Patrick Delcroix

ArtsWatch year in dance 2017

From ballet to world to contemporary, where the dance scene led, ArtsWatch followed. In 20 stories, a brisk stroll through the seasons.

Dance in Portland and Oregon has long been on the edge – often financially and sometimes artistically. Yet despite economic challenges you can’t keep it down: the city moves to a dance beat, and every week brings fresh performances. ArtsWatch writers got to a significant share of those shows in 2017, and wrote about them with breadth, wit, and insight.

The twenty ArtsWatch stories here don’t make up a “best of” list, though several of these shows could easily make one. They constitute, rather, a January-to-December snapshot of a rich and busy scene that runs from classical ballet to contemporary and experimental work.



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A dance down memory lane in 20 tales from ArtsWatch writers:


“Hopper’s Dinner”: an exuberant feast. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

A mellow Meadow like old times

Jan. 20: “Going to opening night of BodyVox’s Urban Meadow at Lincoln Performance Hall on Thursday evening was a little like dropping over for dinner with a bunch of old friends you haven’t seen in a while, and remembering why you liked them in the first place,” Bob Hicks wrote. “The table was set nicely, the food and wine were good, and everybody swapped old jokes and stories with easy familiarity. There was even a guest of honor, who was fondly feted, and who told a few good tales himself.” The “guest” was the wonderful dancer Erik Skinner, who was retiring from BodyVox (though not from performing) after this run, and the program included a bunch of old favorites that were themselves welcome guests.


The red and the visible dark

The premieres of Ihsan Rustem's swift new "Carmen" and Patrick Delcroix's "Visible Darkness" color the spectrum for NW Dance Project

The beginning is not the fall itself, but the struggle to get up. Elijah Labay, the central figure in Patrick Delcroix’s new dance Visible Darkness, lies prone on the stage of the Newmark Theatre, raising his shoulders, lifting his torso, and then sinking back again. He’s been lying there, intermittently resting and struggling to move, for who knows how long. He is discovered, with alarm, and slowly, gently raised, and the dance moves on.

Visible Darkness is one of two world premieres (the other is resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem’s swift and witty new take on that old reliable potboiler Carmen) that opened Thursday evening in NW Dance Project’s newest program, which will repeat Friday and Saturday in the Newmark. Both tell stories, though not in the traditional story-ballet sense: they are narrative, but elliptical, allowing suggestion and mood to fill in much of the storytelling detail.

Ching Ching Wong and William Couture in “Visible Darkness.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The story of Visible Darkness is very personal for Delcroix, the French choreographer and Jirí Kylián associate who’s created several dances for NDP beginning in 2011. According to Scott Lewis, NDP’s executive director, it’s about an accident Delcroix had two years ago: “He fell off a ladder while working on his home in The Hague and was found days later, unconscious, with a broken nose and other injuries,” including brain trauma. His recovery was long and arduous. This is Delcroix’s first new dance since the accident, and an emergence: As he says in a program note, “a difficult chapter in my life is complete.”


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.


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.”


The truth about torsos: NW Dance Project does the twist

Two new dances and a revival create a sleek new show


Franco Nieto and Ching Ching Wong in "Drifting Thoughts"; Lindsey McGill and Elijah Labay in background. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Franco Nieto and Ching Ching Wong in “Drifting Thoughts”; Lindsey McGill and Elijah Labay in background. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“I think what ballet dancers don’t understand is how much they can use their torsos,” choreographer Sarah Slipper told me in October 2009. “That’s something that contemporary choreographers are really discovering. Ballet concentrates on the extremities.”

Watching the performers of the Northwest Dance Project go through the twists and rapid recoveries of Wen Wei Wang’s “Chi” on Thursday night, I could see clearly what she meant. It’s not as if the nine dancers of this exciting young company, for which Slipper is founding artistic director, don’t know what to do with their arms and legs. And it’s not as if traditional ballet dancers don’t balance from the core of their bodies. But if classical and neoclassical ballet are about extension – about reaching for the sky – contemporary ballet and dance are often about compression: moving from the belly, earthlike, like a ball, and seeing where and how you can roll.

“Chi” is the opener in Northwest Dance Project’s spring program, which continues with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday, March 29 and 30, in downtown Portland’s Newmark Theatre. Unusually for NDP, which has made new works its calling card, “Chi” is a remounting of a dance created a few years ago for the company. It’s joined by two premieres: Slipper’s “Casual Act” and Patrick Delcroix’s “Drifting Thoughts.” The same three choreographers debuted pieces in last year’s NDP spring program.

The word “chi,” in Chinese, has to do with the permutations of energy, and “Chi” is very much about rolling connections: twists and flips that lead to what seem like landings but instead become springboards to a new series of movements, which lead to another landing/springboard, and another, and another, like electrical currents sizzling through switches that can’t turn the energy off. The piece uses all eight dancers who are performing in this program – Samantha Campbell, Patrick Kilbane, Elijah Labay, Lindsey Matheis, Lindsey McGill, Franco Nieto, Andrea Parson, Ching Ching Wong –  and watching them move to Giorgio Magnanensi’s melodically restless score is a bit like watching the wiggles and squirms of microbial creatures beneath a microscope. Throughout, the dancers turn movements that traditional ballet might consider inelegant into moments of odd beauty: shoulder-tilts and torso-turns that emphasize the sheer physicality rather than the metaphoric possibilities of the human form. Dance is often at its best when its “meaning” is simply what it is: a particular movement through time and space, like the soundwaves of music.

Then again, dance is theater, and theater tells, or at least suggests, stories. Slipper is an innately dramatic dancemaker, and her new piece, “Casual Act,” is an intense and beguiling abstraction from Harold Pinter’s play “Betrayal,” which tells the story of infidelities both physical and emotional among friends. The men Labay and Nieto and the women Parson, McGill and Campbell bring furtive heat to the cool movements of the hidden trysts, which are never quite hidden: Jon Plueard’s rotating set reveals a blank wall, a wall with a window, and a wall with a door. Someone’s always walking or climbing or peering through the window or door, sometimes eagerly, sometimes furtively. Oddly, the thing feels more American-realist and loamy – like Stanley Kowalski, or the rural-turmoil visual imaginings of Thomas Hart Benton – then repressed button-down British upper-middle class. Pinter’s play moves backward in time through a seven-year affair, and “Casual Act” sometimes nods to that, the dancers backing away from the wall in a group, or individual dancers scuttling backwards through space. It’s a long piece, and at one point it came to a kiss that seemed a culmination. But there was more very good movement to come, and I was glad it was there even if I wasn’t sure the piece couldn’t have ended earlier.

“Drifting Thoughts” marks the third go-around with NDP for Delcroix, who’s set works on companies worldwide and maintains a close relationship with European star choreographer Jiri Kylian. He’s a deft dancemaker, and it’s obvious that the company’s performers – once again, all eight on the program – enjoy working with him. The piece has a bit of a gone-native, science-fiction feel to it, like an eqinoxial revel interrupted here and there by a brilliant Bikini Atoll flash of destruction.  What it all means or doesn’t mean, I’m not sure – after all, the thoughts (like atomic fallout?) are drifting – but it can be mesmerizing to watch.

All three pieces are helped immeasurably by Jeff Forbes’ lighting, which moves from Rembrandt murkiness to intense Hopper clarity, and by the design work in general, which includes costumes by Rachelle Waldie for the Delcroix and Slipper pieces and by Kathy Scoggins for “Chi.”



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Andrea Parson and Elijah Labay of Northwest Dance Project. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Andrea Parson and Elijah Labay of Northwest Dance Project. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Snow and ice on the windshield yesterday morning (but only a little: I’m a Flatlander). Winds up to about a zillion miles an hour on Monday (trees down on Marine Drive). And my dentist tells me he had seven inches of snow at his house (he’s an Uplander). Remember those sunny days last week? As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it in State Fair, it might as well be spring.

Spring also means new stuff growing, and in Portland that often means a new show by Northwest Dance Project, which pretty much grows nothing but new stuff: that’s the way it rolls.

In its Spring Premieres program on Friday and Saturday nights in the Newmark Theatre, NDP rolled out three new dances ­– Wen Wei Wang’s Conjugations, Sarah Slipper’s Airys, and Patrick Delcroix’s Chameleon. And unlike the weather, which was whipping every which way but loose, these three new dances seemed to be blowing from a similar place. An angsty sort of place; a place that made me think more than once of cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s earnest modern interpretive dancer.

Now, I like Feiffer’s dancer, who is sweet and compassionate and oh so serious and not to be taken lightly, even though Feiffer presents her in a light-hearted manner. And I very much like the talent and style of this scrappy and ambitious company, which in addition to being a vital player on Portland’s dance scene has been making a lot of noise in international competitions. It’ll be performing in London in late June at the 2012 Olympic Arts Festival. That’s heady stuff, and I sometimes fret that not enough Portlanders know how good these young dancers in their midst can be.

But on Saturday night I also found myself wishing for (a) a little more variety, (b) a lot more editing and shaping, and (c) even a hint of lightness or humor. Dance isn’t television, and it doesn’t need a laugh track. But a well-chosen evening of shorter pieces should offer some syncopation of weight and mood.

Conjugations mixes in a lot of references to social and pop dance styles, from break dancing to raves, and it has an easy curiosity about the ways that people meet and mingle. Wen Wei, who began his career in his native China and has lived and worked in Canada since 1991, has created passages that showcase NDP’s athletic and flexible dancers extremely well. I especially liked the work of Ching Ching Wong, who exudes a sassy attitude that seems ideal for comedy (although comedy isn’t what she’s asked to produce here), and Patrick Kilbane, who’s developed into a first-rate dancer in front of our eyes. But just as the recorded music is a mishmash of stitched-together pieces, so the piece itself lacks a solid structure. It ambles, loosely, never quite seeming to come to a conclusion about what it wants to say or be.

Slipper is Northwest Dance Project’s artistic director and guiding force, and she’s a gutsy choreographer: like so much of her work, Airys seems to come from an intense place. But unlike, for instance, the gripping emotionality in her exquisite Samuel Beckett piece Not I, the anguish in Airys seems overstated. When a clutch of dancers gathers to mime an outraged waving of fists, it feels less like genuine anger than a Martha Graham moment gone wrong. Slipper also knows how to create an effective image onstage, though, and Airys provided the visual and emotional moment from this program that still sticks most vividly in my mind: the wonderfully expressionistic Andrea Parson cradling a length of drapery in her arms as if it were a fallen comrade.

Ching Ching Wong, Patrick Kilbane, "Chameleon." Blaine Truitt Covert.

Like Wen Wei, Delcroix has worked with Northwest Dance Project’s performers before. He’s a smart, capable dancemaker who spent years dancing and then staging pieces by Jiri Kylian, and he’s actually been knighted by the French government as a chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which is a pretty nifty line to be able to put on your resumé. I liked Harmonie Défigurée, the piece he created a year ago for Northwest Dance Project, quite a bit, and Chameleon was the best-shaped and most self-assured of the three pieces on last weekend’s program. It’s got some body heat, and a visual trick: the dancers are smeared with paint in various colors, which rubs off on the other dancers when they come into contact with them, leaving visual memories of the exchanges. But it’s dense, and like the other works it felt provisional, as if it hadn’t found a clear reason for being – and it was hurt by coming at the end of what already was a pretty heavy evening of dance.

All of that was almost, but not quite, trumped by the dancing itself. Throughout the program, the company’s eight dancers were a joy to watch. Maybe because they work with so many choreographers, they’ve developed admirable flexibility and focused intensity. And they work extremely well as a team: they aren’t just a collection of dancers, they’re a genuine company. In addition to Wong, Parsons and Kilbane, they include Samantha Campbell, Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill, Lindsey Matheis and Franco Nieto. As a team, their combination of precise technique and athletic abandon has helped put them on the map.

In this program, though, I wish they’d had more finished and varied dances to work with. One of this company’s great attractions – its commitment to producing new works by many choreographers – is also one of its potential drawbacks. Over the years the programming has been a roll of the dice: neither the dancers nor the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen. Sometimes the evening’s works balance out nicely. Other times, as in this program, you get too much of the same thing. In a way, it’s gamblers’ luck. Any original work is an experiment, and sometimes experiments work, sometimes they don’t – that’s part of the package.

Still, there are ways to improve the odds. Without telling guest choreographers what to do, Slipper could suggest what kind of piece she’d like from them: short, long, light, dramatic, to a certain style of music, solo or small group or whole company. Besides creating a better-balanced program, it would help the choreographers focus their energies and increase the odds that their pieces would have a long life after their premieres.

Maybe even past the climatic puzzlements of spring.


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