Northwest Dance Project’s most recent Summer Premieres provided three different yet whimsical works on June 10 and 11 at Lincoln Performance Hall. The evening featured a world premiere by former NW Dance Project dancer and recent choreographer Andrea Parson as well as pieces by Artistic Director Sarah Slipper and visiting choreographer Yoshito Sakuraba. Despite the difficulties presented by a post-Covid rehearsal landscape, which resulted in skilled guest dancer and former company member Viktor Usov subbing in for multiple pieces, the performers displayed their excellent technique and refined composure throughout the three-part evening.
The program commenced with MARCH, a new piece by former Princess Grace Award Winner Parson, whose reputation as a technically and artistically talented dancer has followed her to her burgeoning choreographic career. Portland-based Parson began the evening with a small ensemble piece modeled after author Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 classic Little Women. Female dancers portrayed the March sisters in a work hoping to convey the wonder, determination, and struggles faced by young female authors.
MARCH started with a solo featuring dancer Ingrid Ferdinand, wearing what looked like a flashy classic ringleader’s coat, earnestly gyrating and slinking downstage to the sounds of a pen scribbling against paper. As they arrived on stage, the other dancers wore billowing skirts, pale tones, and nude-coloured socks, with their hair in braids and pigtails. It was jarring at first to witness powerful adult dancers depicted as little girls flitting to the emotional and elongated string sounds of Zoe Keating, Chopin, and Brahams, but the camaraderie among performers helped settle the audience into accepting their roles. Youthful unison, duets, and solo moments focused heavily on curved movement pathways while the dancers dove into the story, which was punctuated by papers falling from the sky, a costume party in which the characters wore mustaches and a top hat, and somewhat inaudible vocalizations throughout. The false laughter that emanated from the dancers during a scene depicting the four sisters at play seemed forced and ultimately unnecessary, but the display of simplistic choreography went hand in hand with the coming-of-age tale.
During the piece, I found myself contemplating the draw that many choreographers have toward combining literature with dance. Whether they are self-proclaimed writers or simply fans of books, choreographers using adaptations and literature as inspiration have seemed to trend in the last few years. Perhaps it is a sense of familiarity that dancemakers seek, the clear outline that literature provides. Or perhaps we as artists are simply magnetized toward books—which so eloquently put into words that which movement sometimes simply cannot.
After a short pause during which many of the audience members remained in their seats, the evening continued with Sarah Slipper’s A Fine Balance, initially created in 2004. “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…” read the program. This, a quote from T.S. Eliot, set the backdrop for Slipper’s piece, which was performed by Jihyun Kim and Viktor Usov.
A Fine Balance began with a series of satisfying tableaux involving the dancers, a small wooden table, and one single chair, each appearing for mere seconds in illuminated amber pools expertly crafted by lighting designer Jeff Forbes. The music, by Alberto Iglesias, effortlessly glided past the consciousness, its sense of urgency fueling the languid movement without distracting from it.
Throughout Slipper’s piece, Usov and Kim enacted athletic lifts with delicate intricacy, finding soft plié through dismounts and seldom anticipating the moments of physical connection. They traversed the stage with grace, occasionally appearing uncertain with small, stationary footwork before separating into a refreshing and expansive ownership of the space. With its repetitions and its chair and table props, the work had a slight reminiscence of Pina Bausch’s 1978 Café Müller, originally set on Tanztheater Wuppertal to the music of Henry Purcell. Yet where Café Müller is delightfully frantic, fraught with exhaustion, grief, and grit, A Fine Balance was exactly what its title suggests: a nicely balanced display of struggle, artistry, adoration, and what I construed to be the characters’ feelings of love; depicted by honest expressions on the dancers’ faces by the time of their final exit.
After intermission came award-winning Yoshito Sakuraba’s Nocturnal, an ensemble piece featuring sudden transitions, bright costumes, animal masks, and an Alice in Wonderland-like surrealism that included characters faking their own deaths and breaking the fourth wall via pre-recorded mini monologues. As a show of melodrama, Nocturnal kept the audience on their toes with colliding images: some dancers dressed once more as little girls, duets featuring whirling trench coats, vests and pre-war dresses, and deconstructed forest scenes including trees made from ladders and branches. “I’m sixteen … I was in love … the feeling of being forever alone …” cooed one of the many recordings. Roughly halfway through, a drumbeat propelled the dance into faster movement, followed later by a bopping unison section set to Connie Francis’s 1959 hit Stupid Cupid. The work seemed to hinge on shock-factor, ping-ponging hit-or-miss humor with depicted disaster.
The program’s pieces, which uplifted—or were inspired by—written works to varying degrees, left the audience exuberant and contemplative with multi-layered messages of whimsy, devotion, and dystopia—all appropriate and welcome themes for the burgeoning and uncertain future that we face, both as artists and individuals, in an ongoing/post-Covid environment.