During a rehearsal in Northwest Dance Project’s light-filled Portland studio for a new adaptation of “Carmen,” set in part in 1950s-era beauty salons, the company is trying to observe one of childhood’s cardinal rules: never run with scissors.
“That’s a good point: Where are they going to be when you’re running?” resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem says when dancer Kody Jauron asks how to incorporate a menacing pair of shears that are over a foot long into the choreography.
“I’m wearing a lot of black,” says Jauron about his costume, joking that it would likely hide any accidental blood stains.
It’s one of several problems Rustem is wrestling with as they near the show’s world premiere March 16–18 at the Newmark Theatre. There’s also how to deal with Jauron’s whiplash during the preceding scene in which the male dancers, acting as a gaggle of barbers, twist his head every which way, and several points of nigh-impossible movement.
If Northwest Dance Project has built its identity around commissioning world premieres from budding international choreographers, they’ve found a true creative love affair in Rustem. The company’s first commission from the then little-known, British-born dance maker in 2010, “State of Matter,” went on to win leading global dance competitions in England and Germany. Five works later, “
Five works later, “Carmen” will be the company’s first story ballet and by far Rustem’s most ambitious piece yet, with “Harper’s Bazaar”–inspired glamor and costumes by “Project Runway” winner Michelle Lezniak.
“He has a sense of theatricality that I love,” founding artistic director Sarah Slipper says of why she kept inviting Rustem back and eventually invited him to be the company’s first resident choreographer for three years. “This is very unusual. A lot of younger, emerging voices: they know movement, they do some interesting dynamics, but to actually pull movement together into a bigger package is what I find is missing in a lot of choreographers today. Ihsan has a lot of good range that way.”
“This is very unusual. A lot of younger, emerging voices: they know movement, they do some interesting dynamics, but to actually pull movement together into a bigger package is what I find is missing in a lot of choreographers today. Ihsan has a lot of good range that way.”
That range has developed over the course of their collaboration, often with the prodding of Slipper, from the elegant etherealness of “State of Matter,” which opened with a set of legs and an upside-down head and hands dangling from an opened curtain like a dancer seemingly split in two, to the French vaudeville–inspired humor of his most recent work, “Le Fil Rouge,” which included a same-sex duet of seemingly unrequited love and an Edith Piaf karaoke scene set to “Non, je ne regrette rien” in the dark, where lights in the mouths of the dancers flashed as they sang along.
“When Sarah gets that elbow out and that bottle of Prosecco pops out and she poses the question again, I go, ‘No, I make these big, meaty works, and people cry,’” Rustem says of Slipper’s role in helping him step out of his comfort zone to embrace humor — an emotion often avoided at best by contemporary dance. “And then you just feel the reaction of the public — not even feel, you hear: they’re laughing away, and then they clap and stand, and you’re like, okay, maybe there’s something there that’s working.”
In “Carmen,” Rustem has embraced both extremes: a tragedy steeped in sex, desire and jealousy, and a willingness to embrace the absurdity and the humor, as demonstrated in a pas de deux with a certain beauty salon appliance.
“I was inspired by these 50s images and silhouettes and very ‘Harper’s Bazaar’—a little bit Stepford Wives, a little bit ‘Desperate Housewives’—you know, these sort of suburbia where people are comfortable and they have their day-to-day routines, but they’re kind of fabulous because they don’t need to work,” says Rustem. “I love that beyond that façade there’s always something interesting, there’s always something darker, there’s always that little whiskey bottle in the handbag. So it’s taking that over-the-top, stylized, quite comical at times silhouette and translating that in a way that is current and almost timeless.”
For Rustem, choreographing “Carmen” is to come full circle. It was the first production he ever performed in, and now he wants to reintroduce its characters in a contemporary light, with the help of Lezniak’s sleek-but-edgy costumes.
“Going to the theater is an experience, so you want to come out having gone on a journey,” he says. “And that’s my greatest challenge.”
Also part of the evening’s program is an intimate new work from the French choreographer — and knight! — Sir Patrick Delcroix about a near-death accident that has kept him from the stage until now.