This weekend, Northwest Dance Project adds three world premieres to its already impressive list of debut performances. Summer Splendors is a set of three new works that look to tap into some of the wild energy that arrives with the warm weather in the bipolar seasons of the Pacific Northwest. The show opens with We Were Wolves by guest choreographer Carla Mann, who teaches dance at Reed and sports an extensive résumé of Portland-dance collaborations, including Imago Theatre, tEEth, and Minh Tran & Company. Next is the remarkable Woolf Papers, from NDP’s artistic director, Sarah Slipper, about a different kind of “wolf” entirely. After the second intermission, the show ends with international performer and choreographer Yin Yui’s Distant Fold.
We Were Wolves starts in the woods, with a floor-to-ceiling projection of children playing outdoors, late shifting to lush images of trees, with a breathy voiceover talking about summer memories of going wild with freedom in the outdoors. It’s by far the most summery piece of the night: the longing buzz of cicadas appeared on the soundtrack throughout the work, and it was easy to imagine the air thickening and warming again like the troubling early heatwave the city just left. The show did what it says on the tin, with dancers one after another becoming more and more lycanthropic in their movements. When they howl, they really howl. I kept imagining what it was like to practice that, and how it had to have brought at least some of the dancers to a new, wild place for a moment to find such throaty sounds.
A touchstone for the performance’s themes, and the source of the opening image and text, is the collaborative book Stop Here, This is the Place, which NDP makes available in the lobby. Photographs by Winky Lewis of his children’s summer adventures inspired their mother, Susan Conley, to tell stories about the images. The glimpses into the land of summer hang heavy with a sense of progressive abandon and transformation, familiar to anyone who grew up within a short run to the woods or a field. We Were Wolves conjures something similar, but more occult and sinister. By the time one member emerges in a white robe topped by a stags-head mask, there is a palpable pagan tone in the room.
The piece captured the wildness and the sense of transformation you can find in the best of those long summer nights, but somewhat at the expense of the sense of play that’s just as much a part of those mythical, forgotten childhood quests, and that shows up in Lewis and Conley’s book. As too often happens in contemporary dance, the soundtrack overpowers much of the performance’s nuance by being too loud and too serious for too long. There was a noticeable frisson to the play of gender in the pairings and roles, and it could have been a great point to focus some thoughtful playfulness if there was more room in the tone of the piece. I also found the spell breaking a little when ensemble work seemed to be slightly out of time when it appeared to be intended to be performed in unison. Overall, this is definitely a successful piece with a great deal of satisfying movement, conjuring what it intends to conjure, and ending on one hell of a howl.
The standout piece of the night, Woolf Papers, is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in dance form. Artistic director Slipper rightly notes that “the novel is thick and dense with description and inner monologues,” so this is not an attempt at translating the novel into dance. Rather it is an exploration of the themes of “the overwhelming presence of the passing of time and memory in the novel and the impending fate of death for each of the characters,” hung on the scaffolding of the events on the single June day that occur in the novel. Woolf’s work has the strange quality of sounding neurotic and stuffy in description but being exhilarating and full of momentum when you actually read it, both lively and lonely. It is about the insides of people’s minds and the strangeness of their orbits around each other on the outside. When put that way, it seems obvious that you could dance Virginia Woolf, but it took Slipper’s brilliance and the ability of her company to realize that quality on stage.
From the moment the curtain goes up, the piece feels like Mrs. Dalloway. If We Were Wolves is a run through the woods at night in summer, Woolf Papers is a sunlit room with open windows and a distant sense of something about to happen, or something having passed the day by. The set dressing is simple but effective. Dancer Lindsey McGill stands as Mrs. Dalloway with a bouquet of yellow flowers, spotlit and alone at center stage, while the other players move silently in a line behind her, separated by a full-stage, translucent fabric screen and subtle but alienating lighting. After the veil lifts, the backdrop for the rest of the show is an enormous sheet of crumpled paper or fabric, split diagonally by a gap the size of a long flight of stairs. This lends a manor-like sense to the stage when combined with Jeff Forbes’ deft lighting, which casts squares of light on the stage as if from an enormous, seaward window. It also provides some upstage/downstage mechanics for the various characters, which are used quite well. The soundtrack is also pitch-perfect, drawing from Philip Glass, Chopin, and Max Richter to fill this airy, neurotic, bookish space of vaguely menacing polite society and the psychological disquiet on which it teeters.
Likewise, NDP’s classically influenced movement is perfectly at home here, with stellar performances solo, paired, and in between. The couple work is truly excellent, with tense but trusting leaps and holds, and complex relationships worthy of Woolf. While relationships are central to the action, it’s clear that there’s a lot going on under the surface, and this jolts the civilized machinery of society at points. Slipper employed a particularly interesting device of freezing one dancer in place as his or her partner continued with the momentum of their movements. When I describe it here, it may seem to be an exercise in the obvious symbolism of a couple not being on the same page, or one member hesitating while the other carries on; however, in context, it created precise and disquieting moments with a great deal of range within the story of the piece. This is a rich, fully realized work that deserves notice.
On its own, I would not have connected Distant Fold with a feeling of summer, but its compact, athletic feel reads like a sort of festival or traditional, public dance. The whole troupe was there, including all NW Dance Project students. Yin Yue’s energetic choreography here is clearly influenced by Chinese martial arts. I saw what appeared to be mantis form, projection strikes towards the ground, you see in state Wushu competitions or Tai Chi or Hsing-i demonstrations, and at one point I swear I saw an almost complete version of “serving tea” from Ba Gua.
This dance’s soundtrack had the same lack of dynamics in both volume and seriousness that we had in Wolves, but more unfortunately it shared the issues with group unison. The energy and complexity and sheer number of dancers in Distant Fold seems to require a tremendous precision to flow. If the piece can dial that in as it develops from this premiere, it can really land those punches with full force.
Overall, these three premieres stack up to be an excellent way to spend a summer evening.
NW Dance Project presents Summer Splendors June 9-11, 2016, at PSU’s Lincoln Hall.