Amid turmoil, a brilliant pairing of OBT and Mr. B

As it faces big changes, Oregon Ballet Theatre ends its season with a masterful all-Balanchine program

Brian Simcoe (center) leads the line in "Square Dance." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Brian Simcoe (center)  in “Square Dance.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

 

By DAMIEN JACK

Contrary to the lyrics from Broadway’s “A Chorus Line,” everything is not always beautiful at the ballet. The financial and administrative turmoil bedeviling Oregon Ballet Theater is an all too vivid case in point. Despite the trouble offstage, OBT has been performing at its artistic zenith during the last year.

Over the course of the season that closed last weekend at the Keller, the company has shown us wonders: first-class performances of Balanchine’s “Apollo” and William Forsythe’s “Second Detail,” three world premieres (including one by the lauded and much sought after Trey McIntyre), as well a superb “Nutcracker” and a lavish, well-danced “Swan Lake.” All of this would be a fantastic accomplishment for any middle-sized ballet company, but for one that has appeared at times on the verge of collapse it is an extraordinary achievement. That the finale to such a season was a celebration of the work of George Balanchine consisting of three of the master’s most celebrated and hard-to-pull-off dances is a testament to the ambitious vision of OBT’s former Artistic Director Christopher Stowell. It was evidence, as well, of the strength of purpose and commitment of Interim Artistic Director Anne Mueller, who stepped into the breach following Stowell’s sudden resignation last November, and of the devotion of the company’s stalwart remaining staff members. Most of all, “Celebrating Balanchine” illustrated not only the genius of Balanchine but also the phenomenal gifts of the group of dancers Stowell assembled and helped train during his nine years at OBT.

Designed to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Balanchine’s death, “Celebrating Balanchine” was centered on three ballets that display very distinct facets of Balanchine’s choreographic career. Each ballet offers an education in how Balanchine changed forever the way we look at dance. With “Prodigal Son” (1929) we see the Balanchine of the Diaghilev years reinventing the story ballet (at the age of 24) for a new generation and, in the process, creating a plum role for a male dancer in the part of the Prodigal.  With “Square Dance” (1957) we experience Balanchine’s romance with American popular culture, as he playfully and ingeniously combines folk and social dance with classical ballet. Finally, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” a late masterpiece from the fabled Stravinsky Festival of 1972, offers a powerful example of the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaboration—perhaps the most celebrated and productive in ballet history.

“Square Dance” was given in Balanchine’s revised version from 1976, which drops the square dance caller — a welcome change from earlier OBT performances of this ballet. The caller is good fun but a distraction as well. His presence overwhelms the choreography and turns the ballet into a pleasant, gimmicky romp. Without him the ballet seems to grow larger, more important, grand. At the same time the subtle interweaving of classical steps with the structure and patterns of square-dancing remains apparent. The ballet is built primarily out of petit allegro steps, small and very fast; and while on the surface it’s all joy and charm (as is the score, drawn from various works by Vivaldi and Corelli), “Square Dance” requires an iron-clad technique and enormous stamina in performance. Principals Julia Rowe and Brian Simcoe brought these qualities in spades to their roles. Rowe’s part in particular is unforgiving in its relentless speed and combination of fast, small jumps, turns and entrechats, but she made it all look like the easiest and most pleasurable thing in the world. It was a scintillating, jet-fast performance. Rowe is a bold dancer with a naturally expressive face. She has the rare gift of being able to smile with her eyes. Her occasional use in “Square Dance” of a painted-on ballerina smile just isn’t necessary.

Simcoe brought a crisp, clean line to everything he did in “Square Dance.” He’s a scrupulous dancer— there’s no fat in his dancing, but he’s bold and majestic. The elegance of his arms and hands is astonishing, and he used them to grand effect in the solo Sarabanda section of the dance. I’d like to see more of a connection between the arms and torso, particularly in the solo, but that’s the kind of detail that will come with time.

One of the joys of “Square Dance” lies in watching Balanchine experiment with new ways of employing the ensemble. They’re never simply window dressing for the principals. Instead, principals and twelve-person ensemble are involved in a complex call-and-response dialogue in which the group receives nearly as much of a workout as the two leads. Here, too, the OBT dancers were seen at their best, flying along at a million miles an hour but dancing with absolute clarity and precision in Balanchine’s Baroque rocket ship of a ballet.

****

Alison Roper as The Siren in "Prodigal Son." Photo: James McGrew

Alison Roper as The Siren in “Prodigal Son.” Photo: James McGrew

“Prodigal Son,” new to OBT’s repertoire (which includes seventeen works by Balanchine), was the heart of the Balanchine Celebration. Balanchine, the master of the plotless ballet, was also a brilliant storyteller.  In “Prodigal,” he dispenses with traditional mime and instead tells the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son through a combination of acrobatic dance steps and gesture. While the Prokofiev score is dense with detail, the choreography strikes a simple note, as does the décor by Georges Rouault. Still, it is a mistake to assume that because the ballet dispenses with traditional dance steps for long stretches that it does not require as much musicality on the part of the performers as any other of Balanchine’s ballets. In my experience this is a ballet that rarely comes fully to life without a strongly musical cast. If the dancers just do the steps, “Prodigal” falls flat, while even the slightest bit of hamming makes the ballet look as dated as a silent film. It’s a difficult line to walk, but OBT’s dancers pulled it off beautifully. At first glance Chauncey Parsons seemed an odd choice for the lead role. As a dancer he radiates intelligence and mastery. It was hard to picture him as a naïve and easily duped youngster. But Parsons, helped by his innate musicality, delivered a fully achieved and very touching performance. Every step and gesture seemed to grow organically out of the Prokofiev score, and every gesture was given its full value. Nothing was done halfway, but nothing was overplayed. Emotion was conveyed through movement and music but with artful restraint; there was none of the clutch-and-stagger “acting” that mars many performances of this part.

Alison Roper, too, seemed an unexpectd casting choice for the role of the Siren. The part is often played as a cross between a lady wrestler and Lady Macbeth, all hard edges. Roper is a lyrical, witty, soft-edged dancer. She very wisely played up the Siren’s avidity, her hunger for money and sex, and she captured perfectly her sinuous allure while playing down that steely, hard-edged quality. Her Siren was, like Parsons’ Prodigal, a fully achieved character — frightening and cruel but human. It was one of the rare occasions when you could actually understand why the Prodigal falls for the Siren in the first place. The famous, highly erotic duet between the two was in this production actually erotic and appropriately disturbing rather than robotic and icy.

There wasn’t a weak link in this production of “Prodigal.” Brett Bauer delivered a commanding performance in the crucial role of the father, while Brian Simcoe (getting quite a workout with important roles in all three ballets) and Lucas Threefoot were luxury casting in the roles of the two servants. The nasty world of the drinking-companions, with their creepy beetle-like way of walking and their phony friendliness, was all too brilliantly rendered. What is most remembered is the wrenching final act of contrition and forgiveness and Parsons slowly curling up safe in his father’s arms at last, all trouble healed.

****

The evening ended with a bravura performance of “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” Mr. B. himself, usually reluctant to appraise his own work, referred to the ballet on more than one occasion as the dance he was proudest of. And numerous Balanchine dancers have recalled with pleasure the sight of Balanchine standing in the wings with a smile on his face whenever the ballet was performed.

“Stravinsky Violin Concerto” begins with one of Balanchine’s wittiest and simplest openings. The curtain flies up, Stravinsky’s score is unleashed, and we see before us a group of dancers not moving but standing perfectly still. The music whirls along and still the dancers stand, alertly poised. The tension that builds is marvelous. You know they’re going to take off but you can’t tell when. At last, one dancer kicks back a leg and raises her arms above her head. It’s a moment that never fails to startle, and from then on Balanchine pours out a seemingly endless stream of invention. The steps are completely unpredictable, but at the same time they’re utterly organic. Music and dance are joined here (as in all of Balanchine’s great works) so that they feel inseparable — a single perfect creation.

It was the two duets at the heart of the ballet that were most compelling in this performance. Both combine classical ballet steps with highly acrobatic movement — backbends, odd angular twisted positions, and off-balance stances. In the first duet (Aria I) Xuan Cheng brought a lush glamour to a role that is usually cool and spiky. She didn’t distort the choreography, which is in part about struggle and repulsion, but brought to it a highly unusual warmth and tenderness. Chauncey Parsons, perhaps sparking off of Cheng, was a radiant partner. Haiyan Wu and Brian Simcoe in the second duet (Aria II), caught the shifting moods of their tender, melancholy dance. “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” is a story-less ballet, but it is full of emotion, and these two duets are each in the differing ways dialogues as mysteriously eloquent as anything in Shakespeare.

The ballet ends with a fireworks display of movement that dancer Bart Cook once described as “half Georgian folk dance and half jitterbug.” There is so much going on that the eye doesn’t know where to look. The corps provides a moving, ever-changing frame for the exuberant soloists, and the energy of the dance (already high) ratchets up a level. This is one of Balanchine’s greatest finales, which is to say that it is one of the greatest in the entire ballet repertoire. It made the perfect ending to this celebration. Still, even with the brilliant dancing it was impossible to completely avoid thinking about OBT’s recent troubles. The evening began with a much-deserved tribute to Anne Mueller followed by a brief, hopeful speech from OBT’s new artistic director, Kevin Irving. Then too, there were the announcement that a number of the company’s most gifted dancers would soon be departing, and,  during intermission, an anxious but humorously delivered plea for funds. So, yes: a marvelous celebration on several counts and a hopeful moment looking to the future … but slightly bittersweet, too.

*

Damien Jack formerly worked in publishing and as a journalist in New York City. He is currently a student at Portland State University, where he is studying dance history and writing with a focus on 20th century dance. His essay on George Balanchine was recently published as part of the Dance Heritage Coalition‘s 100 American Dance Treasures project.

Chauncey Parsons as the Son and Brett Bauer as the Father in "Prodigal Son. Photo: James McGrew

Parsons as Son, Bauer as Father, “Prodigal Son. Photo: James McGrew

 

 

 

5 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I am one proud mentor. And grateful to be able to see this show through Damien’s eyes, since I was unable to be present myself.

  2. PDX Culture says:

    As many of you know I have challenged OBT’s board in the past. But I must say all of the recent decisions deserve a bravo!

    My profound apologies for my past comments and in the future I will be posting with my real name because I realize that PDX culture was a bit t

  3. PDX Culture says:

    Sorry

    I met to say a bit

  4. PDX Culture says:

    Frankly,
    My previous criticism was misplaced because OBT staff and board seem to be hitting home runs both artistically and financially.

    Bravo to all who have worked hard and contributed $$ to the effort.

  5. Bennett says:

    I was truly entranced by “Prodigal” and very moved by Chauncey Parsons and everyone else in the OBT performance. As the reviewer says, every move was given its full value. Great review: it brings back to mind the full spectrum and pleasure of this great night of dance.

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