Let me start this review by reminding you all where my dance lover’s heart resides: in Portland. More specifically, with NW Dance Project. I simply adore this company, more than I can say, and was absolutely heart broken that my inability to plan well cost me the opportunity to see their fall show in October, and the final performance of the marvelous Ching Ching Wong. So, when I realized there was a winter show, I simply had to drive myself down to see it, because not only would I get to see my beloved NW Dance Project dancers do what they do best, but it was a relaunch of Ihsan Rustem’s Bolero +, which as you’ll recall from my review of the premier, it is one of my all time favorite pieces I’ve ever seen. And I love me some Billie Holliday, so to Portland I trekked.
The evening started on a wonderful high, dining with two of my favorite people on the planet at the nearby Raven & Rose (I highly recommend you check that out, btw), and then off to the performance hall we went. As I took my seat, and looked through the program, I saw that the choreographers for the Billie part of the program were the dancers themselves! And Artistic Director, Sarah Slipper explained during her curtain speech that at NW Dance Project, they are not only developing outstanding dancers, but also the next generation of choreographers, so the winter show is the time in the season where the dancers get to flex their creative, choreographic muscles. Intrigued? So was I. So let’s get into it, shall we?
So Billie came first, and it was set to a montage of songs sung by the incomparable Billie Holiday. And the dancers set up a scenario of a holiday party where Billie is the musical act, and the cast of characters navigate their way through the evening as Ms. Holiday sings all the feelings, and for me, this program took me on a rollercoaster of an experience with some lovely highs, and some unfortunate lows.
Concept and design were two of the major high points! I loved the lighting, the minimal set, and the single old microphone with a single spot light on it where I could almost see the ghost of Billie Holiday standing there crooning. The costumes were era specific, fit beautifully, and seriously, nobody wears a fedora like my beloved Franco Nieto! Bellissimo! The show opens with the entire company slowly entering the party, where each dancer played out a different character (some as couples, some as hopeful singles looking to meet someone new, some as smooth swaggering studs) and all were wonderfully done. Good acting all the way around. An outstanding start.
And from there the dancers navigated through 13 different pieces each set to a different song, and each song brought a new level of intensity and catastrophe because the characters were getting drunker by the 8 count. And to be frank, the more the program went on, the more my stress level went up, because in the first few numbers, the intentions were clear, the narrative of each piece beautifully danced and executed, and the story was believable. But as the program went on, intentions got muddy, the narrative got confusing, and the story took a weird tangent before it found its way back.
I found Kody Jauron’s choreography on Franco Nieto during the Leonard Feather announcement section in the first half of this piece particularly stunning. A short piece, but very powerful and impactful all at once. Then, be still, my dance lover’s heart, not only are Elijah Labay and Franco Nieto two of my favorite dancers, but seeing the beauty they created in their first pieces set to What A Little Moonlight Can Do and Summertime respectfully put them on the list of future choreographers I will no doubt fall in love with because the work was good! Creative, flowing movements, that matched the easy, haunting beauty that flows from Billie’s voice, fully embracing the sultry tempos, and utilizing the stage and the light to really showcase the music as well as the dancer. Loved it! And this was my first time seeing Katherine Disehof perform, and she absolutely won my heart dancing Mr. Labay’s piece. What a wonderful addition to the company!
Although I must say, my favorite piece in the first half of this program was created by Lindsey McGill to On the Sunny Side of the Street. This piece, danced by Mr. Jauron, Mr. Nieto, and the always stunning Andrea Parson was witty and fun, and to be honest, was such a nice wrap up from the pieces that came before it, I thought it was the finale piece. Ooops! But in my defense, it was such a well rounded creation, with a strong story, clear and crisp phrases that highlighted the talents of each of these dancers, and the whole company was involved, and the piece was beautiful and amazing and it just felt like a perfect end to a party on a high note! I was really impressed, and look forward to seeing more choreography from Ms. McGill in the future.
Sadly for me, that was where the magic ended for a bit, because as the program went on, the dance, the dancers, and the energy got extremely frantic and uncontrolled to an uncomfortable level. As the characters got deeper into the party, I felt the dancers got too deep into their characters as to forget that the dancer must control the dance to ensure that no one gets hurt. And to be frank, I was seriously concerned during a couple of lifts because the landings, or better phrased, the falls, were completely out of control. Additionally, there was a lot of pushing and falling going on, and either the fallers weren’t falling where they were supposed to, or the catchers weren’t where they were supposed to be, but something felt very chaotically off, and I had a hard time relaxing and enjoying the show as I was worried about my beloved dancers getting broken out there! One moment in particular, where Mr. Jauron was launched into the air with such reckless abandon, that he landed, stumbled, and fell quite loudly onto the stage (and I wasn’t sitting that close!), the impact had me clutching my pearls and the leg of my friend sitting next to me out of sheer fright for my favorite sprite’s tail bone!
The story also moved on to include a brawl between Mr. Labay and Mr. Jauron, and while I adore them both, I don’t think either of them have ever thrown a punch, or have been punched in their lives, cuz the movement was completely over the top, and not in a dramatic artistic way, but in a “I think this is how drunk people would brawl” kind of way. So many unrealistic falls, and pulled punches, it was rough to watch. Stage combat is a true craft, and getting it right is a challenge, and I hope in the future, should any fight sequences be utilized in the winter shows where the company choreographs themselves, that they’ll recall the beauty and grace with which they pulled that off during Carmen, and emulate that style more than what I saw on Saturday night.
So the midsection was a bit all over the place, including a very uncomfortable spoken word section that felt very forced, and out of place because there was no Billie beneath this section, and it just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the storyline.
However, as the company approached the end, they won back my heart through the lithe and graceful lines of Samantha Campbell and Anthony Pucci dancing to Mr. Jauron’s choreography once again. These two, the most adorable storyline of the night, tugged on my hopeless romantic heartstrings as these two adorable lonely souls find each other, and danced so beautifully together that it truly re-anchored the show into what it started out as: beautiful movement gliding and flowing around the stage while Billie Holiday croons on all around them. This section, was, in a word, lovely.
And the finale, set appropriately to I’ll Be Seeing You, was a wonderful bookend to the beginning of the show. Character appropriate exits, tons of good acting, witty movement and humor, wrapped the show up in a pretty decent bow.
All in all, my biggest cheer for Billie was the main concept of a Billie Holiday holiday party, and it was when numbers strayed from that concept and/or pushed the concept too far into the ridiculous that it didn’t work for me. Choreography is a different animal from performing, and I applaud the dancers for taking this on, and I applaud Ms. Slipper for giving her dancers this opportunity to explore this side of their creativity and grow as artists. While the entire company looked like they were having fun up on the stage throughout every section of Billie, with stronger editing and conceptualization from start to finish to ensure there aren’t random tangents that don’t fit, this show could turn into something timeless, and I hope to see a stronger edited show next winter, because I’ll definitely be back to see what new creation these dancers come up with next time.
Now, onto Bolero+….(those dots are me heavy sighing)….where to begin….this is a relaunch, and I was sooooooooooo excited to see this piece again, although Ching Ching Wong had such an epic part in the original, so I was already going into it like, who was going to dance her part, and how would that look, and all those wonderings you do when you follow a dance company as closely as I follow NW Dance Project. So upon arrival, I was given a tip that sadly, there was a snafu with the body paint, and so the dancers would be dancing the whole thing in the costumes from Mother tongue, which are black pants, shirtless for the men, and flesh toned bandeau tops for the women. And my heart sunk.
The body paint is the main design component of the piece, and when painted on the dancers, creates this fluid, sensual, naughty kaleidoscope of sorts that pulls you into the piece as you are almost hypnotized by the paint patterns on perfectly taut bodies. So to not have the paint on the dancers, and instead have them all in garments literally devoid of color, well to be honest, it was weird. It was like going from seeing it in Ultra HD Technicolor to seeing it again in black and white. Picture seeing the Wizard of Oz, except when Dorothy gets to Oz, the color doesn’t show up. It’s just black and white the whole time. Something about the body paint added to the camp and wit of the piece and without it, the piece just didn’t have the depth of concept I got in the original.
There were also some tech challenges with the flower props/drops, missed lighting cues, and ill-fitting pants for a few of the men. It was like going from a campy flirty rom com to a dark, strange film noir. I preferred it as the former.
On the upside, the choreography is still brilliant, and I will say again, I was highly impressed with the new dancers, Mr. Pucci and Ms. Disenhof. They definitely hold their own with the dynamic dancers of NW Dance Project. Their stealth technique and gorgeous lines add to those of the company, and they performed Mr. Rustem’s movement very well. I am very excited to see what all they are capable of in future programs!
Overall, I always enjoy being at the Lincoln Performance Hall watching my favorite dance company, because a day I get to watch these wonderful dancers dance is better than a day I don’t, and Saturday was no exception. The rollercoaster ride of this show left me with some lovely highs and some opportunities where I see growth for the company, and as a fan of the company, that is exciting to find out what new heights they will grow to from each experience.
I can’t wait to come back in the Spring and see what they do next, and until then, as always, I leave my heart in Portland with these amazing artists, and I will gladly make the trek from Seattle any time I can to see them perform.
Well, that’s all on this one. Here’s me wishing everyone who reads this a very happy holidays and wonderful New Year, and to NW Dance Project, I send you all my love and support! I will see you all in the Spring to meet Hedda and find out what she’s all about!
Ciao for now,
Photos from NW Dance Project’s Facebook page