NW Dance Project’s recent spring performance, Common Ground, showcased work by three women choreographers on March 17 and 18 at The Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton. The evening featured three striking pieces–one each by Yin Yue, the New York City-based founder of YY Dance Company; Caroline Finn, the Zurich based co-artistic Director of BRÜCKEREI; and Sarah Slipper, NW Dance Project’s artistic director. Two of the pieces were world premieres.
After a warm welcome from Slipper and company Executive Director Scott Lewis, the evening began with the program’s namesake, Common Ground. Dancers Quincie Bean, Jacob Beasley, Ingrid Ferdinand, Nicole Hennington, Anthony Milian, Alejandra Preciado, and Evita Zacharioglou entered the stage wearing costumer Christine Richardson’s bright matching outfits of purple, green, and blue, evoking the pared-back style of costume by Mark Lancaster in Merce Cunningham’s 1958 Suite for Two or 1980 Duets. As the work progressed the dancers presented clean, strong lines in their flattering attire, holding their breaths at first and eventually settling in around halfway through the piece.
As someone familiar with Yin Yue’s previous works and dance style, I was stricken with the thought that perhaps the performers of Common Ground were not entirely sure of the dance’s intentions. The movement was executed nicely, and yet it felt performed close to the chest, unlike what I have seen in the expansive and fearless dancing of Yue herself. The young cast of dancers appeared unsure, with wandering focus and unsteady eye lines, making me wonder whether the stage had been slippery. This, however, drew my attention toward Australian-born dancer Zacharioglou, whose commanding gaze pierced beyond memorization of steps in a grounded and present embodiment of the work.
The choreography of Common Ground was captivating, punchy, and rhythmic, reminding me of the high-energy grounded pulse of L-E-V’s 2009 Killer Pig and 2016 OCD Love in tone, style, and gestural motif. The unison group sections appeared suddenly, collapsing as the dancers exited one by one to the shifting vibrant pink and blue lights designed by Portland lighting maestro Jeff Forbes. Yue also explored moments of calm. While the music accelerated, the dance did not match its intensity and remained at consistent tempo. Though they danced unison amid various duets and canons, the dancers did not appear a unified group, executing the movement with mismatched stylistic emphasis.
After a short intermission came The Other Half of We, a world-premiere duet by Sarah Slipper. You can always count on Slipper to tell a story, and this piece, inspired by playwright Edward Albee’s absurdist Marriage Play, set out to portray a tortured long-term relationship gone sour. “After thirty years of marriage, a man tells his wife that he is going to leave her,” Slipper quoted Albee in the program. “When she fails to respond to his outburst, he leaves the room. He returns three times to declare that he is leaving her. Thus begins Marriage Play.”
The dance began with Ingrid Ferdinand, who joined NW Dance Project in 2021, sitting atop a door frame in dim white lighting, wearing black socks and a black dress. Ferdinand jumps off, hears a knock on the door, and opens it to find guest artist Joseph Hernandez, also clothed in black. Thus begins The Other Half of We. Hernandez steps through the door, sees Ferdinand, and proceeds to confront her, spoking towards her abdomen to engage in a choreographed fight. The couple executed a short tousled duet, reset, and Hernandez knocked again. Ferdinand answered, and the pattern repeated. This continued with bouts of performed laughter from Ferdinand until she bested her opponent and lay atop him, cackling with delight at his perceived death.
It was clear from Slipper’s choreography that she understood the core of the two-act play, which follows the troubled marriage of Jack and Gillian. First performed at Vienna’s English Theatre in May 1987, the play delivers a sorrowful and absurdist exchange, finishing with the unresolve of existential rhetoric. Slipper’s choreography tangled nicely with the narrative, laying out a tale as old as time—a heterosexual-presenting romantic relationship that turns toward physical domestic dispute—in a way that was both obviously violent and choreographically strategic. The man exemplifies his masculinity—miming head-butting, choking, and pushing the woman before straddling her and commonly lifting her into partnering phrases from below the glutes. The woman, who also fights back, appears sadder. She has reached her emotional limit and eventually goes mad—as so many tragic female characters do.
All aspects of Slipper’s sleek choreography designated the perfect base for the story at hand, complete with witty use of Forbes’ excellent lighting to differentiate acts and along with properly ominous music. Yet I had a difficult time investing in the emotional plight of the characters as presented. I wondered if the dancers needed more time to develop their characters’ relationship, and whether their personal enjoyment of performing the dance—which they did with beautiful extension and technique—overshadowed the search for a nuanced expression of despair within the piece. It was also unclear to me where the initiation of the physical contact between the dancers was coming from. Hernandez’ head moved without Ferdinand pushing it, though it looked as if she tried to. Ferdinand threw her leg without it being tossed, though it seemed Hernandez had mimed tossing it. Overall, I found myself wanting to see more physical impetus, clearer points of initiation, and reality despite the myth of performance. There was an undoubted elegance delivered throughout, but what I longed for was grit.
As the dancers faced the audience in preparation for curtain call, they tore off their top-layer clothing, donned party hats, and began a surreal routine to an upbeat Moby tune. This comic finish was unexpected from Slipper and added quirk to an otherwise serious dance. What reminded me of Tiffany Tregarthen’s clown character in Kidd Pivot’s Betroffenheit, engaged the viewer in absolute upbeat absurdity, reuniting the scorned pair.
A second short intermission came and went, allowing attendees to enjoy the Reser’s art gallery, and was followed by the world premiere of Caroline Finn’s The Commodities. Dressed in muted pedestrian costumes by Dayna Lanier that harkened to the English countryside, the dancers displayed their individuality in a series of group pieces, duets, trios, and simultaneous solos; squirming, flexing, lifting, partnering, and traversing the stage. The piece, which “looks at our connection to one another,” according to the program, presented the dancers coupling and recoupling, looking at each other but seldom making eye contact. This was perhaps my favorite dance of the night: The pathways and configurations in Finn’s The Commodities reminded me of sections from Ohad Naharin’s 2005 work Three and 2015 creation Last Work. Through overbearing pop-folk and ballads, the dancers turned toward the audience, and then one other, to depict the “ambiguous line between the empowering and destructive need for each other.”
The dancers all performed well, and the hero of the work was dancer Anthony Milian. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Milian joined NW Dance Project in 2022, and delivered a solid performance in Finn’s world premiere. During a moment of collective chaos my eye went to Milian, who waltzed upright with the audacious Zacharioglou suspended mid-air and later atop his shoulders. This expertly executed image, though a minute portion of the evening, remained with me long after the show. During a particularly melodramatic moment set to Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan’s “Between These Hands,” Milian offered nuance, subtlety, and sensitivity in a moving solo that made use of much-welcomed floorwork. With attention to detail and an intellectual understanding of his body’s “core engine” (as choreographer Naharin would say), he added a nice layer of humanity to the already appealing piece in this overall excellent show featuring three talented women dancemakers.