NW Dance Project: Pushing Boundaries and Creating Opportunities

Since its founding in 2004, Portland’s NW Dance Project has been devoted to creating opportunities for dancers and choreographers. The company of eleven dancers performs exclusively original works, around 250 so far. “Ours is really a platform of creation and ideas,” says Artistic Director Sarah Slipper. “We get hits because we are pushing so many boundaries. It’s very fertile.”

Slipper formed NW Dance Project in response to twin needs she observed in the U.S. dance world post-9/11. “A lot of companies were shutting down. Directors needed to get butts in seats and were looking for safer commercial hits. I kept getting asked if I had a “Peter Pan,” but as a choreographer I wanted to move in a totally different direction. I heard about this problem from many other choreographers, too. We needed platforms for open expression and artistic innovation.” 

At the same time, Slipper noticed talented young artists struggling to find their professional places in the dance world.  “The whole organization emerged out of this goal to bring remarkable, courageous dancers together with emerging dance-makers,” she says.

The model has proved effective. NW Dance Project has grown from a $30,000 annual budget in its early days to over $1.5 million. Slipper attributes much of the company’s success to challenging and nourishing the dancers through near-constant creativity.

“When dancers are always part of the creative process, it leads to so much growth and development. You don’t have someone else’s voice imposed on you; you’re one of the creative voices,” says Slipper. “Our dancers are incredibly multi-faceted from sharing in so many perspectives. It’s like they are constantly learning new languages.”

Not surprisingly, this environment requires a special kind of artist. “Our dancers have to be good collaborators and open to taking risks and being pushed in new directions,” says Executive Director Scott Lewis.  “There is no corps here, so you can’t hide in the back. You have to be bold and jump in with both feet. That’s probably the most important trait we look for in our dancers: how daring are you and what do you bring to our process?”

Aspiring company members have the opportunity to answer these questions through LAUNCH, a two-week program in July that brings dancers together with various Artistic Directors and new choreographers. The intensive provides exposure for all the artists involved. It also allows the company to vet potential new members’ creative and collaborative chops.

In addition to feeling valued and empowered as artists, the dancers are also inspired to take risks because of the company’s uncommonly comprehensive benefits. The dancers all receive 100% medical, dental, and vision coverage. The security of health coverage and robust contracts provides a stable foundation from which to take chances. “Dancers push themselves so hard for so little,” says Lewis. “Being able to help these artists feel supported is the most satisfying thing I do.”

NW Dance Project discovers and fosters new choreographic talent through its Pretty Creatives International Choreographic Competition. Out of over 100 applicants per year, two are selected to work with the LAUNCH dancers and with Sarah Slipper during a guided residency. The resultant pieces are performed during a highlighted “works in progress” show.

“We get to see an amazing spectrum of creativity through this competition,” says Slipper. “It’s about bringing people’s attention to new artists and creating opportunities. I look at over 100 submissions each year. It helps me to really look at what’s being done out there.” 

NW Dance Project also prepares dancers to take on leadership roles in the future. “Today’s dancers will be the next directors, choreographers, teachers, and administers. The idea of passing on all aspects of the art form is pervasive through our institutional approaches,” Slipper explains.  The dancers are given responsibility for running certain programs and performances and mentored throughout the process. “We coach them in the latest processes and methods. In that way we’re preparing them to excel in possible future roles. I believe sharing is important for growth for both the individual and the art form. And always pursuing growth is what keeps us thriving.”

Growth and success also require sheer grit and dedication. Slipper advises aspiring choreographers and artists, “You find your niche in the professional dance world by doing—as much as you possibly can. If you’re not getting work, you have to find or create projects to do. I always say “do anything,” especially when you’re young or starting out. I did a fashion show, for example. With the economy the way it is, opportunities won’t come on a silver platter. You really need perseverance and drive.”

Photo: NW Dance Project by Blaine Truitt Covert