen: “The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the salt sea.” From that seed comes something of a gentle frolic, supported by Ridgway’s ivory outfits and Forbes’ sea-wash lighting with projections of the beach and sky.
Campbell and McGill are fine dancers who don’t often get leading roles, and it’s good to see them stretch out here. That’s almost literal: they’re long dancers, with the sort of extension that Balanchine sought, and that makes them a creative counterbalance in a company whose dominant style is blockier and more dense: think of them as a couple of Astaires surrounded by Gene Kellys. The movement is deftly paced, with moments of quietude that bring everything down to intimate scale, where the simple act of breathing becomes part of the dance. Salt alternates between music by Schubert and more contemporary, jagged sounds by Nils Frahm, allowing it to subtly ride the waves of time. Mostly, Salt is about pure movement, and it’s rhythmically concise, a good small work that lasts just about the right amount of time and is welcome for all of it.
Boléro is most familiar (if you don’t count its crucial role in The Movie That Shall Not Be Named or Numbered) from the symphonic concert stage, but it began life as a ballet score commissioned by the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein and premiered to acclaim at the Paris Opera in 1928, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska.
Its composer, Maurice Ravel, seemed to look on it as an experiment of sorts, and must have been surprised when it turned out to be his most popular composition. “It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve,” he said in 1931. “Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music’ — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, and practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution.”
The score’s hypnotic repetitiveness (and its not-so-latent sexual suggestion) became both its greatest attraction and its biggest drawback. But as Rustem’s new version attests, it can be extraordinarily effective as a dance work. His solution is not to try to re-create the look and feel of the original 1928 ballet, but to approach it with a contemporary smile that acknowledges the work’s long history and greets it with an affectionate nod.
Using all eleven company dancers (Tatiana Barber, Charbel Rohayem, and William Couture join NDP this season from Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s BFA program in San Francisco), Rustem comes straight out of the gate with an exaggerated, elbows-akimbo look that carries more than a hint of the Art Deco style of the 1920s and ’30s. The angularity is accentuated by a large black wedge onstage with a ramp behind it; dancers peek out from over the escalator line and make their entrances in a long march down the ramp, gradually growing taller and more noticeable as the wedge grows narrower toward its point. The dancers are decorated in body paint by artist Mona Jones Cordell, ornamentation that blends with sheer costumes by Rachelle Waldie and Lindsey Reif.
The trick with Boléro is to let the crescendo gradually seep into you, feeling its growth without quite noticing it, until it overtakes you with its ultimate fortissimo possibile, filling every corner of your senses. Simply listening to it, the build can be too blunt to be effective. Paired with dance, which involves the viewer’s eyes primarily and ears secondarily, it amounts to an almost comical but highly effective sneak attack. Rustem and NDP’s dancers play up the comedy, from the opening drop of a red rose to the stage to the performers’ big brisk movements, which fall somewhere between the style of the great silent film comedians and a cavalcade of Walter Lantz cartoons. The dance flirts with parody but doesn’t cross over the line, opting instead for a warm and witty (and extremely energetic) homage that looks forward as well as behind, and that even carries a genuine emotional kick.
Is Boléro, when you get down to it, a gimmick? People have been arguing about that for close to ninety years. But the fact that they’ve been arguing about it, and thinking about it, and listening and dancing to it for that long suggests that whatever else it is, it’s well and firmly wedged into the cultural consciousness. Rustem’s version proves that it’s highly entertaining, too, and that it’s entirely possible to write about it without ever typing the words “Bo Derek.”
Boléro+ repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, October 14 and 15, at Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University. Ticket information here.