Fall Arts Extra

NWDP Director Speaks Volumes

Today, Northwest Dance Project unveils NEW NOW WOW! Sarah Slipper discusses the new work, new troupe—and new tropes.

By Anne Adams September 30, 2010

Culturephile note: Whilst gathering data for our Fall Arts Preview Anne Adams found that she had tons of material leftover from her interviews. Frankly, this stuff was too good to waste, so we decided to give our local arts spokesfolk a chance to tell us more about themselves in a series of Fall Arts extras called Speaks Volumes. Tonight, Sarah Slipper and NWDP will premier their latest piece, NEW NOW WOW!, at the newly-refurbished Lincoln Hall.

We’re observing a studio floor full of glistening, graceful people, sorted in informal clusters, figuring out what to do with themselves. Here, one backbends over another’s thigh. Over there, one demi-pliés, completes a movement, then retracts and redoes it. I’ve caught Sarah Slipper on a demanding dance day, workshopping with choreographers from her Pretty Creatives series and a large group of dancers she’s imported for the two-week intensive that is her Launch:4 project.

Rehearsal Sneak Peek: Loni Landon’s "If You Really Knew Me"

’There’s James Gregg up at the front," Slipper points out, "he’s with BJM dance, and he’ll be coming back to White Bird in the fall, but he’s really interested in choreography right now. He’s one of the winners of the Pretty Creatives. And Loni is gonna come in, who worked in Germany for four years, and went to Juliard—she’s American. Well, they’re both American, but they both have been dancing abroad. This Saturday, they’ll have an 18-hour workshop, and then they’ll present what they came up with in that time." None of these arrangements, Slipper explains, are "business as usual" in the dance world:

Usually, there’s 200 people who’ve flown to New York, auditioning in a big room, and within 10 minutes, you’re asked to leave. They just tap you on the shoulder, and say you’re done. And that person I might have tapped on the shoulder because they didn’t have the perfect feet or the perfect height—might have been actually the one who could do my work the best. And you don’t see that until the end of the audition, where you’re doing material. So that doesn’t work for me, because you’ve somehow got to break through and see a dancer move.

Sometimes they don’t have the perfect body, or perfect fit, but they’re BRILLIANT. And you hear this all the time with artists. That’s what i’m interested in. These people [in front of us] are auditioning, but they’re so relaxed right now! I get them in Portland, get ‘em relaxed, they love it, they trust each other ’cause they’re laughing with each other, and then you start to see their talent. You learn a lot about their work ethic. Can they take 10 hour days? And how do they interact with each other? So you can see how useful this is. You’re developing everybody, you get to see them in the real environment, you get to see how they interact. It’s fantastic.

Rehearsal Sneak Peek: Ihsan Rustem’s "State of Matter"

The first week of the Launch Project, this group of dancers who’s auditioned for us works with all kinds of artistic directors, and they get a feel for their style, or what they’re looking for, or their material—and again, we work with a variety of directors from all over North America and beyond. Then in the second week of the project, the dancers work with the two winners of the Pretty Creatives competition. And those two winners work with them all week, and then we do a public showing. It’s so cool. It’s unbelievalbe. And from there, the idea is I get to see the dancers move in all different kinds of work, and I get to see the two choreographers and how they interact, and whether it’s a good fit for us. It introduces me to new voices. Last year’s choreographer competition winner was Maurice Cause, who’s already created two works for the company, and Lauren Edson, who’s done a short take and another work in the Summer Splendor show we just did.

Most of the group are from Canada and the US, and one of them is from Taiwan and one is from Korea. When I audition them, they have to show a little bit of technique, but then I audition them also moving in two pieces of work, so that I can see other styles. Not just the classical ballet. I get a feel of how else they can move. And that’s what i’m interested in: what else they can show. if they have a background in hiphop, or African, or tap, or jazz, it helps to see them move differently, or improv. It’s a great way to see a dancer. It’s pretty rare in auditions right now, but i can tell you a lot of other companies are starting to emulate us, because they can see the use in it.

Typically we work 24/7; it’s an extraordinary amount of work. I’m the kind of person who’s a doer. To run this organization, if I expect anybody to work for me, I want to filter down a work ethic. I would typically come here around 8:30 in the morning, teach a class, open up emails. I teach the company six days a week, and I’m almost always in the studio creating new work or watching the others create. There’s a world-wide connection, so there’s a lot of office work, a lot of database work. I basically run in and out of the studio all day long. I usually get out of here around 9 o’clock at night. In this economy, I’m very hands-on in the process of everything. It’s not necessarily to control, it’s just—there’s a huge investment in creation. I’m interested in lighting, I’m interested in working with collaborators who have lighting designers…if there’s not something, there’s something. Auditions, I travel, I have to watch a lot of video….I’m weeble-wobbling to get the best out of everyone.

I would say we’re contemporary ballet with an incredible range. They take a ballet class every day, but then it just gets pushed out there. You have someone coming in from Portugal, Montreal, Tucson—their backgrounds are going to be varied; they’re going to leave their mark. I’m really interested in that—the variety. I don’t want a company that’s Sarah Slipper; I really don’t. I love what I try to do, and I try to risk-take. I feel like NWDP is a risk-taking company. We’ll allow someone with a completely different voice to come in and share it. I’m really interested in a variety of voices, and to provide a platform for that. and to see what that does to an artist in the profession is extraordinary. And it makes incredibly valuable artists that then will go out and share it.

We’ve never bought a work. It’s almost like we never know what we’re gonna get. There’ll be kind of a soft ballet aesthetic, or a sharp, fast-paced piece. We’ve produced 85 works in seven years. Part of my role is to facilitate and allow that creative process, just to let the artist create. We don’t ever place expectations or restrictions on our artists.

No frills? Well—few frills. Typically it’s more about the dance. I think, yes. Because we should be able to do a piece not just in a giant theater with a helicopter flying in, we should also be able to do it on the street. And I’m interested in all different areas that you produce dance, as well, to catch people. So then it becomes also about a communication with your audience. It’s not just even about movement; we’re communicating with audience, whether it’s in a shop window, or on a proscenium stage with all the bells and whistles. I like to challenge people, like, "how can you change the space so you don’t need miles and miles of sets? And it’s amazing what you see these artists do.

I’m interested in work that’s scalable. It’s not Sleeping Beauty, it’s not typically going to offer tons of bells and whistles. But if somebody wanted, say, 52 oranges on the stage—we’ll do it. It’s just, the movie helicopter, the airlifted sets—is Broadway. But I am interested in the space where dance is presented. How does your environment challenge the work? How does it allow the audience to come into the work? If we said to a choreographer, "You’re coming in and you’re doing it in this room," it may be surprising that they may have the audience stay outside, they may have you all in here and the dancers are outside—and that adds interest, and I love that. But we still allow them to come and create within that creative dynamic, whatever that canvas is.

We’ve had two seasons at PCPA at the Newmark, and at the new Lincoln Hall, we’re doing our New Now Wow! show—four amazing choreographers. It’s gonna be a show to watch. Those are gonna be the new stars of the WORLD. Not just here. Two choreographers are from Europe, and two are from the US. It’s gonna be an awesome show! We’re varying between the two theaters. We’ll do shows here in the studio, too, ‘cause there’s something about seeing dance right in front of you. Love it. And we’ve got the space, why not? We’ll get more creations out, so it’s awesome. We just tried hosting two weeks here, and those shows sold out! I mean, it’s awesome. This means the community’s coming in.

We did it on the street; we performed on the street out there. We’ve set up outdoor stages, too. We danced in Macy’s department store. We went into Macy’s and we danced in the bedding department, the escalators—people loved it. They loved it. We did it in the makeup department, you know, dancers popping their heads through the handles of the Handbags—awesome.

So we’re going to do these daring performances, but you’re also going to see fearless technique. For example, one of our company dancers, Andrea Parsons just received the Princess Grace Award, and one of her performances that really stood out, was a piece she did for us called Not I. She gets up onstage and she’s just making little movements, and then, out of nowhere, a gallon of water drops on her, and she dances for fourteen minutes, to spoken word, in the puddle. The floor is soaking, she’s soaked, and there’s a video camera, like an eye, watching every move she makes. And it zooms in right on her face, and we have three televisions at the front of the stage and it just looks like it’s her neck up, and it’s set to this incredible, brilliant, absurdist stream-of-consciousness monologue, done by Juliet Stephenson, just nonstop about this woman reflecting on her life.

To sustain a stage for fourteen minutes with no one else on it, and a camera, like this lone figure that just shoots her, that’s like the auditor. It’s a phenomenal task. You dont’ know if that’s gonna work. The audience might just go, "Oh, it’s whatever." But I think it stunned the audience. First of all, they had no idea that this little waif was going to get doused. It shocked them. And then the stream of brutal nonstop verbiage, and just watching this woman struggle. I didn’t know what it was gonna do. Scott [NWDP Executive Director] kept hearing the rehearsals and said, "Oh, god. Halfway through there’s this wrenching scream that happens, and then it happens AGAIN. I can hear the audience just walking out." I said, "If they do, they do—but we’ve gotta try it."So we tried it here in Portland, and I’ve had nonstop feedback about this solo. The audience was stunned, in tears, so moved—I heard it after, she got this amazing review, she held the stage, and that was a risk. Never had done that myself either. Never done it.

In this country, especially in this profession, there’s a need for new work. There’s very little out there right now. Even now, the economy’s ruling it all. I mean, you’re just fighting…to take risks means you might not have anybody in your audience. And this is a period where people need ticket sales, presenters need guarantees, so they want the hits. OBT did nothing new this year because of the economy. They didn’t have the money. So, they’re doing classic stuff this season, because that already has a proven audience. But I’m not all about the tried-and-true, and that either takes craziness, or confidence. And I think perhaps there’s a crazy risk-taking side of me, and I also have courage—it takes courage.

The long-term goal is to make new work that’s more exciting to younger people. There are people who don’t wanna go see classic works like Sleeping Beauty again and again. If I see another ballerina run up to the boy, then run away—like, no. Now what happens is, girl tackles boy. That’s the way it works now. This new work, especially by younger choreographers, is very immediate, very now. So hopefully younger people can relate to it, and that brings in a whole new generation. Because the strictly classical audience is dying out; we’re gonna run out of those people, and we need to replenish the dance audience.

I want you to come see our work. How’m I going to get you to the work? Maybe you can’t afford the ticket price of $30, so how else am I gonna get you to see the work? Well, maybe I can make it cheaper here, or maybe you’re gonna see the piece on the street, or in Macy’s. Or maybe you could do a class; our classes are for anyone. You could come and do a jazz class, Bhangra bollywood, core balance, or hiphop class. We have a huge roster of teachers here. 10, maybe? And some of our company members teach. We employ quite a few people here. And maybe one day, in 20 years, you’re still gonna want to come back.

There is no one in this country that’s doing this kind of work. James Gregg (from a Canadian company, Ballet Jazz in Montreal) just asked me, "What are you guys doing—three or four new works a year?" I said, "Since last year, since we walked into this new home [on N Mississippi Avenue], we’ve done 21 works, long and short." That’s phenomenal. That is crazy. If you’d said to me last year, "You’re gonna do 21 new works," I’d say, "no way. No, no one’s doing that." We do all these small projects as well. But even our big babies. I think you can do a lot with a little. In fact, you inspire creativity that way sometimes, when you don’t have everything to choose from. Some of the artist’s best work happens in a dingy studio with not much there, and they use everything to bring it out. I see that happen to myself, and I see that happen in incredible work that’s created anywhere, not just in dance. Sometimes where there’s the will, and there’s the heart, you’ve got to try to find a way to do it.

One of the first works that I created for this organization was in the Dungeon Studios of Jefferson, and it had an incredible journey. It started with nothing fancy, dank, dark, studios, hot, stuffy, windowless, you’re in there, you’re sweating buckets. It was shown here, and then it went to work with another major ballet company, and then it actually was nominated for the Benoit de la Dance, and was performed in Moscow at the Bolshoy. Would I ever have thought this would appear on the Bolshoy stage, going 32 encores? Never. And yet when I think back to the modest little beginnnings, it’s a great story, and it was a great journey for this piece, and it lives here; everybody’s trying to get it, other companies try to buy it, but it’s funny. I think it all comes back to what I talk about, how i’m interested in the essence of what you’re creating about, because then you have these life stories, and that’s the same with any artist.

And then the other secret is, you just ask. You just ask these brilliant people if they wanna come. When James Canfield comes to town, he teaches here. And many others. It’s not money; it’s not the money. When choreographers and artists come in, we offer them complete artistic freedom and we give them some of the best dancers out there. Our dancers have a good personality with the audiences, they do outreach, work with people, young people, older people. They have a talent to help teach, and have a graciousness with people. They put up with cold theaters, and—you know, they just say, "Okay, let’s get it done." They’re not just clocking in and clocking out. That’s New York City Ballet; that’s a bank. That’s not us. There’s nothing that draws an artist like the freedom to do what they want with a brilliant canvas.

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