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Dance Review: NW Dance Project’s ‘New Stories – In Good Company’

The Portland dance company continues their 20th anniversary season with a winter showcase of new works by five Portland-based women choreographers, including Carla Mann and Andrea Parson.

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"This is what it Feels Like," choreographed by Lucia Tozzi, featuring (l-r) dancers Nicole Hennington, Ingrid Ferdinand, Alejandra Preciado, Quincie Bean, and Armando Brydson. Photo by Kelly O'Connor.
“This is What it Feels Like,” choreographed by Lucia Tozzi, featuring (l-r) dancers Nicole Hennington, Ingrid Ferdinand, Alejandra Preciado, Quincie Bean, and Armando Brydson. Photo by Kelly O’Connor.

As usual, the holiday season is always guaranteed to be one thing when it comes to the season’s offerings: FULL. It’s December 8th while I’m writing this and most everyone I know is heading out into the cold and rain to one of the many dance performances happening across the city over the next few weekends. From Nutcrackers (and Not-crackers) to the Nightmare before Christmas, and a slew of winter showcases, Portland isn’t falling short on holiday pizzazz this year.

As part of their 20th anniversary season, NW Dance Project is in the mix, as usual, with a sold-out intimate studio showing of new works by five Portland-based female choreographers. The highlights of the bill are Carla Mann, a dance educator-performer-choreographer and Portland staple, as well as former NWDP company dancer turned choreographer and story-teller, Andrea Parson. The remainder of the program is filled with pieces by current company dancers Nicole Hennington, Ingrid Ferdinand, and Lucia Tozzi. So, in NWDP fashion – pour yourself a cup of wassail – and let’s get to the review! 

After an opening comedic stint featuring Ferdinand that broke the fourth wall immediately, the audience was loose and laughing. Artistic Director Sarah Slipper and Executive Director Scott Lewis gave the Portland dance performance’s rite of passage – a 10-minute curtain speech and finally – we were off!

All but the flickering tea lights lining the back wall dimmed and Mann’s piece took the stage. Having chatted with Mann earlier in the week, I had a sense of what I might be in for: “I want to make something that’s beautiful, and give people ten minutes of being immersed in movement,” she remarked over a phone call. And that it was. Sing or call by the water at night is a wash of fluidity, perfectly set on dancers whose individual styles seem to beg for movement like this. Everything is in flow. Formations are loose, allowing space for each dancer to have a moment in focus, a choice intentionally made by Mann. “I wanted to dive into the capacity of their artistry; to reveal how brilliant each individual is.” she shared. 

NWDP dancer Armando Brydson in the premiere of "Sing or call by the water at night," choreographed Carla Mann. Photo by Kelly O'Connor.
NWDP dancer Armando Brydson in the premiere of “Sing or call by the water at night,” choreographed by Carla Mann. Photo by Kelly O’Connor.

This isn’t Mann’s first time working with the company. She describes her relationship with Slipper over the years as “generous” and noted that it’s “glorious to work on a company that can make anything look good. I can realize a vision and this group can manifest it.” It was a bit shocking to consider that the group had only rehearsed with Mann for about a month’s time. The piece was full-bodied and fit the dancers like a glove. 

NWDP company member Nicole Pennington's "A Hallmark Holiday Special" was a duet featuring the company's newest dancers, Beatriz Garcia Diaz (l) and Armando Brydson, a married couple that recently immigrated from Cuba. Photo by Kelly O'Connor.
NWDP company member Nicole Pennington’s “A Hallmark Holiday Special” was a duet featuring the company’s newest dancers, Beatriz Garcia Diaz (l) and Armando Brydson, a married couple that recently immigrated from Cuba. Photo by Kelly O’Connor.

Next up, Hennington’s A Hallmark Holiday Special arrived with an air of whimsy and romance. The lighthearted duet featured NWDP’s newest company members, Armando Brydson and Beatriz Garcia. The piece had the audience laughing again as we followed their waltzing love story. It was a tale as old as time, starting with the jittery butterflies, a seemingly speedy proposal followed by a toast to their love… then two or three more, a drunken twirl about the space that ultimately lead to *wink wink* behind the propped door that sat in the middle of the room. Hennington’s work was chock-full of movement, and the story came through in the moments between extravagant partnering and virtuosic solos. Proving true to its name, the audience ate it up, hooting and hollering for the duo as they fled the stage.

Dancer Lucia Tozzi in Ingrid Ferdinand's "Sightbind," a study in the safety, or lack there of, of seeing and being seen. Photo by Kelly O'Connor.
Dancer Lucia Tozzi in Ingrid Ferdinand’s “Sightbind,” a study in the safety, or lack there of, of seeing and being seen. Photo by Kelly O’Connor.

The lights came up on a silver-clad tableau of three and the amorphous nature of the movement was an immediate shift from the tipsy lovers who’d just left stage. Sliding into another realm, Ferdinand’s Sightbind offered a different energy. What that energy was, I am not entirely sure! A challenge to piece together, the work was a mashup of the expected physicality that NWDP always delivers and a notable amount of time spent standing, staring at the audience in a seeming state of duress. What made it so illusive must have been the starkness in transitions. At one moment, a dancer would be immersed in a well-rehearsed phrase of movement, and the next, dropped to the floor letting out silent, tortured screams. Is it a breakdown of consciousness, or is it ambiguous contemporary dance? The non-dancing world may never know! As the piece came to an end for the troubled, tinsel colored trio, an audience member let out a questioning “hmmm?” 

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As I began to wonder what direction the evening might be going next, Parson’s duet titled This is for You came perfectly placed. Chatting on the phone with Parson a few days ago, she shared that “one thing [she] wanted to explore in this piece was Dance with a capital D. What if you took a dance routine that you did when you were 8 or 9 years old, and put that routine on very calibrated dancers?” The answer includes a boombox, flashing neon shutter shades, and basketball shorts, of course.  Pumping “millennial music” through the studio, dancers Ferdinand and Hennington portrayed a silly, sisterly relationship – fighting for our attention and cheers all while high-kicking, ball-changing, and lip syncing to Jewel’s 1996 lovesick single “You Were Meant for Me.” 

Andrea Parson's "This is for You" featured dancers Nicole Hennington (top) and Ingrid Ferdinand as two women in a silly, sisterly relationship. Photo by Kelly O'Connor.
Andrea Parson’s “This is for You” featured dancers Nicole Hennington (top) and Ingrid Ferdinand as two women in a silly, sisterly relationship. Photo by Kelly O’Connor.

Created in collaboration with the dancers, This is For You blends story-telling and dance, a particular interest of Parson’s. Coming off of a recent solo performance that required her to further hone her acting skills, Parson found herself unintentionally bringing that to the creation process at NWDP. In rehearsals, she recalls bringing up “motivation” and “intention,” which are more theater-based concepts. Working with dancers, Parson noted that she sees where the boundaries are around acting and is curious about how they can be pushed – if they can be pushed. “It’s the vulnerability I’m interested in,” she concluded. 

Feeling reset, we dove into the final piece of In Good Company: a full cast piece called This is What it Feels Like, choreographed by Tozzi. Loosely following the conceit of what it feels like to fall in love, the work primarily devoted its time to big, flowery movement. Movement you’d expect from someone dancing about falling in love. In a short respite from that expansiveness, one of the duets served as a brief nod to the sweet type of love that accepts you as you are – quirky awkwardness and all. 

"This is What it Feels Like," choreographed by Lucia Tozzi, featured dancers Quincie Bean (front) and Alejandra Preciado, Beatriz Garcia Diaz, Ingrid Ferdinand, and Armando Brydson (l-r, back). Photo by Kelly O'Connor.
“This is What it Feels Like,” choreographed by Lucia Tozzi, featured dancers Quincie Bean (front) and Alejandra Preciado, Beatriz Garcia Diaz, Ingrid Ferdinand, and Armando Brydson (l-r, back). Photo by Kelly O’Connor.

The group returned and then filtered away, leaving just Hennington left in the space. She quickly stood, and began to speak to the audience. “You feel that don’t you? The emptiness of them leaving?” Is the piece an ode to love-lost after all? I began to wonder… but Hennington ushered the dancers back in, and began a demonstration in weight sharing. Weight sharing is essentially just that: two or more dancers share their weight by leaning into one another in some fashion. They create a shape together that is unique and wholly dependent on the presence of the other partner. Ahh. There it is. Is that, perhaps, what love feels like? 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Elizabeth Whelan is a movement-based artist based in Portland. As a freelance dancer and choreographer, she has presented work through the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Night Lights, Downright Productions’ Amorphous, Polaris Dance Theater’s Galaxy Festival, Performance Works Northwest and FLOOR Center for Dance. Prior to Portland, Beth completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance at George Mason University and freelanced in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Her writing on dance is published in Philadelphia’s The Dance Journal and Oregon ArtsWatch. In her beloved free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time in nature on her bike, listening to music, and drinking a good cup of coffee with her cat. See her work at beth-whelan.com 

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