Franco Nieto

NW Dance Project: 3 for the show

The agile Portland company kicks off its 16th season with a trio of works by Ihsan Rustem, Luca Veggetti, and Patrick Delcroix

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.

Colleen Loverde and Anthony Pucci in the world premiere of Patrick Delcroix’s Invisible Spark. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

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The unkindness of strangers

James Canfield's distillation of "A Streetcar Named Desire" highlights NW Dance Project's premieres, with Sarah Slipper's dance of love

The funk and sweat and desperate seediness of New Orleans are so thick in the air above James Canfield’s new dance Sketches of Connotation that you can almost smell them rising from the stage of Lincoln Performance Hall. It’s an intoxicating aroma.

Sketches, Canfield’s distilled evocation of Tennessee Williams’ beautiful nightmare of a play A Streetcar Named Desire, is the anchor of NW Dance Project’s fifteenth-season-ending Summer Premieres program, which opened Thursday and continues Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s a gorgeous, exquisitely crafted piece of dance theater, the work of a choreographer who’s stayed true to his longtime vision of dance as a reflection of popular culture and who now, as a veteran artist, seems fully in control of his considerable imaginative skills.

William Couture, Anthony Pucci, Colleen Loverde, Kody Jauron, Katherine Loverde, and Franco Nieto in the world premiere of James Canfield’s Sketches of Connotation. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

NDP’s program of three premieres also includes company artistic director Sarah Slipper’s Save Me the Plums, a sweet and often funny dance of love and loss performed beautifully by Andrea Parson and Franco Nieto; and Felix Landerer’s angsty All’s Been Said, in which a dancer in a polar-bear mask declaims about magicians and climate change.

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Wolf Tales: Howl about it?

NW Dance Project goes deep into the mythological woods with a loose and lightly fractured show of tales choreographed by the dancers

Hey, there, Little Red Riding Hood. What’s goin’ down in the neighborhood?

Wolf Tales, the droll and sweetly macabre new program from NW Dance Project that ends its brief run at Lincoln Performance Hall on Saturday night, is something of a case of mistaken self-identity. Nobody seems to know who anybody is at any particular time, even and perhaps especially themselves, since the characters in this mythic wood seem to be going through some downright werewolfian transformations. Joseph Campbell might call what’s happening a Hero’s Journey, but no need to get all hoity-toity about it: Let’s just call it a collection of fractured fairy tales.

A passel of Hoods: William Couture, Franco Nieto, Kody Jauron, Anthony Pucci, and Kevin Pajarillaga in Andrea Parson’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” Photo: Brian Truitt Covert

This is the slot in NDP’s season that’s usually turned over to the dancers to create, and in this case, rather than making a series of independent short pieces, they’ve stitched the thing together to create a narrative arc. A lot of dance companies do dancer-created shows, either on their seasons or as side projects, and good or bad, it’s usually an interesting and revealing sort of program to see. What might the dancers do on their own? Who has interesting choreographic ideas? How might it differ from the company’s usual style?

On those counts, Wolf Tales delivers a pretty high payoff. I wouldn’t call it high art. I would call it a kick in the pants. The show has a looseness, a frivolity, that doesn’t always show up in the company’s more earnest works. Freed from being the vessels of someone else’s choreographic imagination, it seems, dancers just want to have fun. And if the show could be a little tighter, the fun’s infectious.

Katherine Disenhof in Kody Jauron’s “Snow White,” with Andrea Parson in the shadows. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Each of the five linked pieces is based on a well-known folk tale adapted and choreographed by one of the dancers. Company veteran Andrea Parson sets the table with a Little Red Riding Hood inhabited by multiple Reds, multiple Wolves, a fair amount of howling, and a soundtrack built around Li’l Red Riding Hood, Laura Gibson’s catchily pensive 2012 cover that skips the leering and captures the yearning in Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s 1966 hit. Colleen Loverde prowls the stage as a sort of neo-Grimm narrator, introducing characters and bringing home the evening’s theme: Things are not as they seem.

Snow White follows, in nicely turned choreography by Kody Jauron that features Parson as a wind-up mechanical toy of a heroine, Katherine Disenhof as a manipulating witch, and, of course, a shiny red apple.

Colleen Loverde in Anthony Pucci’s “Chicken Little.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Then it’s off to Anthony Pucci’s high-camp, farcical Chicken Little, in which Disenhof, Loverde, Parson, and Franco Nieto (as the cool-operator, Snidely Whiplash-style manipulator) squawk about the stage like, well, chickens with their heads cut off at the possibility of a natural (or unnatural) disaster. It segues into Nieto’s The Three Little Pigs, a piece built on bricks and huffs and puffs and yearning and desire: can a young pig and a young wolf find true love and happiness, or will society keep them forever apart? There are echoes here of that infamous wall in The Fantasticks.

Jauron returns to choreograph the rousing and satisfying finale, The Ugly Ducking, which brings the entire company onstage and, browbeaten duckling slowly revealed in all his swanlike glory, completes the transformation. Goodness, Little Red Riding Hood, how did we get from there to here?

Katherine Disenhof, William Couture, Andrea Parson and Kevin Pararillaga in Kody Jauron’s “Ugly Duckling.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

After some retirements and movings-on and a couple of additions, NW Dance Project’s company has emerged as a tight-knit, talented group of eight – Jauron, Parson, Nieto, Loverde, Disenhof, Pucci, William Couture, and Kevin Pararillaga – who know each other’s styles and possibilities and work easily together. They’ve emerged, you might say, from something similar but not quite the same.

Some lovely design work helps pull the whole thing together: costumes by Alexa Stark, a silken-white forest of mystical trees conceived by the choreographers and executed by production manager Thyra Hartshorn, and some spectacular lighting by Jeff Forbes that shifts seamlessly with the seasons and moods.

In the meantime, there’s one final performance of Wolf Tales. If you make it there on Saturday night, you’ll probably laugh. Who knows? You might even howl.

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NW Dance Project’s Wolf Tales concludes with a performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at Lincoln Performance Hall on the Portland State University campus. Ticket information here.

Colleen Loverde in Anthony Pucci’s “Chicken Little.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Comedy tussles with drama in NDP’s ‘Room 4,’ ‘Carmen’

Physical humor animates premiere and revival in the dance company's 15th season opener

The premise of Sarah Slipper’s new dance Room 4, which opened Thursday in the Newmark Theatre and is continuing its premiere production through Saturday night, is quirky and appealing, in a how’s-she-going-to-do-that? way: to cross the cryptic playwright Harold Pinter with the over-the-top comedy troupe Monty Python, translate both into the world of dance, and see what happens.

From left: Disenhof, Couture, Parson, and Nieto in the premiere of NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper’s “Room 4.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

In a way, it seems an impossible challenge. Pinter and Python are almost opposites of the British theater, Pinter with his minimalist pauses and impenetrable meanings, Python with its absurdist maximalist glee. Pinter can be humorous, but in a dank and baleful way. Python stares into the abyss and finds it an uproariously funny place, a droll minefield of jokiness. Yet both also share an ingrained suspicion of human nature and institutions, both rely on cleanliness and sharpness for their theatrical effects, and both are bent on upsetting the apple cart of convention. It’s here, in Pinter’s evasive precision, Python’s oddball physicality, and their shared jaundice, that Slipper and her Northwest Dance Project performers find a common vein. Cleanliness is next to godliness, not that either Pinter or Python holds a lot of truck with the Big Guy.

Room 4 is performed by four dancers, each named simply and cryptically by a color: William Couture (Mr. Brown), Katherine Disenhof (Ms. Green), Franco Nieto (Mr. Grey) and Andrea Parson (Ms. Blue). They are in an office, that enduring 20th and 21st century symbol of hell on earth, with desks and no windows, and are struggling for supremacy in quest of a rumored promotion for one of them to the much-desired “outer office,” which includes a window that actually opens. There’ll be a twist, and that’s really all you need to know about the plot. The dancers move in concert to text recorded by a quartet of actors and consisting of a string of repeated office-hell phrases: “Why bother?”; “We’re all in this together.”

One of Slipper’s great strengths as a choreographer is her knowledge of what her dancers’ bodies can do and her ability to shape their motions in surprising ways. The four dancers in Room 4 move fluidly yet somehow also haltingly together, reaching, bumping, stacking, stretching against one another and the desks onstage, creating a bumptious action that at once goes all over the place and nowhere at all. And in spite of the forced conformity of the office atmosphere, the dancers’ individual personalities find their space, from Nieto’s swagger to Disenhof’s sly sass. The piece begins with a paper bag stuck over one of the office workers’ heads, and the whole thing’s carried out in a blind and empty routine that seems to want to be both comic and harrowing. The miming’s terrific – stylized large-gesture movement that surely owes something to Monty Python’s exaggerated physical storytelling, although in one of the funniest sequences the modus operandi seems closer to the Three Stooges.

The color-coded costumes are by Alexa Stark, the excellent lighting by Jeff Forbes, and the suitably foreboding found-sound score by Owen Belton. In the end, the unstable balance between comedy and drama tips toward the dramatic, which lands the comedy a square one on the jaw. That would be Pinter, winning over Python in a TKO.

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The company in Ihsan Rustem’s “Carmen.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The humor comes out to play more clearly in the second, longer portion of the program, the return of resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem’s Carmen, which is updated to the 1950s, complete with rockabilly impressions and a concentration on hair: a beauty shop for the woman dancers, a barber shop for the men. This Carmen was a delight when it premiered in 2017, and it’s a delight now: Rustem’s taken a story almost as familiar as the tale of Santa’s visits down the chimney, and made it his own. This program marks the beginning of NDP’s 15th season and reflects a natural evolution. The company began with a commitment to perform only original works, and has done them by the dozens. It’s an adventurous mission, by its nature something of an unpredictable joy ride. Some of the dances, of course, stand out from the pack, and the company has gradually begun to build a repertory of such pieces that it keeps and repeats. Now, all of NDP’s dances are original, but not all of them are new.

Three of the four main dancers from 2017 return to their roles here: Andrea Parson as the cool-temperature, nouveau-riche seductress Carmen; Franco Nieto as DJ (for Don José), who falls intemperately for Carmen’s charms; and Lindsey McGill as the sweet but forlorn Micaëla, who was engaged to DJ until Carmen slinked into town. A late injury sidelined Elijah Labay, who is replaced quite swimmingly by Anthony Pucci as Eli, the sideburned, swiveling new guy in town, who plays Carmen’s game possibly better than she does herself.

Nieto hoists Parson in “Carmen.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Rustem knows how to shape a narrative beautifully, creating something of a contemporary riff on the classic story ballet, and his wit is always present but never overpowering. Once again the dancing is crisp and superb, with the Wolf Pack women’s corps of Disenhof, Samantha Campbell, Colleen Loverde, and Julia Radick matching the men’s corps of Kevin Pajarillaga, Couture, Kody Jauron, and the slyly named “Hair Dryer” like socks to a hop.

As Jamuna Chiarini reported a few days ago, four long-time company members are leaving after this production. Labay and Radick, who recently married, are moving to his native Quebec. McGill is going home to Texas, and Campbell wants to move into arts administration. All four will be missed. Newcomers Loverde and Pajarillaga are stepping in, and look to be good additions.

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Northwest Dance Project’s Room 4 and Carmen have their final performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, in the Newmark Theatre of Portand’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket information here.

 

 

Dance Weekly: Two by two and ‘Side by Side’

A set of duets by Portland independent choreographers highlights the weekend

Jordan Matter is a New York photographer who captures dancers doing extraordinary physical feats in ordinary everyday places, talking on a phone in a phone booth with one leg dangerously stretched to the max against the wall or leaping across a crosswalk in the middle of a busy intersection. His series of photos is called Dancers Among Us, a title I love because for me it evokes the image of dancers as superhuman creatures with powerful abilities living incognito amongst “regular” folk.

This is a little how I feel about pop-up performance projects here in Portland. All of these creative people come out of the woodwork for a night or two and put on a great show and then disappear again back into the fabric of Portland.

Luke Gutgsell and Elise Knudson.

Luke Gutgsell and Elise Knudson.

In an attempt to draw out these “dancers among us” for a little longer than their scheduled events, I would like to draw your attention to the five choreographers who were chosen by Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance to make new dances for the upcoming show, Side by Side, moving in twos.

But first, here are this weeks performance listings.

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Review: ‘Co / Mission’ at Conduit

Four dancers, four choreographers, lots of variety and plenty of crosstalk

In last weekend’s Co / Mission, Conduit gathered four Portland dancers and gave them the means to commission the local choreographer of their choice. Overall, the program was an absolute treat. Each of the four short, original works was proportioned like the space itself – small, sturdy, and comfortable in its strengths and capacities. It’s a size and sort of event I’d like to see more of  – local professionals curating adjacently but not necessarily collectively, balanced in such a way as to do as much as they can with a modest scale, with plenty of crosstalk but enough variety to avoid our tendency to create echo chambers here in Portland.

Rachel Slater in "Co / Mission." Photo: Chris Peddecord

Rachel Slater in “Co / Mission.” Photo: Chris Peddecord

In little more than an hour, the four pieces – which ran at Conduit Thursday-Sunday, June 13-15 – drew on diverse but complementary influences and styles. The shared themes, coincidental or not, seemed to alternate AB/AB. The first and third pieces employed more complex sound design and movements, channeling a little bit of the sense of a sophisticated session of dancing alone in your bedroom that a lot of contemporary solo work brings to mind. The second and final pieces drew on more classical movements and employed simple props and light sources.

A strong focus on women in dance and pop culture emerges through all the pieces. It does so cumulatively, with little overt politicization of gender. The sense is more that we have strong work coming from a group of dancers and choreographers who happen to all be women (except for Franco Nieto). The work shines on its own merits and concerns, many of which come from what feels like a particularly female perspective.

The sound design introduces these themes most directly. The first audio we hear is a shockingly sexist George and Gracie Burns dialogue, and Rachel Slater’s sensuous torment in d’autres femmes calls back to the skewed gender dynamics of the same era via Nina Simone’s classic The Other Woman. Linda K. Jonson summons the equally powerful figures of Wonder Woman and Poly Styrene in her piece for organizing member Jamuna Chiarini (who is a contributing writer to ArtsWatch). These references all seem to participate in the two broader themes of defiance and otherness. Suzanne Chi’s final, lyrical performance lacks all these hallmarks of troubled Americana, instead simply pitting a studious, solo dancer against an impending darkness.

Individual performance notes:

DU | ET

Dancer: Jen Hackworth

Choreographer: Linda Austin

Du | et was an intriguing chance to watch Linda Austin’s movements and outbursts emerge from a different person. Though an experienced choreographer, Austin says this is her first “solo piece performed on a body other than my own.” Austin’s marks were present on all parts of the piece – from the procedural, investigative movements to the deadpan recitation of jokes to the audience to the use of props. Austin’s sense of deferred presence seemed to be a driving concept of the piece, charging Hackworth to respond to herself as if she were another dancer, lending her manipulations of the props a feeling of searching or preparation, and smirked at with the use of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

The sound design here was complex, but smart and layered, not overwrought. The opening George and Gracie dialogue worked surprisingly well with Hackworth’s studied manipulation of a wooden tailor’s ruler and a rock, the odd-couple of objects. However, the initial nimbleness she had with the ruler didn’t seem to last throughout the piece. Without it, the props felt sparse, and could have been strengthened by either engaging the leftover open space or maintaining a higher degree of precision in handling the little objects in question. They did lend themselves to some touching moments, as Hackworth gently positioned them with an attention that seemed to say she had few other concerns in the world than this little rock, a sense later echoed in the placement of her own foot between the edges of the floorboards.

Jen Hackworth in Linda Austin's "Du / et." Photo: Chris Peddecord

Jen Hackworth in Linda Austin’s “Du / et.” Photo: Chris Peddecord

d’autres femmes

Dancer: Rachel Slater

Choreographer: Franco Nieto

Slater began her piece standing stock still, holding a strained smile through the laments of Nina Simone’s The Other Woman. She presented herself as a surface on which the audience could project a sequence of reactions to the mores and traditions implied in the situations reveled in by the song. I thought this followed DU | ET’s sense of hesitant resiliency quite well. The gesture could have gone stale easily, but happily it broke before becoming too much of a misplaced endurance piece. Slater proceeded to writhe and promenade with a sense of ownership of the stage and dashes of cabaret flair that paired well with Simone’s sound. Alternating between brassy and sensual, she seemed the most defiantly present of all the performers, as if daring someone to stop her from dancing. The staging was as restrained as it was effective: an open shade behind a thin curtain, glowing with early evening light, and a large, shimmering mirrored panel.

Like a Corvette

Dancer: Jamuna Chiarini

Choreographer: Linda K. Johnson

This shared DU | ET’s feel of po-mo bedroom dancing, but minus the formal play with duality and absence. Thematically this was placed perfectly in the program, as if the unsteady pride that felt lost or neglected in the first piece was mixed with the agency and guile of the second, reinforcing the contemporary movement and gesture with Wonder Woman’s metal bands. Chiarini’s investigative feeling of trying-on and stepping-up in this piece is what first gave me the sense of viewing a private dance session, one where the dancer is updating if not constructing some aspect of their identity. As Hackworth worked her way up to Whitney Houston, Chiarini progressed to Wonder Woman, as if they were two sides of some fantastically collectible coin.

The Last Errand

Dancer: Suzanne Chi

Choreographer: Lindsey Matheis

Suzanne Chi stormed through a field of dangling, dim lightbulbs with an electrifying mix of precision and fluidity. At one point she fired off a startling torso-slap which was one of my favorite moments of the show and paired well with Hackworth’s playful karaoke of Whitney Houston while spinning back and forth to whack her own chest and back with her flailing hands. I swear that she struck some recognizable Tai Chi postures, but I’ve been proven to see those whether they’re really there or not. Regardless, she commanded the stage with as much gusto as Slater had in the second piece, but without reference to a fixed place and time. The sparse lighting and the breathy soundtrack built this otherworldliness. Going by the program notes, there’s at least passing reference to the young-adult book City of Ember, but I wonder how well-targeted that was for the audience. I’m hoping that it was meant to remain a passing reference, as the out-of-time sense of this final performance elevated the power behind her movements from a sense of opposition or defiance to a more independent, celebratory place. Seeming to say that Chi would dance while the lights went out, some of them dying in the palm of her hand, however long they lasted.

NW Dance Project wraps a decade

… still sock-footed, fluid-moving and full of surprises!

“Ten years! 160 new works!”

Northwest Dance Project’s artistic and managing directors, Sarah Slipper and Scott Lewis, veritably beamed through their opening announcements. They gloried in a successful tour to Slipper’s native Canada. They teased preliminary plans to move their company into a new space. They marvelled aloud that moments from now, the facade of the Jive Building on Southwest 10th and Stark would host a giant projected simulcast of this show. It was clearly a thrilling evening for the NWDP—a victory lap, with each of the evening’s four pieces culminating in an extended curtain call.

Parson and Nieto in "After the Shake." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Parson and Nieto in “After the Shake.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Considering the company’s huge repertoire, the “Director’s Choice” must have been a hard one, but the four pieces that made the cut were, in order of performance:

  • State of Matter, by Ihsan Rustem: A seeming conflict between nude, natural fluidity and black-clad, martial-arts-like ferocity, set to ambient/noise music and spoken word that somewhat romantically equates human beings with dust and clouds.
  • A Fine Balance, by Slipper: A pas de deux featuring Andrea Parson, Viktor Usov, a table and a chair. A seeming couple enacts the varying dynamics of power, domesticity, detainment and upset by posing selves and furniture amid filmic flashes and fadeouts.
  • Harmony Défiguréé, by Patrick Delcroix: Beginning with three couples, introducing three interlopers, culminating in a trio of love triangles. Music and action build to a whalloping climax and subside in a long denouement.
  • After The Shake, a world premiere by Slipper: Ingeniously free-standing brooms that double as pendulums are props in this religious reverie about the rise and decline of Shaker communities. ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple, as arranged by Aaron Copland, is identifiable, as are the motions of chores, barn-raising, worship, and spirit-slaying.

Just for fun, let’s suppose the Director’s Choice program is a concise current summary of the company’s identity—representing not only the benchmarks of a 10-year run, but also the hallmarks of Slipper and Co.’s celebrated vision.

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