Summer Splendors: The ‘Chopin Project’ returns with an ambitious new Sarah Slipper dance

The NW Dance Project's Summer Splendors brought back the delights of "Chopin Project" and explored the dense possibilities in relationships with a world premiere

This year’s version of NW Dance Project’s Summer Splendors, which concluded its run Saturday at Lincoln Performance Hall, featured the premiere of director Sarah Slipper’s inventive, ambitious new piece, Tell me How it Ends and the welcome return of Chopin Project” from 2015.

For Slipper’s world premiere, two distinct sets fill the stage—on the left a stripped-down interior with a wall, a door, and a table, and on right, an empty space, save for a large backdrop for ambient projections. There is a sense of gravity on the left, the “real world,” while the open space on the right is a view into another dimension of that reality, and the interplay between the sides is a looking-inward rather than a comparison.

Andrea Parson and Elijah Labay are the couple who live on the left, and Julia Radick and Franco Nieto inhabit the dreamier space on the right, dancing at a more pensive, lyrical pace. The piece begins with Parson and Labay attempting to enter their simple home side-by-side, but they’re unable to both go through the door while holding their props—a vase of flowers for Parson and a cardboard box for Labay.

Andrea Parson and Elijah Labay in the world premiere of NW Dance Project Artistic Director Sarah Slipper’s “Tell Me How it Ends”/Blaine Truitt Covert

The chemistry between Parson and Labay is intense and finely honed. It’s clear that they have studied and imagined the relationship between the characters they play, not just the choreography that brings them together. They show a remarkable fluidity of tone as they move through the squalls, doldrums, and currents of their relationship, once entering the “house.” The most successful sequence involves an apple held between them, each biting down on one side. Starting with a crisp bite that is hard enough to be heard in the audience, the tactile memory of the resistance, flavor and lightness of biting into an apple fleshes out the space between the two, and gives their movements and their opposing bodies’ weight a sharp immediacy.

We can imagine how careful and in sync they have to be not to tear out another bite from the apple or damage their teeth, as they move together. The device is successful because it’s more than a gimmick—it’s a simple, insightful hook of personal experience with the audience on which to hang the dancers’ immediate, physical concerns.

The piece is long and experimental, searching out other ways to represent and symbolize the movements of their relationship, or as hinted by the program, Relationships In General. Stage right often serves the purpose of adding a dimension to the dancing or the drama going on beside it—large projections, contrasting movement, or alternating solos underscore the otherwise straightforward story of boy-meets-girl—or rather boy-knows-girl as they already seem to live together at the beginning of the piece. Likewise, the props and the experiments with different movement vocabularies within the world that Parson and Labay inhabit seem to always be pointing to what else lurks below the surface. Beneath this naive picture of the two of them, some real complicated stuff is going on, and they don’t necessarily get it about each other or even themselves.

Julia Radick and Franco Nieto in the world premiere of Artistic Director Sarah Slipper’s “Tell Me How it Ends”/Blaine Truitt Covert

The dance chops on display indicate the NW Dance Project dancers have plenty of tools to apply to treacherous and vague questions like “what happens between two people in a lifelong relationship” or “how do two people who care about each other end up hurting each other.” However, the piece as a whole still feels rather uneven and loose at points, perhaps from aiming at too many big ideas about relationships as a whole at once, and trying too many approaches to represent them rather than just reside in them.

I think it’s worth comparing the interplay between narrative and danced relationships in this piece with the way it worked in last year’s Woolf Papers. Headlining last year’s Summer Splendors, that translation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to contemporary dance had the advantage of playing off the structure of the meticulously described interior lives of Woolf’s characters, an existing sequence of events, and an established aesthetic. That plus some good choreography and some very good dancers made for a solid show.

The program notes for Tell Me How It Ends mention that it’s “inspired by Samuel Beckett’s absurdism” and states, “The past is a place of reference not a place of residence.” The notes discuss the big emotional components in a relationship—“the compassion and the loneliness” or “the passion and the indifference.” Absurdism in Beckett wasn’t simply a formal quality, however; it was part of a new, out-of-reach logic that was demanded by an absurd world that existed with indifference to the comfort or understanding of the viewer. The successfully absurd moments here were almost all within the movement itself—the apple or physical interactions with the set.

Some of it was quite tricky stuff—with Parson, for example, being lifted, turned, and spun as if she was suddenly not quite present in the world of the spare interior room, becoming more like a prop herself. In contrast, the other devices to break the movement and to dramatize the narrative didn’t show the same sensitivity to tone and nuance that we see in the dance—vocalizations of nonsense words, loud electronic music, and the breaks in the movement for purposely-naive interactions between the couple generally felt too on-the-nose or out of place in the already dense dynamic between Parson and Labay. Too often it felt as if absurdism, passion, indifference, and other big concepts were being pointed at rather than being allowed to emerge within the space that the couples produced. The program gives weight to the past between these characters, but more in the sense of the Past as a concept, not a personal history between them that we can access as viewers.

Overall, the unevenness felt like an issue of editing, not a lack of good material or aesthetic execution. The choreography is rich enough, the dancers are certainly good enough, and the double-stage mechanic gives plenty of opportunities for counterpoint and interplay between perspectives. A simpler approach that didn’t point directly at “Relationship” and relied on the dancers to endow their characters with the more personal, particular passion, indifference, and absurdity, between two bodies moving together would be enough for the audience to chew on for some time.

*****

The return of the Chopin Project in the second act is proof that these dancers don’t need much more than the chance to move to express a kaleidoscope of emotion. Tellingly, the first full-audience laugh of the night came from a simple interaction in the first act of Chopin Project, not any of the wacky moments in Tell Me How It Ends.

Chopin Project sets Chopin’s 24 preludes to the choreography of Lucas Crandall, Tracey Durbin, Rachel Erdos, and NWDP’s artistic director Sarah Slipper.

The set of dances, which premiered in 2015, “avoided an attempt to make movement that translated the music directly, instead creating a parallel sphere that mirrored the richness and delight of the music rather than the notes. And that was tremendously satisfying,” wrote ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson at the time.

Andrea Parson and pianist Hunter Noack in “Chopin Project”/Blaine Truitt Covert

This year, internationally acclaimed concert pianist Hunter Noack lit up Lincoln Hall with his lively performance of Chopin’s Preludes, bringing the short and dense pieces to life with a verve that made them feel as fresh and experimental as ever.

The studied performance of couple-ness from Tell Me How it Ends worked quite well with the pairings in the second half of the night, especially the cattiness and humor in Lucas Crandall’s segment, with plenty of parallels in Sarah Slipper’s part, too.

It’s a very satisfying set of pieces that play off of each other very well considering that it’s the work of four choreographers in one act. Keeping the same simple costuming, and restricting the props to simple, yellow objects serves to tie it all together. A snowfall of fat yellow confetti towards the end give a good thrill for a simple device.

Overall, Summer Splendors 2017 shows that NWDP has been working as hard as ever. These are some of the best dancers our city has to offer, and it’s always a pleasure to see them perform. Tell Me How It Ends shows the company continues to push themselves, and could be quite a good piece as it tightens up. The Chopin Project demonstrates that when this company gets to really dance, some great stuff happens.

2 Responses.

  1. Well done, Nim Wunnan. Thoughtful, articulate writing about the most difficult art to review.

  2. Sandy McKinnon says:

    Tell Me How It Ends was an absolutely brilliant and astounding. Just WOW. It completely captivated the audience – not a sound was heard in the theater. It was one of the most extraordinary pieces of dance my husband and I have seen. We’re new to Portland and will be definitely be returning to see more. Bravo to NW Dance Project and Artistic Director Sarah Slipper for creating such a work of art.

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