Northwest Dance Project turns Bizet's opera into story ballet, led by Ihsan Rustem

COURTESY: BLAINE TRUITT COVERT - Two of the Northwest Dance Project stars, Andrea Parson and Elijah Labay, show chemistry in their roles in 'Carmen.' Parson plays Carmen and 'it goes to the depth of really powerful emotions,' she says.Without words, driven by a musical score, Northwest Dance Project will tell a tale of love, seduction, secrecy, betrayal and murder — with added splashes of comedy — in producing a story ballet for the first time.

"Carmen," a world premiere put on by Resident Choreographer Ihsan Rustem and the esteemed dance company this week at Newmark Theatre, promises to be a lot of steamy and surprising fun.

"Here I have a great freedom to explore," Rustem says.

"The essence of it is dark with sex, murder, desire and deception, a lot of those very raw emotions. The way I'm using it is bringing in an enormous element of comedy to sort of counter the word dark or words raw and edgy — not to have a 40-minute piece of dark murder."

Further adapting the great opera and ballet, Northwest Dance Project presents a set of a barber shop for men and a hair salon for the funny and naughty "Wolf Pack" women (which Rustem calls them). Carmen storms into the picture to disrupt their lives.

Northwest Dance Project usually does original works. So, "this is a big step for us, and a big step for Ihsan," says Scott Lewis, executive director, "by taking an established narrative and making it your own."

"I see going to the theater as very much an experience, and my job, which I don't take lightly, is to take the audience on a journey," Rustem adds. "I feel like a puppet master who uses strings to tease and tantalize and play with the audience. It can be the most dramatic, but what comes next is so funny ..."

Rustem doesn't like that everybody knows the ending of "Carmen" — Carmen dies — but it'll be a surprise ending nonetheless. "It's important for me to tell the story to someone who hasn't seen 'Carmen,'" he says.

Dancer dialogue is movement, and it'll be enhanced: The show is set to Bizet's "Carmen Suite" without vocals and features a set design from Spanish designer Luis Crespo and costumes from Portland fashion star Michelle Lesniak (the former "Project Runway" winner).

The lead role is played by one of Northwest Dance Project's Princess Grace Award winners, Andrea Parson.

Without words, she'll show off her best sexy and seductive ways.

"I love it. I'm really enjoying it," she says. "It goes to the depth of really powerful emotions.

"She's not afraid to create a ruckus, and sort of have these relationships with two different characters in the story, different men, and she goes for them in a very intense way. Then it's how she reacts with other men and women is somewhat aggressive. I feel like I get to act in many different ways. She's crazy and kind of mad."

It is a challenging role for Parson.

"I do a lot of work to figure out how to be in character and really believe the situation and feelings that she's feeling," Parson adds. "It does take a lot of work in that way. I enjoy the challenge. It's very different than other works I've done. Usually it's the movement that comes first," before the story.

Without words, in a role playing opposite Parson at times, Elijah Labay, who plays the lustful traveler Eli (one of Carmen's lovers) in the show, says it's easy to work with his female counterpart.

It's steamy "but Andrea is a dear, dear friend of mine," he says. "I feel like I can almost make her uncomfortable; try to make her uncomfortable, that to me is fun, that's my personality." He laughs.

"It's really easy to dance with Andrea, she's such a talented partner and dancer to begin with, and I trust the foundations are there and I can add the elements of the character with it."

Says Parson, of working with Labay: "Ellijah and I trust each other so much, it feels really safe to go to these places that are definitely more intimate, sometimes even rough. We both allow each other to push one another and explore, and that is so important in performing and creating, having a sturdy partner, especially when it comes to vulnerability."

There are ensemble pieces, and dances for individuals and duets, some steamy and physical and others raw and tender.

Parson and Labay hope that audiences feel the passion and commitment behind the "Carmen" production.

"It really caters to an audience; there are some pieces that do that more than others," Parson says. "It's theatrical, a drama, and has characters with feelings that people can relate to. It'll draw people in."

"The dramatics are outside the box, and the way the approach has been taken on the story ... there's lightheartedness to it," Labay adds. "It's almost comedic at points. There's a lot of contrast to keep it going, because there's so much to say in such a short amount of time (about 40 minutes), you almost need some lightness to keep it from being so heavy.

"(Audiences) will see a completely different version of 'Carmen.' The colors of scenes and costumes — there's no red in the entire 'Carmen.' That's a usually easy go-to for 'Carmen.' The fact that we're steering away from that, and putting it into a barber shop and a hair salon in kind of a Pleasantville kind of town, and then to have the disruption of Carmen and chaos she causes, it'll be relatable and movie-esque."

There is a second piece that Northwest Dance Project will also present. It's called "Visible Darkness," another world premiere from French choreographer Patrick Delcroix, and it's a 22-minute autobiographical work about Delcroix's at-home accident in which he fell off a ladder and into unconsciousness and suffered a severe brain injury that required a long rehabilitation to recover from.

It's Delacroix's first creation since his accident, and "we are deeply honored and touched that he chose to make his re-entry into choreography with us," Northwest Dance Project says.

"Carmen" and "Visible Darkness" will stage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 16-18, at Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway. Tickets are $38-$62 and can be purchased at