By ELIZABETH WHELAN
Kicking off the holiday season with a good ol’ jazz-centric pun, NW Dance Project presented Bolero + Billie at Lincoln Hall this weekend… you know, Billie Holiday? The evening was a two-part show: the first act, Billie, premiering a brand new work created in collaboration by six of the company’s dancers, was followed by a return to resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem’s contemporary, humor-ridden take on Ravel’s classic, Bolero.
Artistic director Sarah Slipper played a key role in this new piece, though perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Slipper’s ability to step back and see the potential in her dancers as blooming choreographers themselves is both a golden opportunity for the group of ten that call the company their home, but also a refreshing tale in the dance world that oftentimes fails to recognize that the full potential of professional dancers can extend beyond the task of performing someone else’s work.
“They learn so many styles and take on so many other voices. I’m interested in giving them a chance to create,” Slipper said when we talked a few days before the concert, speaking about the dancers’ work with both her own choreography and the international choreographers Northwest Dance Project invites to set work. It’s this openness to creative exploration without limiting the source to one person that sets the company apart.
Back to Billie: As the first few piano riffs dance their way into the theater, the curtain rises in no rush, as if cueing the audience to sit back, relax, and let the sounds of Holiday’s enchanting voice paired with the dancers’ talent do the rest. It makes sense that this work is set to the legendary jazz singer’s music. Like any successful jazz composition, where each instrument has its solo, the dancers in Billie are either highlighted through their choreographic contributions, or in time spent in the spotlight themselves.
In the early moments of the piece, the audience hears an announcer invite Holiday to the microphone, placed downstage left. It remains lit in her honor by a single, humble spotlight throughout the first act. With just the mention of her name, the company is in motion, and we are drawn back in time by the trumpet’s melody. You could almost hear famed producer John Hammond—who discovered Holiday in 1933 at a speakeasy in Harlem—exclaiming his praise for her: “It’s not too much to say she sang the way he [Louis Armstrong] played the horn.”
Each of the selected recordings was accompanied by dancing that kept up with the mastery of Holiday. The movement from piece to piece varies: Embraceable You brings with it a solo that moves like ribbons in a gentle breeze, while Them There Eyes includes nothing less than a modern dance brawl in all of its glory, complete with perfected pirouettes, headspins, kicks and punches conveniently accented by the racing drumbeat and the onlookers cringing to the floor in fright.
The humor of the piece is timely and tasteful, leaving the audience laughing in both nostalgia and familiarity that some things never change. In a section choreographed by Andrea Parson, 2010 Winner of the Princess Grace Award, William Couture and Lindsey McGill take on a dueling commentary that highlights the woman’s struggle to simply exist in a world of oxymorons. The crowd catches on quickly to the intention, watching Julia Radick on a pedestal upstage as she mercilessly tries to keep up with the never ending game of beauty standards versus personal integrity.
Kody Jauron’s duet for Samantha Campbell and Anthony Pucci reminisces about the old-fashioned kind of love that older generations speak of and younger folk (tirelessly swiping left or right on screens in a two-second judgement of someone) can’t possibly imagine. The pair waltz around in space, engulfed in a sweet passion for one another before sharing a satisfying kiss to seal off their duet.
Ending with Holiday’s classic I’ll Be Seeing You, the dancers pair off and casually glide off the stage through the side exit of the theater while three of the company members roll helplessly over one another on the floor. With such smooth transitions and seamless floorwork juxtaposing the upright partners, the audience almost doesn’t realize that this last scene is one final opportunity to share a laugh over the quirky, charming homage to Billie for the Holiday.
Following intermission, the second act wasn’t short on humor, either. The company’s journey alongside their now-resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem began back in 2010, when he set his first work on its dancers. Originally from London, Rustem brings with him an impressive resume, working alongside world-class choreographers like Mats Ek, Jiri Kylian, and Nederlands Dans Theatre’s choreographic duo Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot, just to name a few. Slipper laughed as she described how she came to find Rustem, as she regularly seeks out new choreographers to create for the company. “Many years ago, he sent me materials that sat on my desk for a while. One day in the office, I had a funny break in my schedule so I sorted through a pile of discs,” she remembers.
What came from this relationship was magic. Rustem has since choreographed five original works for the company, including State of Matter (2010), which won the Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest in 2011 and the Audience Choice Award in the 25th International Competition for Choreographers in Hannover, Germany. Slipper explained that giving dancemakers the opportunity to be resident choreographer builds up trust, in comparison to a freelancing choreographer who starts from scratch with each new work and collaboration. Encouraging Rustem to try out different ideas, like narrative or comedy, has allowed him to develop his voice, Slipper said.
Bolero was the product of the daunting task to give comedy a try. To say it is a success is an understatement. The music, written by Maurice Ravel for Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein in 1928, was rarely staged as a ballet after its original premiere at the Paris Opera with choreography by Polish ballerina Bronislava Nijinska. Hearing the score explains why it hasn’t been revisited often since. A challenging composition to keep up with, in that it never feels as if the piece is coming to fruition, Ravel’s classic isn’t for any novice choreographer to use. The music takes patience and finesse, knowing just how far to push its boundaries and where to hold back.
The dancers take to Rustem’s movement with skill and a well-rehearsed certainty. Drawing seemingly endless circles around themselves with every body part and in every direction possible, the dance showcases their highly technical capabilities while nailing the inventive nature of Rustem’s vision. This spherical and fluid movement is bracketed by creative linear spacing that adds a geometric alignment to the work.
Occasional guttural sounds, eruptions of quickly stifled cackles, quirky movements, and an awkward, reappearing rose brought about the sensation that Rustem was following some sort of formula to be funny, which persuaded the audience with originality and the absurdity that humour could be some sort of calculated algorithm.
Moving with somewhat malicious and aggressive undertones, the dancers hint that they perhaps are competing for an undefined prize, racing against the steady, looming rattle of the snare drum that keeps its pace throughout the duration of the whole composition. The music acts as a time warp; as an audience member, you’ll find yourself wondering if any time has passed at all, while looking forward to an unforeseeable finale, where you can be certain nothing will be concluded.
This play between providing entertainment without a conclusive, overarching theme is what makes Rustem’s Bolero a hit. He crafts his work with just enough mystery to keep you coming back for more while including the perfect dose of organically creative comedy and incredible feats of strength and endurance to keep you satisfied and impressed.
It’s this kind of innovation that drew Slipper to Rustem in the first place, and what keeps him coming back to Portland to work with one of the best contemporary dance companies in the Pacific Northwest, let alone the country.
“He always has an element of the unexpected… a true sense of space that creates a magical experience,” she says. Bringing in choreographers aside from herself as well as opening the door to her own dancers, Slipper creates a collage of creativity where every voice is heard at NW Dance Project. “I don’t want it to just turn into the Sarah Slipper show,” she laughed. “It fills my cup to see work that I wouldn’t do. I love seeing what other voices think of.”
Bob Hicks reviewed NW Dance Project’s Bolero when it premiered in 2016.
This is dance writer Elizabeth Whelan’s first story for ArtsWatch. She is a movement-based artist, choreographer, teacher, writer, and yogi. She holds a BFA in Dance from George Mason University. She has performed alongside The Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra in their production of Swinging Through the Sky, Robert Battle’s Mass with the GMU Percussion Ensemble, freelanced with D.C.-based Company E at the Kennedy Center in their work (In)Security and The Jungle Books, as well as with Putty Dance Project in Philadelphia. Elizabeth has written for Philadelphia’s The Dance Journal, and is happy to now be contributing to Oregon Arts Watch. To date, she has choreographed over five original works, and continues to create here in Portland. Elizabeth has interned with Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers in Philadelphia, and volunteers as a dance diplomat with the non-profit Movement Exchange, a service organization that provides free dance education for underprivileged children both domestically and internationally. In her beloved free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music, and drinking a good cup of coffee.