Portland Dance Is Back on Its Feet, Says NW Dance Project's Sarah Slipper

NW Dance Project is having a major moment—in the US and beyond. As their biggest show of the season opens, artistic director Sarah Slipper talks about tough times for Portland dance, and why there’s so much hope for its future.

By Fiona McCann March 17, 2016

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Sarah Slipper: "Our dance community really took some hits these past few years, so I’m very glad to see the community getting back on its feet."

NW Dance Project is having a pretty good year. With four Princess Grace Award winners in the company, they’re just back from a national showcase at New York’s Joyce Center, where they were one of eight dance companies in the country selected to represent American contemporary dance. As their biggest show of season, Louder Than Words, opens tonight, artistic director Sarah Slipper talks Syria, space, and standing ovations.

Tell us about your experience at the American Dance Platform.

It was phenomenally successful for us. It was incredibly exciting, and it was our first time on the Joyce stage, so it was really important. We got a standing ovation in the middle of the show!

And it’s had incredible repercussions for us. Right away after the shows, we were selected to be in a festival in Houston called Dance Salad, alongside the Royal Ballet of Flanders, the National Ballet of Canada, and Spellbound from Italy. And we’re going to Europe in the fall twice, and our agent is already booking 2018—the company is really having an incredible surge nationally and internationally. And the most exciting thing is that everything we share with the world, Portland sees it first!

Speaking of which, Louder Than Words (March 17—19) features a world premier from NW Dance Project’s new resident choreographer, British-born Ihsan Rustem, alongside Airys, a piece you choreographed, and Trace in Loss from Brazilian Alex Soares.

It’s the biggest show of the year, and we’re doing two revivals. The first is Airys, which premiered in the Newmark in 2012. It’s a very dramatic, emotional work, and it has some political commentary on the current state of the world. It was developed at a time when the world was not in a good place, particularly Syria—Airys is Syria spelled backwards. So when you see the world four years later, and how much is still going on, with all the migrant problems, the work is ironically almost more relevant.

We’re also reviving a work from Alex Soares from Brazil—he’s a musician, he’s a photographer, he involves video and multimedia. He’s got a lot of talents and he brings that to the work. And then we have Ihsan’s world premiere.

Can you tell us more about that piece?

I asked Ihsan if he would be willing to do a closing piece, and said, “How can we make this lighter, perhaps more whimsical?” He said it was outside his box, but he wants to take risks. That’s how we grow as artists. And [the piece] is great! It’s very different for him.

So you wanted to balance the emotional weight of Airys with something lighter?

There’s an arc you want to try and take an audience through. And you cannot maintain high energy all evening. When you’re trying to do multi voices, you want to take someone on a voyage, and you need something very visually different and emotionally stimulating in a different way than another work. So yes, it was a part of the vision I was trying to create.

You moved last year to your new, 8,500-square-foot space in Northeast Portland. How have you settled in?

We were one of the first to really lose our space, and it was such a worry, but in the end, not only is it large, we have one of the biggest studios on the West Coast—in the country, practically. It’s massive! It’s an incredible creative center.

As you mentioned, dance companies were particularly affected by Portland's boom and rising real estate costs, with Conduit and Polaris now in new spaces too, and Oregon Ballet Theatre having moved to the South Waterfront. 

Most people were ousted because either the rents went through the roof, or because of development. And I think the whole community has suffered for it. Everybody’s getting back on their feet now, but this is creating the fabric of Portland. You want vibrancy in a city that you chose to live in, and to have the creative class in the city. It’s incredibly important to quality of life, to the culture. Yes, our dance community really took some hits these past few years, so I’m very glad to see the community getting back on its feet.

NW Dance Project has spent 12 years building to this point of success and recognition. What’s next?

I think the company is having a slow march, and one of the things that has made this place survive and have so much success is the commitment of everybody that works and helps and assist and volunteers. It’s hard work, but the company, the dancers, have a strong focus. I think that will take us forward.

We’re always reaching for the next thing. We’re looking for a greater audience, so that more people get to share with the audience, share what dance is to them Mostly the thing is to keep a strong community and share with the world. So that we’re here, fiscally, responsibly, but also creatively, and that we’re keeping our mission of taking risk and keeping dance moving forward.

Louder Than Words is at the Newmark Theatre from March 17—19.

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