Thanks to its towering columns, the First National Bank Building on Southwest 5th Avenue looks imperious and intimidating. Yet when NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper toured the space, she became inspired.
"There are pockets of history and then there are pockets of contemporary," says Slipper, "and we want to use that energy to transform the stories we're telling."
That's what NW Dance Project is doing with Trip the Light Fantastic, an extravaganza of dance, music, acting and puppetry that will turn the building into an epic stage. It is an event that will serve not only as a celebration of NW Dance Project's 15th anniversary, but also as a chance for the company to do what it does best: bring contemporary dance to unexpected locations.
The First National Bank Building, which is now the Portland office of the tech company Expensify, was completed in 1916, 88 years before NW Dance Project was founded. Yet a recent remodel has imbued the historic building with a distinctly modern vibe. Glass walls and railings give it a clean, minimalist look, and a four-story atrium gives the space Bruce Wayne levels of grandeur.
Trip the Light Fantastic was born when a parent of a NW Dance Project ballet student and employee of ZGF—the architecture firm that partnered with Expensify to redesign the building—helped bring the dance and tech companies together in hopes they might collaborate. That, combined with the fact that Expensify is a sponsor of the show, could cause skeptics to wonder if the performance is a de facto ad for the company.
Yet NW Dance Project's enthusiasm for its current performance venue seems sincere. Slipper is still geeking out about the possibilities for continuous reinvention the location offers. "That's kind of the magic of being in a live space," she says. "There are things that get created with the audience right there."
That creating is being done by Slipper and her fellow choreographers, Ihsan Rustem and Oregon Ballet Theatre's founding artistic director, James Canfield. Slipper is working on a series of duets, Canfield is crafting a dance that will feature giant butterfly puppets, and Rustem is meticulously planning a piece that, for now, remains a mystery.
Everyone who sees Trip the Light Fantastic will have the opportunity to see performances throughout the building. Former NW Dance Project star Viktor Usov will guide the audience to myriad points, but some parts of the show will be on repeat, allowing viewers to wander and explore at their own pace. According to the company, it will be possible to see most of Trip the Light Fantastic from the main floor—the only part of the building where there will be places to sit—but it will be necessary to move about the space to fully experience the production.
Giving choreographers complete creative freedom is one of NW Dance Project's most treasured values. In the case of Trip the Light Fantastic, that meant resisting the urge to tie the entire endeavor together with some kind of narrative—there's no thematic thread designed to relate Canfield's piece, which will be in the basement, to the ballet students who will be performing on the fourth floor, for instance.
NW Dance Project's executive director, Scott Lewis, says Slipper "kind of absolved herself of the idea of trying to make a through line." If there is any connective tissue, he says, it's the question of "How does the space inspire these dance artists and other artists?"
Creating a coherent performance meant working in multiple locations. "The work in the studio was like a flowing first draft," Slipper says. "Once we moved them into Expensify, I was able to edit and mold each section to the actual space so the works and dancers were able to truly and comfortably inhabit their homes."
It was also important to Slipper to make Trip the Light Fantastic a show that wasn't just about dancing. It will also include non-dance events, like a cooking show featuring actress Susannah Mars and involving one of the dancers getting covered with ingredients.
Trip the Light Fantastic presents artistic and logistical challenges for its creators. But it also upholds NW Dance Project's tradition of bringing dance into unlikely realms. "Dance is always appropriate," Lewis says. "It was appropriate at the corner of Northwest 13th and Glisan during first Thursday, when we were performing in early support of the arts tax. It's appropriate in an art gallery. It's appropriate at Expensify. We are not afraid to take dance off the stage and put it in the real world."
Bringing dance out of a performance hall means Trip the Light Fantastic will evolve, and each performance of the show may be slightly different. That's what promises to make it so fascinating—for all the planning and masterminding, there will still be unknowns.
"It's not a traditional format where you're in a theater where you have an experience sitting down with a curtain and beautiful lighting," Slipper says. "You don't need to create that. This space has its own energy."
SEE IT: Trip the Light Fantastic is at the First National Bank Building, 401 SW 5th Ave., nwdanceproject.org. 7 pm Thursday and Friday, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 28-March 2. $75-$250.