A double dash of Dennis Spaight

OBT2 and Northwest Dance Theatre are reviving works by the late, great Portland choreographer

For lighting designer Peter West, a frequent collaborator with Dennis Spaight in the last years of the choreographer’s life,  “the door into [his] work was his musicality: his astonishing ability to compose lines of movement that complemented, expanded and illuminated music. And likewise his choices of music illuminated his movement phrases. His range was exceptional: Gershwin, Ellington, Vivaldi, Schubert, Copland, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Schumann – and even silence.”

West, commenting on a Feb. 7, 2013 ArtsWatch story, Remembering Dennis Spaight, 20 Years Later, had it right.

The young dancers of OBT2 rehearsing Spaight's "Crayola." Photo: Friderike Heuer

Rehearsing Spaight’s “Crayola”: Emma-Anne Bauman (front), Kimberly Nobriga (middle-left) and Paige Wilkey (middle-right); Siri Ell-Lewis (back-left) and Emily Parker. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s founding associate artistic director and resident choreographer died more than two decades ago, but this spring, Spaight’s spirit and his talent are very much alive in the bodies of two groups of young dancers, Northwest Dance Theatre and OBT’s newly formed OBT2.  The ballets they are performing are quite different, but both bear the unmistakable stamp of an artist whose sensitivity to the human condition was just as acute as his ear for music.

NDT performs excerpts from Gloria on a mixed program Saturday and Sunday at Portland Community College Sylvania’s Performing Arts Center. Set to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria Mass,” the ballet pays eloquent tribute to Spaight’s mother’s Catholic faith. Like the music, the dance is both celebratory and sad, the choreographer’s vocabulary a demanding mix of classical technique and modern expressiveness.  “Dance is my religion,” Spaight once told me, and this ballet, last seen in its entirety when OBT danced it in the fall of 1993 on an all-Spaight commemorative program that included Scheherazade and Rhapsody in Blue, is a richly beautiful manifestation of that creed.

When he listed “even silence” as part of Spaight’s musical range, West, who has redone the lighting for NDT’s production of Gloria, was surely referring to Crayola, which OBT’s youngest dancers will perform starting April 16 when the company concludes its 25th anniversary season at the Newmark with a repertory program titled Impact.

It is the impact of the dancers’ point shoes on the floor of the stage that provides the accompaniment for a work that is not about dancing crayons, but about incorporating American Sign Language into the classical vocabulary and turning a social occasion—in this instance young ladies at a teaparty—into a dance.  Crayola, which Spaight made for Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1979, is not, as Gloria is, a major work. But it does show that very early in his sadly curtailed career, he had full command of his craft and a light touch with it. An excellent vehicle for young dancers (it contains some exuberant movement involving chairs), Crayola, I was told by Alison Roper last fall, is fun to dance.  It is certainly fun to watch. Both ballets were staged by Spaight Trust repetiteur Carol Shults with loving care, judicious adjustments, and unimpeachable dedication to the choreographer’s intent.


Schedule and ticket details for Northwest Dance Theatre’s performances are here.

Schedule and ticket details for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Impact are here.

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