BECKET — NW Dance Project, the terrific little contemporary dance company from Portland, Oregon that's making its Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival debut this week — is both sophisticated and friendly. Directed by Sarah Slipper, the Portlandians perform their international repertoire with sincerity and sweat and a good deal of charm that knows no borders.
This level of personality is important, since so many of the works in this generation of choreographers blur in the memory. I don't mean that these dance makers are subpar, only that it's rarer for a new dance to be both good and truly unique. On this program of four works, three started out visually in more or less the same way, with a man and a woman in stark poses, illuminated in pools or strips of light. Though each is a striking tableau, and particularly so with Jeff Forbes' expert lighting designs— dramatic here and reticent there, with perfect visual pitch throughout the entire program—such obvious similarities are underlined when placed back to back to back.
Fortunately, that trio of dances do assert and then maintain their own individualities. The evening travels along an interesting mood spectrum, beginning with the darkest, Felix Landerer's 2016 "Post-Traumatic-Monster." While the menace of the title refers to the metaphoric fallout from an abusive relationship, here it's given a physical presence in the somber ensemble that serves as a driving force between the lead couple, Ching Ching Wong and Franco Nieto. Landerer successfully depicts the conflicting pull that desire — even in the face of harm — can impose. Even we, as viewers, are faced with the dichotomy of passively watching what is undeniably gorgeous movement — Wong and Nieto's main duet builds on the ensemble's buttery movements, with transitions from the floor to upright or even aloft positions so seamlessly that you'd miss them in a blink — and acting as enablers of a sort when some of the partnering is surely violent. The tantalizing last image, however, suggests hope: the ensemble is now gathered behind Wong and they've clearly got her back.
The tone of Jiri Pokorny's 2014 "At Some Hour You Return" isn't so easy to discern; the cast of six at times flock together, craning preternaturally or creating strange arm positions, the back of one or both wrists placed on their heads, fingers poking up like feathers. In Heather Treadway's fitted, long-sleeved black onesies, at times they conjure a track team from Mars. These peculiarities are almost absurd, while parts of the score — a mix by Sync24, Nicolas Jaar, and Jacaszek — almost cross a line from melancholia to mawkishness. But the innocent miens of the dancers, and the presence of birdsong and gentle sounds of splashing water, made me think of them as creatures, even perhaps shorebirds who are victims of a human-created disaster, their oil-slicked bodies dying slowly. This oddity of a dance is mysteriously, but unmistakably, affecting.
Slipper's 2012 duet "MemoryHouse" likewise contains traces of sadness but also of great joy, now of the very human variety. Nieto is this time paired with the luminous Andrea Parson, and both are magnificent in their is-it-real-or-is-it-a-memory portrayal of intimate love. Both the day-to-day coziness and ho-hum of domesticity is captured through the delightfully simple presence of the apron that Parson takes on and off throughout the dance; the belly laughs they share at a private memory; and the distracted gazes each have to be pulled out of occasionally. Meanwhile, real passion is conveyed in the sumptuous, tactile partnering, but more literally in the moments in which the two share deep kisses. Slipper dares, wonderfully, to push her dance and dancers to a highly charged plane. The flour that Parson pulls by the fistfuls from her apron's pockets is both real, but fanciful, as if she's sprinkling fairy dust over us. The enchantment is enhanced by the Pillow's own natural magic when the large barn doors at the back of the theater are opened and the pair dances under the big evergreen. It's a beautifully romantic, and believable, paean to love.
Ironically, while the fourth dance — resident choreographer Ihsan's Rustem's 2016 Le Fil Rouge — didn't resemble the others, it did look a whole lot like some of the dances by the popular choreographer Cayetano Soto. But Rouge, set to a suite of old and new love/unrequited love songs, is so much over-the-top fun that it's not worth the effort to parse the differences between the excitement of artistic influence and the dullness of follow-the-leader. At once glamorous, goofy, and earnest, the mini-dramas that unfold through a series of lovelorn duets are offset by skit-like sequences. In the bigger phrases, the dancers move with lusty, exaggerated angularity; sometimes they mime the beating of their hearts. In the end, love triumphs here and there, eccentricities are celebrated; if it seems like d j vu, surely it's not a bad place to revisit, no?
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.