DanceWatch Weekly: Sarah Slipper choreographs ‘Hedda’

NW Dance Project debuts two new dances about lying, including Sarah Slipper's version of "Hedda Gabler"

It’s all about liars these days. Recognizing them, calling them out, keeping them in check. It’s the new reality. What truth is, has shifted for some, but truth is fact, it doesn’t shift. Only the shifty shift. And, this week’s two premieres from NW Dance Project dig deep into liar psychology. The first is Hedda by NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper, and the second, Flamingo 37 by Ballet BC resident choreographer Cayetano Soto.

Hedda is based on the play Hedda Gabler written in 1890 by Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s work at the time was groundbreaking because it explored the realities of the human condition through everyday topics and everyday people. Hedda Gabler tells the story of a restricted Victorian housewife, bored and trapped in a loveless marriage to a very boring man. Her only entertainment is in the manipulation of others.

NW Dance Project studio rehearsal for Sarah Slipper’s Hedda. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert. Photo features Kody Jauron, William Couture, Elijah Labay, Anthony Pucci, and Franco Nieto.

Slipper’s Hedda is a deep examination of Ibsen’s text and the character Hedda told through dance, music, and theatre. On Monday I was able to sit down with Slipper and discuss her process in creating Hedda, her history in dance and theater, and what it’s like to be a choreographer in today’s world. That conversation unfolds below.

Flamingo 37 is about liars, Soto told me in his rehearsal last week. “Flamingo” is the name he gives liars and 37 is the number of times a particular individual in his life has lied to him. “Good liars, they make a living, the liars are the fighters,” he said. “They are the ones that survive. If you’re not a liar you won’t survive in this world…If you’re going to be a liar, be a good one.”

That may sound a bit dark, but Soto is anything but. Originally from Barcelona, Soto is like the bubbles in champagne: light, energetic, and off the wall. His energy is contagious. This is his third work for the company: the first was Not Yet in 2007 and the second was Last But Not Least in 2008. Since 2015 Soto has been the resident choreographer at Ballet BC, and he creates ballets on dance companies worldwide. Next week he’ll be in Germany.

Cayetano Soto rehearsing NW Dance Project dancers Andrea Parson and Kody Jauron for his new work Flamingo 37. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Flamingo 37 is really a party in disguise. The dancing takes places on a gigantic, round, white shag carpet to the crooning of Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, Tito Puente, Dean Martin and others.

The dancers are dressed in pink kilts, black shirts and black socks with rhinestone tiaras adorning their heads. The contemporary ballet choreography is coquettish, technical and quick, theatrical, witty, and over-the-top with plenty of flamingo motifs to satisfy.

For Soto, the principles of his work are “to be generous, to be the best that you can be, to not lie, and to be honest.” When talking about the dancers he said, “I’m giving you (the dancers) space to have the possibility to reach another level with your artistry. I don’t want them to be a copy; they have to find their own way to express my movement. I think we are doing it; it’s hard.”

NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper rehearsing Katherine Disenhof and Lindsey McGill for her new work Hedda. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Interview with Sarah Slipper

Why did you choose the story of Hedda?

I love stories that feature women, his (Ibsen’s) women are quite strong. I just thought she’s such an interesting character, I love that. there’s so much conflict going on within the play and I like using conflict both physically and then emotionally and literally. It provides me some dynamics in choreography to create pressure, to feel the tension or to feel the expansion in the breath. She’s a nasty character, she’s manipulative, she’s destructive, it’s all about her. But I love her for some reason…

How do you translate a play into a dance piece?

This one is particularly hard because so much of it is in the brilliance of the text. The subtly, the innuendo, it’s all in the words. Also some of the action, some of the back story, and some of what you don’t see on the stage is built into the text. So if I even followed the text, you wouldn’t know what the hell is happening, right?

I mostly tried to take the language of Ibsen and transform it into a feeling, physically, choreographically, so I wouldn’t have to say everything literally. I am following kind of the path of the play, but so it’s not so wildly off. I took some of the offstage stuff and tried to bring it onstage. So what was said in words that happened last night, we kind of get a glimmer of what happened last night, danced out. Or, this happened 10 years ago, so I did a little bit of that to help make sense of it all. Hopefully you feel some of the tension built up between all the characters. There are a lot of triangles in the play—it’s really built on triangles. Louis, who built the set, built it as a triangle.

What does the set look like?

It’s very minimal. Luis Crespo, created it. He did Carmen. Because he was so terrific to work with in Carmen and has a can-do spirit, I said to him, “can you put it (the set) in a suitcase.” It all has to fold up…Because if we want to tour this, we have to have easy access to be able to travel in some form, right?

There’s a feeling of her being trapped, because this is Hedda, because she’s a character that makes her own undoing, you know? She’s trapped, but she doesn’t solve anything. She gets stuck in an environment that she created, and there’s a feeling of no escape.

N.W. Dance Project dancers Andrea Parson and WilliamWilliam Couture rehearsing for Sarah Slipper’s Hedda. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

How come you’ve never had music composed for a piece?

It’s always an added cost. Three years ago we tried to get Owen [Belton] to work with me, and we tried to apply for a grant and the grant didn’t come through so we nixed it, right? Because it’s all these costs. Last year, we applied, I told him I wanted to do Hedda and talked to Owen and he was on board again, we applied for the grant and we didn’t get it, again. So last year Scott [Lewis, the company’s executive director and Slipper’s partner in real life] said go for it, don’t stop, this time you should do it…It’s a thing you’ve been wanting to do, so we decided to do it anyway. So then we actually got someone to help sponsor the music, which was really terrific.

Owen is brilliant. He’s Canadian, from Vancouver. He’s very atmospheric. He does a lot of film and video being in Vancouver. So, you know how film is so much dependent on atmosphere, for me it’s kind of perfect. I’m not doing a piece with rhythm or Bach, this is drama. So it’s very dependent on something quite visceral.

How do you keep your company and your spirit going through all of these hurdles?

I didn’t think I was going to be ready for Hedda because the Fall was one stress after another. Whether it was touring, whether it was fighting for theatre space for next year, and all the things you have to do. A lot of choreographers that’s all they get to do is just sit and create and think and work out steps, and I’m like rushing in literally almost throwing myself right into rehearsal, and I said to myself before going into Hedda, ‘she’s been with you all year, so, yes, you haven’t had this quiet time where you just get to go think, but she’s been with you all year, you’ve done your research.’ I just said, ‘Trust your intuition. Go with your intuition when you walk into the studio, you know the play, you know the characters.’ I didn’t have much music walking in, we’ve been building it together, I almost ran ahead of him (Owen) actually, because I like to vomit out material, like just go, then I chop and edit. Push it out, push it out. It was a very interesting process.

What was collaborating long distance with Owen like?

We were skyping and emailing back and forth all the time. And I’m not a person that needs seven counts of this and eight bars of this, I’m not working like that at all…I tend to be more, this is the atmosphere, this is the theme, this is what’s going on. I got him the book from the national theatre because I’m trying to use their recent contemporary version. So I talked to him more like that. It was almost him going more on intuition. I did also send him videos. It was more about lengths, three minutes I choreographed, or it’s going to be about two minutes, this section going to be a longer mushier section. And then I just talked to him. I used my descriptive words I think. Its intense, it’s a battle, it’s a cat and mouse game. You know, that kind of thing. It was really interesting to see what he came up with. It was like opening up a gift. I’ve never experienced that. I was so excited to hear the sections come in. It was like a box, a present created for you. It was quite emotional.

How do you generate your material?

Specifically for this work, I built tasks for each character…or I took some language from Ibson and they (the dancers) interpreted it.

NW Dance Project dancers Kody Jauron, Andrea Parson, Julia Radick, andAnthony Pucci rehearsing Cayetano Soto’s Flamingo 37. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Is this a very different kind work for you?

I do like narrative, and I do like drama. Actually when I think of it, Casual Act is based on Pinter’s play Betrayal; Tell Me How It Ends was my own narrative, but it’s based on couples; and Wolf Papers is loosely based on [Virginia Woolf’s] Mrs. Dalloway.

Did you like dancing these kinds of dances when you were performing?

Yes. And the fact that after my career, I went into theatre. Yeah, that was really the direction I was getting pulled. I would say going back and training as an actor, even though I was a theatre dancer, it made me go back to baby steps and fall over myself, like I was just starting something again, I had been been at the top of a career, and then coming down here is very humiliating, but it gave me incredible courage and in fact that’s what opened me up to choreograph. Because I thought at this level you had to be brilliant, you had to be Jiří Kylián. And then when you fall back down and go back sputtering and try to really learn how to really talk and whatnot, it just cracked me open for all sorts of things. It was fantastic….It just opened me up to that falling over is not a bad thing. You know you’re reaching perfection as a dancer, and it was like you can’t fall, but somehow theater took me back to a place where making mistakes is how you craft and learn and you don’t have to be “Jiří Kylián”—you can be somebody else. It was really helpful in making me stumble along for many years. It was great, it was really great. It made me take chances…I really learned so much.

This period of training and working and reevaluating your life after after your career as a dancer, that was really important for me. And then I got back into the dance world and started creating as a dancer.

I knew I would stay on the stage somehow. What I found, to choreograph makes me feel like I’m dancing, it’s the closest thing. Teaching makes me feel more like a mother, nurturing, it has a different pull out of me. Directing is something I’ve just always done and loved, ideas, and conceiving projects and planning, just overall vision. But to choreograph makes me feel like I’m on stage. When I see it, hand it over, it fulfills me so much. It’s so wonderful to see it come to life. I don’t get to do it a lot now that I’m running a company. I’m running a company, and running a company runs me. It’s a big mama.

NW Dance Project studio rehearsal for Sarah Slipper’s Hedda. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert featuring Andrea Parson and Lindsey McGill.

What’s your advice to young up and coming choreographers?

Generally what I advise a young choreographer is, if they want to create, they have to do everything. You have to be able to do it all. I hear people say, I want to direct a company like you, Sarah, I want to direct a company like this. You have to realize that directing a company has changed so much. It used to be back in the day that you could just stick with all the artistic. Building a company from scratch you need to know how to develop a board, you have to know accounting, you have to know budgets, you have to know…you have to have such an enormous skill set.

It’s not necessarily all about the work. You’d love it to be all about the work, but it’s not. I’m good with numbers, you have to have some producing skills, which I did prior, when I was in Canada—I produced some tours for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and things like that—and just organizational skills. You have to be on top of so much, and I think ultimately you just have to have this enormous commitment. It is 24/7. It lives with you. You know, I made a choice long ago—it wasn’t really work for me, it’s my life.

I think I felt my freest when I was just an independent choreographer. I spent a few years prior to NW Dance Project being an independent, which means you go in right and you get to do the work and you leave. And yes, you are negotiating contracts and things like that. In my career, that was probably, doing what you want to do. But some point the director in me saw that it wasn’t necessarily enough because I knew I wanted to work with dancers consistently. As a choreographer there’s something you get, that you develop when you’re working with a group of people that understand you intuitively, instinctively, what you want and where they can help take it. That changed the dynamic completely. I saw that, I wanted to go in that direction. And that’s why the whole company started, because of that need…You love it at first, going in and leaving, but there’s something about working consistently and your language just gets better and its jells. That’s also why we bring back choreographers on a consistent basis because I understand that when they first meet the company they are scratching the surface, but coming back, coming back they can start to dig deeper.

Performances this week!

Hedda and Flamingo 37
NW Dance Project
Sarah Slipper and Cayetano Soto
March 15-17
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway

Upcoming Performances

March
March 22-24, To Have It All, choreography by Katie Scherman, presented by BodyVox

April
April 3, Fuse – Portland Dance Portrait, Jingzi Zhao
April 4, iLumiDance, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 4, 100 Light Years of Solitude, Yumiko Yoshioka, Presented by Water in the Desert
April 5, Earth Angel and other repertory works, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5-7, Stephen Petronio Company, presented by White Bird
April 7, Reaching Back to Our Roots: Annual Gala Fundraiser, Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe
April 8, Giselle, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow, Presented by Fathom Events
April 9, Noontime Showcase: Jefferson Dancers, Presented by Portland’5
April 11, Axis Mundi, Maureen Fleming, Presented by Water in the Desert
April 12-14, Contact Dance Film Festival, presented by BodyVox and Northwest Film Center
April 12-21, Man/Woman, choreography by Mikhail Fokine, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Nicolo Fonte, James Canfield, Jiří Kylián, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre
Apr 14-25, Peer Gynt with Orchestra Next, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
April 18, Original Bad Unkl Sistas, Mizu Desierto and Anastazia Aranga, Presented by Water in the Desert
April 19-28, Early, push/FOLD, choreographed and directed by Samuel Hobbs
April 20-21, In layers, choreography by Jana Kristi Zahler
April 20-29, X-Posed, Polaris Dance Theatre, Robert Guitron
April 22, Anastazia Aranga and Mizu Desierto: student performance/offering, Presented by Water in the Desert
April 24-25, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, presented by White Bird
April 24-25, The Wind and the Wild, BodyVox and Chamber Music Northwest
April 25, Degenerate Art Ensembel/Haruko “Crow” Nishimura + Joshua Kohl, Presented by Water in the Desert
APRIL 29, Degenerate Art Ensemble: Student Performance/Offering, Presented by Water in the Desert

May
May 4-5, Current/Classic, The Portland Ballet
May 10-12, New work premiere, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Western Oregon University, Monmouth
May 10-19, Rain & Roses (world premiere), BodyVox
May 11-13, Compose, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 11-13, Alice in Wonderland, Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
May 14, Noontime Showcase: OBT2, Presented by Portland’5
May 16, Ballet Hispȧnico, presented by White Bird
May 17-20, CRANE, The Holding Project, directed by Amy Leona Havin
May 23-June 3, Closer, original works by the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre

June
June 8-10, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 10, Coppelia, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
June 14-16, World Premiere – Ihsan Rustem, MemoryHouse – Sarah Slipper, NW Dance Project
June 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance
June 24, Salem World Beat, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Salem

 

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