"Everyone's healthy!"

That's the first thing Northwest Dance Project's resident choreographer, Ihsan Rustem, said through his thick London accent, sounding giddy. Rustem, who has been with NWDP since 2010, is known for dark, minimalist works that test his dancers. Ching Ching Wong, a company member who's been dancing since age 3 and has a Princess Grace Award, said "he pushes you physically in this way that is challenging, fast-paced and precise."

His three works for the company so far have been on-brand: dimly lit stage, mostly duets, deadly-serious mood and a haunting soundscape. Gloom has served Rustem well. Last year's Yidam won the company a debut at the Joyce Theater in New York.

Thursday's premiere, "Le Fil Rouge," isn't so much a shift as it is a blind cliff-jump. He's thankful no dancers are injured—and that they agreed to put bike lights in their mouths.

WW: You're known for your dark and intense style. Is this work really different?

Ishan Rustem: When Sarah [Slipper] first suggested bringing in comedy, I gasped. I laugh from morning to evening, but I've never attempted to put that onstage.

People started to expect these big, meaty things from me. I was in Germany, and I overheard a director coming to my premiere saying, "He does all these beautiful pas de deux." I thought that's great, but I don't want to be stuck in that box.

Even though this piece is whimsical, it's still my signature. Sarah describes it as a thickness, a weight. I almost never jump. I hated jumping as a dancer, so I avoid it at all costs. But when I danced across Europe for 15 years, I was always pushed to be versatile. Everything—tights onstage, naked onstage—everything. I want to choreograph like that.

Why did you pick an all-female, modern soundtrack?

There has to be something that ties it all together. There is a huge range—Radiohead's "Creep" sung by a woman, "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" by Doris Day, and then Édith Piaf. When Piaf blasts from the speakers, it's hard not to feel anything. These female voices take us through six episodes on a journey…and it ends with a big party. I am going for the 6-to-99-year-old age range. You don't need to "get" anything—you can just enjoy.

How did the NWDP dancers react to that idea?

It was a Kodak moment—I wish I had taken a photo. They were all like, "What?" But I know the dancers well, and they know me. If you ask them to spin around 20 times and then jump on their heads, they'll say, "Yeah, I'll try that!"

There's this crazy section—I don't want to give away too much—but let's just say there are bike lights inside the dancer's mouths and they're lip-synching to that wild Édith Piaf. They were all for it, like, "Yeah! We've never done that before." In these rehearsals, I haven't laughed so much in the studio—ever.

Your contract with NWDP goes until 2018, so you're going between Portland and Zurich for a while. Is that a jarring switch?

All I do is travel, nonstop. But Portland is my home away from home. People hear a weird accent here and they're like, "Oh, that's cool. Welcome!" I always stay at the Mark Spencer, and I finally went across the street to Blue Star. I hadn't ever seen bacon on a doughnut before. Maybe they borrowed that from Voodoo? That's, like, a thing going on. I love the food carts, too. We don't have that, or if we do, it's not the place you want to eat.

The Joyce invited the company to do your premiere from last year's Louder Than Words, and now it's going to Houston's prestigious Dance Salad Festival—how involved are you with NWDP on tour?

That all happened so last-minute. A presenter saw the show at the Joyce and wanted to book it. [NWDP] called me a couple weeks ago and I said, "Sure, I'll tag along." My old company from Munich is going to be there, and since our show is opening, we'll get that out of the way and then hopefully go out a bit…

It was in Munich with that company that I found beer. I never drank beer before Germany. When I first got to Munich, I went to Oktoberfest with the company and ordered a vodka cranberry. Everyone pissed themselves laughing at me. Then they shoved a pitcher in front of me, and I was converted.

see it: Louder Than Words is at Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 828-8285. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, March 17-19. $34-$58.

Ching Ching Wong + Viktor Usov – photo by Blaine Truitt Covert
Ching Ching Wong + Viktor Usov – photo by Blaine Truitt Covert