TriptheDark Aims to Make Modern Dance More Accessible With Whoopee Cushions and Twin Peaks References

TriptheDark is one of Portland’s boldest and zaniest dance companies.

(Josh Schoonmaker)

Dance company TriptheDark was founded on a whim.

Dancer and choreographer Corinn deTorres was invited to perform at the album release party for a friend's band, along with her collaborators, Cara Defilippis and Stephanie Seaman. "We were all like, 'Absolutely—but if we're putting together this dance performance, we might as well just put together a company,'" deTorres says. "So the three of us sat down and put all of our creative energy into this one 20-minute show."

The resulting opener was performed, safety risks be damned, on a carpeted floor at the Doug Fir Lounge in 2010. The piece featured romance, confetti and hula hoops. "This is potentially the only show we'll ever do in our lives," deTorres remembers thinking, "So we have to do everything we've ever wanted to do."

The experience was so transcendent that afterward, deTorres, Defilippis and Seaman left for the coast and began planning their own company. "We were really interested in bringing dance to venues where different audiences would feel comfortable going," deTorres says. "Nobody came to [the Doug Fir show] to see a dance performance, but everybody was like, 'That was fucking awesome,' and so excited to access dance in a different way that was affordable and outside of the huge theaters."

Less than 10 years later, that brainstorming has evolved into TriptheDark, one of Portland's boldest and zaniest dance companies. After years of performing as a floater company, TriptheDark opened its own theater last year—the Chapel Theatre, a small renovated church in Milwaukie.

TriptheDark performs original, semi-comedic shows inspired by pop culture. Its most recent show was an ode to House of Cards character Claire Underwood. Last year, the company adapted the David Bowie and Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, which included a scene in which the dancers somersaulted across a carpet of whoopee cushions. In 2016, they premiered Dance of the Dream Man, a riff on Twin Peaks that included a balletic interlude set to Queen's "The Show Must Go On."

TriptheDark strives to reach audiences who aren't necessarily eager to enter the world of dance, which can often seem inaccessible, both artistically and economically. It's a mission that influences all of the company's choices—the projects the dancers undertake, the performance spaces they select and their willingness to absorb audience reactions, even when they are less than laudatory. By fusing dance with pop culture narratives, the company has repeatedly lured in audiences with familiar stories, only to obliterate expectations with flurries of delirious invention.

Even before TriptheDark, deTorres was interested in bringing art into unexpected contexts. In 2010, she performed in Hot Gun, a musical rendition of Top Gun that was also her first creative collaboration with Defilippis and Seaman.

DeTorres believes that where TriptheDark performs is just as important as what it performs. Before settling in at the Chapel Theatre, the company performed at funky, inviting venues, like the Headwaters Theatre, rather than more traditional, stodgy dance venues.

"Dance can be really expensive to go see," deTorres says. "So we were really interested in performing in bars or performing in music venues or performing in festivals. Having a bar has always been really important to us, because we want it to feel like a casual environment where you can get up and get a drink or go to the bathroom."

More than just wacky camp, the pop culture references are also a part of TriptheDark's philosophy of accessibility. "Everything since [the Doug Fir show] has been based on some type of story that people feel familiar with, whether that is a TV show or a movie or a fairy tale," deTorres says. "We tend to take those stories and tweak them a little bit." In the company's 2012 production The Wolf Child's Mother, Little Red Riding Hood is impregnated by the wolf and kicked out of the house by her conservative parents.

Unlike many dance companies, TriptheDark doesn't limit itself to one kind of dance. "The choreography is influenced by various styles of dance," deTorres says. "We don't necessarily go into it saying, 'We want this piece influenced by ballet.' It's more about what we're trying to get across."

For Seaman, that meant bringing tap dancing into the equation—an idea deTorres wasn't wild about initially. "You think about tap, and it's like musical theater or showtunes or whatever," deTorres says. "But [Seaman] was like, 'I don't want to do that style of tap.' I think that Stephanie has been able to weave tap into our shows so that it fits with the overall feeling of our productions."

TriptheDark isn't afraid to take on risky productions that broaden its range. That includes the House of Cards-inspired performance, which featured acts of dancing, theater and puppetry, respectively.

DeTorres remembers the show fondly but considers it a misfire. Audiences told her they would have preferred a full dance show, and she listened. "We will never do that again," she says of the performance's unique format. "And it wasn't a bad experience, it's just that it didn't work for us."

TriptheDark's next production is a reimagining of the 2017 film A Ghost Story, a haunting tale of a restless spirit who journeys through time, seeking closure.

"It'll be about isolation and impermanence and the nonlinear aspect of time," deTorres says of the performance. As for the notorious scene in the film in which Rooney Mara devours an entire pie in one take, deTorres says, "We like to make our dancers eat, so there may be a pie scene."

DeTorres, who plans to be working at the Chapel Theatre full time within three years, has been surprised by TriptheDark's staying power.

"I don't know when we started TriptheDark that I personally expected it to last even this long," she says. "Next year will be 10 years, and that seems totally crazy to me. But now, at this point, being nine years in, I can't really imagine not doing it. And I know Stephanie is like, 'We're going to be doing this forever.'"

SEE IT: TriptheDark is at the Chapel Theatre, 4107 SE Harrison St., Milwaukie, See for the website for a full schedule of events and TriptheDark's fall dance classes. The company's A Ghost Story adapation premieres in April.

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