It’s getting a little tough to remember that Northwest Dance Project was just a scrappy little startup eleven years ago – as Gavin Larsen reported for ArtsWatch earlier this week, a $30,000 summer program that since then has blossomed into a $1 million resident and touring company that’s known far beyond its Portland home.
This is what life’s like for the Project these days: a quick tour to Mongolia just weeks ago, then back to the company’s spacious new East Side studios and headquarters to prepare for the newest New Now Wow! program. Seduce yet another opening-night crowd, no matter what it might have thought of the program’s three pieces, with the dancers’ intense focus, flexibility, and ability to make a scene pop off the stage.
New Now Wow!, which opened Thursday night at Lincoln Performance Hall and repeats Friday and Saturday evenings, is one of the Project’s annual concerts, and as the company’s matured it’s maintained NWDP’s focus on premiering new work, but also begun to bring back some of the company’s greatest hits. In this case, that means that Ihsan Rustem’s Mother Tongue, which looks every bit as brilliant as it did when the company premiered it in 2012, joins two world premieres: Jiri Pokorny’s The Presence of Absence, and Felix Landerer’s What We’ve Lost on the Way.
The Czech choreographer Pokorny’s The Presence of Absence is a grinding, fractured, stop-and-start thing, a continuing interruption, its eight dancers alternately clumping together like a moving sculpture and breaking away to make lonely stands or fleeting pairings. Nothing flows: whenever a flow begins, the gears grind, and everything screeches (or, more accurately, freezes) to a halt. Pokorny’s a veteran of Nederlands Dans Theater and Kidd Pivot Frankfurt, and his piece reflects a heady, erratically forceful moroseness – an intention to question the basics of dance even as it’s stretching dance’s limits.
Curious about the dance’s title, which has something of a quantum-theory ring to it, I Googled it when I got home, and discovered that the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish had written a long poem before his death in 2008 titled In the Presence of Absence. I don’t know whether Pokorny had Darwish’s poem in mind when he created his piece – the program gives no notes on the dance’s intentions or inspirations – but it seems plausible. (The novelist and critic Doris Grumbach published a book in 1998 titled The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany, but this seems a less likely source.) Darwish was keenly aware of his impending death when he wrote In the Presence of Absence, and the dance is filled with the kinds of contradictions and thwarted bursts of action that such knowledge suggests. So, too, does Darwish’s experience as an intellectual Palestinian activist in the Middle East. “I scatter you before me line by line,” the poem begins, “with a mastery I possessed only in beginnings.” Pokorny’s piece is tough stuff, and not necessarily likable, and to my eyes a little too long, but intense and demanding and accomplished. We have met the anomie, and it is us.
The German choreographer Landerer does give some hints in the program notes about what he’s up to with What We’ve Lost on the Way, which after the intentional frustrations of The Presence of Absence had a satisfying fluidity, even if it shares some of Pokorny’s skepticism. The piece, he writes, “can be seen as a reflection on the pace and restlessness in which we move through our lives. It raises the question, if there is any substance to be found in that pace or if we all just attempt to keep up and leave burned grounds behind us.” Landerer’s movements are measured, deft, and often surprising, not so much quick as relentless: the dancers are on the modern treadmill, and they can’t get off. Or don’t want to get off, or don’t know how.
No puppy dogs are wagging their tails here, but the piece has touches of dark humor and subliminal passion, some provided by the bright and furtive surprise of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song A Case of You: “I could drink a case of you, darling, and I would still be on my feet.” Danced by Elijah Labay and Lindsey McGill (both of whom have some extraordinary turns), Julia Radick, freshly minted Princess Grace Award winner Ching Ching Wong, and new company member Kody Jauron, What We’ve Lost on the Way is a testament to three things: the tightness and skill of this ensemble; the inventiveness of Landerer’s movements, which ripple through the dancers’ whole bodies; and the advisability, for the audience, to simply experience the movement as it happens and not worry overmuch about where it comes from or where it’s heading. Story doesn’t really matter here. Mood and movement do.
Rustem’s Mother Tongue, which comes after intermission, is the most theatrical of the three works, and by far the most upbeat and, well, finished-feeling. It’s a work that the company can, and probably should, keep in continuing rotation. Rustem plays the stage brilliantly, creating little doorways by simply raising the red velvet curtain into curving tent shapes and allowing Jeff Forbes’s lighting (which is superb in all three pieces) to play up some dramatic entrances. The piece has wit, and economy, and splendid shape, its movements in constant interplay with a smart and breezily challenging soundtrack of music by Scanner, David Lang, and Erika Janunger. It rises, at least vaguely, from the British choreographer’s visit to his ancestral homeland of Turkey, where “in the middle of the chaos of Taksim Square [in Istanbul] and taking in the smells, watching the people, and listening to the sounds, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and belonging in the realization that this is where I have come from.”
None of that biography is spelled out in Mother Tongue, but the ebullience of the experience is: the piece exudes an altogether captivating joy. Once again, the dancing is consistently superb. It surely helps that five of the dancers – Campbell, Labay, Wong, McGill, and Andrea Parson, who are joined, as in The Presence of Absence, by Jauron, Radick, and Viktor Usov – also performed in the piece’s premiere in 2012. And it is extraordinarily good news – for Rustem and the dancers, who have an obvious simpatico, and for Northwest Dance Project audiences, who get to see the fruits of the collaboration – that Rustem has joined NWDP as resident choreographer.
Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, where much of this season will take place, is a good space for this company, in that sweet zone between intimate and spacious. We never lose contact with these high-personality performers, but they also have room to roam and create a vivid stage picture. That’s fitting: Northwest Dance Project is nobody’s kid sister anymore. It’s grown up, and gets a room of its own.
New Now Wow! repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, October 23-24, at Licoln Performance Hall. Ticket information here.