Company gains much acclaim with dancers

COURTESY: BLAINE TRUITT COVERT - Andrea Parson, from Hillsboro, and Franco Nieto, from Vancouver, Wash., have been longtime top performers for Northwest Dance Project and Artistic Director Sarah Slipper.The Northwest Dance Project has earned quite the reputation and acclaim, attracting top choreographers for collaborations, traveling around the world for performances, displaying cutting-edge contemporary work and featuring four Princess Grace Award winners — yes, four, out of nine company members.

It’s a big deal when a company has one winner of the Princess Grace Award, given annually by the Princess Grace Foundation, founded in the name of Grace Kelly, the Princess of Monaco, for six emerging dancers and their companies or schools. Northwest Dance Project, led by Sarah Slipper, artistic director, and Scott Lewis, executive director, has four — Andrea Parson (2010), Franco Nieto (2012), Viktor Usov (2014) and Ching Ching Wong (2015).

“Unheard of,” Slipper says.

“It’s a jewel,” Lewis adds. “It’s like winning an Oscar or an Emmy for a dancer. There’s not another award with this prestige and honor.”

Wong recently became the fourth winner, a notable achievement considering that Usov won an award just last year.

“You never expect it,” Wong says. “To have two in a row is so unexpected. I was greatly honored just to be nominated. I could have just stopped there.

“It’s a representation of not just me as a dancer, but all my colleagues, Sarah and Scott and the growth of Northwest Dance Project. To me it was important because it reflects all of this that I’m a part of and my past, the people who trained me, my college.”

Northwest Dance Project, which moved into a big new studio in Northeast Portland earlier this year, features nine dancers, the others being Samantha Campbell, Kody Jauron, Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill and Julia Radick. Winning a Princess Grace Award also comes with grant money, which essentially pays for the winning dancer’s salary for the next year, and Northwest Dance Project has done well enough to now be able to offer full insurance — medical, dental and vision — to company members.

More so, it just solidifies the company’s reputation. Slipper has helped take the company to great heights.

“It says a lot about Sarah,” Lewis says. “Her eye for talent and unique talent — she has the unique ability to see the dancer’s potential and then develop it. We don’t have traditional looking dancers, with ballet lines, ballet bodies or perfect feet. But they’re phenomenal performers. Sarah can find a diamond in the rough and mold it, and the Princess Grace Award has really validated that process.”

Adds Usov: “She’s been like a second mother to me in the dance world. She doesn’t expect anything but the best you can do. She knows what your best is, and what it can be. For her, work ethic is a big thing.”

Slipper regularly brings in choreographers to work with dancers. The company’s upcoming show, “In Good Company,” Dec. 17-18 at Revolution Hall, features pieces choreographed by the company dancers. It’s not just about developing dancers, Slipper says, but the artist within them for the next generation of choreographers, directors, leaders and administrators.

Slipper says that “we’re a real leader” in work being done in dance.

“It’s pretty rare to have about half your company be Princess Grace winners,” Usov says. “It’s the diversity, the backgrounds, the strengths. We’re not just one mold of dancer, we have a lot to offer in styles and techniques.”

Camaraderie means a lot at the company, Nieto says. It’s a small company, and egos have to be checked at the door.

“We’re working so constantly together and we’ve been here so long, building bonds and discovering strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “We know how to bring something out of each other or how to comfort and help on our weaknesses. We evolve on stage or through the pieces we do.”

COURTESY: BLAINE TRUITT COVERT - Ching Ching Wong and Viktor Usov are the Northwest Dance Projects most recent winners of the Princess Grace Award.Slipper and Lewis founded Northwest Dance Project in 2004 and the dance company three years later, with Campbell being the first dancer and Parson the next. Parson actually was turned down twice in her quest to join the company, but she persevered, and she became the first Princess Grace winner.

“That’s what made (winning) even more special and wild for me,” says Parson, 28 and from Hillsboro. “Sarah has believed in me and given me so many opportunities in performing her own work, coaching me, allowing me to teach and choreograph. She has been a driving force in my life.”

Slipper calls Parson her “muse,” and adds, “she’s transformative — she’s taken roles that I’ve created for her and disappeared into them and come out ferocious or delicate. She immerses herself in a role.”

Charisma and beautiful movement characterize Nieto, Slipper says. Nieto, 29, grew up in Vancouver, Wash., and he remembers feeling “overwhelmed” at being named the Princess Grace Award winner three years ago.

“It’s hard for us, because as a company we’re such a unit,” he says. “It’s prestige for us, but we’re all a little bit shy about it.”

Usov, 27 and born in Ukraine but raised in Portland (he performed for Jefferson Dancers), and Wong, 27 and from the Philippines but raised in Southern California, have

added to the company’s collection of Princess Grace Award winners.

Says Slipper: “Viktor is someone I’ve worked with for a long time and, right from the beginning, he’s been incredibly dramatic. His instincts are extraordinary, he has an emotional core and it flows out of him. Ching is just an incredible human being, and it shows inside and outside. She’s kick-ass. She has an ability to work on everything so openly and fiercely, and she’s really developing a human layer, bringing her heart and putting it on display.”

The Princess Grace Foundation also gives awards in theater and film. In dance, the big companies of the country are usually involved, such as American Ballet Theatre, Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Juilliard, New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Being a Princess Grace Award winner is quite an accomplishment, but the byproduct of the company winning is also very important. It’s the financial aspect, and Northwest Dance Project had the good fortune to provide insurance to members in September.

“It’s a very big deal,” Parson says. “Even just to pay a dancer takes a lot, so to be able to offer insurance is rare, especially in America.”

Nieto is sure elated, and relieved, that the company started offering insurance. About the same time the company offered insurance, dancers visited Mongolia for performances. Upon returning from Mongolia, Nieto thought he had come down with a cold or an ear ache. It turned out to be shingles in his ear, which turned into Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, which occurs when shingles attacks the facial nerve and causes paralysis.

“It affected my entire face, and the left side is still paralyzed,” says Nieto, who has been told he should regain feeling and functionality in his entire face. “The nerve responding didn’t need surgery. With the ear, vertigo is the issue, and feeling nauseous and sick. Dizziness will subside.”

So, as far as insurance, “I couldn’t have asked for it at a better time.”