New, now, a little touch of wow

Northwest Dance Project opens its 10th season with three more world premieres

Nieto,  Wong, and Parson in  “This Time Tomorrow.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Nieto, Wong, and Parson in “This Time Tomorrow.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

And suddenly it’s in double digits. Northwest Dance Project opened its 10th season Thursday night at Lincoln Performance Hall, a mark on the calendar that suggests a subtle shift from feisty outsider to genuine Portland institution.

It’s not that the dance troupe’s mission has changed. Founding artistic director Sarah Slipper, a former leading ballerina for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and onetime ballet mistress for Oregon Ballet Theatre, still wants the company to do new work, contemporary work, often work by emerging national and international choreographers, work that frequently looks to Europe for inspiration and that may be rooted in ballet but aspires to live in and move among the ideas and realities of today.

And so it does. The company’s work can be uncomfortable for those who prefer their ballet in a traditional vein, and at times it seems to wander, shapeless and structure-free, as if the journey were far more interesting than the destination. But it’s almost always new – it’s news when a dance at the Project ISN’T a world premiere – and choreographers like to come here to create new work, partly because NDP welcomes it and partly because Slipper’s dancers are so adaptable to different styles. Because NDP is a new-work laboratory, things can be rough-cut, which is something of a peril but also provides a good deal of the company’s charm. Either way, the dancing’s almost always compelling. The Dance Project’s work is consistently varied, but also familiar, often reveling in the beauty of the ungainly and the influences of popular culture and everyday movement on dance.

What’s changed, as the company enters its 10th year, is that it doesn’t feel like an experiment that could disappear at any moment. Like almost all arts organizations, Northwest Dance Project operates on a thin financial line. But now it’s firmly established. Oregon Ballet Theatre is the traditional, neoclassical company, the one that can be counted on to do justice to the great story ballets as it preserves and cautiously extends the traditions of the dance form. BodyVox is the brashly American company, inspired in part by American optimism and the great silent-film comedians. Northwest Dance Project is the scrappy, increasingly essential company that likes things a little nervous and edgy and out on the brink of things. It’s not so much that NDP has found its place in the city’s dance scene. It’s more that the city has discovered NDP is here.

Thursday night’s program, which continues through Sunday, is NDP’s latest “New Now Wow!” – a gathering of premieres by three young dancemakers. This year’s are “The Practice of Being Alone,” by Loni Landon (her third work on the NDP dancers); Danielle Agami’s “This Time Tomorrow”; and James Gregg’s “Malign Star.” All three were created in the studio here and take advantage of the company’s experienced and deeply collaborative dancers, most of whom have matured together. The company is 10 strong now, and most – Samantha Campbell, Patrick Kilbane, Elijah Labay, Lindsey Matheis, Lindsey McGill, Princess Grace Award winners Franco Nieto and Andrea Parson – have worked together for several seasons. Viktor Usov has deep roots with the company (he trained with Slipper from the time he was 14, and was with it in its inaugural season). Ching Ching Wong, now in her third year, has quickly become a company mainstay. And Julia Radick, who’s been with NDP less than a year, also has prior links: she’s taken part in one of the company’s summer LAUNCH projects for young professional dancers.

Landon’s “The Practice of Being Alone” uses seven dancers in a series of comings and goings, bodies slipping together and slipping away, never staying together very long, jumbling together and apart in a riverflow of tortuous and inventive movement. It’s a moody piece, sometimes using mime, sometimes carried out in circles of light by designer Jeff Forbes that isolate and create sharp contrasts, and it plays around with images of domination and submission: not an altogether happy piece (to put it mildly), and one that moves through a tenuous, almost amorphous soundscape. In the end, despite its obvious ambitions, it’s a bit heavy and morose. Landon received her BFA from Juilliard in just 2005, later joined Ballet Theater Munich, dances with the Metropolitan Opera, and has had her own work performed at the Joyce, Jacob’s Pillow, the Ailey Theater, and elsewhere.

Campbell,  Nieto and company in “Malign Star.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Campbell, Nieto and company in “Malign Star.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Judging by audience reaction – the piece got a standing ovation on opening night – Gregg’s “Malign Star” is the popular hit of the program, and although it strikes me as still a bit unformed, the appeal is easy to see. It begins in a cascade of vocal cathedral music, and the dancers (Gregg uses all 10) arrive onstage in what look like old-fashioned Catholic school uniforms, the girls in starchy Madeleine collars, the boys in shorts. The dance is ordered in musical movements and seems to be about rituals, and faith, and the loss of it, and innocence and experience. At various times we see images of prayer, and hear cries that sound like a muzzein’s call, and even see dancers lay hands on other dancers’ bellies, as if checking for the heartbeat of an unborn child. Sometimes the dancers square off in rival gangs, making gestures that seem more sound than actual fury, like the Lost Boys and Hook’s pirate crew getting in a mock tussle. “Malign Star” has a yearning, inchoate quality, like a fleeting emotional touchstone. It also feels not quite under control yet, like it wants a few sharp cuts and firm decisions to bring it into better focus. Gregg has danced with Chicago’s River North Dance Company and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, and still performs with Rubberband Dance even as his choreographic career is taking off.

For my taste Agami’s quirky and wryly funny “This Time Tomorrow” is the cream of the crop. Agami, 29, was born and raised in Israel and danced with that country’s innovative Batsheva Dance Company for several seasons; she now runs her own company in Los Angeles. “Tomorrow” has wit, twisted elegance (for all the odd angles, Agami insists on purity of line), and a sophisticated sense of how dance works with music and silence. And the movement can be startlingly fun. The piece is well-shaped, and it has a sense of controlled entropy, seemingly random variations that nevertheless have a discernible theme. The dancers, costumed in luscious creamy-white by designer Tobi de Goede, sometimes slither across the stage, making peekaboo entrances from behind the curtain and gliding on their backs like multiply jointed centipedes, knees bent and fast feet propelling them forward. Oranges, oddly but endearingly, roll all over the place. Forbes lights the stage so that giant shadow-dancers sometimes leap from the back wall. There are bumps and grunts and wrestling, and long stretches with no sound at all, and a culminating,  sweetly controlled pandemonium to the bubbling sound of Puerto Muerto’s song “Wondering.” It’s all new and now in this program. If you’re looking for “wow,” this is as close as you’ll get.

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“New Now Wow!” continues through Sunday at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Aaron Spencer’s review for Willamette Week is here.

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