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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.