New Now Wow

Ching Ching Wong’s princess path

The Northwest Dance Project stalwart enters the company's "New Now Wow!" with a new crown: She's the project's fourth Princess Grace Award winner since 2010.


Ching Ching Wong’s gentle voice pipes up: “Julia, do you want to do some dance moves?”

It’s a couple of minutes into a five-minute rehearsal break at Northwest Dance Project. Jiri Pokorny, choreographer of a new piece for the company’s New Now Wow! program opening Thursday at Lincoln Performance Hall, steps out for a moment, and the nine dancers meander off the studio floor in various directions to refill water bottles, rummage for a bite of trail mix, glance at a phone, or give Hank, the sleepy company dog, a tummy rub.

“Yeah, I do…” Wong’s colleague Julia Radick replies. In a small patch of sunlight in the studio’s corner, the two start to move—quietly—through their duet, taking advantage of a private moment to explore their way through Pokorny’s choreography before he returns to scrutinize. Wong is well-wrapped in sweatpants, a quilted vest, and knee pads, only her pink socks hinting at her natural ebullience. The two dancers are silent, but there is clearly a strong communication between them. The duet keeps them very close together, rarely touching or making eye contact—as if a fiercely strong magnet compels their movements and dictates their relationship. It’s serene, yet the emotional undercurrent is strong. They are rivetingly beautiful to watch.

Ching Ching Wong, Northwest Dance Project's newest Prince Grace Award winner. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ching Ching Wong, Northwest Dance Project’s newest Prince Grace Award winner. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The NWDP dancers’ seemingly casual demeanor—loose warmup clothes, relaxed faces, the generally easy vibe in the studio—belies their crystal-clear focus, strength, and intention, both physical and mental. Even the newest company member, Kody Jauron, working with company veteran Andrea Parson as Pokorny creates a new duet for them, throws off his status as “newbie.” An onlooker would never know he was still being indoctrinated into the group. These dancers’ overall prodigy is reflected—strikingly, and prominently—by the fact that within the past five years, four of them have been nominated for, and received, the prestigious Princess Grace Foundation fellowship award.


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.


New, now, a little touch of wow

Northwest Dance Project opens its 10th season with three more world premieres

Nieto,  Wong, and Parson in  “This Time Tomorrow.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Nieto, Wong, and Parson in “This Time Tomorrow.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

And suddenly it’s in double digits. Northwest Dance Project opened its 10th season Thursday night at Lincoln Performance Hall, a mark on the calendar that suggests a subtle shift from feisty outsider to genuine Portland institution.

It’s not that the dance troupe’s mission has changed. Founding artistic director Sarah Slipper, a former leading ballerina for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and onetime ballet mistress for Oregon Ballet Theatre, still wants the company to do new work, contemporary work, often work by emerging national and international choreographers, work that frequently looks to Europe for inspiration and that may be rooted in ballet but aspires to live in and move among the ideas and realities of today.

And so it does. The company’s work can be uncomfortable for those who prefer their ballet in a traditional vein, and at times it seems to wander, shapeless and structure-free, as if the journey were far more interesting than the destination. But it’s almost always new – it’s news when a dance at the Project ISN’T a world premiere – and choreographers like to come here to create new work, partly because NDP welcomes it and partly because Slipper’s dancers are so adaptable to different styles. Because NDP is a new-work laboratory, things can be rough-cut, which is something of a peril but also provides a good deal of the company’s charm. Either way, the dancing’s almost always compelling. The Dance Project’s work is consistently varied, but also familiar, often reveling in the beauty of the ungainly and the influences of popular culture and everyday movement on dance.

What’s changed, as the company enters its 10th year, is that it doesn’t feel like an experiment that could disappear at any moment. Like almost all arts organizations, Northwest Dance Project operates on a thin financial line. But now it’s firmly established. Oregon Ballet Theatre is the traditional, neoclassical company, the one that can be counted on to do justice to the great story ballets as it preserves and cautiously extends the traditions of the dance form. BodyVox is the brashly American company, inspired in part by American optimism and the great silent-film comedians. Northwest Dance Project is the scrappy, increasingly essential company that likes things a little nervous and edgy and out on the brink of things. It’s not so much that NDP has found its place in the city’s dance scene. It’s more that the city has discovered NDP is here.

Thursday night’s program, which continues through Sunday, is NDP’s latest “New Now Wow!” – a gathering of premieres by three young dancemakers. This year’s are “The Practice of Being Alone,” by Loni Landon (her third work on the NDP dancers); Danielle Agami’s “This Time Tomorrow”; and James Gregg’s “Malign Star.” All three were created in the studio here and take advantage of the company’s experienced and deeply collaborative dancers, most of whom have matured together. The company is 10 strong now, and most – Samantha Campbell, Patrick Kilbane, Elijah Labay, Lindsey Matheis, Lindsey McGill, Princess Grace Award winners Franco Nieto and Andrea Parson – have worked together for several seasons. Viktor Usov has deep roots with the company (he trained with Slipper from the time he was 14, and was with it in its inaugural season). Ching Ching Wong, now in her third year, has quickly become a company mainstay. And Julia Radick, who’s been with NDP less than a year, also has prior links: she’s taken part in one of the company’s summer LAUNCH projects for young professional dancers.

Landon’s “The Practice of Being Alone” uses seven dancers in a series of comings and goings, bodies slipping together and slipping away, never staying together very long, jumbling together and apart in a riverflow of tortuous and inventive movement. It’s a moody piece, sometimes using mime, sometimes carried out in circles of light by designer Jeff Forbes that isolate and create sharp contrasts, and it plays around with images of domination and submission: not an altogether happy piece (to put it mildly), and one that moves through a tenuous, almost amorphous soundscape. In the end, despite its obvious ambitions, it’s a bit heavy and morose. Landon received her BFA from Juilliard in just 2005, later joined Ballet Theater Munich, dances with the Metropolitan Opera, and has had her own work performed at the Joyce, Jacob’s Pillow, the Ailey Theater, and elsewhere.

Campbell,  Nieto and company in “Malign Star.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Campbell, Nieto and company in “Malign Star.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Judging by audience reaction – the piece got a standing ovation on opening night – Gregg’s “Malign Star” is the popular hit of the program, and although it strikes me as still a bit unformed, the appeal is easy to see. It begins in a cascade of vocal cathedral music, and the dancers (Gregg uses all 10) arrive onstage in what look like old-fashioned Catholic school uniforms, the girls in starchy Madeleine collars, the boys in shorts. The dance is ordered in musical movements and seems to be about rituals, and faith, and the loss of it, and innocence and experience. At various times we see images of prayer, and hear cries that sound like a muzzein’s call, and even see dancers lay hands on other dancers’ bellies, as if checking for the heartbeat of an unborn child. Sometimes the dancers square off in rival gangs, making gestures that seem more sound than actual fury, like the Lost Boys and Hook’s pirate crew getting in a mock tussle. “Malign Star” has a yearning, inchoate quality, like a fleeting emotional touchstone. It also feels not quite under control yet, like it wants a few sharp cuts and firm decisions to bring it into better focus. Gregg has danced with Chicago’s River North Dance Company and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, and still performs with Rubberband Dance even as his choreographic career is taking off.

For my taste Agami’s quirky and wryly funny “This Time Tomorrow” is the cream of the crop. Agami, 29, was born and raised in Israel and danced with that country’s innovative Batsheva Dance Company for several seasons; she now runs her own company in Los Angeles. “Tomorrow” has wit, twisted elegance (for all the odd angles, Agami insists on purity of line), and a sophisticated sense of how dance works with music and silence. And the movement can be startlingly fun. The piece is well-shaped, and it has a sense of controlled entropy, seemingly random variations that nevertheless have a discernible theme. The dancers, costumed in luscious creamy-white by designer Tobi de Goede, sometimes slither across the stage, making peekaboo entrances from behind the curtain and gliding on their backs like multiply jointed centipedes, knees bent and fast feet propelling them forward. Oranges, oddly but endearingly, roll all over the place. Forbes lights the stage so that giant shadow-dancers sometimes leap from the back wall. There are bumps and grunts and wrestling, and long stretches with no sound at all, and a culminating,  sweetly controlled pandemonium to the bubbling sound of Puerto Muerto’s song “Wondering.” It’s all new and now in this program. If you’re looking for “wow,” this is as close as you’ll get.


“New Now Wow!” continues through Sunday at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Aaron Spencer’s review for Willamette Week is here.


Read more from Bob Hicks >>

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Dance: New, Now, a ‘Mother Tongue’ Wow!

NW Dance Project tackles a triple-header of world premieres, topped by Ihsan Rustem's gem

Elijah Labay, Ching Ching Wong and Andrea Parson in Ihsan Rustem’s “Mother Tongue.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Whatever it is, something clicks between the choreographer Ihsan Rustem and the dancers of Northwest Dance Project. That was happily clear Thursday night in the opening performance of the company’s “New Now Wow!” program of three world premieres at Lincoln Performance Hall. (It repeats Friday and Saturday nights.)

Rustem’s “Mother Tongue” seems a model of contemporary choreography – a piece very much of its own time but also fiercely focused and sure of itself. It doesn’t meander, it doesn’t settle for the first idea. Like all good dances, it cuts through space with a conviction that this is the only possible way this particular piece could be. Set to a percussive and involving score with music by Scanner, David Lang, and Erika Janunger, and lighted (as is the entire evening) by Jeff Forbes, “Mother Tongue” benefits from the kinetic skills of the NWDP dancers and also drives them beyond themselves: an ideal symbiosis.

Two other new works by young international choreographers also premiered – Gregory Dolbashian’s “Play It As It Lays” and Alex Soares’ “Trace in Loss” – and both had their strengths. But “Mother Tongue” was the clear highlight, and it continues the mutual success that choreographer and company have shared. Last year the Dance Project took the audience award at the Hannover Competition in Germany and won the Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest with Rustem’s “State of the Matter,” and returned to London in June to perform it again at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

With its smart use of folding and unfolding curtains and its parade of appearing and disappearing performers, “Mother Tongue” is highly theatrical and richly pared down, not to the point of minimalism but rather to a springing efficiency that mobilizes and energizes the moment. It can be witty (a rolling, twisting, snakelike solo by Franco Nieto could be adopted as a theme dance by Slitherin House) and touching. NWDP’s highly adaptable dancers – on this piece, Samantha Campbell, Patrick Kilbane, Elijah Labay, Lindsey Matheis, Lindsey McGill, Andrea Parson, Nieto, and Ching Ching Wong – perform with electric compactness.

It’s interesting to look at Rustem’s brief program statement about the origins of “Mother Tongue,” not because anything in the dance specifically illustrates it but because it indicates his state of mind and emotion when he was creating the piece. The impact is subliminal and even undetectable, yet real, suggesting a state of circumstances that, in concert with the dancers and designers, created a new and independent state of circumstances – the dance itself: “The starting point for ‘Mother Tongue’ came about during conversations on the theme of cultural identity and belonging. I drew upon personal experiences after a recent trip to Istanbul, Turkey, which is my motherland, but a land I have never lived in. Standing in the middle of the chaos of Taksim Square and taking in the smells, watching the people, and listening to the sounds, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and belonging in the realization that this is where I come from.”

Samantha Campbell and Franco Nieto in Alex Soares’ “Trace in Loss.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I liked Soares’ “Trace in Loss,” too, and I’d like it a lot more if there were less to like. It’s dangerous to judge a new work on the basis of a single viewing – a second or third look often can reveal things you missed or simply didn’t understand the first time around – but my sense of “Trace of Loss” is that it’s overstuffed and might be much better with a strategic editing to two-thirds of its current length.

Soares, who is from Sao Paulo, Brazil, reaches ambitiously toward total theater with “Trace.” He’s not just the choreographer but also the composer and designer of the video and set, which alternates open space with a kind of pressurized box, a trap of light and sound that swallows the dancers and creates electrified ghostlike images. The advantage of this approach is that so much of the piece is springing from a single vision: in movie terms, he’s the auteur. The disadvantage is that it reduces the effect of checks and balances – resulting, I think, in too much of a good thing. The ideas run out before the motions do.

Still, I like the piece. I think it has a lot of promise. Its “story” is simple – three couples, at various stages in a relationship, shifting and gliding with the changes. Forbes’ lighting is crucial, and the performers (Campbell, Kilbane, Labay, Matheis, Nieto, Wong) give it the crispness and energy it deserves.

Dolbashian’s “Play It As It Lays,” which opened the program, takes its cue from Joan Didion’s 1970 novel of the same name, which I remember mostly from the beautiful and self-indulgent ennui of the 1972 movie version starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. Dolbashian’s version includes passages from the book, narrated in voice-over by Andrea Parson. Later in the dance, Alan Watts, the beatnik-slash-hippie era philosopher and proselytizer of Zen lite, also appears in voice-over, reminding us of what a genial and entertaining showman he was.

I admire the riskiness of incorporating spoken passages into the dance: it’s always a chancy thing, and sometimes it pays off. I also like Dolbashian’s stated purpose for the work: “… to motivate its characters and its audience to really USE time and not simply let it pass.” But the movement itself, though well-performed, seems unsettled and a bit muddled: I’d like some clarity. Or maybe clarity wasn’t the goal. It’s not as if Dolbashian lacks the chops. He’s toured in “Einstein on the Beach,” trained at the Alvin Ailey School, worked everywhere from Jacob’s Pillow to Chicago Ballet to the Joyce. So maybe there’s more here than I’m seeing. Still, on Thursday night, it came down to this: the dancers were moving, but I wasn’t moved.

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