Northwest Dance Project joins the PDX renaissance

Wen Wei Wang / "Chi" / 2009. Photo: Blaine Covert

Above and below: “Chi,” by Wen Wei Wang, Northwest Dance Project, summer 2009. The Project dances downtown Friday and Saturday. Photos: Blaine Covert

It’s not all about Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Sure, the OBT story’s fascinating. Scrappy little company grows into rising national star. Stumbles into economic abyss. Gets saved by outpouring of bucks and extravaganza featuring top dancers from around the country. Dumps its executive director after noisy staff revolt. A day later, triumphs onstage. It’s like Pauline’s perils. Or the Comeback Kid. And there could be cliffhangers yet to come.

But while OBT’s sucked up most of the attention, Portland’s been enjoying a modest renaissance of dance. The two big pieces are OBT — a sterling company in spite of its backstage adventures — and White Bird, the presenting company that’s rejuvenated the city’s contemporary dance scene by bringing in a lot of the best the world has to offer.

And there’s much more.

The popular dance/movement troupe BodyVox, which tours the country, has opened its new dance center in Northwest Portland. Another contemporary troupe, Polaris, has its own new digs. The Portland Ballet, a well-regarded training company, is once again readying its charming holiday production of La Boutique Fantasque — this time with live accompaniment from the Portland State University Symphony performing Rossini’s playful score. Ghe downtown dance center Conduit, despite its own bump in the road, continues to serve the contemporary scene well. Veterans such as Mary Oslund, Josie Moseley, Gregg Bielemeier and Linda Austin are creating vital new work. Movement-inspired theater companies like Do Jump and Imago (which reopens its innovative teeter-totter version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit on Friday, with a terrific-looking cast) cross disciplines audaciously. Mike Barber’s Ten Tiny Dances pop up all over town. The aerialists of Pendulum Dance Theatre keep on floating new ideas. Newcomers like POV Dance, which specializes in site-specific work, are turning out some dizzying stuff — in the case of POV’s August piece at the Conduit benefit, literally: The performers were poking over and out from the four-story open stairwell at the Pythian Building as the audience gazed over guardrails, stomachs flipping.

What we have here, folks, is a scene.

And there’s more. Like, for a pretty big instance, Northwest Dance Project, the brainchild of choreographer and teacher Sarah Slipper, which got its start in 2004. Slipper, a Canadian who did her training there and in London and danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, came to Portland as ballet mistress for OBT back in the James Canfield days. Although deeply rooted in classical ballet, her temperament, like Canfield’s, is more contemporary.

photo: BLAINE COVERTNorthwest Dance Project began as a summer training program for young and mostly professional dancers, ages 16-25, who came to town from across the country to work with leading national choreographers for a few weeks and then put on an end-of-workshop public performance.

That still happens. Dancemakers such as Canfield (now at Nevada Dance Theatre in Las Vegas), Nashville Ballet’s Paul Vasterling, Bebe Miller, Susan Gaudreau of BJM Dance Montreal, Lucas Crandall of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre have offered classes.

But things have expanded. Now the Project has an eight-member resident company that does some touring: It’s doing a residency next month at the Flying E Ranch, a 20,000-acre working dude ranch in Arizona’s Sonoran desert that also hosts arts groups, and follows that with a performance in Tucson. And it’ll perform Friday and Saturday nights at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland.

This summer the Project moved into its own new studio space in a handsome old ballroom just off North Mississippi Avenue at 833 North Shaver Street, right across from the popular Equinox Restaurant and Bar and barely a skip from the hot spots Gravy and Cup & Saucer Cafe. This part of town is hopping, and a lot of people peek in from the sidewalk to watch the dancers jump. The studio’s bathed with natural light from its big windows, and out back, behind the studio mirrors, the view opens to a sweet little pocket park. It’s a good place to call home.


Slipper loves the ground-floor proximity of the studio to the neighborhood. “I want to do a lot of things here,” she says. “I want other people to do things here.”

This weekend’s program will include four world premieres — by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, artistic director of New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet (Cedar Lake will also be in town next May on the White Bird season); by Andrea Miller, artistic director of Gallim Dance; by Edgar Zendejas, artistic director of Montreal’s ezdanza; and by Slipper herself.

Slipper’s excited, and a little nervous, and maybe a little stressed: She’s taken the plunge, and she wants to be sure the water’s not too cold. As with almost every arts group, money’s a concern. She’s taken a three-year lease on the ballroom space with a three-year option to renew. That’s a commitment.

But moving the company into its own space, she’s convinced, was vital: “Are we a project? Are we classes? What are we? This gives us an anchor. An identity.”

So it does. I dropped into the studio on Tuesday afternoon, and things were humming. Cedar Lake’s Pouffet, a strong, compact man with gently inquisitive eyes and a surprisingly soft handshake, is working with the company. Executive director Scott Lewis slips in and out, dealing with programs and other details. Lighting designer extraordinaire Jeff Forbes drops by and Slipper nabs him. “Talk to me before you leave,” she says. “We need to talk about December.” A woman wanders in from the street, holding out a handful of slightly bedraggled flowers. She smiles sweetly. Would anyone like them in exchange for bus fare?

Like almost all modern and contemporary dancers these days, the company does ballet routines every morning: It’s excellent training, and good for flexibility. But Slipper’s interests are whole-body and involve sorts of movements not usually seen in neoclassical ballet: squats, twists, tangles, contortions. Traditional ballet, she believes, just doesn’t do enough.

“I think what ballet dancers don’t understand is how much they can use their torsos,” she says. “That’s something that contemporary choreographers are really discovering. Ballet concentrates so much on the extremities.”

No such inhibitions here. These dancers are sprawled on the floor, perched on each others’ backs, locked in embrace, twisted like pretzels at the Old Ball Game. They’re young, and they’re not paid much, but they’re open and ambitious, and right now the focus of Slipper’s dreams. “My whole priority right now is them,” she says. “They have to be able to work.”

She pauses and thinks about what might be.

“I saw the show in August and I thought — we gotta get these dancers outta here. Tour,” she says. “They could go to Europe, anywhere. These dancers need to be seen.”

This weekend they’ll be travelling downtown to the Newmark. You can see for yourself.