It was simulcast free to the public Thursday evening, but if you saw Northwest Dance Project's Director's Choice show live at the Newmark, you got your money's worth with nearly two hours of serious dance.
Portland's leading contemporary company turns 10 this year, and artistic director Sarah Slipper's anniversary show is a selection of four works, including a premiere, from that decadelong run—an accomplishment not common for upstart chamber companies. The show had some extra buzz opening night in a nearly-live, drive-in size video projection on the side of downtown's Jive Building. At the 10:30 pm rebroadcast, I saw a few pedestrians stall in the drizzle to watch for a moment, taking pictures with their phones, while they talked about dancing in their own lives.
The dancing in the show, though, is not festive or celebratory by any means. It's of a dramatic, formalized style that’s come to be expected in the company's bigger shows. Slipper's first work for the company, 2004's A Fine Balance, has Andrea Parson and Viktor Usov navigating the tumult of romance with a table and chair, two stark props that add severity to the duo's brisk and sharp movements. Slipper has known Parson and Usov the longest of her dancers, and she says if her work has changed any in the past 10 years, it's become more aggressive because she better knows her performers’ limits.
Parson, in fact, is the star of this show if there is one. In A Fine Balance, Usov lifts her as if her bones were hollow, and she holds stiff as a dried leaf until she drops, with a tiny gasp, into a dainty spread eagle. In the show's opener, guest choreographer Ihsan Rustem’s 2010 work State of Matter, she melts around Patrick Kilbane in strong partnering, and she whirls and turns as a recording of her voice recites the metaphysical poetry of Benjamin Wardell. State of Matter was the strongest work on opening night; the dancers were clearly well-practiced, having performed the piece in Vancouver, B.C., last month. They stuck the choreography—a portion of the piece was the most energetic bit of the program—and convincingly pulled off the piece’s opening magic trick: Parson hangs upside down beneath a barely raised curtain while Kilbane’s feet slide seemingly without effort toward her.
Another guest choreographer piece, Patrick Delacroix’s 2011 Harmonie Défigurée, isn’t my favorite, but it was for several in the audience. It’s an epic narrative with a soaring, strings-based score and storms of sweeps and kicks. Three vixens—Delacroix calls them “nasty girls”—attempt to disrupt three happy couples, and the whole group ends up in a kind of battle, raging duets performed one at a time while the rest of the dancers sit and watch. The tempest gets a little unruly for me, and definitely goes on for too long—it has several disappointing false endings—but it has its strong moments, especially the nasty girls’ showstopping entrance.
Slipper’s premiere work, After the Shake, starts innocently enough with swinging brooms and the pioneer-days melody of part of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, a variation on the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." Slipper’s inspiration, the Shakers religious sect, is clear. In the beginning, the dancers—men in gray button ups and women in graphic print dresses—prance without care. All is well in Shaker Land. Soon though, things get weird, as the dancers cluster center stage, shaking their hands over their heads to sounds of possessed babbling. The scene then turns surreal, with distorted wails and thrashing that’s both tortured and graceful. Two women creepily peek from behind the stage-right curtains. In the end, Parson breaks away—or is abandoned; it’s hard to tell—and is soon joined by Franco Nieto. In real life, Shakers were celibate, so of course they died out. Here, Parson and Nieto collapse a number of times, but Parson bounces back, ending up alone at the lip of the stage. The curtain starts to fall behind her, but suddenly Nieto, still kicking, rolls beneath the curtain to join her. They live to dance another day, maybe another decade.
GO: Northwest Dance Project is at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 421-7434. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, April 4-5. $36-$49. More info here.