As I type these words I am listening to Frederic Chopin’s Preludes, a recent recording by Grigory Sokolov. He just concluded the fourth one—somber, beautiful, and recognizable to many of us because it is played so much on sad occasions, including Chopin’s own funeral. And then it is supplanted by the fifth, a light and airy romp that lasts less than 40 seconds, which is in turn succeeded by another melancholy piece, also played at Chopin’s funeral. The Preludes are like that—restlessly cycling through major and minor keys, one moment cheery and the next despairing.
Chopin concluded the composition of the Preludes in the winter of 1837-38 in Majorca, where had moved with his companion, the novelist George Sand, and then promptly fallen ill. The Preludes are related miniatures, many under a minute long, not really introductions to other pieces themselves. Chopin often played them in sets of three or four at his concerts, though these days it’s common to play the entire set at once, a display of both the range of Chopin’s musical intelligence and passion and the pianist’s ability to discover what they have to say.
So, yes, Chopin’s Preludes: They figured centrally in the collaboration between Chamber Music Northwest and the Northwest Dance Project this weekend at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, in a program called “Summer Splendors,” a title both vague and misleading. Well, not the “Summer” part, but the implication of “Splendors” is something rarified and fluffy, maybe neo-classical, certainly “elevated” in the worst sense of that word. Which doesn’t describe the music at all, because it’s so accessible.
And it doesn’t describe the dance, either. Yes, we’re just now getting around to the dance. Choreographed by Lucas Crandall (Preludes 1-6), Sarah Slipper (Northwest Dance Project’s artistic director, Preludes 7-13), Tracey Durbin (14-18), and Rachel Erdos (Preludes 19-24) and danced by Northwest Dance Project’s team of dancers, the movement interpretation of the Preludes was surprising, witty, engaging, and all the way to funny. Instead of following the “feeling” of each of the Preludes, the choreographers had fun with them. Some of the more sorrowful ones had the broadest slapstick.
The music was supplied by Chamber Music Northwest’s pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, a young Korean-born musician whose exploration of the Preludes here was keen and intense—quite beautiful. Situated off to the side of the stage, he even became part of the dances at times, at one point shooing off Andrea Parson’s advances, because, hey, I’m busy here!
It was that sort of dance. The choreographers used whatever whatever was at hand, and we knew who had made what dance because the dancers made a humorous event of placing a large placard in the stand whenever the choreographer for the next section changed. Dance that knew it was onstage and determined to have some fun along the way.
Not all fun, of course. Crandall, who has worked with the Dance Project before and has spent most of his career between Nederlands Dance Theater and Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago, used the slower pieces to feature his skill assembling dancers in carefully composed tableaux, from which they fell away in deep abdominal collapses among other things. He used Ching Ching Wong to good effect, both her quickness and the radiance she can project in a pose, arms outstretched for the universe to pour in. And I liked the slow Prelude during which she was held aloft by the men, dropping yellow roses as they proceeded across the stage, roses gathered again as that Prelude ended.
Slipper had the homecourt advantage of working with these dancers constantly, and she used it to make a series of delightful comic responses to Chopin that, yes, got all the way to slapstick at times. Comedy is hard—the gags take a lot of rehearsal to get just right— and you need the right sort of spirit to pull it off. Which she had in Parson, who has an attractive Puckishness, which she used to torture Viktor Usov, who was determined to get her attention and then her, um, affection. Their extended kiss dance—well, let’s just say it was a combination of silly and incredibly athletic and possibly dangerous to teeth, jaws and noses.
Tracey Durbin has been a fixture in Portland’s dance scene for a long time, and she has worked with Northwest Dance Project before. Here, she continued both the hijinks and duet form of Slipper and the passion of Crandall, a nice trick, in her set of Preludes. Durbin’s Preludes were full of athletic dancing, too, high energy and demanding, difficult to manage for the dancers while keeping the little stories they told in the forefront.
In her concluding Preludes, Rachel Erdos choreographed the very first unison paper airplane folding section I’ve ever seen. Following the roses, the airplanes were yellow. And again, the mood was light, even when the Preludes weren’t. This was not a problem, though: The contemporary response to Romantic angst tends to be to make light of it, after all, and if you can do it with a wink, then the audience won’t think you are desecrating Chopin, which you aren’t. An amusing section of pushes and shoves was followed by one that played off a shower of confetti (yellow, of course) that tumbled from above the stage, through Jeff Forbes brilliant (as usual) lighting design, all to one of Chopin’s lightest and quickest Preludes. As the confetti fell, each piece caught the light and as it descended closer to the stage floor projected a shadow below, tumbling and tumbling, yellow paper rushing to meet its darker twin.
These Chopin Preludes dances avoided an attempt to make movement that translated the music directly, instead creating a parallel sphere that mirrored the richness and delight of the music rather than the notes. And that was tremendously satisfying.
The dance portion of the program was preceded by two other Chopin pieces (or rather sections of pieces) for the duo of Yekwon Sunwoo and cellist Peter Wiley. Wiley is a fabulous musician, but he didn’t get the stage time he deserved here. I agree with music writer James McQuillen that these two pieces belonged on another program: No need to stuff our ears, eyes and minds with more than the Preludes offered.
Chamber Music Northwest has embraced collaboration in its summer festival along with other innovations. This one felt more deeply integrated than usual, perhaps because Yekwon Sunwoo rehearsed with the dancers for a week before opening night. And the stage interventions (lighting, airplanes, confetti, roses, placards demarcating the choreographic responsibilities) helped create that sense, too. So, three cheers all around.
Summer Splendors concludes with a 4 pm performance Sunday, June 28, at Lincoln Hall.