On a gray Tuesday afternoon, power chords tear through an airy dance studio off NE Couch. Santiago Villarreal lurches into an arabesque and seven other dancers march in time to encircle him, like the militant ensemble of a forgotten rock musical. Before long, Cranberries lead singer Dolores O'Riordan cuts in: "Oh, my life / Is changing every day / In every possible way."
"I keep hearing myself say, 'Rough it up a little.' You'd never hear those words come out of my mouth, like, almost ever," says Ihsan Rustem, the person responsible for all the lurching and marching. "I have [choreographed to] songs before. I've done it a couple times here. But this is certainly the grungiest."
For six years, Rustem has been the resident choreographer at NW Dance Project, Portland's lauded contemporary dance company. His latest piece (and 10th for NWDP) is called Linger, and is set exclusively to the music of the Cranberries: hits "Dreams" and "Linger" bookend deeper cuts "Electric Blue," "Hollywood," and "Pretty." After a fairly quick process—Rustem and NWDP's dancers developed the piece in just two week—Linger will come to life on November 5 at the Newmark Theatre as part of NW Dance Project's Fall Premieres.
Rustem has been sitting on the idea of a Cranberries piece for two years now. He planned to put something together pre-COVID, but ended up staying home in Switzerland during the pandemic (where, putting sourdough warriors to shame, he started his own dance company). In program notes and in person, he bills Linger as "an ode to teenage nostalgia."
"I love the Cranberries. I used to be the one that would write every lyric in a book and try to analyze them," Rustem says. “[O'Riordan] has such a unique voice that goes through your skin into your soul.... I just love everything about them. Mainly, they're raw, they're honest, there's not an ounce of it which is not coming from a very pure place."
Rustem's new work will be joined on the program by a new piece from Sarah Slipper, NWDP's founder and artistic director, which also draws inspiration from Irish pop royalty. Hold Me Tight Let Me Go, Slipper's first piece of new choreography since the pandemic began, celebrates the joys, pitfalls, and in-betweens of being together in the same space. Its influences are broad, but two rise to the surface: James Joyce's short story "The Dead" from Dubliners, and Dorothy Parker's 1929 New Yorker piece "But the One on the Right."
"They're very different: one's humorous and satirical, and one's a stream of consciousness," Slipper says. "But there was something about the stories that I wanted to weave, which is, are we really living? Or are we physically going through life, without passion, without love?"
After holding summer auditions, NWDP has assembled an almost entirely new company to perform Rustem and Slipper's pieces. Six of its eight dancers have never worked with group before, one (Jihyun Kim) is returning from last season, and another (Patrick Kilbane) has come back after several years with the BC Ballet in Vancouver. Originally, Hold Me Tight Let Me Go contained mostly group sections, but after learning much of Rustem's piece also utilizes the full ensemble, Slipper changed course.
"I realized it would be a wonderful time for me to get to know the company and what their strengths are, and try to pull them out," she says. So, after beginning with all eight dancers performing in unison, Hold Me Tight Let Me Go breaks apart into a series of dizzying solos and duets. The music ranges from Schubert to Bach to Japanese New Wave composer Shigeru Umebayashi; there's some live singing, a Parker-inspired dinner party, and a section in a snowy graveyard set to a spoken-word passage from "The Dead." It's all remarkably ... free.
Fresh blood, it seems, has been good for Slipper and her cohorts. "There's been so much laughter," Slipper says. "I don't know if that's this group or this generation or our connectivity, but it's certainly making me laugh quite a bit. Laugh at myself a little bit more, maybe not take myself so seriously."
You can see it in the work. Linger throbs with electricity, marrying complex, beat-driven ensemble work with face-reddeningly sensual duets; Hold Me Tight Let Me Go is fluid and beguiling, mixing up laughter with strife until they become indistinguishable. Both feel like the works of seasoned choreographers remembering, in real time, what drew them to dance in the first place, and gripping onto it with the force of people who almost watched their discipline disappear.
"I get those teenage goosebumps, that excitement," Rustem says of watching the company bring the music of his youth to life. "I can't stop moving watching the run, and that's the same groove I had when I was a kid. None of that changes. I just have less hair."
There’s a looseness to him, Slipper, and all eight of their dancers right now that you don’t always see at their level. After a banner-bad year, they’re authentically happy to be back, and their love of dance is palpable. You could say they’re fools for the stuff.
7:30 p.m. Fri–Sat, Nov 5–6, Newmark Theatre, $29–58