When Portland’s Northwest Dance Project finally makes its Canadian debut at the Cultch this month, it will bring its passionate artistic director, Sarah Slipper, full circle.
As a little girl growing up in Vancouver, she saw her first dance performance at the historic East Side theatre. “On a wet, rainy Vancouver night, I dragged my mom to see Anna Wyman [Dance Theatre],” Slipper tells the Straight over the phone from her Portland headquarters.
Slipper would also train with Wyman’s dance school, but it would be a long, long road back to the Cultch. She was a dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, later moving to the Oregon artistic hub to work as a ballet mistress, freelance as a choreographer, and eventually, in 2004, launch the Northwest Dance Project to fill what she saw as a big gap.
“I found a huge void in new work in this country, and there still is, because a lot of it is so economy-driven,” she explains. “People were so aware of putting bums in seats that there was a demand for commercial hits, and I found there was not only not enough opportunity for new work, but also for risk-taking new work.” Slipper jokes that if you wanted to create a Peter Pan, you’d have lots of work. “I didn’t want to do Peter Pan,” she deadpans.
In setting up her company, she refused to make it a one-choreographer outfit. “I don’t think one choreographer can do it all,” she says. “I always wanted it to be a platform for what choreographers want to do. And there’s risk in that: sometimes it doesn’t work. But I believe in order to find brilliant work, you have to provide a platform.”
At the same time, Slipper has built a solid company of dancers who have a grounding in ballet technique but are open to being pushed. “I’m looking for a dancer who is fit and can move like no tomorrow because that’s what the choreographer wants.”
Northwest has lived up to its promise, commissioning an almost unbelievable 160 new works over the past decade and attracting some of the hottest established and emerging choreographers from North America and Europe on its solid reputation.
In its show here, called Best of Now and part of a tour and season celebrating its 10th anniversary, audiences will get to see some of Slipper’s own work. She’s created an intimate duet called MemoryHouse, performed by Princess Grace Award–winning dancers Franco Nieto and Andrea Parson, with a finale that allows them to choose the way they’ll end the piece. The program also features acclaimed Vancouver choreographer Wen Wei Wang, an example of one of the rising talents she’s nabbed early and formed a bond with over the years. The company brings his work Chi here. A piece by Batsheva Dance Company alumna Danielle Agami rounds out the program.
The company has found a fertile home in Portland, which is also headquarters for the acclaimed White Bird Dance series. Northwest Dance Project performs in multiple venues and public spaces throughout the year.
“As a Canadian I love living in Portland. I love the creative class here,” Slipper says. “It’s very liberal, very progressive, with a lot of dance going on.” And then, of course, there’s the food—a culture all its own in the city. “This is a place where the pour of coffee becomes an art form.”
Although Slipper admits corporate and private arts funding in Portland can pose a challenge, drawing audiences is not a struggle. “People will go see new work here,” she says. “It’s got an energy unlike many American cities and it’s getting a reputation for that. It’s a great place to situate a dance company and has a great quality of life for our artists.” So, while she’s thrilled to be making a big homecoming with her tour, don’t expect Sarah Slipper to be moving back here anytime soon.
Northwest Dance Project’s Best of Now is at the Cultch from Thursday to Saturday (March 6 to 8).