NW Dance Project: Jazz puns, modern dance brawls and Ravel

NW Dance Project's "Bolero + Billie" adds a bit of humor to the usual holiday spices


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.

Andrea Parson gets a lift in “Billie”/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

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.


Doing anything Friday night? How about hanging out on 82nd Avenue?

The East Side strip, which runs north-south for many miles, was once considered a barrier of sorts between the city and the sprawl, and also an economic barrier, with a richer urban population to the west and a poorer, semi-rural population to the east. East County didn’t get in the game very much, and when it did, it was often as a political football. 82nd became neon central, home to everything from used car lots to Southeast Asian restaurants to massage parlors – and, increasingly, a rich stew of ethnic and immigrant cultures.

Signs of the times: Sabina Haque's 82nd Avenue.

Signs of the times: Sabina Haque’s 82nd Avenue.

That’s what makes it interesting to Portland artist Sabina Haque, a very good painter and collagist whose work in recent years has moved also toward installation, film, and cultural and cross-cultural projects, including her provocative series on drone warfare in Pakistan, where she grew up.

Haque, as artist in residence for the Portland Archives & Records Center, has been digging deeply into the area’s long and complicated history, finding a cultural through-line to match the strip of concrete that divides culture from culture and east from west. From 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday she’ll unveil what she’s created in Annexation & Assimilation: East 82nd Ave, a giant exhibition/event in the 8,000-square-foot APANO/JADE multicultural center at 82nd and Southeast Division Street. The free event will include video projections on 20-foot screens, oral histories, shadow theater, poster installations and more – for some, a rousing introduction to a part of Portland they hardly know; to others, a simple statement of the place they live.


Boléro, with a wink

Ihsan Rustem's affectionate reinterpretation of the Ravel classic highlights the three premieres in Northwest Dance Project's season-opening show

Some works of art seem too much with us. A Christmas Carol. The Scream. Pachelbel’s Canon. The Nutcracker. Boléro. But they are too much with us partly because they resonate. The trick is to see and hear them with original eyes and ears, with something of the freshness of a first encounter.

Or, if not a first encounter, then a fresh take, a new way of looking at something overly familiar. That’s what Ihsan Rustem, Northwest Dance Project’s endlessly inventive resident choreographer, has accomplished with his bright and witty new Boléro, which he’s rescued from the graveyard of pop-culture banality and restored affectionately to its pedestal of seductively oddball expressionism.

Boléro was the big crowd-pleaser as NDP opened its 13th season Thursday night, rocking the house and bringing the crowd cheering to its feet at Lincoln Performance Hall. The program, which repeats Friday and Saturday nights and is titled Boléro+, follows essentially the same format as what the company for several seasons called New Now Wow!: three dances by three choreographers, all of them premieres.

We’ll get back to Boléro. First, the +es.


Cody Jaron (in gray) and Franco Nieto, with Ching Ching Wong in background, in "Post-Traumatic-Monster." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Cody Jauron (in gray) and Franco Nieto, with Ching Ching Wong in background, in “Post-Traumatic-Monster.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

German choreographer Felix Landerer kicks off the program with his Post-Traumatic-Monster, a long piece that’s almost two separate dances joined at the hip: in fact, part of the opening-night audience thought it was over when the piece paused for its transition, and began to applaud, tentatively. Set to a crunching score by Christof Littman and cast moodily in long looming shadows by lighting designer Jeff Forbes, PTM is about the relationship between two dancers – the dramatically paired Ching Ching Wong and Franco Nieto, dressed by designer Cassie Ridgway in bright red – who are surrounded by an amorphous sludge of outsiders dressed in gray. The gray gang represents the things that get in the way – “an organism that at some point might develop a dynamic of its own,” as Landerer explains in his program notes, “so what we intend to form and build might eventually turn into something that gets out of control and shapes us instead.” In other words: no fairy-tale ending for this love affair. It’s a struggle of memory, fear, and regret.


Spinning Spaight’s tales in Eugene

Eugene Ballet recaptures the magic of "Scheherazade," and premieres a bright and clever "Bolero"

EUGENE – You could have heard a program flutter to the floor, the audience was so absorbed. The Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center was nearly full last Saturday night for Eugene Ballet’s performance of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, and it’s a big house, making that  a pretty compelling tribute to the dancers, the choreographer, and OrchestraNEXT.  Under the baton of founder Brian McWhorter, the orchestra accompanied the entire program with  acute sensitivity to both the music and what was happening on stage.

Spaight's "Scheherazade" spins its tales again at Eugene Ballet. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Spaight’s “Scheherazade” spins its tales again. Eugene Ballet Photo

And that was a lot, even before Scheherazade closed a program of one premiere (artistic director Toni Pimble’s light-hearted visualization of  Ravel’s Bolero) and three revivals. That’s revivals, not reprisals, as much contemporary repertory tends to be: the dancers treated like drones, robots or machines, and much too often, earplugs handed out (or worse, not handed out) with the programs to muffle a soundscape that assaults the ears and drowns out the dancing.

Spaight’s re-casting of Fokine’s 1910 Scheherazade premiered in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre in the fall of 1990, two and a half years before the choreographer’s death in February of 1993. The original was more a spectacle than a dance. This one is still a spectacle, thanks to Henk Pander, who created the sets; Ric Young, who designed the lavish, outré costumes; and Peter West, who designed the lights. But it is also definitely a dance, and how.

In this ballet, Spaight, who was dying and knew it, packed much of his autobiography as a dancer. It has the dramatic punch and stylistic eclecticism of Maurice Béjart, in whose Ballet of the 20th Century Spaight performed when he was young. If you look closely, you can spot steps from the classical canon, such as the battu, the fluttering beat of one bent leg against the other that symbolizes captivity in Swan Lake, to which, as a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, he had received thorough exposure. The Sultan’s costume, with its aggressive symbolism, and the green makeup that Young created for all the bad guys flesh out the story. But it is the dancers who tell a tale in which unarmed women triumph over warriors and Scheherazade sacrifices her life for love of the Golden Slave. When Spaight’s seductive, sensuous choreography is performed with wholehearted commitment, as Eugene Ballet’s dancers do, the ballet doesn’t have a static moment, and the audience suspends its disbelief.

Yoshie Oshima in the title role, Preston Swovelin as her lover, and Mark Tucker as the Sultan inhabited those characters last Saturday night as if they were dancing about themselves. Oshima, physically tiny with enormous authority and stage presence, draws the eye like a moth to a flame. She’s onstage for the length of the ballet, using that body to tell a story to the harem girls, perform a tender pas de deux  with the Golden Slave, jeté into his arms to be tossed in the air in a way that made the audience gasp,  plead with the Sultan for mercy, convulsively thrust a dagger into her chest when mercy is not forthcoming, and follow her funeral cortege in a ghostly walk.

As the Golden Slave, Snovelin did a little too much mugging in the second scene, when he and Scheherazade declare their love. Ardor is easily expressed with the body, and he was much better in the moonlit garden scene, where the couple are joined by Odalisques Suzanne Haag and Beth Maslinoff, partnered by Takeru Anzai and Jeff Wolfe. What this gorgeous, elegiac Pas de Six tells us is that Scheherazade and the Golden Slave are not alone: the Odalisques and their lovers are equally doomed. Spaight shows this by not giving the lead couple center stage to perform.

They all get caught, of course, by Tucker as a Sultan who relished being evil, just enough (his performance, he told me after the show, was informed by the live music) and the Warriors, overcoming costumes based on Japanese armor that are almost impossible to move in. With its skillfully controlled chaos, the resulting battle scene, which is won by the harem girls (this is a political ballet, informed by late 20th century feminism), made me wish Spaight had had a chance to choreograph The Nutcracker‘s unconvincing fight between mice and toy soldiers.

The program opened with former company member Melissa Bobick’s pleasant Idyll for Eight, to a Janacek score, a pointe piece that showcased  the dancers’ talents and technique as curtain raisers are supposed to do. Janacek’s Idyll for String Orchestra contains five movements, and was eloquently played by the orchestra. But Bobick, who is a beginning choreographer,  ran out of ideas before she ran out of music, making the piece seem too long.  Tucker and principal dancer Heather Wallace were the standouts in this piece, along with Anzai, whose buoyancy added a little excitement to a rather monochromatic work.

Pimble's "Bolero" in Eugene. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Pimble’s “Bolero” in Eugene. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Like Spaight’s Scheherazade, Pimble’s Two’s Company – made in 1992, to music by Dvorak, for New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project – holds up well. Oshima, Swovelin, and Jeff Wolfe, like Swovelin a guest artist, seamlessly danced this dramatic vignette about abandoning one lover for another. As in Scheherazade, there is passion and grief in the music, but here it is the woman who is merciless and the man who is sacrificed, expressed in Pimble’s direct movement style.   

Bolero closed the first half, and Pimble’s take on this too-familiar music is clever, humorous, and visually exciting. It begins with a single female dancer on stage: Wallace again, clad in black briefs and a red top. As the music builds, she is joined by a male dancer, bare-chested in knee-length red tights.  As it continues to build, more and more dancers pour onto the stage, and the principals do a striptease in reverse until the women are clad in swirling red skirts, the men in abstractions of bullfighters’ “suits of light.”  There are no point shoes. The dancers deploy their legs in big developpés (unfolding of the working leg from the standing one), and the initial hard-edged angular movement becomes undulating and sinuous, reminiscent of Spanish dancing and bullfighting. Again, Anzai is given a virtuoso solo, and there is a terrifically energetic male quartet.  While the music is the same, this Bolero, which is a lot of fun, could not be more different from Nicolo Fonte’s sleekly contemporary and beautiful version for OBT, which is being revived beginning Saturday on OBT’s Reveal program.  How I wish that program, also a mixed bill, were being performed to live music, as well.


Eugene Ballet’s Scheherazade and Bolero program doesn’t repeat. Next up for the company’s home season, after a guest performance by Ailey II on February 26, is Zoot Suit Riot, with live accompaniment by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, April 12-13.


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