Snow and ice on the windshield yesterday morning (but only a little: I’m a Flatlander). Winds up to about a zillion miles an hour on Monday (trees down on Marine Drive). And my dentist tells me he had seven inches of snow at his house (he’s an Uplander). Remember those sunny days last week? As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it in State Fair, it might as well be spring.
Spring also means new stuff growing, and in Portland that often means a new show by Northwest Dance Project, which pretty much grows nothing but new stuff: that’s the way it rolls.
In its Spring Premieres program on Friday and Saturday nights in the Newmark Theatre, NDP rolled out three new dances – Wen Wei Wang’s Conjugations, Sarah Slipper’s Airys, and Patrick Delcroix’s Chameleon. And unlike the weather, which was whipping every which way but loose, these three new dances seemed to be blowing from a similar place. An angsty sort of place; a place that made me think more than once of cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s earnest modern interpretive dancer.
Now, I like Feiffer’s dancer, who is sweet and compassionate and oh so serious and not to be taken lightly, even though Feiffer presents her in a light-hearted manner. And I very much like the talent and style of this scrappy and ambitious company, which in addition to being a vital player on Portland’s dance scene has been making a lot of noise in international competitions. It’ll be performing in London in late June at the 2012 Olympic Arts Festival. That’s heady stuff, and I sometimes fret that not enough Portlanders know how good these young dancers in their midst can be.
But on Saturday night I also found myself wishing for (a) a little more variety, (b) a lot more editing and shaping, and (c) even a hint of lightness or humor. Dance isn’t television, and it doesn’t need a laugh track. But a well-chosen evening of shorter pieces should offer some syncopation of weight and mood.
Conjugations mixes in a lot of references to social and pop dance styles, from break dancing to raves, and it has an easy curiosity about the ways that people meet and mingle. Wen Wei, who began his career in his native China and has lived and worked in Canada since 1991, has created passages that showcase NDP’s athletic and flexible dancers extremely well. I especially liked the work of Ching Ching Wong, who exudes a sassy attitude that seems ideal for comedy (although comedy isn’t what she’s asked to produce here), and Patrick Kilbane, who’s developed into a first-rate dancer in front of our eyes. But just as the recorded music is a mishmash of stitched-together pieces, so the piece itself lacks a solid structure. It ambles, loosely, never quite seeming to come to a conclusion about what it wants to say or be.
Slipper is Northwest Dance Project’s artistic director and guiding force, and she’s a gutsy choreographer: like so much of her work, Airys seems to come from an intense place. But unlike, for instance, the gripping emotionality in her exquisite Samuel Beckett piece Not I, the anguish in Airys seems 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. Slipper also knows how to create an effective image onstage, though, and Airys provided the visual and emotional moment from this program that still sticks most vividly in my mind: the wonderfully expressionistic Andrea Parson cradling a length of drapery in her arms as if it were a fallen comrade.
Like Wen Wei, Delcroix has worked with Northwest Dance Project’s performers before. He’s a smart, capable dancemaker who spent years dancing and then staging pieces by Jiri Kylian, and he’s actually been knighted by the French government as a chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which is a pretty nifty line to be able to put on your resumé. I liked Harmonie Défigurée, the piece he created a year ago for Northwest Dance Project, quite a bit, and Chameleon was the best-shaped and most self-assured of the three pieces on last weekend’s program. It’s got some body heat, and a visual trick: the dancers are smeared with paint in various colors, which rubs off on the other dancers when they come into contact with them, leaving visual memories of the exchanges. But it’s dense, and like the other works it felt provisional, as if it hadn’t found a clear reason for being – and it was hurt by coming at the end of what already was a pretty heavy evening of dance.
All of that was almost, but not quite, trumped by the dancing itself. Throughout the program, the company’s eight dancers were a joy to watch. Maybe because they work with so many choreographers, they’ve developed admirable flexibility and focused intensity. And they work extremely well as a team: they aren’t just a collection of dancers, they’re a genuine company. In addition to Wong, Parsons and Kilbane, they include Samantha Campbell, Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill, Lindsey Matheis and Franco Nieto. As a team, their combination of precise technique and athletic abandon has helped put them on the map.
In this program, though, I wish they’d had more finished and varied dances to work with. One of this company’s great attractions – its commitment to producing new works by many choreographers – is also one of its potential drawbacks. Over the years the programming has been a roll of the dice: neither the dancers nor the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen. Sometimes the evening’s works balance out nicely. Other times, as in this program, you get too much of the same thing. In a way, it’s gamblers’ luck. Any original work is an experiment, and sometimes experiments work, sometimes they don’t – that’s part of the package.
Still, there are ways to improve the odds. Without telling guest choreographers what to do, Slipper could suggest what kind of piece she’d like from them: short, long, light, dramatic, to a certain style of music, solo or small group or whole company. Besides creating a better-balanced program, it would help the choreographers focus their energies and increase the odds that their pieces would have a long life after their premieres.
Maybe even past the climatic puzzlements of spring.