When Franco Nieto, all red-nosed and disheveled and comically herky-jerk, strolled in front of the stage curtain in the Newmark Theatre Thursday evening like a side-show barker or a tramp clown, the audience leaned forward on full alert. It leaned forward farther as he proceeded to behave like an especially rubbery baggy-pants comic in a vaudeville act. And when he casually slid beneath the curtain with the boneless ease of an eel and disappeared, leaving the stage empty, laughter began rippling across the auditorium. For the remainder of Ihsan Rustem’s jaunty comic hit Le Fil Rouge it pretty much didn’t stop. Nieto and his fellow NW Dance Project performers had the crowd right where they wanted it: surprised, amused, and eager for more.
Le Fil Rouge was the capper of NW Dance Project’s 16th-season-opening show Infall (it repeats Friday and Saturday nights), and a bit of a homecoming as well. Rustem, a Londoner whose first piece with the Portland company, State of Matter, was performed by the company dancers twice in London as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, has been NDP’s resident choreographer since 2015. The two other choreographers on the program – French dancemaker Patrick Delcroix and Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti – also have productive histories with the company.
The world premiere of Delcroix’s Invisible Spark, an ambitious and lengthy exploration of love and restlessness, opened the program and the season. Delcroix’s most recent work for NDP was 2017’s moving and elliptical Visible Darkness, and Invisible Spark has a similar sense of longing and struggle, but under different circumstances. Using eight of the company’s ten dancers and breaking the action mostly into duets and trios, Invisible Spark wrestles with the tug-of-war between a private relationship and the thrill of the crowd. While six of the dancers party on in varying combinations, two stay mostly to the side, upstage left, sitting on a bench. They’re lovers, and while she seems constant in her affections, he seems pulled between the joys of domesticity and the lure of the party. Where, finally, the dance seems to ask, do we find our happiness? Why must we always look beyond what we already have? The piece at this point feels a little stretched out, with a lot of repetition that doesn’t seem to add nuance: shorter would be better. But as always with Delcroix, the movements are creative, employing the whole body, and as always with NDP, the dancers carry them out with deep attention and admirable skill.
Veggetti’s swift and spare Ensemble for Somnambulists, from 2006, holds down the middle of the program like the emphatic bang of a master carpenter’s hammer in a tight corner. A quartet performed on Thursday by Colleen Loverde, Nieto, Andrea Parson and Anthony Pucci (they’ll repeat their roles on Saturday; Friday’s cast will be Parson, William Couture, Kody Jauron and Jihyun Kim), Somnambulists is stark and skeletal yet with the resonance of a thing that knows exactly what it wants to be. It’s an admirable dance, admirably performed. Marty Hughley, reviewing NW Dance Project’s 2007 performance for The Oregonian, described Paolo Aralla’s score as sounding “like amplified clocks and water drops,” and the movement as “full of curious rotations of the pelvis and almost robotic isolations of limbs,” with “eerie calm and snapping velocity.” I won’t even attempt to top that.
That left Rustem’s Le Fil Rouge to provide the evening’s spark of fun, and more: Its spark of joy. You could feel the joy emanating from the stage, where the full company of 10 seemed immersed full-tilt in the dance’s movements and playfulness, and you could feel it in the audience, which was captured in the fancy of the thing. It’s a buoyant, cavorting piece, reveling in pop playfulness and the sheer delight of surprise. Everyone’s dancing with everyone; at one point lighting designer Jeff Forbes, whose expert touch runs through the entire evening, creates an extra pair of shadow dancers on an upstage screen to join the fun. The music is pop, in a historically nodding, jubilant way, ranging from the joyfully heartrending Ne me quitte pas to Doris Day’s droll Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps. Lindsey Reif’s costumes are droll and snazzy in a ’50s Frenchy way: Sometimes the dancers look like Marseilles stevedores out on the town; sometimes like Parisian boulevardiers out on the prowl.
Rustem’s choreography in Le Fil Rouge is infused with a light and brilliant wit, fully exploiting the intimate relationship between song and dance. Sometimes he anticipates the music; sometimes he responds to it. Dance and movement intertwine, playfully, embracing each other’s possibilities. Rustem creates little understatements that can shout and whisper at the same time: a quick shrug of the shoulder, in perfect syncopation; a unison buckle of the knee, followed by a quick snap back. All in all Le Fil Rouge creates a much more than bearable lightness of being. It’s one more admirable proof that good comedy is much more than frivolity; that it can have surprising depth; that joy is where we want to be. It leaves its audience laughing, and it leaves ’em wanting more. In show business, you can’t ask for much better than that.
- NW Dance Project’s Infall repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 27 and 28, in the Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket information here.