By GAVIN LARSEN
Ching Ching Wong’s gentle voice pipes up: “Julia, do you want to do some dance moves?”
It’s a couple of minutes into a five-minute rehearsal break at Northwest Dance Project. Jiri Pokorny, choreographer of a new piece for the company’s New Now Wow! program opening Thursday at Lincoln Performance Hall, steps out for a moment, and the nine dancers meander off the studio floor in various directions to refill water bottles, rummage for a bite of trail mix, glance at a phone, or give Hank, the sleepy company dog, a tummy rub.
“Yeah, I do…” Wong’s colleague Julia Radick replies. In a small patch of sunlight in the studio’s corner, the two start to move—quietly—through their duet, taking advantage of a private moment to explore their way through Pokorny’s choreography before he returns to scrutinize. Wong is well-wrapped in sweatpants, a quilted vest, and knee pads, only her pink socks hinting at her natural ebullience. The two dancers are silent, but there is clearly a strong communication between them. The duet keeps them very close together, rarely touching or making eye contact—as if a fiercely strong magnet compels their movements and dictates their relationship. It’s serene, yet the emotional undercurrent is strong. They are rivetingly beautiful to watch.
The NWDP dancers’ seemingly casual demeanor—loose warmup clothes, relaxed faces, the generally easy vibe in the studio—belies their crystal-clear focus, strength, and intention, both physical and mental. Even the newest company member, Kody Jauron, working with company veteran Andrea Parson as Pokorny creates a new duet for them, throws off his status as “newbie.” An onlooker would never know he was still being indoctrinated into the group. These dancers’ overall prodigy is reflected—strikingly, and prominently—by the fact that within the past five years, four of them have been nominated for, and received, the prestigious Princess Grace Foundation fellowship award.
This award-winning trend began in 2010 with Parson, one of the longest-time Dance Project members and the company’s first nominee. She was followed by Franco Nieto in 2012, Viktor Usov in 2014, and most recently by Wong, who received notice of her award less than two months ago, in August.
The Princess Grace Foundation, founded by the family of Princess Grace of Monaco after her death in 1982, pays tribute to the Princess’s lifelong passion for the arts and her dedication to helping artists achieve their career goals. The Foundation’s grants support dance, theater, and film artists, and to date more than $10 million has been awarded. The foundation’s knack for recognizing superb, not-yet-fully-blossomed talent is evidenced by the names and track records of some awardees, many of whom go on to international prominence and make serious waves in their fields. Two notable dance examples are Kyle Abraham (hip hop/classical/contemporary fusion) and Michelle Dorrance (innovative tap choreography), both of whom received MacArthur “genius” grants recently—but there are legions more.
Sarah Slipper and Scott Lewis, Northwest Dance Project’s artistic and executive director, respectively, are immensely proud of their four Princess Grace awardees, and rightly so. It’s no small feat to win one of these awards (out of 40 to 50 dance applicants each year, only five to six receive grants— about a 12% acceptance rate— according to Diana Kemppainen, the foundation’s program manager). It’s an honor not only for the individual artist, but also—quite significantly—for the company that nominates them.
The awards are specifically for emerging talent, meaning that the artist must be either a student or have less than five years of professional experience, and the application process is a joint effort, usually initiated by the artist’s director or teacher. Applying for a grant becomes an organization-wide collaboration: the artistic directorship writes an official letter of nomination, the dancer prepares a written statement, and—especially important for dance applicants—a video sample highlighting the best of their work in the studio and onstage.
So how did the Dance Project get into this habit of winning these nationally recognized awards, putting themselves in the company of major U.S. arts organizations like Juilliard and American Ballet Theater? What makes their applicants—and their applications—stand out?
Kemppainen says a big part of why NWDP’s applications—and its dancers—are so striking is the high quality of the work samples they provide, but not just because they show great performance footage: “They stand out because they show such a wide range of artistry and technique, and their personalities come through. The quality really speaks to the programming that NWDP does. They work with really, really great choreographers from around the world, so they’re unique. But everyone’s videos are unique—theirs stand out because of the high caliber of the dancers.”
Slipper laughs, almost in disbelief, when asked about the Dance Project’s successes. “It’s amazing, really and truly. I’m grateful for the extraordinary dancers we have. The PGF does honor dancers from every type of organization, not just the big ones. It takes an investment to have such a broad vision and look—really look—at who they’re evaluating, may they be based in hip hop, flamenco, tap, contemporary, ballet. … I think they are one of the most above-board, fairest organizations, because they really investigate the dancers—and then they throw all the labels away.”
Kemppainen concurs that the expert panels who evaluate the applications have a lot to consider, and adds: “First and foremost, we are looking for the best of the best. We look straight across the board for who stands out in a crowd.” While artistic excellence takes highest priority, she says, the panels also keep an eye on geographic, racial, and economic diversity. “We try to make sure we’re building relationships with dance organizations around the country, so they nominate talent—because there IS talent in so many different places. There’s great diversity, and often that’s where the applicants’ personal statements come into play. Where has this artist come from, and what has their journey been to this particular point?”
That’s what makes this scenario so interesting. This is about more than finely trained, passionate dancers whose artistic directors have the resources and discernment to put together great videos of their dancing. Every dancer has a story, and who’s to judge whose background is more noteworthy or influential than another’s? It’s when a dancer is brave enough to wear those influences on her skin like a costume, to make her tale be a jumping-off point instead of a resting place, that audiences, choreographers, and, yes, expert panels at the Princess Grace Foundation take notice.
Wong, the latest awardee, has a story worthy of the cover of Time magazine, alongside Misty Copeland, but because she’s not an American Ballet Theatre ballerina, that hasn’t happened (yet). Growing up in Southern California in a troubled home environment, Wong left her parents’ care at 13 and moved in with her dance teacher’s family. She “clung to dance for dear life— it was my world. I totally obsessed over it,” she says. It’s not unusual to hear a dancer call herself “obsessed,” nor to imagine her seeking refuge in the dance studio from a confusing life outside. But for Wong, it kick-started her evolution from overwhelmed teenager to a self-aware artist. “The challenge for me, I think, was to accept myself. You know that love and acceptance you find in others, that you constantly search for? I had to take my childhood and my past and be OK. Be OK with myself. I’m still trying to be.”
That struggle, while it may not ultimately define Wong as a dancer, was what she identified in her Princess Grace application essay in answer to the question, “What was one of your major challenges as an artist, and how has it affected you and your career?” Approaching the essay with as much intensity as her dancing, she started with journal note-taking, digging into who she’d been as a young dancer, her path from Allegria Dance Theater under the nurturing wing of her teacher Alia Harlan-Kaneaiakala, to a dance degree from UC Irvine (minoring in psychology and education), to NWDP’s Launch Project (doing odd jobs for the company to get reduced tuition), and finally into the company itself, in 2010. She “laid it all out there on paper,” according to Lewis and Slipper, who think the Foundation appreciates brutal honesty about their dancers’ struggles. “Somebody once called us the company of ‘misfit toys’,” says Lewis. “We take chances on dancers who maybe other companies have overlooked, but who have determination and who persevere. With Ching, we emphasized to the Foundation her adventurous spirit, her generous giving back.”
“She’s had a phenomenal year,” says Slipper. “She’s always had this fearless attack, but she’s developing into a different kind of artist— it’s not all about fierceness. There’s a maturity seeping in, less of an ‘I must prove,’ more of a trust, calmness, an ease and thoughtfulness … more investigation of the material for herself as an artist as well as the choreographer standing in front of her.”
Wong’s modesty and gratitude are also striking, and surely came through in both her essay and her work sample videos. She says she still can’t believe that Slipper and Lewis nominated her, let alone that she won the award. “When they told me they wanted to nominate me, honestly, at that moment, I thought, ‘If I don’t win, it’s ok—it’s remarkable enough to be chosen to represent them.’ I can’t explain how great it is to feel their trust.”
That trust is palpable. It’s what creates a sense of focused calm in the rehearsal studio, where on a recent afternoon, while Pokorny crafted Parsons’ and Jauron’s duet, the other dancers migrated to the sidelines, industriously tinkering and smoothing out their own pieces of the new dance. Eventually, they began to take notice of what each other was doing, and an informal, impromptu “show and tell” session emerged— no one trying to prove anything, just genuinely curious to see and support their colleagues.
Everyone—dancers, choreographers—seems to put the work first, adding themselves to it as they jointly explore and see where they all end up.
A Princess Grace award is more than just a recognition of talent, of course. It goes way beyond merely proclaiming, “This dancer is prodigiously talented and shows great promise! Look out, world!” The Foundation backs up its awardees in a very concrete way: a fellowship award pays the dancer’s salary for a full year, and also provides a smaller, no-strings-attached grant to the dancer’s company. While financial support is welcome for any arts organization, one like Northwest Dance Project that’s grown so radically, so quickly—from $30,000 in 2004, when it was essentially a three-week summer program, to more than $1 million now that it’s a full-time professional company—will maximize every penny.
Has the financial incentive been a part of the motivation behind Slipper and Lewis’s continued efforts to win these awards?
Lewis says that yes, in some sense, these grants have helped stabilize and enable financial improvements for the Dance Project. “It does take care of one staff position in a nice, clean way. You ask for an amount to support the dancer, and it goes directly to them. We never budgeted assuming we’d get the grant, so it’s essentially extra cash.” It’s also added some pressure and incentive to raise the company’s bar in terms of salaries. Says Slipper: “With these grants, we were able to initiate a strong salary for the dancer for the year they won—and it set up greater expectations for the next year. So we say ‘We’ll try to maintain that, but no guarantees,’ but we HAVE maintained it for all of them. There’s nothing like paying an artist.”
Notably, NWDP recently moved into its new home in inner Northeast Portland, a gorgeous, light-filled, two-studio space complete with offices, changing facilities, storage and a conference room. Lewis says planning for the move had been a bit hair-raising in terms of affordability, but once they landed there securely, they were confident enough to add another long-awaited perk for employees: fully funded health insurance. “We’re incredibly proud that once the dust settled (in our new space) we could take that gigantic leap and provide 100 percent paid insurance coverage. We decided that no one gets paid enough in the arts. I knew that if we didn’t pay 100 percent, no one would opt in—they don’t have a spare dime.”
Slipper and Lewis hope for more Prince Grace awards in the company’s future, but say they’re “running out of people”—meaning dancers ahead of the five-year cutoff point who’ve already got the technique and artistic intellect to stand out among “the best of the best” nationwide. And they joke that they don’t want to evaluate new hires based on “PGF award potential.” As for Wong, she feels this award isn’t just a flattering thing to add to her resume. She’s humbled by its weight, and recognizes it’s a gift not to be taken lightly.
“It’s so interesting … you get this huge honor, but with that, I almost want to doubt myself. Do I really deserve this? Do people look at me differently now? It is so scary, in a way, because I admire the other winners—Andrea, Franco, Viktor, there are ABT dancers and so on—so much. But I’m still me. I have to calm that inner dialogue and just keeping working on the work.”
And that work will continue. A very active and popular teacher, Wong is discovering the gratification of sharing what she’s accumulated thus far in her dancing life. She cites the company’s annual summer intensive, when she and her colleagues teach Dance Project repertoire to aspiring young dancers, as particularly fulfilling. With her gift for connecting with students and her empathy for those with diverse backgrounds, a future in education seems highly possible. But now, Wong’s teaching is actually lifting her dancing to ever-higher levels.
“What I have to offer is changing. Every day I’m getting new information, new feedback, and absorbing from these choreographers. That’s my job—it’s what I do. I think I clung to dance when I was younger, and I had to overcome that in order to be myself in it. Now, I’m grateful for dance, not so desperate for it. I used to be so afraid it was going to go away, but now I’m not so scared. I feel safe. I’m starting to feel good in my own skin.”
New Now Wow!7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, October 22-24, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University. World premieres by Jiri Pokorny and Felix Landerer; “Mother Tongue” by Ihsan Rustem.