Dance: New, Now, a ‘Mother Tongue’ Wow!

NW Dance Project tackles a triple-header of world premieres, topped by Ihsan Rustem's gem

Elijah Labay, Ching Ching Wong and Andrea Parson in Ihsan Rustem’s “Mother Tongue.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Whatever it is, something clicks between the choreographer Ihsan Rustem and the dancers of Northwest Dance Project. That was happily clear Thursday night in the opening performance of the company’s “New Now Wow!” program of three world premieres at Lincoln Performance Hall. (It repeats Friday and Saturday nights.)

Rustem’s “Mother Tongue” seems a model of contemporary choreography – a piece very much of its own time but also fiercely focused and sure of itself. It doesn’t meander, it doesn’t settle for the first idea. Like all good dances, it cuts through space with a conviction that this is the only possible way this particular piece could be. Set to a percussive and involving score with music by Scanner, David Lang, and Erika Janunger, and lighted (as is the entire evening) by Jeff Forbes, “Mother Tongue” benefits from the kinetic skills of the NWDP dancers and also drives them beyond themselves: an ideal symbiosis.

Two other new works by young international choreographers also premiered – Gregory Dolbashian’s “Play It As It Lays” and Alex Soares’ “Trace in Loss” – and both had their strengths. But “Mother Tongue” was the clear highlight, and it continues the mutual success that choreographer and company have shared. Last year the Dance Project took the audience award at the Hannover Competition in Germany and won the Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest with Rustem’s “State of the Matter,” and returned to London in June to perform it again at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

With its smart use of folding and unfolding curtains and its parade of appearing and disappearing performers, “Mother Tongue” is highly theatrical and richly pared down, not to the point of minimalism but rather to a springing efficiency that mobilizes and energizes the moment. It can be witty (a rolling, twisting, snakelike solo by Franco Nieto could be adopted as a theme dance by Slitherin House) and touching. NWDP’s highly adaptable dancers – on this piece, Samantha Campbell, Patrick Kilbane, Elijah Labay, Lindsey Matheis, Lindsey McGill, Andrea Parson, Nieto, and Ching Ching Wong – perform with electric compactness.

It’s interesting to look at Rustem’s brief program statement about the origins of “Mother Tongue,” not because anything in the dance specifically illustrates it but because it indicates his state of mind and emotion when he was creating the piece. The impact is subliminal and even undetectable, yet real, suggesting a state of circumstances that, in concert with the dancers and designers, created a new and independent state of circumstances – the dance itself: “The starting point for ‘Mother Tongue’ came about during conversations on the theme of cultural identity and belonging. I drew upon personal experiences after a recent trip to Istanbul, Turkey, which is my motherland, but a land I have never lived in. Standing in the middle of the chaos of Taksim Square and taking in the smells, watching the people, and listening to the sounds, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and belonging in the realization that this is where I come from.”

Samantha Campbell and Franco Nieto in Alex Soares’ “Trace in Loss.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I liked Soares’ “Trace in Loss,” too, and I’d like it a lot more if there were less to like. It’s dangerous to judge a new work on the basis of a single viewing – a second or third look often can reveal things you missed or simply didn’t understand the first time around – but my sense of “Trace of Loss” is that it’s overstuffed and might be much better with a strategic editing to two-thirds of its current length.

Soares, who is from Sao Paulo, Brazil, reaches ambitiously toward total theater with “Trace.” He’s not just the choreographer but also the composer and designer of the video and set, which alternates open space with a kind of pressurized box, a trap of light and sound that swallows the dancers and creates electrified ghostlike images. The advantage of this approach is that so much of the piece is springing from a single vision: in movie terms, he’s the auteur. The disadvantage is that it reduces the effect of checks and balances – resulting, I think, in too much of a good thing. The ideas run out before the motions do.

Still, I like the piece. I think it has a lot of promise. Its “story” is simple – three couples, at various stages in a relationship, shifting and gliding with the changes. Forbes’ lighting is crucial, and the performers (Campbell, Kilbane, Labay, Matheis, Nieto, Wong) give it the crispness and energy it deserves.

Dolbashian’s “Play It As It Lays,” which opened the program, takes its cue from Joan Didion’s 1970 novel of the same name, which I remember mostly from the beautiful and self-indulgent ennui of the 1972 movie version starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. Dolbashian’s version includes passages from the book, narrated in voice-over by Andrea Parson. Later in the dance, Alan Watts, the beatnik-slash-hippie era philosopher and proselytizer of Zen lite, also appears in voice-over, reminding us of what a genial and entertaining showman he was.

I admire the riskiness of incorporating spoken passages into the dance: it’s always a chancy thing, and sometimes it pays off. I also like Dolbashian’s stated purpose for the work: “… to motivate its characters and its audience to really USE time and not simply let it pass.” But the movement itself, though well-performed, seems unsettled and a bit muddled: I’d like some clarity. Or maybe clarity wasn’t the goal. It’s not as if Dolbashian lacks the chops. He’s toured in “Einstein on the Beach,” trained at the Alvin Ailey School, worked everywhere from Jacob’s Pillow to Chicago Ballet to the Joyce. So maybe there’s more here than I’m seeing. Still, on Thursday night, it came down to this: the dancers were moving, but I wasn’t moved.

3 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I wasn’t moved either by “Play It as It Lays,” although I found the movement vocabulary interesting and enjoyed the interplay with the two texts. And I completely agree about the need to edit Traces in Loss, the most difficult thing for artists in all disciplines to do. Moreover, I’m really getting bored with heterosexual wrestling matches in the guise of movement studies of “relationships.” Unquestionably,”Mother Tongue” is the high point in this program, and in fact, I think it’s the best piece the NWDP has ever done. I would like to commend Sarah Slipper for the very well balanced programming of this show and the company teachers, listed in the program, for the schooled look NWDP now has. It was a commanding performance, and with some caveats (see above!) I enjoyed myself.

  2. Bob Spevy says:

    Stunning performance by Northwest Dance Project last Thursday night. We go to see lots of dance and theater performances in the city and New Now Wow was one of the finest we’ve seen. I disagree with the comments above. The intricate and innovative partnering in Alex Soares’ piece, “Trace in Loss”, requires incredible precision, control and execution, which the dancers handled brilliantly. We would never describe it as “wrestling” when danced so masterfully. Bravo to Northwest Dance Project for such a fantastic season opener – what a world class company we have. And bravo to the three choreographers, Ihsan Rustem, Alex Soares and Gregory Dolbashian for giving us such wonderful premiere works of art!

  3. barrehopping says:

    The three premieres were strong across the board, the dancers are some of the best in the country and the roaring, standing ovation spoke to the caliber of the company and the overall program.
    And Martha – please go back to glowingly reviewing your beloved OBT, it’s clear that contemporary dance is beyond you…

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