Wen Wei Wang

NW Dance Project: Darkness falls, great dancing continues

The company's fall program was full of dances on the dark side, but the dancing met their considerable technical demands


There were echoes of George Orwell’s 1984 in Felix Landerer’s Post-Traumatic Monster, the opener of NW Dance Project’s fall season concert, which played Lincoln Hall over the weekend. The piece felt industrial, edgy, dark; a little European, a little dystopian—a feeling that suffused the whole evening.

In his Monster program note, Landerer, a German choreographer, gave viewers this to chew on: “What stands between two parties or people can be described as an organism that at some point might develop a dynamic of its own. So what we intend to form and build might eventually turn into something that gets out of control and shapes us instead.” (Before we go on, for a bit of grim fun, take a minute to apply that idea to any number of historical events in the last century.)

Franco Nieto and Ching Ching Wong in Felix Landerer’s “Post-Traumatic-Monster”, NW Dance Project/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

Landerer’s vision of fractured dynamics was built around two groups of dancers dressed in utilitarian black, save the two leads, Franco Nieto and Ching Ching Wong, who wore more flesh-and-blood tones of red and tan. Propelled by an electronic score punctuated with clicks, clangs and breaths, the two groups seethed and heaved en masse, lifting and manipulating Nieto and Wong as puppeteers might. The pair ultimately got their moment alone in a sinewy duet, but the group dynamic tended to dominate. There were only occasional moments of individualism—memorably, when Andrea Parson bent back to lean against something that wasn’t there, then slowly dissolved to the floor, unnoticed by the others swirling around her.


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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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