Before I jump into reviewing NW Dance Project’s holiday show—Winter Wonders, which opened and closed over the weekend at Lincoln Performance Hall—I’m going to tell you about my Christmas stocking. Why? Because as I left Lincoln Hall Thursday night, that stocking and all of the little gifts that end up stuffed into it on Christmas morning was all I could think of as the dancers took their final bow.
My Christmas stocking was no ordinary stocking, not the generic, mass-produced numbers you can get at almost any retailer this time of year. My father cross-stitched my stocking by hand from threads of the most wintry hues, attaching sequins as he went and embellishing it with penguins ice skating in their snowy wonderland. When he was done, it hung in a line of five brilliantly unique stockings, all handmade. Every Christmas morning, I’d wait to pull out the random assortment of goodies hidden inside. And of course, I hoped for an orange at the bottom, to acknowledge that I’d been good that year.
But let’s get back to the show—this favorite memory does relate, promise!
NW Dance Project opened its holiday show, Winter Wonders, with some big questions. Company dancer Kevin Pajarillaga mimed along to a voice that rang throughout the hall, and the program got right into the nitty-gritty of an artist’s work—the questions that, in one form or another, artists of all sorts tend to ask themselves.
“What is the one thing I can do that you have not seen yet?”
“What is art?”
“How can I provoke a reaction from the audience?”
The five company dancers who also played the main choreographic roles in Winter Wonders considered these questions about the creative process, alongside resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem. The NW Dance Project launched its tradition of company-crafted holiday productions in 2011 at the company’s original home, Mississippi Studios. In 2014, the show landed at Vestas, the year following at Revolution Hall, and they have been presented at Lincoln Hall since 2016. With so many choreographers, Winter Wonders covered a lot of ground in its 75-minute run time, somewhat like the swell of the holiday season—every moment packed with tradition, cheer, love and a bit of magic.
With the choreographers of each section left unspecified in the program, the evening proved to be a charming guessing game as to which artist might be the mastermind behind which dance. The exception was a whimsical duet choreographed by company member William Couture, whose authorship was mentioned from the stage. Think of it as the orange at the bottom of the stocking in Winter Wonders, the one that affirmed how good the year—or the choreography—was.
Placed midway through the show, the duet featured Kevin Pajarillaga and Anthony Pucci, as they joined one another in a swirling waltz to an instrumental version of Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though the lyrics were missing, they immediately popped to mind for fans of the film:
With a spin
The world of my creation.
What we’ll see
The majority of Winter Wonders had the audience in its grasp with the quirky and hilarious skits the dancers conceived. The prized moments, similar to the packs of candy my seven-year-old self ravenously pulled from that magical stocking of hers, were devoured by the audience with boughs of laugher and oohs and aahs at the company’s extremely precise and polished style of movement.
The program felt like a sampler platter of grandma’s Christmas cookies—dashes of fairytales (Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen), holiday classics (a heartwarming take on the Grinch and his trustee dog Max), and holiday dance references (The Nutcracker’s famous act one closer, Snow). Some versions fell more closely on the abstract contemporary art side of the spectrum, and others were much more literal, featuring character costuming and narration of the stories they were inspired by.
In an ode to 1974 stop-motion Christmas classic The Year Without a Santa Claus, company dancers Franco Nieto and Colleen Loverde battled as the Snow Miser and Heat Miser in a very literal sense. Dressed head to toe in their respective blue and orange colors, they fought for three rounds, with the contest ending in an icy victory for Loverde, the Snow Miser. The dance at times imitated the stop-motion nature of the film: The Snow Miser and the Heat Miser stood on each end of a line of dancers in black, tech-crew costumes. The dancers each held a flipbook in their hands. As the pages flew by in succession, balls of snow and heat danced across the flipbooks, colliding with one another and imaginatively flying off the pages into their opponent.
In a short interlude by Rustem, dancers Andrea Parson and Kody Jauron moved through a light-hearted sequence with the voice of a supposed choreographer narrating their movements. The urgency in the narration and the duo’s dancing leads to a quick on-stage costume change—out of pajamas, into slick unitards—and fell into a speedier variation of the piece, paced by a remixed “Bah Humbug!” track. The curmudgeonly displeasure of the score paired comically with Rustem’s playful movement ideas. With “Bah Humbug” bouncing from speaker to speaker, I remembered my younger self pulling a new toothbrush out of my stocking, with a similarly displeased disposition.
Rustem has been choreographing on NW Dance Project since 2010, most recently when the company revived Le Fil Rouge (“The Red Thread”). As a writer who’s always curious to find a thread-line within a choreographer’s body of work, I asked Rustem if there was any correlation to his work in Winter Wonders. “It’s interesting that you ask about similarities between these two works since Le Fil Rouge was my first dip into something a little more humorous and whimsical,” he said via email. Since Rustem’s sections for Winter Wonders were closer to interludes than to full works, he explained that his contribution created its own “red thread” between the sections.
Based in Switzerland and traveling between Portland and the other slew of companies he’s working with internationally, Rustem still considers Portland his “home away from home.” What keeps him coming back to Portland? “I’m offered the tools to create my best works,” he wrote. “I have the use of a pool of some of the finest dancers on the planet. There is support and encouragement. There is trust. The space is stunning. The city, too! Portland itself inspires creativity.”
Much like the five stockings that hang by the fire at my home on Christmas, the collection of dances in Winter Wonders each told their own stories and held bundles of surprises within. “There is beauty, intrigue, and laughter but most importantly there is so much heart from everyone involved in this production,” said Kody Jauron in our correspondence in the days leading up to the performance. It’s a homemade show, just like my dad’s Christmas stockings. And if we can all agree on one thing, it feels pretty great to be home for the holidays.