Franco Nieto

Dance Weekly: Two by two and ‘Side by Side’

A set of duets by Portland independent choreographers highlights the weekend

Jordan Matter is a New York photographer who captures dancers doing extraordinary physical feats in ordinary everyday places, talking on a phone in a phone booth with one leg dangerously stretched to the max against the wall or leaping across a crosswalk in the middle of a busy intersection. His series of photos is called Dancers Among Us, a title I love because for me it evokes the image of dancers as superhuman creatures with powerful abilities living incognito amongst “regular” folk.

This is a little how I feel about pop-up performance projects here in Portland. All of these creative people come out of the woodwork for a night or two and put on a great show and then disappear again back into the fabric of Portland.

Luke Gutgsell and Elise Knudson.

Luke Gutgsell and Elise Knudson.

In an attempt to draw out these “dancers among us” for a little longer than their scheduled events, I would like to draw your attention to the five choreographers who were chosen by Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance to make new dances for the upcoming show, Side by Side, moving in twos.

But first, here are this weeks performance listings.

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Review: ‘Co / Mission’ at Conduit

Four dancers, four choreographers, lots of variety and plenty of crosstalk

In last weekend’s Co / Mission, Conduit gathered four Portland dancers and gave them the means to commission the local choreographer of their choice. Overall, the program was an absolute treat. Each of the four short, original works was proportioned like the space itself – small, sturdy, and comfortable in its strengths and capacities. It’s a size and sort of event I’d like to see more of  – local professionals curating adjacently but not necessarily collectively, balanced in such a way as to do as much as they can with a modest scale, with plenty of crosstalk but enough variety to avoid our tendency to create echo chambers here in Portland.

Rachel Slater in "Co / Mission." Photo: Chris Peddecord

Rachel Slater in “Co / Mission.” Photo: Chris Peddecord

In little more than an hour, the four pieces – which ran at Conduit Thursday-Sunday, June 13-15 – drew on diverse but complementary influences and styles. The shared themes, coincidental or not, seemed to alternate AB/AB. The first and third pieces employed more complex sound design and movements, channeling a little bit of the sense of a sophisticated session of dancing alone in your bedroom that a lot of contemporary solo work brings to mind. The second and final pieces drew on more classical movements and employed simple props and light sources.

A strong focus on women in dance and pop culture emerges through all the pieces. It does so cumulatively, with little overt politicization of gender. The sense is more that we have strong work coming from a group of dancers and choreographers who happen to all be women (except for Franco Nieto). The work shines on its own merits and concerns, many of which come from what feels like a particularly female perspective.

The sound design introduces these themes most directly. The first audio we hear is a shockingly sexist George and Gracie Burns dialogue, and Rachel Slater’s sensuous torment in d’autres femmes calls back to the skewed gender dynamics of the same era via Nina Simone’s classic The Other Woman. Linda K. Jonson summons the equally powerful figures of Wonder Woman and Poly Styrene in her piece for organizing member Jamuna Chiarini (who is a contributing writer to ArtsWatch). These references all seem to participate in the two broader themes of defiance and otherness. Suzanne Chi’s final, lyrical performance lacks all these hallmarks of troubled Americana, instead simply pitting a studious, solo dancer against an impending darkness.

Individual performance notes:

DU | ET

Dancer: Jen Hackworth

Choreographer: Linda Austin

Du | et was an intriguing chance to watch Linda Austin’s movements and outbursts emerge from a different person. Though an experienced choreographer, Austin says this is her first “solo piece performed on a body other than my own.” Austin’s marks were present on all parts of the piece – from the procedural, investigative movements to the deadpan recitation of jokes to the audience to the use of props. Austin’s sense of deferred presence seemed to be a driving concept of the piece, charging Hackworth to respond to herself as if she were another dancer, lending her manipulations of the props a feeling of searching or preparation, and smirked at with the use of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

The sound design here was complex, but smart and layered, not overwrought. The opening George and Gracie dialogue worked surprisingly well with Hackworth’s studied manipulation of a wooden tailor’s ruler and a rock, the odd-couple of objects. However, the initial nimbleness she had with the ruler didn’t seem to last throughout the piece. Without it, the props felt sparse, and could have been strengthened by either engaging the leftover open space or maintaining a higher degree of precision in handling the little objects in question. They did lend themselves to some touching moments, as Hackworth gently positioned them with an attention that seemed to say she had few other concerns in the world than this little rock, a sense later echoed in the placement of her own foot between the edges of the floorboards.

Jen Hackworth in Linda Austin's "Du / et." Photo: Chris Peddecord

Jen Hackworth in Linda Austin’s “Du / et.” Photo: Chris Peddecord

d’autres femmes

Dancer: Rachel Slater

Choreographer: Franco Nieto

Slater began her piece standing stock still, holding a strained smile through the laments of Nina Simone’s The Other Woman. She presented herself as a surface on which the audience could project a sequence of reactions to the mores and traditions implied in the situations reveled in by the song. I thought this followed DU | ET’s sense of hesitant resiliency quite well. The gesture could have gone stale easily, but happily it broke before becoming too much of a misplaced endurance piece. Slater proceeded to writhe and promenade with a sense of ownership of the stage and dashes of cabaret flair that paired well with Simone’s sound. Alternating between brassy and sensual, she seemed the most defiantly present of all the performers, as if daring someone to stop her from dancing. The staging was as restrained as it was effective: an open shade behind a thin curtain, glowing with early evening light, and a large, shimmering mirrored panel.

Like a Corvette

Dancer: Jamuna Chiarini

Choreographer: Linda K. Johnson

This shared DU | ET’s feel of po-mo bedroom dancing, but minus the formal play with duality and absence. Thematically this was placed perfectly in the program, as if the unsteady pride that felt lost or neglected in the first piece was mixed with the agency and guile of the second, reinforcing the contemporary movement and gesture with Wonder Woman’s metal bands. Chiarini’s investigative feeling of trying-on and stepping-up in this piece is what first gave me the sense of viewing a private dance session, one where the dancer is updating if not constructing some aspect of their identity. As Hackworth worked her way up to Whitney Houston, Chiarini progressed to Wonder Woman, as if they were two sides of some fantastically collectible coin.

The Last Errand

Dancer: Suzanne Chi

Choreographer: Lindsey Matheis

Suzanne Chi stormed through a field of dangling, dim lightbulbs with an electrifying mix of precision and fluidity. At one point she fired off a startling torso-slap which was one of my favorite moments of the show and paired well with Hackworth’s playful karaoke of Whitney Houston while spinning back and forth to whack her own chest and back with her flailing hands. I swear that she struck some recognizable Tai Chi postures, but I’ve been proven to see those whether they’re really there or not. Regardless, she commanded the stage with as much gusto as Slater had in the second piece, but without reference to a fixed place and time. The sparse lighting and the breathy soundtrack built this otherworldliness. Going by the program notes, there’s at least passing reference to the young-adult book City of Ember, but I wonder how well-targeted that was for the audience. I’m hoping that it was meant to remain a passing reference, as the out-of-time sense of this final performance elevated the power behind her movements from a sense of opposition or defiance to a more independent, celebratory place. Seeming to say that Chi would dance while the lights went out, some of them dying in the palm of her hand, however long they lasted.

NW Dance Project wraps a decade

… still sock-footed, fluid-moving and full of surprises!

“Ten years! 160 new works!”

Northwest Dance Project’s artistic and managing directors, Sarah Slipper and Scott Lewis, veritably beamed through their opening announcements. They gloried in a successful tour to Slipper’s native Canada. They teased preliminary plans to move their company into a new space. They marvelled aloud that moments from now, the facade of the Jive Building on Southwest 10th and Stark would host a giant projected simulcast of this show. It was clearly a thrilling evening for the NWDP—a victory lap, with each of the evening’s four pieces culminating in an extended curtain call.

Parson and Nieto in "After the Shake." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Parson and Nieto in “After the Shake.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Considering the company’s huge repertoire, the “Director’s Choice” must have been a hard one, but the four pieces that made the cut were, in order of performance:

  • State of Matter, by Ihsan Rustem: A seeming conflict between nude, natural fluidity and black-clad, martial-arts-like ferocity, set to ambient/noise music and spoken word that somewhat romantically equates human beings with dust and clouds.
  • A Fine Balance, by Slipper: A pas de deux featuring Andrea Parson, Viktor Usov, a table and a chair. A seeming couple enacts the varying dynamics of power, domesticity, detainment and upset by posing selves and furniture amid filmic flashes and fadeouts.
  • Harmony Défiguréé, by Patrick Delcroix: Beginning with three couples, introducing three interlopers, culminating in a trio of love triangles. Music and action build to a whalloping climax and subside in a long denouement.
  • After The Shake, a world premiere by Slipper: Ingeniously free-standing brooms that double as pendulums are props in this religious reverie about the rise and decline of Shaker communities. ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple, as arranged by Aaron Copland, is identifiable, as are the motions of chores, barn-raising, worship, and spirit-slaying.

Just for fun, let’s suppose the Director’s Choice program is a concise current summary of the company’s identity—representing not only the benchmarks of a 10-year run, but also the hallmarks of Slipper and Co.’s celebrated vision.

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Preview: NW Dance Project’s really BIG show

The contemporary company celebrates its 10th anniversary onstage, and in a great big outdoor simulcast on the side of a downtown building

Call it the Attack of the 50 Foot Dancers.

While the 10 dancers of the Northwest Dance Project are performing onstage in the Newmark Theatre Thursday night, their giant avatars will be cavorting on the side of downtown’s aptly named Jive Building, taking their art to the streets.

“I’m not chintzing out. I’m going big,” Sarah Slipper, NDP’s co-founder and artistic director, said with a laugh a few days ago while taking a break from rehearsing her newest piece.

Andrea Parson and Patrick Kilbane in Patrick Delcroix's "Harmonie Défigurée." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Andrea Parson and Patrick Kilbane in Patrick Delcroix’s “Harmonie Défigurée.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

This week’s shows, called Director’s Choice, mark the Dance Project’s tenth season, and Slipper wanted to celebrate that landmark emphatically: in the past decade, the company’s dancers have premiered more than 160 works. So the idea of the giant projections on the side of the Jive, at Southwest 10th Avenue and Stark Street, was born. The project’s sheer size and street-accessibility create the possibility of generating an entirely new audience. “We were very interested in bringing vibrancy to the city,” Slipper said. “You know how I’m always saying I want to crack things open. Let people in. Even, it becomes visual art. It’s First Thursday, so the area’s going to be pretty active, which is cool.”

Continues…

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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