Dancing in the Dark

With three weeks and no rules, two European choreographers will make Portland premieres.

IMAGE: Christopher Peddecord

Northwest Dance Project's season opener is a mystery—even to the company.

Since 2009, the company has kicked off each season by bringing in renowned choreographers to create a new work on the fly. After three weeks with free rein and access to some of Portland's best dancers, they have a world premiere. But until the first rehearsal, not even the dancers know what they're getting into.

“We love telling choreographers that they have a platform to do anything that they want,” says artistic director Sarah Slipper. “It has a flavor that is different from all of our other shows.” 

The "flavor" of New Now Wow! is typically edgier and more unpredictable than the rest of the eight-dancer company's season, which continues with the holiday celebration In Good Company and a celebratory Summer Splendors. This year, New Now Wow! promises premieres from Czech choreographer Jiri Pokorny, who started with the State Opera in Prague at age 8, and Scapino Ballet Rotterdam's Felix Landerer.

Pokorny's past shows have dancers in business casual collapsing like their leg bones suddenly snapped or jerking mechanically as if controlled by a giant puppeteer. Landerer—who has choreographed ballets in countries ranging from Brazil to Sweden—is known for works such as Blind Spot, where the stage is in almost complete darkness and strobe lights flash on dancers as they contort.

Anticipating the new choreography racks dancers' nerves, says Ching Ching Wong, a company member who won a Princess Grace Award in August. When Pokorny visited NWDP last year, his dance At Some Hour You Return pushed Wong to her limits.

"The solo that he gave me was one of the most complicated, intricate, musical phrases that I've ever had to learn," Wong said. "Usually you get lots of movement thrown at you, and I can usually absorb it into my body on a certain level. But with his work, I went home that night and all I did was repeat his movement over and over."

Most of Pokorny's choreography is built on fast, isolated movements combined with stark lighting and prominent musicality. The effect is both unsettling in its intensity and magnetic because of its power.

"He has a very interesting way of moving—such speed and such quirkiness between spaces," Slipper says. "He's an incredible mover in his own right."

Meanwhile, Landerer likes burrowing into the dismal and unknown, explaining his popular The End of Things for Hannover Ballet's Commedia Futura as a moving question: "How can we live with death right before our eyes?"

Feeding Monsters, Drop of Doubt, Traumatorium—the list of his contemporary ballets reads like a list of childhood nightmares, and he populates them with characters like a sorcerer who "enters the humans and the animals," as Landerer's description explains, "and feeds himself on human emotions."

New Now Wow! will stage one work that isn't completely new, for the first time reprising the theatrical Mother Tongue by the company's first resident choreographer, Ihsan Rustem. The work was inspired by Rustem's sudden feeling of belonging when he visited Istanbul after growing up in London, far from his Turkish heritage. The piece alternates between well-lit soloists slithering on the ground and couples silhouetted in statuesque poses.

“I think that theme of home always comes with some anxiety, but also excitement,” says Wong. “We’re all just trying to find how we fit, where we fit.” 

GO: New Now Wow! is at Portland State University's Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Oct. 22-24.

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