Flowers have many uses. They can be a show of affection or condolence, collected in a vase to brighten a room, or pressed between the pages of a book for future remembrances. The symbolic gestures are numerous, especially if you’re a choreographer at NW Dance Project. Throughout Bolero+, a trio of works presented by NW Dance Project at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland last weekend, the audience saw flowers clenched between a dancer’s teeth and passed around like a baton, ripped to pieces, and falling suddenly from the sky.
In Down the Garden Path, a world premiere by Artistic Director Sarah Slipper, flowers took on their age-old significance: romance. Natalie (Ingrid Ferdinand), the protagonist of Slipper’s drama, is unhappily married to Thomas (Anthony Milian). The couple live in a country estate with their daughter Julia (Alejandra Preciado) and Thomas’s young niece, Sylvie (Quincie Bean). Natalie’s ennui is disrupted with the arrival of Ethan (Santiago Villarreal), who has been hired as Julia’s tutor. Ethan is a magnetic presence, catching the eye of both Natalie and Sylvie. Many a moonlit liaison follows.
Slipper crafts a compelling mise-en-scène. More than once the audience gasped, as when one dancer prances onstage with a bucket covering her head and an apple sticking out of her mouth. Paper airplanes occasionally litter the stage or are thrown into the audience. I assumed this was a gesture to Natalie’s desire to escape her marriage. If so, Natalie’s dreams need better wings. Those paper airplanes never got very far.
As for the destroyed flowers? Ferdinand’s nimble fingers make short work of them.
An eclectic accompaniment features music by Frédéric Chopin, Abel Korzeniowski, and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. The majority of the recorded score was orchestral, and I found myself wishing for more of the opening techno music. Thyra Hartshorn’s set design is efficient and impactful. Billowing transparent curtains evoke a country house, and an opposing white wicker chair summarizes Natalie’s stasis.
In an introduction, Slipper explained that events from the past two years had inspired her to create Down the Garden Path. Viewed through this lens, Slipper does an excellent job at repackaging the caged emotions of quarantine into a work that surpasses the pandemic’s more limiting frames of reference. Down the Garden Path aspires to the dramatic effect of the 19th-century novel, surely another source of Slipper’s inspiration.
Narrative, character, and bodily pleasures of any kind are not to be found in Ensemble for Somnambulists, the 2006 work by guest choreographer Luca Veggetti. Somnambulism, or sleepwalking, is a mood Veggetti successfully captures onstage. Microphones hang in the air, as dancers recite—ASMR-style—a text excerpted from Anaïs Nin’s surrealist novella, House of Incest. The provocative title is metaphorical; the narrator of the 1936 text is trying to escape from a dream. The one line I was able to remember long enough to jot down was the ominous phrase, “All connections are breaking.”
Aika Doone and Amanda Sachs, joined by Milian and Villarreal, strike prolonged poses that are a feat of athleticism. The clinical staging lasts an appropriate twenty minutes—any longer and audience members might have tried to escape their seats. Veggetti’s dense and uncanny composition would be equally at home in a contemporary art exhibit as in the Newmark.
Ihsan Rustem’s Bolero, on the other hand, is entirely theatrical. NW Dance Project’s resident choreographer opens his scene with a rose—embedded in a sandbag—shooting down from the rafters. It’s an exciting start to a composition that never stops gaining momentum, thanks in part to the melodic repetition of Maurice Ravel’s 1928 score.
Bolero is a visual feast: the music a canvas upon which Rustem has painted exacting stage images. A ramp rises horizontally upstage, and behind it dancers often peer out at the audience. A spotlighted face here, a silhouetted leg there. Over the course of the performance, the dancers fight for the rose, which is the thread that ties Bolero together. The flower would vanish and then reappear a moment later, always in the hands—or mouth—of a new dancer.
Costumer designer Christine A. Richardson styled the company in festive, multicolored mesh shirts, a departure from the monochromatic outfits favored earlier. Bolero gets its name from a traditional Spanish dance, and the colorful costumes and ever-present rose recalled the work’s Iberian origins. The music chugs on (Ravel himself described the score as insistent), and as the sound of the orchestra gathers, the dancers cease their infighting and become a unified ensemble. As the curtain falls, Rustem ends Bolero with a flourish. A second rose flies down.
Tonally, the three works presented at the Newmark last weekend live in very different worlds. The clear narrative of Down the Garden Path is absent in Bolero and Ensemble for Somnambulists, and the cool experimentalism of Somnambulists is at odds with Bolero’s puckish charm. But one doesn’t need to reach in order to grasp a thematic through line. Natalie’s entrapment is echoed—psychologically—in Somnambulists, then raised to the nth degree. Bolero and Down the Garden Path share a romantic quality, although in Garden Path that romance is more explicit.
And, of course, there’s an abundance of flowers.