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.

Sketches of Connotation isn’t a story ballet, but an emotional and visual variation on the themes in Williams’ tale of corruption, desire, sex, rape, and psychological brutality. Canfield scatters narrative touchstones across the piece to keep you grounded – the men’s card game, a model streetcar on a skewed and creatively minimal framed-in suggestion of a set, Blanche’s breathless arrival on the scene carrying a pert oval suitcase, that big old ominous bed – but it’s really the texture of the thing, the unspoken desires and prejudices, the unspeakable actions behind the smiling surfaces, the fragility and fright and dark impulses igniting the action, that he’s after.

Canfield, who was artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre from its founding in 1989 until 2003, has always had a deep affinity for popular music and the ways that it can combine with dance, and his choices to go with his Streetcar variations are inspired, suggesting at times the deep and desperate mythology of Williams’ story and at times the bright-eyed grin of New Orleans, putting on a happy show in the foreground while tense and brutal things are happening in the back. They also provide this skilled company of dancers with a propulsive structure for Canfield’s twisting, exaggerated, tense, and suggestive movements, which are beautifully attuned to the psychological and emotional thrust of the play. The music ranges from Doris Day’s quasi-philosophical Que Sera, Sara to Bobbie Gentry’s raw and broken-hearted ballad Ode to Billy Joe to Eric Burdon and The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun to a gut-pounding version by the metal band Disturbed of Paul Simon’s The Sound of Silence, and, oddly yet effectively, The Hokey Pokey. Far from being scattershot, this musical mix of hijinks and distress creates an ideal soundtrack for a tale of shiny surfaces and fractured dreams.

The dancing is stellar, led by the quartet of Katherine Disenhof as Stella, Colleen Loverde as her fragile sister Blanche, William Couture as Blanche’s would-be suitor Mitch, and Anthony Pucci as that fine-honed lump of muscle and aggression Stanley, Stella’s husband and Blanche’s instant intimate enemy and assailant. There is a sadness and despair beneath the summer storm of Streetcar, a kind of American haunting as we watch a sweet bird of youth flutter, and fall, and die. Canfield is exceptional in his staging of dualities within scenes, the split between apparent reality and deeper reality, and his motions can cut almost ruthlessly to the quick: the sudden shock of inevitability when, after the rape, Stanley casually rolls the bed frame over Blanche’s prone body, imprisoning her inside her own violated mind. Alas, poor Blanche, whose very name implies a startled shrinking-away. She’s always depended on the kindness of strangers. But in this sultry tenement apartment, the intimate strangers are not kind.

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Andrea Parson and Franco Nieto in the world premiere of Sarah Slipper’s Save Me the Plums. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

SARAH SLIPPER’S SAVE ME THE PLUMS has the juicy sweetness of fresh-fallen fruit, the savor of a summer’s desire, the sweetness of a just-plucked love. Like Canfield’s Sketches it drips with intimations of love and sex, but in a less fraught and dangerous way. Yes, it has its sadness: the affair seems to end. But life goes on.

Slipper and Plum’s two dancers, Andrea Parson and Franco Nieto, have had a long and (I’m going to say it) fruitful relationship, and it pays off here. What we get to see is two mature and genuine stars at work and play together, doing a kind of intimate courtship dance, a delicate tease of pleasure and occasional passion. The whole thing has a Midwestern subtle frankness, a wholesome hankering, love a-blooming in the fields and plains, with Parson in a loose-flowing gingham-y dress and Nieto in sturdy yet form-fitting work clothes (Alexa Stark’s costuming is exceptional for all three premieres).

Much of Slipper’s movement vocabulary for this piece comes from social dance, and Parson and Nieto bring it grace and lyricism, a touch of sexiness, some coy comedy of exaggeration. Nieto is athletic, compact, muscular; more Gene Kelly than Fred Astaire. Parson, a wonderful mime, is mischievous, gamine, eager – not the aggressor so much as the instigator. You get the sense that she’s more open to the possibilities, and Nieto shies away. “What do you think?” he asks her. “I love it!” she replies. “It’s too simple,” he demurs, to which she expounds: “I love it love it love it!” The seeds of temptation and fruition and decay are in the exchange.

We get a douse of water like a sensual baptism, and a dribble of plum juice from the eager consumption of the fruit, and a sense of something slipping sweetly away. Jeff Forbes, who lights the entire evening with his usual aplomb, deftly moves the scenes along like subtle cinematic fades, giving things a twilight glow. As I was watching part of me was thinking this dance could really be shorter than it is, and a larger part of me didn’t mind, because watching Parson and Nieto go back and forth was such a pleasure. Things do, indeed, slip away: The piece ends with a voiceover of Pablo Neruda’s poem of love and loss and romantic reflection Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines), and we all move tenderly into the night.

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Kevin Pajarillaga, Franco Nieto, and Colleen Loverde in the world premiere of Felix Landerer’s All’s Been Said. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

THE PROGRAM OPENER, FELIX LANDERER’S ALL’S BEEN SAID, is nominally about climate change and the resulting threat to species, but it’s hard to tell that while you’re watching. The piece, made of discordant, purposely awkward and isolating movements, begins in silence and then bursts out in a repetitive electronic drone, a sort of anxious backbeat that won’t leave you alone, like a hectoring busybody out to teach you a lesson.

Movements are sharp and kinetic and well-performed by the trio of Colleen Loverde, Franco Nieto, and Kevin Pajarillaga, who are clothed in icy white and maintain a frozen emotional distance. At times Pajarillaga is encased in a kind of walking-stick open structure, boxed and trapped. At one point Loverde emerges wearing a polar-bear mask and addresses the audience, not about climate peril but about a magician’s trick that is about to be revealed: something will disappear, and then it will reappear, but you probably won’t see it because you’re not really watching. Somewhere, offstage, a finger seems to be wagging. “I didn’t see anything disappear,” someone behind me said as the piece ended. “Did you see anything disappear?” I couldn’t enlighten him. The magic eluded me.

All’s Been Said is visually striking and technically taut but strikes me as emotionally inert. I don’t doubt its intent or earnestness, but it’s not my cup of iced tea. It might be yours.

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  • NW Dance Project’s Summer Premieres repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 14-15, at Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University. Ticket information here.

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