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Dance Review: NW Dance Project’s ‘Secret Stories’

The contemporary dance company presented the world premiere of works by three internationally recognized guest choreographers, each of whom explored the theme of secrets in distinctly different ways.

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Armando Brydson and Beatriz García Díaz, a married couple who immigrated from Cuba to dance with NWDP, in "Glimmers" by choreographer Nicole von Arx. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Armando Brydson and Beatriz García Díaz, a married couple who immigrated from Cuba to dance with NWDP, in “Glimmers” by choreographer Nicole von Arx. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

NW Dance Project continues its 20th anniversary season this spring with a triad of debuts under the umbrella Secret Stories. This bill of dances – by choreographers Nicole von Arx, Joseph Hernandez, and Gustavo Ramírez Sansano – approached the theme of “secret stories” through distinct conceptual approaches, forays into social life, political urgency, and hidden space of imagination. 

The show began with Glimmers, a piece by Swiss and British choreographer Nicole von Arx dealing with deceit in the slippery social realm. It began with the stage curtain still closed and someone humming the song “It’s a Small World” in a breathy voice over the speakers. The curtain lifted to reveal Lucia Tozzi as the person behind this song. She was dressed in a sparkling suit, smoking a fake cigarette, and walking between lowered lighting rigs, which raised slowly, one by one, exposing and setting stage for what was to come. The remaining seven dancers filtered onstage wearing variations of sparkling pants or suits. They executed smooth contemporary floorwork, accompanied by percussive dance music, sometimes covering one another’s eyes with their hands – a gesture that reinforced the twofold conceit of hiding/revealing. 

Glimmers contained multiple moments when the cast talked directly to the audience: Tozzi was the first to speak to us from the front of stage, offering up some fun “facts” from a university study on the human tendency to lie: Did we know, for instance, that men and women lie about different things on dating apps? “Men lie about their height, and women lie about liking men,” said Tozzi. Speaking motifs were balanced with ensemble dancing and duets that provided nonverbal and emotive touchstones.  

Jeff Forbes's lighting design provided an impressive backdrop for dancers (l-r) Lucia Tozzi, Quincie Bean, Ingrid Ferdinand, and Alejandra Preciado in "Glimmers" by choreographer Nicole von Arx. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Jeff Forbes’ lighting design provided an impressive backdrop for dancers (l-r) Lucia Tozzi, Quincie Bean, Ingrid Ferdinand, and Alejandra Preciado in “Glimmers” by choreographer Nicole von Arx. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

At one point, Tozzi was joined by charismatic cast members Anthony Milan and Alejandra Preciado around a microphone at the front corner of the stage. This trio took turns speaking into the mic, sharing quippy anecdotes while smoking fake cigarettes. Here the act of “smoking” reflected a kind of social mask or security blanket for navigating these interpersonal interactions. After this motif, the dancing revved up again as a line of bright pink light scanned up the back wall, an impressive touch orchestrated by the evening’s lighting designer Jeff Forbes. 

Quincie Bean found her way to the microphone. “Our reality is what we choose to believe,” she said. “Are the lies you tell others the same you tell yourself?” The stage went dark, concluding this work. 

Following the first intermission, Joseph Hernandez’s work FISTFUL commenced suddenly, with house lights still up. The stage curtain flew skyward to reveal four dancers – Ingrid Ferdinand along with Bean, Preciado, and Tozzi – jumping together playfully, as if warming up. 

Ingrid Ferdinand in "Fistful," in which NWDP associate choreographer Joseph Hernandez used improvisation by the dancers as a way of examining conceptions of “freedom,” including how one person’s freedom might infringe on the care needed by another. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Ingrid Ferdinand in “FISTFUL” in which NWDP associate choreographer Joseph Hernandez used improvisation by the dancers as a way of examining conceptions of “freedom,” including how one person’s freedom might infringe on the care needed by another. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

I came to FISTFUL with more context and history than the other two works in this bill, having met up with Hernandez six weeks prior to learning about its creation. Flashing back to our conversation, I remembered that this foursome of dancers (along with company member Nicole Hennington) had played a pivotal role in the creation of FISTFUL. “I wanted to work with dancers that I knew really well, that I had seen grow and that helped me grow as well,” Hernandez explained to me, noting that the bulk of the performance was improvised. 

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Hernandez introduced improvisation into their creative process as a mode of playing with conceptions of “freedom” – e.g. how one person’s freedom might infringe on the care needed by another. “We’re all kind of trying to trust each other and ourselves at the same time,” Hernandez said. “It’s not easy to walk out into a space like that and have nothing concrete to hold.” In his view, improvisational decision-making, which impacts both the cast and the audience in pivotal ways, was the queerest route for this work, a liberatory option within the often harsh confines of the proscenium.  

Tonight, the dancers were dressed in shades of gray, white, and black, with a touch of casual camo. The stage looked like a sterile gallery – a space of observation – with a white background and a large rectangular canvas hung overhead. A blue TV screen in the right corner tracked the duration of the performance like a stopwatch, heightening the monitored aura of the space. What would the dancers be able to invoke in this austere environment? 

Lucia Tozzi dances before a timer counting down the minutes left for the dancers to improvise their performances in Joseph Hernandez’s "Fistful." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Lucia Tozzi dances before a timer counting the duration of Joseph Hernandez’s “FISTFUL.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

FISTFUL’s sound score alternated between sounds of children at play, electronic ambiance, and archival recordings of this cast discussing the themes of this dance with Hernandez. “Why do I deserve to feel joy?” one dancer asked. These auditory shifts gave the work a chaotic tenor reflective of day-to-day life, where unsettling questions about the nature of reality wriggle through the superficial urgency of time commitments and routine. 

The cast danced short quartets, trios, duos, and solos. They seemed to be riffing off one another’s movement cues until a scene would end abruptly, causing them to dash offstage. In the finale, they danced in soulful unison accompanied by the emotional singing of ANOHNI in the song “Fistful of Love.” After growing acquainted with the cast as individuals through their improvisations, I could delight in the mechanics of their coming together in set movement for this climax. Their similarities and differences popped, infusing the choreography with compelling texture. They waved and threw their pelvises backward – and they smiled. Eventually, ANOHNI went quiet, and the sounds of waves crashing overtook the stage. The dancers clung to one another’s waists and looked up, a gesture of reckoning with uncertainty. The work ended here. 

The final performance, 7300 Days by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, was a celebratory number designed to honor NWDP’s existence over two decades. This work hearkened to the company’s heavy influence from ballet – complete with classical music by Mozart – offering a portal into the imaginative realm of choreographic fantasy. 

Dancer Nicole Hennington exuberantly opens Gustavo Ramírez Sansano's "7300 Days," a celebratory work designed to honor NWDP’s 20th anniversary year. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Dancer Nicole Hennington exuberantly opens Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s “7300 Days,” a celebratory work designed to honor NWDP’s 20th anniversary year. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

The work opened with cunning dancer Hennington standing in front of the curtain, dressed in a blue pants suit and jacket painted with clouds. She gestured sharply, and the curtain ascended to reveal a line of dancers in the same attire. Behind them was a green tarp and large red flowers scattered about. These props were swirled around and arranged in different configurations throughout the performance. The dancers blended exuberant balletic lines with floorwork and gestural details. Armando Brydson toggled seamlessly between these modes of movement with notable acrobatic prowess. 

Beatriz García Díaz and Bean explored musical nuance in a gentle duet – the first in a series of partner dances to unfold in a spell of quietude on the otherwise boisterous stage. Despite the expert execution of choreography, I could not help but feel concern for the entire cast in their pants suits and button down shirts, which looked quite stifling and hot. The piece ended as the dancers hid underneath the large green tarp, which had been pulled up high overhead onstage. They exploded out of it, throwing around red flowers and petals in time with the music. This explosion repeated again, and the cast finally collapsed, concluding the show. 

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The company dancers of NW Dance Project enter the stage for Gustavo Ramírez Sansano's "7300 Days," which blended theatrical exuberance and balletic lines with flares of idiosyncratic gesture and floorwork. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
The company dancers of NW Dance Project enter the stage for Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s “7300 Days,” which blended theatrical exuberance and balletic lines with flares of idiosyncratic gesture and floorwork. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Secret Stories presented a range of works that toggled between fantasy and fraught reality. I left wondering about the secrets of this performance. I wished I could interview every dancer, as I had interviewed Hernandez, and ask how they felt about each work, about their relationships to each other and to the field at large. For now, I would have to settle for what I gleaned from this evening, its conceptual deep dives and earnest dancing – always hiding and revealing all at once.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver
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