New Now Wow! – a shaft of light

In a trio of premieres, Minh Tran's light-hearted "Unexpected Turbulence" leavens a program's serious tones

Northwest Dance Project’s annual New Now Wow! season openers have in recent years been predictable in tone, showcases for dark new works about dark subjects, invariably well-performed by this company’s versatile dancers. This year’s opener–again, an evening of world premieres–contains plenty of darkness, but ends quite unexpectedly on a light-hearted, humorous note.

New Now Wow! inaugurated NWDP’s eleventh season on Thursday night at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall (it repeats Friday and Saturday evenings) with Yin Yue’s opaque Between Rise and Fall and concluded with Minh Tran’s Unexpected Turbulence. In between was Czech choreographer Jiri Pokorny’s very dark indeed At Some Hour You Return.

From left: Lindsey Matheis, Samantha Campbell, Franco Nieto, and Ching Ching Wong in the world premiere of Minh Tran's "Unexpected Turbulence." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

From left: Lindsey Matheis, Samantha Campbell, Franco Nieto, and Ching Ching Wong in the world premiere of Minh Tran’s “Unexpected Turbulence.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Yue, who was born in Shanghai and is now based in New York, where she has her own company, said in an interview published in the Daily News in 2012 that she “wants to push the limits of physical capability … and to dig deeply into human emotion and bring it out in meaningful movement.”  In Between Rise and Fall, which begins on a darkened stage, Yue’s movement vocabulary is certainly physical, muscular, forced, percussive, and frequently bombastic. There are many moments of impressive dancing, particularly by Ching Ching Wong, Viktor Usov, and Franco Nieto, but no discernible connective tissue, few transitions, little in fact “between rise and fall.” I kept wondering what the piece was about, besides challenging movement, especially when the dancers (Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill, Nieto, Julia Radick, Usov, and Wong), in drab costumes, walked in lock-step toward a strip of lights, or a naked light bulb descended, suggesting that it might be politics. The Cultural Revolution, the events at Tiananmen Square, the crackdown on demonstrations now taking place in Hong Kong all came to mind.

From left: Franco Nieto, Ching Ching Wong and Viktor Usov in the world premiere of Yin Yue's "Between Rise and Fall." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

From left: Franco Nieto, Ching Ching Wong and Viktor Usov in the world premiere of Yin Yue’s “Between Rise and Fall.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Pokorny, who has been seen here as a dancer with Crystal Pite’s company but whose choreography has not been seen in North America before, has made a piece with a similar tone to Yue’s, and it, too, can be interpreted politically. At Some Hour begins in very bright light, for a split second, revealing a man and a woman in black Nike warmup clothes. In dimmer light, the couple watches other company members dance. Clusters of dancers keep showing their empty pockets, making me speculate that the piece is about hard economic times in Eastern Europe. Dancers pull each other around; in a solo performed in a circle of light, Wong performs damnably difficult staccato phrases with mind-boggling fluidity.

Transitions are accomplished with Jeff Forbes’ sensitive lighting design; at one point the floor of the stage looks icy, and the movement for the dancers skittery, edgy. Andrea Parson dances an eloquent duet with Viktor Usov: it has been a pleasure to watch Usov in multiple choreographies since he was a Jefferson Dancer quite a few years ago, and it’s good to have him back as a gifted professional dancer and the recipient of a Princess Grace award. Pokorny’s piece is well-crafted, and in movement terms alone impressive. The dancers, all of them, do that movement justice, but like Yue’s contribution, it’s difficult to get a grip on what it’s really about.

That’s not true of Tran’s Unexpected Turbulence, which is about the idiocy of flight-attendant instructions about what to do in case of same, or how to buckle your seat belt, or how you must not smoke in the restroom, or what measures to take in the unlikely event that you survive a plane crash. The idea behind this is not original (Do Jump did a hilarious version of this decades ago, with audience participation) and the title isn’t original, either: in 1989, Carolyn Altman premiered a piece with that name in PSU’s lovely, long-gone Shattuck Studio Theatre, though I’m bound to say I don’t remember much about it.

Elijah Labay, Julia Radick and Andrea Parson, all tangled up in the world premiere of Jiri Pokorny's "At Some Hour You Return." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Elijah Labay, Julia Radick and Andrea Parson, all tangled up in the world premiere of Jiri Pokorny’s “At Some Hour You Return.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Tran’s piece begins with the dancers placed in the dark in front of the curtain, accompanied by a voiceover of a flight attendant’s sprightly reading of emergency instructions. The lights go up, and all nine company members, costumed in brightly colored street clothes–men in trousers, women in skirts (what a concept!)–act out the instructions. Heather Perkins’ score is eminently danceable, and if Tran’s choreography is from time to time a little too much on the beat, he keeps the dancers moving with good-humored energy.

Tran has developed over a long period an idiosyncratic vocabulary that includes leg extensions that end with the foot hitting the floor with a slap; there were a lot of them in this piece, mixed not entirely successfully with classical ballet. Occasionally the dancing looked cluttered and fussy, but once again I couldn’t take my eyes off Wong; and for the most part Unexpected Turbulence was just plain fun to watch. For that I thank the dancers, and so did Tran, when I encountered him in the lobby after the show.


6 Responses.

  1. Scott Lewis says:

    Thanks for the review, Martha. Just to clarify (the program note should have been more specific), only the shoes in Jiri Pokorny’s piece were from Nike, the rest of the costumes were designed and created by the fabulous Heather Treadway.
    Scott Lewis
    Executive Director / Northwest Dance Project

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thanks for the clarification Scott; very much appreciated Heather Treadway’s costumes for Unexpected Turbulence.

  3. Yin Yue says:

    Hello Martha, thank you very much for coming to the show and writing up the review. I would love to share some thoughts about the backstory about the piece Between Rise and Fall. It was a large idea that shank into one piece. The beginning trio represented the birth of human, even though they came to the world together, they went on to their own adventure (they separated after their duet). The large second section represented the evolution. My personal favorite part is Viktor’s solo. The light bulb represented the idea of enlightenment, intelligent. In this section, dancer explore his own body, bald and aggressive performance at the same time express sexuality. the final section was also a group dance whoever much softer and composed compared to the early stronger group dance. This part represented harmony. I ended this dance with the most sensual connection human can have, a kiss. this gesture at the end of the dance shows the discovery or awareness of love. Basically Between Rise and Fall was between life and death, at the same time everything in between which is actually life itself. We are born and we search and we fight and hopefully at the end we found peace and LOVE.

  4. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thank you Yin for sending me the “backstory” for Between Rise and Fall. I think this could be a lesson for us both that what an audience member brings to a performance and an artist brings to the same performance, particularly a contemporary dance performance, can be very different things. I did e-mail a colleague in New York that I thought I might well have made up the political interpretation of your piece,if that’s any comfort to you. Again, I thank you for taking the time to explain what was on your mind, not only for me, but for the readers of ArtsWatch.

  5. Yin Yue says:

    Arts are about exchanging feelings or stimulating emotions or simply something-you-go-check-out-when-you-do-not-want-to-sit-on-the-sofa-anymore. I would love try my hardest every time to make a work that made people think of something or even just attempt to think of something. But every work is limited by many factors and the result is often unexpected. I was just as surprised to see the final work as everything audience. Because by the time the work was finally finished, the show time would be next time. I think what the piece is about from the creator’s end is not as important as how the viewers interoperate. To read about how others think or how other don’t think will help me to form better idea about what works and what doesn’t. It is a constant experiment towards the higher peak of “I-know-for-sure-it-works”. Then I guess there isn’t any point of doing arts. I had such a wonderful experience working with Northwest Dance Project, because it is a company that embrace the ups and downs of experiments, hits and misses of tryouts mixing with encouragement and questions. It is more than any artists can ask for.

  6. Yin Yue says:

    corrections: “I was just as surprised to see the final work as every audience.”

    “I think what the piece is about from the creator’s end is not as important as how the viewers interpret”

    “By then, I guess there isn’t any point of doing arts”

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