Northwest Dance Project is Young Again, on the East Side.
For fans of the company, the annual winter show, In Good Company, is looked forward to, all year round. Their new inner east side neighborhood venue, Revolution Hall, inside Washington High School, reconnects them to their old friends at Mississippi Studios, both owned by Good George LLC, prior to NWDP’s move from the Mississippi District last year, to NE 10th Ave and Davis, just a walk from the revamped high school. The decision to use this venue was the obvious choice for their site-specific, annual, dancer-choreographed show. Portland’s renowned contemporary dance troop, this time around, offers high school theatre.
Last year, hosted at the downtown Vespa building, they played up the corporate office bit, with a mix of old-time television routines, and perhaps a nod to Mad Men. This year, they fully absorbed the high school theme, dressing in preppy private school uniforms, working from stereotypical young characters: the geek, the clown, and the cool one were discernible. Included with the program is a page of nine high school students: the dancers themselves. Perhaps the characters are founded in their own caricature. Through dance however, they pull all shades of their personalities out for display.
They enter from the main doors, behind the seats, to the bright, swinging jazz of Vince Guaraldi Trio. It seemed improvisational to me, but characteristic of their style, full of sweeping motions and tight coordination. I would imagine that they have developed a great rapport, especially from this annual exercise of collaboration. Andrea Parsons choreographed Welcome to Washington High, only one among seven short pieces, each credited to a different choreographer of the company, featuring as few as two or as many as nine members (all of them).
It’s easy to follow every sketch by following the music; its all broken down in the program. However, I did not do that, electing to watch it all through. They all take to their desks and it appears to be Homeroom, the second bit. Then it’s P.E., Algebra 2, Lunch, Chemistry, and the finale performance, Detention. The effect, by the end, was that all of the teenagers were in some kind of reverie all day and we got to bear witness to it. Perhaps they were remembering things, fantasizing, or thinking — we seemed to get into all of their heads. Or maybe we watched their day go by.
There is a mutual crush between a bashful girl and a geeky guy, and their funny way of expressing desire. Toward the end, a theatrical, interactive “truth or dare” scenario plays out. I was, frankly, a little confused by the acting. They are dancers, so I forgive, but the ages they depicted seemed varied, perhaps by some overdoing the innocence of youth, so that I couldn’t tell if these were high school students or kindergarteners.
I have gathered that the company’s overall intent, possibly a response from the audience, is something upbeat, that satisfies all angles of holiday cheer; the mix of Buddy Holly, Nancy Sinatra, The Celtic Ceili Band, Jerry Lee Lewis, and more (mostly) throwback American pop songs. Add some romantic undertones with a cheerful approach, a virtuosic style that has extended them invitations around the world, and the holiday spirit comes out. I saw a very pleased audience offer their standing ovation.
This time, I tried not to watch my favorite performers (Parson and Wong) and elected actually to watch the men a bit more. That approach eventually let me see them as a whole. They are so engaged and responsive as a team, but maybe competitive too. I feel firm in my view that they are given a lot of freedom in their movement while being disciplined to achieve greater capacity as artists and technicians of the body. In truth, I would have to interview the whole company to confirm this.
If you have never seen NWPD, In Good Company showcases their great talent, so this is as good a time to check them out as any. It is some of the most impressive physical work I have observed, utilizing the full range of opportunities their body offers to exercise expression.
My personal disposition that day was not so holiday cheerful, and by happenstance, I showed up a little late and took a seat toward the back, as compared to last year, when I was ten feet away from them. This made me feel detached. In fact, I found myself really questioning the spectator-spectacle relationship developed into commodified arts. Depressive, yes, but worth considering, and increasingly, contemporary dance and performance arts are breaking down this relationship. So many facets of this show are progressive; it is a site-specific, non-hierarchical, cross-disciplinary collaboration. But in the end, it is structured like a product, as if to commodify the troop — I suppose there is nothing out of the ordinary about this.