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NW Dance Project: A chance to experiment

Sarah Slipper with dancers Jihyun Kim and Viktor Usov. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
Sarah Slipper with dancers Jihyun Kim and Viktor Usov. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Founded in 2004, by Sarah Slipper, NW Dance Project is a contemporary dance company in Portland, Oregon, dedicated to the creation and performance of innovative new works from established and emerging dance makers. Slipper grew up in Canada, where she was exposed to the arts at a young age and had a fulfilling professional career with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. She then went on to study theater, which opened her up in many ways. “Theater made me less precious about titles like principal dancer, and more interested in tripping, falling, stumbling and restarting.”

What pushed the platform for NW Dance Project was Slipper’s work with young people from diverse dance backgrounds like hip hop, tap and contemporary –– not just classical ballet. “I saw these enormously talented movers being the first ones cut at auditions because their tendu wasn’t perfect. But as a choreographer, I was interested in their fearlessness and ability to move in all different directions.”

Sarah Slipper sitting in studio. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Sarah Slipper sitting in studio. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

At the time, everybody wanted a full-length ballet, but Slipper wasn’t interested in that. Meeting other talented choreographers as she moved around projects in the U.S. showed her that there was no substantial place to develop, no platform where you could trip and fall as a choreographer. “Everything was about producing a commercial hit,” she says, “and I think when you’re developing a voice, you need chances to experiment.”

The company started out as a project that brought together six choreographers to develop new works. The first show sold out with no publicity, and by 2009, the company was no longer project-based. “Our mission to this day is the same in the sense that everything you see on NW Dance Project is created on us,” Slipper notes. “We don’t buy work, even if there’s a brilliant work that’s been fleshed out. We don’t do it. We may revive a work, but it has to be created here.”

The company has produced almost 400 works of all sizes since its founding, and each work tours for about three years at a time. Slipper believes that one choreographer can’t do it all. “I don’t necessarily want to see an entire program of any one choreographer. I like the diversity. It also helps develop rich artistry within the company, and our company members often stay with us for a long time.”

The eight- to 10-person company is as eclectic as its choreographers, and Slipper describes herself as a slow hire looking for dancers for whom it isn’t a job but part of their identity.

Slipper usually choreographs or revives one work a year. “The choreographer in me wants to do a piece a year, and the director in me loves a lot of other things,” she says. “Sometimes those two have conflicts. They call me boss lady, and that contrasts with my desire to approach a room as a choreographer who needs to encourage vulnerability and trust. It’s an interesting dynamic to navigate.”

When selecting guest choreographers, there’s no single clearly defined path. “Sometimes, I just think they’ve got talent. Sometimes, I go see a live show and love what I see,” Slipper explains. “Sometimes, people submit work. I love to be on the edge of it, and we try to give choreographers freedom and not tell them what to do. There are a lot of people I’d love to bring in, and sometimes I can’t because I either don’t have the company or can’t afford the huge cost of visas for foreign choreographers. We also bring choreographers back because once they know us, they often do better work. There’s room for development rather than just having one shot.” Pre-COVID, NW Dance Project also ran Pretty Creatives Choreographic Competition, which may return in the future.

NW Dance Project’s Portland home is a creative center and school with an active community of young artists. The city was hit hard during the pandemic, and although audiences for contemporary dance do exist, Slipper describes the economy as more supportive of environmental and social issues than the arts. “The arts are our heartbeat, and they help bring vitality back to the city rather than escaping out to the suburbs.”

NW Project dancers Ingrid Ferdinand and Anthony Milian in the world premiere of Sarah Slipper’s 'Another, Tomorrow' (2023). Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
NW Project dancers Ingrid Ferdinand and Anthony Milian in the world premiere of Sarah Slipper’s ‘Another, Tomorrow’ (2023). Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.jpeg

Despite its troubles, the distinctive vibe of Portland is still present, and the dancers in the company love it. Slipper also tries to get company dancers involved in Summer Dance Platform because she wants them to teach the rep, to choreograph and to learn to be on that side of things. In addition to an upcoming audition in New York, NW Dance Project hosts MOVE (previously called LAUNCH), a two-week residency for professional level dancers age 21+ seeking to immerse themselves in creative processes with leading international contemporary choreographers. “I dislike cattle call auditions and want people to have the visceral experience of working in a company-like environment instead of having a single day to prove themselves,” Slipper says. “You can get to know the dancers better that way by seeing their personalities and curiosity.”

To celebrate 20 years, the company is doing all premieres this year. The March show will feature all female choreographers, and Slipper and Ihsam Rustem will close out the season in June. Moving forward, Slipper aspires to bring the company on tour to the east coast and Canada, hire more artistic staff, develop additional educational and community programs, and promote her belief that everybody can dance.

“Art wells up. It can come out and grab you. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does… wow.”

That’s what Sarah Slipper does it for.

For more information on NW Dance Project, visit nwdanceproject.org.

By Charly Santagado of Dance Informa.

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