NW Dance Project’s Artistic Director Sarah Slipper
& Princess Grace Award-Winning Dancer Andrea Parson

Interview by Artslandia. Photos by Gia Goodrich.

Sarah Slipper (left) and Andrea Parson (right).

S

arah Slipper rose to award-winning international acclaim first as a ballet dancer and then as an independent choreographer. In 2004, she founded NW Dance Project, a world-class contemporary dance company and training center in Portland, Oregon, where she continues to serve as Artistic Director.

In Greek and Roman mythology, muses were goddesses of the arts who possessed vast knowledge and talent that, coupled with their irresistible beauty and grace, inspired artistic greatness in others. Slipper found her muse, truly a collaborator who elicits new heights of creative genius, in Princess Grace Award-winning dancer Andrea Parson. Since Parson joined the company in 2008, their creative processes have intertwined with spectacular results—MemoryHouse, Casual Act, Hedda, Woolf Papers—are just a few of the works that Slipper has created with Parson as her muse.

Artslandia sat down with the duo to explore their relationship of mutual admiration, inspiration, and creation.

ANDREA PARSON (AP): I saw you first. I came to a NW Dance Project summer performance at Lincoln Hall. That was my first introduction. I heard from another dancer that you taught, and then
I started taking classes with you.

SARAH SLIPPER (SS): I remember you coming in. Wow, how you’ve you changed since then!

AP: Yes. You told me I had very conservative arms.

SS: I did, because I needed that back!

AP: And I’d never had three-hour ballet classes before!

SS: What did you think?

AP: I loved it. It was so hard. I just remember coming home and being so sore and tired.

SS: And the class was only supposed to be two hours!

AP: I know!

SS: Well. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? I have to say it’s been quite an incredible journey to see you grow, both as a human and as an artist. And not only technically figuring things out, but what I’ve most enjoyed is seeing the development of who you are and what you bring into the studio—from a young student and now as a fully informed artist. There’s some amazing thing… I feel that I can just trust you. I see you work, and you work quietly, and you work methodically. It’s fascinating that you can make something that may be so simple into something extraordinary. And now, it’s interesting because I don’t feel like I have to say things to you. You instinctively know me. You know I’m going to say, “Go deeper on this.”

It’s been an interesting journey that way. I can’t describe the trust that I feel with you in the room when we work on roles and creation.

AP: Yeah, I just love it… working on stuff and playing with the movement. I feel like I can trust my instincts a lot. I feel like I’m trusting something to guide me…

SS: And, boy, do you explode!

Artslandia: How does the process start? Sarah, knowing Andrea so well, do you start to form ideas based on what she’s capable of and what you know her strengths are? How does the process go from your brain to Andrea’s body?

SS: It’s funny, because when I start in the studio, I usually have something in mind for her. I think that’s where “muse” is so important. I know she can go on this long journey. And so, we start with some ideas in the studio, and I’ll often talk to her about the role she’s going to undertake. I’ll say, “I’m going in this direction. I’m going to push it through.” It will start with some movement, but I know I’m going to go on a big idea journey. I’ll start feeding her with some ideas, imagery. We talk, maybe, a bit about character, role, if it’s a political idea, if it’s challenging. And then we just start working. It’s almost like we tumble a little bit. [To Andrea] You give me a lot of feedback in the studio. You try things; you experiment; I usually like it, and I throw more at you.

AP: I think what’s interesting—I’m thinking about Casual Act, actually, which was your first work inspired by a play. What was cool was that you said, “Read this play,” but you didn’t say, “You need to be this character or study this character,” so I felt like I had a lot of room to interpret. You weren’t asking me to be this character, literally.

SS: That was also more of an inspiration. I didn’t even follow the play directly, because I think I was not going in as seriously. How does that compare with what we recently did with Hedda?

AP: I did a lot more character research for that.

SS: And you owned that stage with that role. It was just such a huge… It was almost like a Hamlet for a female role, at least in my mind.

AP: Yeah, I feel like that was the most theatrical role that we’ve ever done here. There was more acting involved.

SS: …transferring that story, which is where I’ve been situated, recently, with Room 4. That’s the period that I’m in right now—following a story.

Artslandia: How does the process start? Sarah, knowing Andrea so well, do you start to form ideas based on what she’s capable of and what you know her strengths are? How does the process go from your brain to Andrea’s body?

SS: It’s funny, because when I start in the studio, I usually have something in mind for her. I think that’s where “muse” is so important. I know she can go on this long journey. And so, we start with some ideas in the studio, and I’ll often talk to her about the role she’s going to undertake. I’ll say, “I’m going in this direction. I’m going to push it through.” It will start with some movement, but I know I’m going to go on a big idea journey. I’ll start feeding her with some ideas, imagery. We talk, maybe, a bit about character, role, if it’s a political idea, if it’s challenging. And then we just start working. It’s almost like we tumble a little bit. [To Andrea] You give me a lot of feedback in the studio. You try things; you experiment; I usually like it, and I throw more at you.

AP: I think what’s interesting—I’m thinking about Casual Act, actually, which was your first work inspired by a play. What was cool was that you said, “Read this play,” but you didn’t say, “You need to be this character or study this character,” so I felt like I had a lot of room to interpret. You weren’t asking me to be this character, literally.

SS: That was also more of an inspiration. I didn’t even follow the play directly, because I think I was not going in as seriously. How does that compare with what we recently did with Hedda?

AP: I did a lot more character research for that.

SS: And you owned that stage with that role. It was just such a huge… It was almost like a Hamlet for a female role, at least in my mind.

AP: Yeah, I feel like that was the most theatrical role that we’ve ever done here. There was more acting involved.

SS: …transferring that story, which is where I’ve been situated, recently, with Room 4. That’s the period that I’m in right now—following a story.

Artslandia: Andrea, what is it like for you when Sarah comes to you with ideas? What is the experience of you first hearing about something and manifesting it?

AP: I try to play it cool, but I’m always excited about a new role or a new journey.

SS: I often see you start in the studio… you go very calm, which is what you’re saying about how you play it cool, but it’s wonderful. You just keep building. You start as a blank slate, and then you keep adding. In the next week of rehearsals, there’s an added layer, and then there is another layer that starts coming out. And you build layer on layer on layer, which is fascinating. I feel you absorb roles; you absorb character; you absorb movement to motivate character. And I have this incredible trust with where I see your arc go. It’s not full on, right away. It’s this constant  layering, and I know there’s a point where you’re just going to… what I call “explode” onstage. You’ve got this incredible arc when we hit the stage, and… Wow. You open up; you take us all in; you own it.

Artslandia: Andrea, I’m curious about your perspective because when I think about being called someone’s muse, it’s a serious thing!

AP: [Laughing] Pressure!

Artslandia: Tell us a little bit about that.

AP: I focus on the work and the role at hand… focus my energy there. And then I get very excited, and I work and don’t think so much about, “Oh, I have to inspire Sarah! I have to bring my best!” because that would cause a lot of anxiety.

SS: …and I wouldn’t want that! That’s why it’s so weird to have these labels. Something just… clicks. And I don’t know how to describe what “clicks” is because it’s such an interesting connection between artist and artist. It’s something about energy and understanding and trust. There’s been a constant of great interplay with you and me over the years—learning, watching each other, and observing each other. It’s mostly just a kind of trust to try things together.

AP: It’s just fun to interpret what your vision is—what you’re trying to say or the quality that you’re looking for—I’m very curious about figuring it out.

Artslandia: [To Andrea] Will you describe Sarah—what her strengths are, and what you admire, and how she is from your lens?

AP: Hmmm… [To Sarah] I think you are very able to ask for what you want. Clearly. That’s something I’ve always taken note of, especially in the choreographic process. You seem to know precisely what you’re looking for, know how to ask for it, and not back down.  And you’re passionate. Super passionate. I don’t know any other human being that has devoted this much time and dedication to their work. It’s incredible, and it’s inspiring to me, to other dancers. I think that’s what’s so attractive about this company and your directorship: the complete devotion. Devotion. Passion. Unwillingness to back down.

SS: Thank you. You’re making me cry!

Artslandia: And let’s go the other way. Sarah, what makes Andrea different from other dancers?

SS: I will say this: She can make eating a bowl of Rice Krispies interesting. We keep saying this in the officeno one can take their eyes off her! I think, what makes an artist? It’s something about one’s character, confidence, openness. And she has no fear. She’s constantly working and constantly growing and has never stopped. [To Andrea] You’re always going out and trying new things and putting yourself out there. I think that’s consummate for an artist, that you have to keep yourself open. I mean, I even have to do this. I can get myself put in a box, and then I have to break open, so it’s the same. And I see that, and it’s something that I love to see. The growth. So, what makes someone special? It’s an interesting question.

AP: I think it’s individuality.

SS: …their charisma.

AP: Being themselves.

SS: You bring yourself into the room; you’re not trying to be someone else. And that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, especially in the dance world where so much has been trained as we’re young with form and technique to achieve a certain line or limit. And I think to break out of it as an artist, to bring your individuality into the studios, it’s not only crucial, it’s key.

AP: Having a space to figure out what that is, too, because that comes with rehearsal day after day after day—your self starts to come out, but for that, you need a place.

Artslandia: Speaking for contemporary dance aficionados, we’re thrilled you’ve found your place! Thank you so much to both of you for joining us today. 

See Parson in Slipper's Casual Act

At NW Dance Project’s Encores, April 25–27 at the Newmark Theatre.