NW Dance Project’s program Spring Premieres offered three distinct perspectives on some of the present concerns of contemporary dance. This affair took place March 4th and 5th at the Newmark Theater, and featured new works by visiting choreographers Yin Yue and Joseph Hernandez as well as the company’s resident choreographer, Ihsan Rustem. Based on my experience the first evening, NWDP’s newly coalesced company possesses a palpable rapport onstage, meeting theatrical and physical demands with gusto. The dancers skillfully inhabited the trajectory of these three choreographies, which moved from an exploration of physical terrain into the depths of emotional landscapes and psyches.
The evening began with Common Ground, by New York City-based choreographer Yue, who is known for fusing Chinese classical and folk elements with contemporary dance. Yue kicked off the evening with a celebration of collective possibility.
Common Ground began with a unison duet that was eventually pulled apart as more dancers filtered onstage. All wore loose, uniform outfits of varied gem tones. They pivoted their limbs with precision, backgrounded by a score of synth sounds. Occasionally, they performed visceral gestures that punctured and probed the terrain of their bodies—the jostling of a ribcage, slap of a pelvis, or pounding of a chest—as if to signal alchemical processes at work beneath their skin.
As I observed the flow of the dancers, I began to consider the landscape of repetitive gender roles: Yue frequently paired women with men in partner motifs, giving the women more presentational lifts and the men grounded choreography. I wondered if the possibilities for each dancer within the work had been narrowed by their gender and its apparent social functions. This tangent was unsettled by the sharp partner work of Amanda Sachs and Ingrid Ferdinand, two women who shared fierce chemistry in their brief duet.
As the dance began to climax, the scrim behind the dancers glowed orange and then burnt red with the careful touch of lighting by designer Jeff Forbes. The dancers clustered together in a final series of jumps, pulling energy from the floor up through their buoyant bodies and sending it toward the audience with open arms. This durational climax gave me time to notice the dancers as a collective and to feel invited in by them.
After a brief pause and casual note of thanks from Artistic Director Sarah Slipper and Executive Director Scott Lewis, the program continued with “İzinsiz.” As per the program notes, the dance took its title from the Turkish translation of the word “unauthorized,” representing choreographer Rustem’s “most vulnerable work to date.” Its choreography delved into the theme of secret emotional tumult, which remained devoid of context.
Earnest dancer Quincie Bean greeted the audience with a series of gestures that unfolded in front of the stage curtain to start. She signaled “hush” and then raised her hands as the curtain ascended. A dance of alienation and desire ensued in this hidden space—its central character played by Santiago Villarreal amidst a frame of staggered wings that revealed the looming theater ceiling. Musical accompaniment featured humming and singing in Hebrew that eventually ramped into a repetitive sound of “hallelujah,” hinting at larger themes of conflicted spirituality or even queer alienation.
Throughout, all dancers took turns making exaggerated facial expressions or gestures that seemed to indicate states of psychic confusion—though I struggled to grasp their full intention. Both Villarreal and dancer Patrick Kilbane vacillated between dancing alone or weaving through groups, but never in a fixed relationship with anyone. At one moment, Villarreal made physical contact with a group, triggering their immediate cascade to the floor. At the conclusion, the curtain descended as Kilbane bore Ferdinand on his back in a final, solemn duet, as if to emphasize the weight of responsibility in close relationships.
In “bye bye for now,” Dresden-based choreographer Joseph Hernandez finished the evening with a deep dive into the concepts of love and madness. This work was contextualized by an excerpt in the program of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, which describes a love relationship afflicted by psychological distress. The quote concludes: “I am moved, anguished, for it is horrible to see those one loves suffering, but at the same time I remain dry, watertight.” The dance itself took me into a dystopian parallel universe, complete with video projections with erratic 3D graphics and costuming in the style of Y2K fashion. These aesthetic references suggested the impending collapse of the interwebs of the mind.
The work hinged on a relationship between an unnamed character in a purple suit, played charismatically by Amanda Sachs, and a character in a blue suit named “Edgar,” played by Brendan Evans. Sachs greeted the audience with pleasantries, which were shortly undermined by her perseverative concerns about a “man coming down the hall.” Sachs and “Edgar” shared a long verbal exchange throughout the dance’s veering motifs, which touched on fatalism and the ambivalence of contemporary dance in all of its “billowing theatricality.” The chorus of remaining dancers—adorned in different styles of Y2K fashion—created a dynamic canvas for this discourse, moving in and out of various interactions. At one moment, Jihyun Kim even wheeled a tripod camera onstage—the video from which was projected behind the dancers with a slight lag that created a sense of dissonance in real time.
In his attempts to address themes of madness, Hernandez veered into some fraught choreographic territory with implications specific to the politicized landscape of Portland:
At one point, Sachs called out, “Come here Edgar! Come here!” with an air of paternalism as if speaking to a pet or infantilized subject. Edgar scooted toward her in a stilted and resistant fashion on the floor. While contemporary dance—as exemplified by Rustem’s earlier work—often depicts emotionality through exaggerated theatrics, this moment felt reminiscent of all-too-real Disabled experiences. Given the overlaps of housing scarcity, psychological trauma, and Disability within our community, these choreographic choices give rise to the questions: Who has the privilege to perform in a manner that conjures the hypervisible lived experiences of some of this city’s most vulnerable community members? Who benefits from this, and who is harmed in doing so?
The evening ended with a hint of hope. Bean and Villarreal appeared in a heavenly scene as if to suggest they had leveled up from the dystopia of psychic torment. However, they remained haunted by its presence via a video of Sachs and Edgar projected behind them. This conclusion offered a fitting metaphor for the plights of contemporary concert dance at large, where stereotypes and tropes tend to slip into the fray, haunting the otherwise transportive nature of live performance. One thing is certain, however: NWDP’s dancers are a powerful force ready to dive into these complex challenges.
- This review has been updated to indicate the full extent of Patrick Kilbane’s role in the performance İzinsiz.