Northwest Dance Project’s annual New Now Wow! season openers have in recent years been predictable in tone, showcases for dark new works about dark subjects, invariably well-performed by this company’s versatile dancers. This year’s opener–again, an evening of world premieres–contains plenty of darkness, but ends quite unexpectedly on a light-hearted, humorous note.
New Now Wow! inaugurated NWDP’s eleventh season on Thursday night at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall (it repeats Friday and Saturday evenings) with Yin Yue’s opaque Between Rise and Fall and concluded with Minh Tran’s Unexpected Turbulence. In between was Czech choreographer Jiri Pokorny’s very dark indeed At Some Hour You Return.
Yue, who was born in Shanghai and is now based in New York, where she has her own company, said in an interview published in the Daily News in 2012 that she “wants to push the limits of physical capability … and to dig deeply into human emotion and bring it out in meaningful movement.” In Between Rise and Fall, which begins on a darkened stage, Yue’s movement vocabulary is certainly physical, muscular, forced, percussive, and frequently bombastic. There are many moments of impressive dancing, particularly by Ching Ching Wong, Viktor Usov, and Franco Nieto, but no discernible connective tissue, few transitions, little in fact “between rise and fall.” I kept wondering what the piece was about, besides challenging movement, especially when the dancers (Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill, Nieto, Julia Radick, Usov, and Wong), in drab costumes, walked in lock-step toward a strip of lights, or a naked light bulb descended, suggesting that it might be politics. The Cultural Revolution, the events at Tiananmen Square, the crackdown on demonstrations now taking place in Hong Kong all came to mind.
Pokorny, who has been seen here as a dancer with Crystal Pite’s company but whose choreography has not been seen in North America before, has made a piece with a similar tone to Yue’s, and it, too, can be interpreted politically. At Some Hour begins in very bright light, for a split second, revealing a man and a woman in black Nike warmup clothes. In dimmer light, the couple watches other company members dance. Clusters of dancers keep showing their empty pockets, making me speculate that the piece is about hard economic times in Eastern Europe. Dancers pull each other around; in a solo performed in a circle of light, Wong performs damnably difficult staccato phrases with mind-boggling fluidity.
Transitions are accomplished with Jeff Forbes’ sensitive lighting design; at one point the floor of the stage looks icy, and the movement for the dancers skittery, edgy. Andrea Parson dances an eloquent duet with Viktor Usov: it has been a pleasure to watch Usov in multiple choreographies since he was a Jefferson Dancer quite a few years ago, and it’s good to have him back as a gifted professional dancer and the recipient of a Princess Grace award. Pokorny’s piece is well-crafted, and in movement terms alone impressive. The dancers, all of them, do that movement justice, but like Yue’s contribution, it’s difficult to get a grip on what it’s really about.
That’s not true of Tran’s Unexpected Turbulence, which is about the idiocy of flight-attendant instructions about what to do in case of same, or how to buckle your seat belt, or how you must not smoke in the restroom, or what measures to take in the unlikely event that you survive a plane crash. The idea behind this is not original (Do Jump did a hilarious version of this decades ago, with audience participation) and the title isn’t original, either: in 1989, Carolyn Altman premiered a piece with that name in PSU’s lovely, long-gone Shattuck Studio Theatre, though I’m bound to say I don’t remember much about it.
Tran’s piece begins with the dancers placed in the dark in front of the curtain, accompanied by a voiceover of a flight attendant’s sprightly reading of emergency instructions. The lights go up, and all nine company members, costumed in brightly colored street clothes–men in trousers, women in skirts (what a concept!)–act out the instructions. Heather Perkins’ score is eminently danceable, and if Tran’s choreography is from time to time a little too much on the beat, he keeps the dancers moving with good-humored energy.
Tran has developed over a long period an idiosyncratic vocabulary that includes leg extensions that end with the foot hitting the floor with a slap; there were a lot of them in this piece, mixed not entirely successfully with classical ballet. Occasionally the dancing looked cluttered and fussy, but once again I couldn’t take my eyes off Wong; and for the most part Unexpected Turbulence was just plain fun to watch. For that I thank the dancers, and so did Tran, when I encountered him in the lobby after the show.