Northwest Dance Project is a lot of things, and a lot of very good things, but one thing it’s usually not is witty. This is a not-thing it has in common with many contemporary dance troupes (Portland’s BodyVox and a few independents like Linda Austin and Gregg Bielemeier are notable exceptions): wit isn’t generally a large part of the package in contemporary choreography.
So for lovers of the lightness of being, Thursday night’s premiere performance of Ihsan Rustem’s Le Fil Rouge was a surprise and a delight. It was also a highlight of the Project’s strong spring program, Louder Than Words, which repeats Friday and Saturday nights in the Newmark Theatre.
Le Fil Rouge, or “The Red Thread,” is an evocation of the smart pop music and fizzy Hollywood dance styles of the 1950s and ’60s, a light and ebullient tip of the contemporary hat to the mating game in its many woozy variations: Like Twyla Tharp and a few others before him, Rustem’s not afraid to mine the energy and inventiveness and nostalgic attractions of popular culture. Performed by the entire company of nine dancers, the new piece cavorts through an appealing soundtrack of tunes by Yma Sumac, Doris Day, Edith Piaf, La Lupe, and others.
We hear a little Ne me quitte pas (“don’t leave me”), that irresistible anthem to dramatic emotional overstatement; and Day’s droll lament Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps (“You won’t admit you love me, and so how am I to know? You always tell me, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps …”), which accompanies coy and sprightly performances by Elijah Labay and Kody Jauron, gender-bending in a way that might not have surprised Day (after all, she co-starred many times with Rock Hudson) but would’ve astounded most of her girl-next-door fans. The dance’s movements are quick and controlled, a little saucy without being vulgar or predictable; elaborately and subtly flirtatious; aiming for an airy weightlessness: I expect the dancers to become even looser and freer with it as they become more used to it. Red balloons and blinking lights (attached to the dancers’ mouths as they lip-sync song lyrics) enter into the action; the thing’s kicked off by a droll ringmaster/magician who bows deeply to the audience and then ducks back under the curtain before it rises; the costumes (by Lindsey Reif) are alternately elegant circus tails and stripped-down undergarments; the lighting (by Jeff Forbes, who expertly designs the entire program) scoots the action along.
Rustem’s relationship with Northwest Dance Company has been a fruitful one, and only promises to get better: last year he was named the company’s resident choreographer. This is the fourth dance he’s created for NDP, following State of Matter, Mother Tongue, and Yidam, and I would happily watch any and all of them again. The city now has two resident choreographers – Oregon Ballet Theatre recently named Nicolo Fonte, who’s worked with the company several times, as its resident choreographer, and he’ll have a new piece on OBT’s April program, Beautiful Decay, featuring Portland veterans Bielemeier and Susan Banyas. The right choreographer matched to the right company provides many advantages, not least of which is developing an intimate and familiar relationship between dancers and dancemaker, who get to know one another’s possibilities on a deeper level. Until Fonte’s addition, OBT hadn’t had a resident choreographer since the James Canfield days of the 1990s and early 2000s, and Dennis Spaight and Trey McIntyre, the two dancemakers who held the position under Canfield, created innovative and significant works for the company. Rustem provides the same happy possibilities for NDP.
Northwest Dance Project has built its reputation on premiering new works – the number is astonishing – but as it’s matured it’s begun to repeat some of those pieces, which is a very good thing: the best of them are valuable company assets, and should be seen and interpreted again. The other two pieces in Louder Than Words are revivals of works created for the company in 2012: Trace In Loss, by Brazilian choreographer and composer Alex Soares; and Airys, by NDP’s artistic director, Sarah Slipper.
Although I still think it could be trimmed, I liked Airys much more on Thursday evening than I did when it premiered four years ago. Back then I thought its anguish overstated: “When a clutch of dancers gathers to mime an outraged waving of fists, it feels less like genuine anger than a Martha Graham moment gone wrong,” I wrote at the time. Now, that scene feels dramatic but also organic, rising from the mood and music and situation. And the dance, again for the entire company, underscores what a remarkable performer its lead, Andrea Parson, is. Small, taut, boyish, exquisitely controlled yet almost feral in her ability to sink into the skin of a deeply emotional character, she moves with compact energy and fierce bursts: she can wave her hands, jaggedly, like a hummingbird flapping broken wings, and send shock waves through a crowded room. In one scene, performing in Forbes’ moodily darkened space on one side of a stage divided by a cascade of curtain, Viktor Usov echoes Parson’s compelling jaggedness, springing repeatedly up and down like a jack-in-the-box that can’t contain itself. That curtain sometimes becomes a character, cradled in human arms, and I found myself, the second time around, mostly enthralled by the whole thing.
Soares’ Trace in Loss, danced by Samantha Campbell, Labay, Franco Nieto, Parson, Usov, and the vividly engaging Ching Ching Wong, follows three couples who represent, in the choreographer’s words, “various stages of time passed in a relationship.” It travels from light and frivolous to intense and jarring, with stops between. At its best, this is a dance between the music and the movements, without regard to narrative – a syncopated partnership, the dancers responding just on the offbeat, often with surprising and subtly funny movements: a quick short jab of the elbow, for instance, or a thrust of the leg. As Soares’ soundtrack becomes more ambient, the movement also tends to wander: I thought when it premiered in 2012 it could be cut by a third, and I still think so. Yet there’s still a lot of good, interesting work here: as I noted after its premiere, Soares is “not just the choreographer but also the composer and designer of the video and set, which alternates open space with a kind of pressurized box, a trap of light and sound that swallows the dancers and creates electrified ghostlike images.” It’s an attempt at total theater, and its effect can be riveting. Still, as it went on I found myself missing the easy interplay of those early, more purely dancerly music-and-movement scenes, and wondering whether we weren’t ending up with too much of a good thing.
The great draw of NDP is the ensemble skill of its tightly focused and deeply committed company of dancers – Julia Radick and Lindsey McGill in addition to Campbell, Jauron, Labay, Nieto, Parson, Usov, and Wong – and their superb athleticism and artistic flexibility are again evident in Louder Than Words. The company’s recently returned from a successful showcase at the Joyce Theatre in New York, and performances and workshops in Salt Lake City, and next week travels to Houston to perform in the Dance Salad Festival with several other, mostly European, companies. Performances in Colorado and in Bonn, Germany, follow soon after. There’s good reason for all that traveling. One way or another, NDP’s redrawing its map.
Northwest Dance Project’s Louder Than Words repeats at 7:30 p.m.Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, in the Newark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket information is here.