At the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland Thursday night, before the show got underway at Northwest Dance Project’s Louder than Words, Artistic Director Sarah Slipper and Executive Director Scott Lewis had announcements to make. Firstly, the troupe had just returned from two weeks in Germany, where they performed with “sold out shows and standing ovations.” The dancers were applauded, as was the behind-the-scenes team when the lighting director and costume designer among others were graciously thanked. Then the night’s World Premiere by Choreographer Ihsan Rustem was introduced followed by the announcement that he will be the Resident Choreographer for the next three years which audibly thrilled the audience. Lastly, Mr. Lewis announced that the new Northwest Dance Project building in Northeast Portland (211 NE 10th Ave.) was only days away from completion and would be opening it’s doors at the end of this month.
The mood was undeniably one of celebration and the three performances of the night, Blue, Casual Act, and Yidam, provide a collection of dance that serves a fitting tribute to the troupe, two being popular past original works, and the third a world premiere. They demonstrate contemporary dance as being both classic and poised, showcasing the fine-tuned skills of each dancer, and as audacious and progressive, as the choreography confidently flexes and executes a wide range of territory.
It began with Blue, by Lucas Crandall. Dancers huddled at the corner of the stage, all wearing identical long, aqua-blue skirts. At first, they all appear topless–men and women–in the dim light and as eight sets of arms slowly reach upward, tracing spirals in the air, and I can’t tell between the men and women. I was grateful that the costume designer was acknowledged at the beginning for the visual aspect here. The expertly crafted costumes give the illusion of a uniformed nudity, blending men and women together–the sinuous lines of curving backs–giving the dance an ethereal, primitive beauty.
I absorb Blue passively and let the mythical ambiance infiltrate my mind, from the minimal music to the misty quality of blue light. I trace the serpentine movements of the illusory nude figures on stage. After attending a few dance performances over the last few months, I try not to dig out a narrative tonight, or interrupt my experience with the impatient search for a meaning that distracted those first few attendances. Blue lets you simply enjoy the intricacies of the choreography from a distance as it moves together in dreamlike fluidity, made all the more beautiful by the various designs and techniques of the creative team.
And it preps you nicely, like a smooth drink before a big meal, for the next performance. Casual Act by Sarah Slipper changes the pace and presents the audience with a plot, one that does not require too much prodding to figure out. It is based on a play called Betrayal, by Harold Pinter. It shows two couples in dinner party-like apparel (cocktail dresses and sweaters) confronting, fighting, sneaking, hiding, pacing: exhibiting all the behavior that erupts after long-developing infidelities and a history of lies are revealed. The plot is familiar. We’ve all read or seen countless stories of entwined affairs and love triangles, often played out in the suspense-amplifying setting of close quarters. But the execution here is not familiar. What replaces the often predictable dialogue of these stories is dance, the characters responding to each other in a way so viscerally expressive that seems apt as it mirrors the actions of the betrayals themselves: most times, words cannot explain the motivations leading people to cheat or lie, and following suit, words cannot encompass the grief, the loss, and the agony these breaches cause.
In fact there are a few lines uttered here by the dancers as they exclaim something over one another at the beginning and later again by a solo dancer, but they are not easy to make out. I just detect the familiar desperate and angry tones of futile arguments. It doesn’t matter what was said and it leads the audience to consider if there really is anything to say in a situation like this. Haven’t the actions rendered words obsolete?
As the music shifts from the lone piano to violin chords, the various reactions to the betrayal unfold in dance. In the middle of the stage, there are three walls connected at obtuse angles, one wall with a window and one with a door. The door is seldom passed through, which seems symbolic of the entrapment and restriction these people feel, and the window acts as a screen to view the wordless arguments of one or another that the couple play out. It also serves as a perch for our dancers to look out longingly, searching for a way out of their present situations, away from a lover, into the arms of another, or to reconquer the affection of an unfaithful lover.
Andrea Parson dances as the woman caught between two men. She brings so many layers to this role as she reacts to her partner with hostility and perhaps a feigned detachment. She is trying to flee him. He cannot reach her and spends the time trying to hold onto her like a fallen bar of soap. She resists him, snakes through the loops made by his arms as if to look for ways out.
I found myself eagerly awaiting for the moment when she would physically connect with the man she yearns for, the male member of the other couple. There is a sexual suspense in her watching him from the window, in her pent-up resistance to her other partner, and I find myself anxious to see it released in her lover’s arms. And they do ultimately dance, and the plot swerves, revealing more secrets, culminating into a tense but exhilarating montage of scenes where the wall is constantly rotating, exposing each dancers’ private anguish and desires.
The wall set in motion by the dancers steers us through these final revelations, set to Massive Attack’s Live With Me. The deep vocals and bluesy bellows makes it all feel unapologetically sexy and sensual, even as the dancers move not to the music, but in tune with their jolts of pain and confusion. The lyrics’ bare confessions and pleas (I’ve been thinking about you baby, Come live with me) ask for surrender, as if to say, this pain is all part of being together.
Lastly, the world premiere, Yidam, by Ihsan Rustem opens with a thunder-like crash and the entire troupe is on stage as the curtain steadily drops. It doesn’t rise, but comes down, rafter and all, and lays on the stage floor. The costumes are gray slacks and white tops for both men and women. There is a futuristic ambiance. The awesome techniques of lighting are on display here and it is fascinating to observe how discreetly it changes but how it shifts the entire visual experience. A backdrop is at once illuminated in bright, white gray light and the dancers are black silhouettes against it. Then the lighting changes again, spotlighting the dancers. It adds to an uncertain and chaotic feel.
This is a performance I want to see again. I feel like I need to see again. After Casual Act, I was still wrapped up in the drama there and it spread into my take of this last performance. It served as an unintentional epilogue for me. The dancing is different here, more comprehensive, and the troupe often moves collectively following quick choreography that mimics the mounting music but I couldn’t help but see it as the residual chaos of Casual Act trying to form into a conclusive ending. The stage is literally made to look like it is crumbling around the dancers, with parts of the floor peeling up and the fallen curtain. That soft blue light of Blue is nowhere, with shades of white, black and grey now ominously filling the scene. It is not soft with fantasy or seductive with mystery. Nothing is hiding anymore.
The dancers keep dancing amidst the destruction and I think of the cycle of falling in and out of love, the perseverance of the heartbroken and the betrayed. That feeling of celebration at the beginning of the night stayed intact at the end, and I felt like not only was there a need to celebrate the range of these dancers, the application of choreography to contexts and scenes of all kinds, but to the endurance of people in the face of things that words can’t express. Congrats to Northwest Dance Project and here’s to all forms of expression and art, getting us through some hard times. Louder Than Words is a thrilling, beautiful production, and runs one more time tonight, at Newmark Theatre.