By HEATHER WISNER
Adapting Ibsen’s dark drama Hedda Gabler for dance is an ambitious undertaking: that much is clear when you’re greeted by two pages of program notes explaining the plot as you settle in for the world premiere of NW Dance Project’s Hedda. It’s sort of a heavy lift for viewers, although once you’ve read through the lengthy synopsis, you have a pretty good idea of what’s happening onstage.
Good thing, because this particular play is driven less by outright action than buttoned-up, Victorian-era emotional turmoil. Company artistic director Sarah Slipper has managed to pull a compelling contemporary movement narrative from it, aided by composer Owen Belton, from whom the company commissioned a score, and set designer Luis Crespo. Belton’s moody score amps ups up the dread, and layers in the sounds telegraph specific settings and actions. Crespo’s set design for the main characters’ home, where most of the action takes place, is simple but effective: black beaded curtains to the left and right, suggesting entryways, and a piano at the center banked by several bouquets of flowers.
Why flowers? Because Hedda (Andrea Parson) and her husband, Tesman (William Couture) have recently returned from their honeymoon, during which he worked on his academic research and she, presumably, slouched around the hotel, bored witless. She is still bored when the curtain rises: We find her draped over the piano, practically oozing ennui—that is, until her maid, Berte (Katherine Disenhof), begins ushering in a series of guests.
There is Hedda’s old schoolmate, Thea (Lindsey McGill); Tesman’s old academic rival, Lövborg (Franco Nieto); and Judge Brack, a friend of the Tesman family. Each arrives with an agenda. Thea loves Lövborg, an alcoholic, and is trying to save him from himself; Lövborg, who has dried out, is trying to publish a promising new paper; and Tesman, who is sweet on Hedda, has come with the warning that Lövborg may land the professorship Tesman wants.
At the nexus of these conflicting desires is Hedda, who makes a sport of manipulating these characters, playing on their particular insecurities to regain the sense of power and agency she appears to have lost when she married. She is unafraid to bolster her efforts with the tools she has at her disposal, including booze, fire, guns and unrequited love. Unsurprisingly, her story does not end well.
Hedda isn’t an especially likeable character, but is she really bad or just misunderstood? Parson played a similarly conflicted type in the title role of Ihsan Rustem’s Carmen, although in that case, she manipulated others ostensibly for love. Hedda’s motives are slightly murkier, but Parson makes the most of the role. Her Hedda is catlike and cool, although not unfeeling. She shakes her hands frenetically when she’s agitated, laughs in the face of danger and determinedly bends others to her will, sometimes literally, as when she grabs Brack by the throat in the midst of what looks like a violent tango. McGill, meanwhile, gives us a Thea who starts out hopeful and yearning but eventually crumples with despair as the men break out into a drunken scrum. The story probably wouldn’t suffer without Berte, the enigmatic maid, but Slipper gives her interesting steps, including skittering crab-like entrances and exits.
What keeps viewers engaged isn’t the story itself, because we know how it ends, but how the story plays out in movement. Notwithstanding an ending that feels a little jokey (in part from the music, which isn’t Bolton’s), most of this tale is told with a physical and emotional intensity. The hard work paid off in the end.
Hedda is the first of two world premieres on this weekend’s bill: the other is Cayetano Soto’s Flamingo 37, an odd but pleasing bird. Where Hedda seethes with limbs and feeling, Flamingo feels more like a party where dancers in pink kilts and black T-shirts perform birdlike movement—strutting and preening with flapping elbows and beaked hands—to a kitschy mambo beat.
Soto, a Spaniard who serves as Ballet B.C.’s resident choreographer, has said the piece is about liars. That isn’t immediately obvious in the movement, although there are small hints of it here and there—look for the fingers crossed behind the back. It’s mostly suggested, in the dancers’ athletic contortions, their easy smiles and the bright stage lights shining behind them. The choreography is fast and entertaining, and a bit little slippery—just like all the best liars.
NW Dance Project performs 7:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway.