For Portland dancers, a little Grace pays big dividends

2012 Princess Grace Award winner Franco Nieto partners 2010 winner Andrea Parson; fellow Northwest Dance Project performer Samantha Campbell is in background. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The boom box blares: “Let’s do the time warp again!”

On a late August afternoon in North Portland, a gaggle of performers in rehearsal sweats is moving around the floor of the Northwest Dance Project studio, shuffling to a catchy little tune from The Rocky Horror Picture Show that company member Ching Ching Wong is using for a new piece.

Hank the dog, part Boxer and part Olde English Bulldogge, is sprawled in a corner, waiting patiently for his person, dancer Franco Nieto, to finish that stuff he does. Scott Lewis, the company’s executive director, glances down and says, dryly, “Meet Franco’s manager.”

Passersby on the busy corner of Mississippi and Shaver peer into the tall curved studio windows, sometimes pausing a while to watch.

What they see is an exciting young company of 10 dancers who specialize in performing new work by international choreographers. The company, which is preparing for a quartet of 2012-13 home-season shows beginning with October’s New Now Wow!, has been on something of a roll: In late June, while the world’s eyes were swiveling toward London for the 2012 summer Olympic Games, Northwest Dance Project performed as prizewinners at London’s Peacock Theater in “Sadler’s Wells Sampled,” part of the Olympics Arts Festival.

What the window-peekers also see, whether they realize it or not, is … wait … is this a time warp?

Because there on the studio’s sprung floor is a Princess Grace Award winner, and it’s not Andrea Parson, who won the coveted fellowship in 2010. Or rather, it is Parson, but not just Parson: Nieto was named this month as a 2012 winner, and both of them are out there, happily time warping away.

For young artists, the Princess Grace Award is one of the highest individual recognitions in the biz, and for a single small company to have two winners in three years is a coup. Parson, a riveting, precise and dramatic dancer, has become in many ways the face of the company. Nieto is compact and powerful, with an explosive and athletic stage personality, and believe him when he says the announcement surprised and overwhelmed him: “It was, like, that unstoppable feeling in the back of your head. Tears flowing down.”

The awards, named for the late Princess Grace of Monaco, are extremely selective: each year, only six dancers receive one. The scholarships and fellowships honor promising students and outstanding emerging professionals in theater, dance, and film, and they’re coveted not just for their prestige but also for the money that comes with them: For a company working on a tight budget, a Princess Grace Award can cover a dancer’s salary for a full year. Since the awards began in 1984, the sponsoring Princess Grace Foundation-USA has given out more than $9.5 million in prizes.

Performers with Oregon connections did exceedingly well in this year’s awards, which will be presented at a ceremony in New York on October 22:

  • Former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Rachel V. Tess, who now is a company member at Cullberg Ballet and splits her time between Portland and Sweden, won one of just two special project awards. Her grant will pay for a six-week residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York to work on a dance/design collaborative project. Tess, also a founder of Rumpus Room Dance, was a 2003 award winner in modern dance.
  • Actor Patrick Page

    And Broadway actor Patrick Page, who grew up in the Willamette Valley town of Monmouth and acted for several seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, won one of two $25,000 Princess Grace Statue Awards, given to past winners (he was an acting fellow in 1988) who have gone on to distinguish themselves in their careers. Page received uniformly rave reviews for his turn as the villainous Green Goblin in the troubled megamusical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. In many critics’ accounts, he was the show’s saving grace. As Terry Teachout wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Page has a voice like a cathedral organ and enough charisma to blast Mr. Carney into the next county, and you can tell that he’s having a grand old time playing a supervillain.”

In a way, Northwest Dance Project’s moment in the Olympics spotlight reflected Nieto’s own career: He’s a former athlete who didn’t switch to dance full-time until he was a comparatively old 16 (he turns 26 in September) and who spent a year and a half touring Europe as part of the extremely athletic company Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance, performing its pop hit Rock the Ballet night after night.

As a kid, Nieto played football (his dad was his coach), soccer, and baseball, worked out on trampoline, and did gymnastics. Those skills continue to pay dividends in the highly physical world of dance. Gymnastics, he notes, “gives you a sense of being a little more fearless.” Even football has its applications: “The first thing you learn with a partner, you have to go down to go up. That’s the same as tackling. Lift with your legs, not with your back.”

Swift and powerful, Nieto brings a distinct physical edge to the stage. Compared to many ballet dancers, he says, “I’m more grounded and earthy of a mover. And I have tattoos. I break the mold.” Like many good dancers he’s compact (“my bio says I’m 5-8, but I’m really 5-7 and three-quarters”) but seems bigger on stage than in person. He credits that partly to his teacher Tracey Durbin, who taught him, he says, “You have your joints, but you can move beyond your joints. You have two or three inches to stretch your joints.”

Dancer Franco Nieto. Photo: Katie Schurman

Sarah Slipper, NWDP’s artistic director and the person who got his Princess Grace application rolling last spring, loves the skills and attitude he brings to the company. “He’s an incredible mover, he’s incredibly charismatic, he works with his company members, and choreographers love to work with him,” she says. “I call him a panther, but he likes to call himself a beast.”

Nieto, smiling in an unbeastly manner, agrees. “There’s something animalistic I love about tearing up the stage,” he says. “When it comes to dancing I’m more of a creature.” Still, he says, lately he’s begun to appreciate the advantages of broadening his perspective and reaching for the sensitivity in the beast: “I’m learning, sometimes if you pull it back a bit, you’re more aware of the things around you.”

As much as he stands out on a theater stage, Nieto is also typical of a certain type of learner: He comes at things sideways. Those are precisely the kids who are abandoned the most as budget-squeezed school districts whack back on arts and other so-called “enhancement” programs.

“Growing up, I was the dumb kid, in a sense,” he recalls, because things didn’t come easily in traditional academics. Visual art, anything hands-on, was a different story: “I was fine with it.” Fortunately, he attended the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, across the Columbia River from Portland. Initially he went for the school’s visual arts classes: “My dream was to be either a cartoonist or a tattoo artist.”

Soon enough he switched to dance, with his family’s wholehearted support. “I dove in and went hard-core,” he recalls. “Once I set my mind to it, there was no other way. My dad said, ‘I don’t care what you do with your life, but whatever you do, do it 110 percent. Because otherwise you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.”

Eventually that led him to the highly regarded Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where he graduated with a degree in jazz dance in 2009, and to NWDP, and Bad Boys, and back home again to NWDP. He’s traveled a somewhat parallel path with his friend Spenser Theberge, another young dancer from Vancouver, who went to Juilliard, won a Princess Grace Award in 2008, and now dances with Nederlands Dans Theater.

Still, he says, “I didn’t see myself winning” the Princess Grace competition, and by the time the call came after a complicated few months, he’d almost forgotten about it. At one point, stressing out about the whole thing, he’d asked Parson, the 2010 winner, how he should prepare and what he should put on the videotape that went with his application.

“She said, ‘You do what you do. When it comes down to it, they’re just looking for a new artist or a new mover. You’ve just got to be yourself, because you can’t make their decision.’”

As timely advice goes, that doesn’t sound a bit warped.


 Once you’ve won a Princess Grace Award you’re part of an unofficial family, and sometimes that means you can go back for more. Page’s $25,000 award is an example of that. So is Rachel Tess’s 2012 project grant.

Rachel Tess. Photo: Michael Mazzola

Tess has led an intriguing dance life. She danced with Oregon Ballet Theatre from 1998 to 2000, graduated from Juilliard in 2004, performed with Lar Lubovich Dance Company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens du Montreal and Gothenburg (Sweden) Ballet, and was a founder of Rumpus Room Dance, based in Portland and Sweden. Along the line she’s moved more and more into choreography.

This year’s Princess Grace project grant is to develop, in her words, “a mobile environment/room that can be dropped into a wide range of locations.” She’s interested in how different environments affect performance. To that end, designer Gian Monti is working on a controlled space that can be moved easily from one place to another, “much like a caravan belonging to a traveling minstrel.” The project will also include dancers Anna Perhsson and Adam Schutt, and lighting designer Michael Mazzola, who is resident designer for Oregon Ballet Theatre and has worked extensively with Rumpus Room.

Best news, at least for Portlanders? “I am currently seeking venues and dates for a Portland premiere of this project.”









One Response.

  1. Una Loughran says:

    Congrats to Rachel and Franco! I think it’s also interesting to note that Franco is the 2nd dancer (that I know of) who had their early training at Jan Hurst’s Columbia Dance to receive the PGA – joining Spencer Theberge.

    Just another indicator of the tremendous dance scene in our region.

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