NW Dance Project: new home, new show, high hopes

The Portland company moves into a sparkling new space, hires a rising star resident choreographer, and gets ready to rock the Newmark

March is busting out all over for Northwest Dance Project.

  • Fresh from a sold-out tour of Germany with stops in Neuss and at Aachen’s Schrittmacher Just Dance! festival, the rising contemporary company is about to embark on Louder Than Words, a home-stand program of three works running Thursday through Saturday at Portland’s downtown Newmark Theatre.
  • It’s just hired its first resident choreographer, London-born Ihsan Rustem, whose new piece Yidam is part of Louder Than Words, and whose earlier works with the company have been major hits.
  • And on March 30, when its spring classes begin, it’ll officially open its new home space, a refurbished 1940s industrial classic a couple of blocks north of Burnside in Northeast Portland. The 8,500-square-foot building, at 211 Northeast 10th Avenue, is in the midst of a rapidly revitalizing slice of the inner East Side, within a warm whiff of the giant Franz bread factory, and in easy walking distance of Imago Theatre and the elevated restaurant Noble Rot, with its sweeping view across the Willamette River to downtown.

The new building is a huge leap forward for the dance project, especially at a time when other Portland dance companies are under the gun to find new spaces fast. After 20 years in downtown’s Pythian Building, Conduit has been evicted and is scrambling to find an immediate alternative space. Polaris is also losing, to redevelopment, its small building near Artists Rep and the Hotel DeLuxe, and is in negotiations for a new space. And Oregon Ballet Theatre, which last fall sold its school and studio building to an apartment developer to help ease its long-term debt, has been searching for a very big and reasonably priced alternative space – not an easy thing to find – that it will need by this fall. The process is made more complex for everyone, Polaris’s artistic director Robert Guitron says, because spaces that work for dance are often also ideal for indoor marijuana farms, and with legalization, small-scale industrial pot grows are sprouting up all over.

Samantha Campbell and Elijah Labay in Sarah Slipper's "Casual Act." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Samantha Campbell and Elijah Labay in “Casual Act.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Northwest Dance Project’s dancers, who had been in temporary residence in studios at Portland State University since last summer, already are using the new building at 211 N.E. 10th Avenue for rehearsal, even as workers are still finishing lobby, office, and other spaces. I visited the new space on Monday afternoon of this week, after a morning fog had lifted, and the early-spring sun was bathing the 3,200-square-foot main studio with soft natural light. It’s a long, sparkling-white, clean-lined single-story building, with generous stretches of metal-paned windows and an arch to the roof where the open space soars high to the rafters. The building’s more utilitarian than art deco, but it shares deco’s belief in simple elegance, and is a handsome example of its architectural type.

Executive director Scott Lewis, who’s spent months overseeing, negotiating, and raising money for the project (he stayed home while the company was touring in Germany), met me at the front entry, a gleaming glass portal that, he quickly pointed out, replaces an old rolling garage door. He’s learned about alarm systems, and building codes, and pouring concrete, and requirements for the length and rise of ramps in hallways. “I’ve felt like a general contractor,” he said ruefully but, on this end of things, with a smile of obvious satisfaction. “You have no idea how consuming this thing’s been. I’d wake up in the middle of the night worrying about things like how to make the floor heights match.”

The project will cost about $700,000, including some reserve funds, he said, and the majority is in hand. Even with a bit of work still to be done, the interior is sparkling – a dream space for a small resident and touring company, as inviting and adaptable as BodyVox’s dance center in Northwest Portland. It’s a huge upgrade from NDP’s former space off the Mississippi strip in North Portland, an attractive but cramped studio that gave rise to some fine intimate performances but was inadequate in most other ways. The 10th Avenue building has a lot of amenities the Mississippi space couldn’t begin to touch: a welcoming lobby space, a small kitchen, changing rooms, a walk-in shower for the dancers, a big office and conference space, lots of storage, expansive restrooms, lots of windows for natural light. The main studio and a smaller second studio that will be used for classes have banks of south-facing windows that will let in light and warmth in the winter months, and can be shaded during the summer. Everything, from the hallways to the door openings to the water dispenser, is ADA-compliant. And perhaps best of all, NDP has a long-term commitment ­– a 10-year lease with a five-year renewal option. Lewis saw other spaces that offered two-year deals, but he turned them down, he said: It wouldn’t have made sense to spend this kind of money on a short-term deal.

Unlike BodyVox, whose remodeled industrial space has become hugely popular and is used constantly for performances, NDP isn’t planning to perform in its new studio, at least for now. Instead, it’ll be a home space for the company, the way Oregon Ballet Theatre’s old space in inner Southeast was: a place for rehearsals, classes, offices, meetings, storage, and the regular business of the company. NDP has had success performing in spaces such as the Newmark, Lincoln Performance Hall, and the Vestas Building. The building’s larger studio is plenty big enough for performances, although its large dance floor leaves a relatively narrow strip for audience risers. But artistic director Sarah Slipper doesn’t want to move too fast, if at all, on adding performances there: Everyone’s new to the building, she points out, and it’ll take at least a year to get to really know the space.

After that, who knows? One thing’s obvious. Even in its not-quite-finished state, it’s already starting to feel like home.

The main studio during construction. Courtesy Northwest Dance Project.

The main studio during construction. Courtesy Northwest Dance Project.

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Ihsan Rustem, the company’s newly named resident choreographer, wandered into the studio while Slipper was rehearsing her piece on this week’s program, a remounting of 2013’s Casual Act. Rustem is a muscular, compact man with an easy grace, soft humor, and startling eyes. A rising star internationally, he’s a native Londoner with Turkish roots, and his 2012 piece for NDP, Mother Tongue, grew out of a visit to Istanbul, Turkey, which, he said at time, “is my motherland, but a land I had never lived in. … I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and belonging in the realization that this is where I come from.” Reviewing the premiere of Mother Tongue, I wrote that it “seems a model of contemporary choreography – a piece very much of its own time but also fiercely focused and sure of itself. It doesn’t meander, it doesn’t settle for the first idea. Like all good dances, it cuts through space with a conviction that this is the only possible way this particular piece could be.”

Rustem

Rustem

Rustem’s dance career included stops at Ballet Theatre Munich, the Netherlands’ Introdans, Bern Ballet, and Switzerland’s Tanz Luzerner Theater, among others. His first produced work of choreography, Twist of Fate, came in 2009 for Bern Ballet’s choreographic workshop.

The next year, Slipper invited him to create a piece for NDP, and an extraordinarily fruitful partnership began. That piece was State of Matter, which became an international hit: It won the Audience Choice Award at the 2011 International Competition for Choreographers in Hannover, Germany, and the 2011 Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest in England, and was performed by Northwest Dance Project’s dancers in London in 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It also marked the fully professional beginning of what has become a busy choreographic career in Europe and at such North American centers as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. “I got my start here,” he said Monday. “The first check I ever received as a choreographer, Sarah gave me.”

The news of his appointment was still fresh on Monday, and Rustem still seemed sky-high. He had a meeting with Slipper, he said, expecting a brief check-in about a couple of passages in his new dance Yidam. Instead, she popped the residency question. He was shocked, and thrilled. It’s a three-year appointment, beginning this fall (he has several international commitments between now and then), and, like traveling to Istanbul, accepting the post feels like something of a homecoming. Over his five-year relationship with the company, he’s worked with all eight of NDP’s current dancers: “I know this company better than any other now.” During his three-year residency, he’ll work even more deeply with the dancers, and create at least one new work for NDP each year. For Rustem (and the dancers, who seemed hugely pleased), everything was still sinking in. “I might buy an apartment here,” he said, smiling widely. “Do you know of anything?”

*

Besides Slipper’s Casual Act and the world premiere of Rustem’s Yidam, which he suggested will be very different from his previous work for NPD, this week’s Louder Than Words program includes a remounting of Blue, a popular piece that Lucas Crandall created for NDP in 2008, and which the company also reprised in 2011. Crandall, yet another international dancemaker who’s made connections with NDP, is ballet master at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and among other stops, a former dancer and repetiteur at Nederlands Dans Theater.

I sat in for part of Slipper’s rehearsal of Casual Act and was struck, once again, by the focused work ethic and relaxed professionalism of the whole enterprise. Even Hank, dancer Franco Nieto’s boxer/bulldog and unofficial company mascot, seemed to know what was and wasn’t appropriate: he trolled the bystanders, looking for a pat or a scratch, but stayed rigorously away from the dance floor, where his person was working. The current company of eight dancers – Samantha Campbell, Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill, Nieto, Andrea Parson, Ching Ching Wong, Julia Radick, and Viktor Usov – make up a highly skilled, athletic, and flexible team. Three of them (Parson in 2010, Nieto in 2012, Usov in 2014) are Princess Grace Award winners, and the dancing maintains that level across the board. These dancers know what they’re doing and are sure of their skills. They’ve performed internationally to acclaim. And now, at home, they have a space that works and opens new possibilities. The company’s had success touring in Canada, California, and Europe, and more touring seems a distinct possibility. “Oh, gosh, yeah,” Slipper said. “We’d love to tour a lot more.”

Rehearsing "Casual Act" on Monday in the new studio on 10th Avenue.

Rehearsing “Casual Act” on Monday in the new studio on 10th Avenue.

Slipper sat at the sidelines and took notes while the dancers went through Casual Act, moving slowly in and around the revolving set with its narrow door opening and wide window. Casual Act is a highly dramatic piece – not narrative, exactly, but drenched in emotion and hints of passions, betrayals, psychological twists and shouts. Dancers embrace and break apart, sometimes furtively. Sometimes, they climb the walls. The revolving stage and romantic entanglements suggest the emotional round-robin of Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle play La Ronde. Against the drone of recorded music Slipper spoke softly, like a patient coach, with just enough volume to be heard. “Where’s your music cue?” she asked at one point. At another: “Easy. Let her walk.” The dancers are focused. They know each other, they know this material, they’re just keeping it in their muscles and bones. It’s languid and energetic at once, a strenuous, torso-stretching reverie.

Maybe, on this afternoon, it was a little too languid. “It feels slow today,” Nieto said during a break, and Slipper agreed. She pushed for something sharper: a key step backward didn’t seem sudden enough or big enough to convey the emotional impact, she noted.

The dancers understood. Just a few small adjustments to make, really. It would be fixed, well before Thursday’s opening. And in their sparkling new home on 10th Avenue, they had a place to fix it. Calm, confident, ready to bust out once again.

*

Louder Than Words will play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 19-21, at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, Portland. Ticket information is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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