The truth about torsos: NW Dance Project does the twist

Two new dances and a revival create a sleek new show


Franco Nieto and Ching Ching Wong in "Drifting Thoughts"; Lindsey McGill and Elijah Labay in background. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Franco Nieto and Ching Ching Wong in “Drifting Thoughts”; Lindsey McGill and Elijah Labay in background. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“I think what ballet dancers don’t understand is how much they can use their torsos,” choreographer Sarah Slipper told me in October 2009. “That’s something that contemporary choreographers are really discovering. Ballet concentrates on the extremities.”

Watching the performers of the Northwest Dance Project go through the twists and rapid recoveries of Wen Wei Wang’s “Chi” on Thursday night, I could see clearly what she meant. It’s not as if the nine dancers of this exciting young company, for which Slipper is founding artistic director, don’t know what to do with their arms and legs. And it’s not as if traditional ballet dancers don’t balance from the core of their bodies. But if classical and neoclassical ballet are about extension – about reaching for the sky – contemporary ballet and dance are often about compression: moving from the belly, earthlike, like a ball, and seeing where and how you can roll.

“Chi” is the opener in Northwest Dance Project’s spring program, which continues with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday, March 29 and 30, in downtown Portland’s Newmark Theatre. Unusually for NDP, which has made new works its calling card, “Chi” is a remounting of a dance created a few years ago for the company. It’s joined by two premieres: Slipper’s “Casual Act” and Patrick Delcroix’s “Drifting Thoughts.” The same three choreographers debuted pieces in last year’s NDP spring program.

The word “chi,” in Chinese, has to do with the permutations of energy, and “Chi” is very much about rolling connections: twists and flips that lead to what seem like landings but instead become springboards to a new series of movements, which lead to another landing/springboard, and another, and another, like electrical currents sizzling through switches that can’t turn the energy off. The piece uses all eight dancers who are performing in this program – Samantha Campbell, Patrick Kilbane, Elijah Labay, Lindsey Matheis, Lindsey McGill, Franco Nieto, Andrea Parson, Ching Ching Wong –  and watching them move to Giorgio Magnanensi’s melodically restless score is a bit like watching the wiggles and squirms of microbial creatures beneath a microscope. Throughout, the dancers turn movements that traditional ballet might consider inelegant into moments of odd beauty: shoulder-tilts and torso-turns that emphasize the sheer physicality rather than the metaphoric possibilities of the human form. Dance is often at its best when its “meaning” is simply what it is: a particular movement through time and space, like the soundwaves of music.

Then again, dance is theater, and theater tells, or at least suggests, stories. Slipper is an innately dramatic dancemaker, and her new piece, “Casual Act,” is an intense and beguiling abstraction from Harold Pinter’s play “Betrayal,” which tells the story of infidelities both physical and emotional among friends. The men Labay and Nieto and the women Parson, McGill and Campbell bring furtive heat to the cool movements of the hidden trysts, which are never quite hidden: Jon Plueard’s rotating set reveals a blank wall, a wall with a window, and a wall with a door. Someone’s always walking or climbing or peering through the window or door, sometimes eagerly, sometimes furtively. Oddly, the thing feels more American-realist and loamy – like Stanley Kowalski, or the rural-turmoil visual imaginings of Thomas Hart Benton – then repressed button-down British upper-middle class. Pinter’s play moves backward in time through a seven-year affair, and “Casual Act” sometimes nods to that, the dancers backing away from the wall in a group, or individual dancers scuttling backwards through space. It’s a long piece, and at one point it came to a kiss that seemed a culmination. But there was more very good movement to come, and I was glad it was there even if I wasn’t sure the piece couldn’t have ended earlier.

“Drifting Thoughts” marks the third go-around with NDP for Delcroix, who’s set works on companies worldwide and maintains a close relationship with European star choreographer Jiri Kylian. He’s a deft dancemaker, and it’s obvious that the company’s performers – once again, all eight on the program – enjoy working with him. The piece has a bit of a gone-native, science-fiction feel to it, like an eqinoxial revel interrupted here and there by a brilliant Bikini Atoll flash of destruction.  What it all means or doesn’t mean, I’m not sure – after all, the thoughts (like atomic fallout?) are drifting – but it can be mesmerizing to watch.

All three pieces are helped immeasurably by Jeff Forbes’ lighting, which moves from Rembrandt murkiness to intense Hopper clarity, and by the design work in general, which includes costumes by Rachelle Waldie for the Delcroix and Slipper pieces and by Kathy Scoggins for “Chi.”



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