Oregon Ballet Theatre unveiled a highly ambitious 2016-2017 season on the stage of the Keller Auditorium last Thursday, with the umbrella title of Giants. The audience of (mostly) board members, funders and supporters was seated on folding chairs that had been set up in front of the sets for Romeo and Juliet. During executive director Dennis Buehler’s state of the company introduction (debt retired, new building up and running, school expanded, last year’s Nutcracker and current run of Romeo and Juliet sold out) artistic director Kevin Irving sat perched on the base of Juliet’s balcony.
After giving some ballet history Cliff Notes, Irving announced an October surprise. Two of them, actually. The fall opener includes George Balanchine’s Serenade, which makes me very happy, since I hadn’t expected to see Balanchine’s work done here again, except for The Nutcracker. The company has done Balanchine’s first ballet made in America (for students, in 1934) in 1999 and 2001 under the directorship of Canfield, and again in 2004; the students in OBT’s School danced it in 2013, when Damara Bennett was school director. Current company members Jordan Kindell and Kelsie Nobriga danced it as students.
The second surprise, and it was a big one, was William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a real killer in technical terms—warp speed doesn’t even begin to describe the pace—to an electronic score by Thom Willems. Not that OBT hasn’t done Forsythe before: Christopher Stowell introduced this choreographer, sometimes labeled as post-neo-classical, to Portland audiences by programming The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and The Second Detail during his tenure as artistic director. The latter is an extremely challenging work in which Xuan Cheng was a knockout, but In the Middle is going to need massive amounts of rehearsal time for the company to pull it off.
What wasn’t surprising is that Nicolo Fonte, whose work was also introduced to us by Stowell, and who has just been named OBT’s resident choreographer, will make the program’s closer, a ballet to be titled Giants. He was vague about describing it, except to say he’s in negotiation with some musicians – not, one assumes, Pink Martini (that was last year’s closer), and hates (he said in jest) being on the same program with In the Middle. All performances of Serenade will be accompanied by live orchestra, conducted by Niel DePonte, which is a good thing.
More performances of The Nutcracker have been added for December, and two more will be accompanied by an expanded OBT orchestra. February brings us the return of Swan Lake, but not the lovely one already in OBT’s rep, choreographed by Stowell “after” Petipa-Ivanov which premiered in 2006 and was last seen in February of 2013, after Stowell left the company. The new version, with an “updated” libretto centered on Siegfried and written by Irving, will also be choreographed “after” Petipa-Ivanov by Fonte and Anthony Jones, who is head of OBT’s School, using the existing sets and costumes, with some changes to dovetail with the new choreography.
The season ends in April with the customary rep show at the Newmark, this one titled Terra to reflect Oregonians’ concern with the natural world. It includes a revival of Helen Pickett’s Petals as the curtain-raiser, and a new work by the same choreographer as the closer. In between the company will perform two new additions to the Nacho Duato repertory, El Naranjo and the Spanish choreographer’s first piece, Jardi Tancat, whose accompanying Catalan folk songs I truly love every time I see it danced, which is a lot. Irving, who was Duato’s ballet master and artistic assistant for many years, will stage both works.
For Swan Lake, especially, the company needs more dancers at the top, and there are indeed plans to hire a principal woman, and three apprentices have been offered contracts as company artists. It was with this thought in my mind (among others!) that I attended the matinee performance of Romeo and Juliet on Saturday, seeing the extremely good second cast.
I love watching dancers come into their own, and that’s exactly what soloist Ansa Deguchi did as Juliet, partnered by principal dancer Brian Simcoe as Romeo.
From her first exuberant jeté in the ballet’s second scene, to her final, anguished embrace of Romeo’s dead body in the crypt, Deguchi sustained dramatically and technically one of the great ballerina roles in the 20th century classical repertory. She had some very hard acts to follow, including the Russian Galina Ulanova, the British Margot Fonteyn, and in this version, in this company, Patricia Miller and Tracy Sartorio, now Irving’s assistant, who coached her in some of the finer points, and believe me, it showed.
Her entry in the ballroom scene, led down the central steps of the bridge that spans the width of the Keller stage by the Nurse; her yearning plea from her balcony for Romeo to appear after the ball; the liquid way she extended her leg in développé while dancing with Romeo in that heady pas de deux; her reluctant dance with Paris; her frantic runs when she awakened in her tomb: all were marked by a musicality in her phrasing I had not seen before.
Every step she took, every gesture she made, read clearly from the back of the orchestra level, where I was sitting, and the same thing was true of the rest of the cast. As Romeo, Simcoe was a tender, considerate, somewhat reserved partner, just as he was as the Prince in last season’s Cinderella, an approach that worked better in the earlier work. Never mind, he did splendidly in the highly exuberant pas de trois, plural, that Canfield made for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, and in those he was appropriately less restrained. His anger and grief at Tybalt’s killing of Mercutio, and the force with which he killed Juliet’s kinsman in revenge were completely convincing and in fact, by the time we reached the sorrow-laden third act, thanks to the dancing and the extraordinarily rich performance of the orchestra, the audience had completely suspended its disbelief and even the children were silently absorbed.
For some of us, there were ghosts in the theater. I couldn’t help thinking of the passionate ardor of Canfield’s Romeo, the impetuousness of his performance in the role he first danced in John Cranko’s staging (of which there are many echoes in the marketplace scenes) when he was a member of the Joffrey Ballet. The late Mark Goldweber’s Mercutio remains memorable for its flash, elevation, and musical timing, and while Michael Linsmeier danced the role throughout with considerable impudence and panache, his Queen Mab solo was briefly marred by a port de bras I described in my notes as “squshy”, i.e. out of control. Jordan Kindell as Benvolio, the third in the trio of upper-class Veronese hooligans, looked terrific on stage as he always does, but I wish I could have seen him as Tybalt in the first cast.
The company as a whole did both Canfield and Irving proud on Saturday, making me very optimistic for next season’s dancing. Michael Mazzola’s revised lights made the production look spanking new, and a blood-red strip silhouetting the ballroom scene made it even more doom-filled than the music.
One thing: though I’ve seen this Romeo and Juliet more times than I can count, I noticed for the first time that Canfield repeated for his gorgeous Nutcracker, which premiered several years later, some choreography for the guests en route to the Capulet ball, and that he transferred Juliet’s frantic run around her tomb when she awakens from her simulated death to Marie’s dash around the stage as the tree grows taller and taller and the battle of mice and toy soldiers begins.
If OBT can revive his Romeo and Juliet (Gene Dent’s lovely sets and David Heuvel’s ditto costumes were provided by Nashville Ballet, which bought them from OBT some years ago) why not his Nutcracker?