Martha Ullman West

 

Fresh faces, historic ballet

A hundred years after Ballets Russes's sole Portland performance, the young dancers of The Portland Ballet delve into the Russian tradition

“Ms. Davis, this is my daughter, she’s 5, and I’m wondering if you have a class she could take?”

“What a wonderful show. My daughter has been studying ballet since she was 8, she’s 12 now, do you think she could study at Portland Ballet?”

These were two of the many questions fielded by Nancy Davis, who with Anne Mueller is co-artistic director of the The Portland Ballet, immediately following the conclusion of their spring concerts at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall on the last Saturday in May.

And I couldn’t help thinking that these and other questions were inspired by the palpable pleasure the young performers were taking in being on stage, dancing their hearts out in a difficult program that demanded the mastery of quite different techniques and styles.

Henry Winslow and Naomi Rux in “Les Sylphides.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program was keyed to ballet history in Portland and elsewhere, and began with Les Sylphides, the Michel Fokine ballet that Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed here a century ago, in the spring of 1917. Set to an arrangement of Frédéric Chopin’s music by that most Russian of composers, Alexander Glazunov, it premiered as “Chopiniana” at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1907. The version performed by TPB, its third revision by the choreographer, was made for the Ballets Russes’s first tour to Paris, and premiered at the Théâtre du Chatelet, in 1909, with Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky heading the cast.

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Noguchi, no ‘Dark Meadow’

The dancing was splendid when the Martha Graham Company hit town. But without Noguchi's essential set, a masterpiece was ... something else.

White Bird Presents closed its 2016-17 season about three weeks ago with a single, brilliantly danced performance by the Martha Graham Company at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. I was determined to make it to the Graham show because Dark Meadow, in a shortened version by company artistic director Janet Eilber titled Dark Meadow Suite, was on the program.

As often as I have seen the Graham troupe perform (three times here in Portland, thanks to White Bird; multiple times in New York), I had never seen this particular collaboration with Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, arguably the inventor of three-dimensional sets for dance. And while I have some qualms about the rearrangement of a choreographer’s work undertaken after she’s bourréed off the planet, and therefore has no say, surely a distilled version of Dark Meadow –described by Deborah Jowitt as a “Jungian adventure,” by Noguchi as about the “primordial time of the mind,” and by Senator Dale Bumpers as “about sex” – would be better than not seeing it at all.

Dark Meadow Suite opened the show and turned out to be a charming, seductive, lively demonstration of Graham’s vocabulary: the little jumps, the angled sideways leaps, the deep, second position pliés, the drumming feet. It was an ideal curtain-raiser showcasing the best dancers this company has had in many years. But, and it’s a big but: Just as Cave of the Heart would not be Medea’s story without Noguchi’s set pieces (the rocks that form Medea’s path, the spiky metal “dress” to which she returns again and again) and just as Night Journey (Oedipus Rex from Jocasta’s point of view) is inconceivable without the tilted “bed,” Dark Meadow minus the mildly phallic-looking stone shapes that Noguchi made to define the space and represent the movement of time becomes a very different dance. In Noguchi’s New York Times obituary, Graham made very clear how important his designs were to her dances: “The works he created for my ballets brought to me a new vision, a new world of space and the utilization of space,” she said. Noguchi brought that vision, as well as the idea of integrating dance, sculpture and props, to many other choreographers: In Portland, Jann Dryer, Mary Oslund, and Linda Austin come readily to mind.

Xin Ying as the Woman in Red in Graham’s 1948 “Diversion of Angels.” Photo: Hibbard Nash

Like the Limon Company, and now the Paul Taylor Company, the Graham Company has sought to keep itself alive by commissioning new work from today’s choreographers, who, ideally, have some connection with their founders’ aesthetic, and/or share their points of view. Nacho Duato is one such choreographer, and his Rust, created for the Graham Company in 2013 to an incredible score by Arvo Pärt, came next on the program. Stark, raw, with glaring lights, it begins with simple walking, and dancers soon descend to the floor of what looks like a basement prison. Several men are being tortured; one observes or directs, it’s unclear. I thought immediately of Franco’s Spain, in which Duato came of age, and to which Graham reacted in 1937 with an enraged, grief-stricken solo titled Deep Song. However, a program note states that Duato wanted to raise a seemingly indifferent world’s awareness of the torture taking place in our own time. And more power to him and the dancers who performed the tightly choreographed piece with grim, chilling stoicism.

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Gershwin in Paris: S’wonderful

The Broadway tour of "An American in Paris" creates a gorgeous spectacle of song and dance inside Keller Auditorium

“S’wonderful, it’s marvelous,” this Broadway version of An American in Paris, playing at the Keller Auditorium through Sunday.

I thought so when I saw it in New York a year ago, and I still thought so last night, when the national touring company version opened here with a cast that is not as accomplished as the one I saw on Broadway, but nevertheless gave some outstanding and absorbing performances. All the other elements that make this such a wonderful show are, happily, unchanged, except for the orchestra, which is smaller. Christopher Wheeldon’s signature choreography; Bob Crowley’s stylish multimedia sets and costumes, which put you squarely in wartime Paris; and Natasha Katz’s lighting design, giving us both a city of light and one of war-time darkness, remain the same, as does the book by Craig Lucas.

Puttin’ on the ritz: the “American in Paris” company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

These elements come felicitously together in the service of George Gershwin’s music, the jazzy orchestral “American in Paris,” composed in 1928 as an homage to the city of the Lost Generation, as well as songs with lyrics by Ira Gershwin such as “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” familiar to the many members of the not-so-young audience who remember the 1951 film on which the show is based.

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‘Terra’ firma: OBT’s dancers shine

A ballet program of Nacho Duato and Helen Pickett, including the premiere of her "Terra" belongs to the company's performers

Xuan Cheng, Thomas Baker, Peter Franc, Michael Linsmeier, Avery Reiners, and Brian Simcoe, gazing upward, their mouths held open in a butoh-like silent scream, in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s Terra.

Jacqueline Straughan wrapping her long, beautiful legs around Franc’s bare torso in Nacho Duato’s El Naranjo.

Martina Chavez, bent double, skittering across the stage barefoot in Duato’s Jardi Tancat.

Emily Parker, metaphorically taking down Linsmeier and Franc with a flick of her pointe shoe aimed at the back of their knees in Pickett’s Petal.

The OBT company in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s “Terra.” Photo: James McGrew

For better or worse, these are some of the images – all of them of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers ( this show belongs to them) – I’ve been mulling over since Thursday night when the company opened its annual mixed repertory program at the Newmark Theater.

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Men, bottled up and burning

Skinner/Kirk's "Burn It Backwards" dances in and around the way men try, and sometimes fail, to make relationships

Over the past twenty years, give or take, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk, founders of skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, have developed what you might call an autobiographical movement vocabulary: a braiding-together of ballet lifts, modern floor falls, spins and jumps and tumbles that reflect their performing careers in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and the Gregg Bielemeier Dance Project. At OBT they danced in work by Portland choreographer Josie Moseley, and there is a lot of her particular branch of modernism in their choreography.

I saw all that and more in Burn It Backwards, their new evening-length work, which opened Thursday night at BodyVox Dance Center, performed to music by Elliott Smith, played live—extremely live!—by Bill Athens, Galen Clark, Catherine Feeny and Chris Johnedis. Smith, who died in 2003 at a very young 34, lived most of his short life in Portland, and according to Wikipedia (yes, I had to look him up) was strongly influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Of his own songwriting, Smith said, “I don’t really think of it in terms of language, I think about it in terms of shapes.”

Brent Luebbert and James Healey, facing off. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Skinner and Kirk took the title of their piece from a line in Smith’s Sweet Adeline, one of the thirteen songs arranged by Clark specifically for these performances. They chose it, they say in a program note, “because it speaks of forming a new history, both erasing and creating.” That’s a pretty good description of the choreographic process, or the creative process generally, but what Skinner and Kirk actually put on stage was a finished, polished series of dances for themselves and three other men, Chase Hamilton, James Healey and Brent Luebbert, all of them accomplished, well-schooled dancers.

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Studio show: a time to dance

The Portland Ballet's young dancers, with the even younger Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe, give a glimpse of the future

There is, it says in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, a season for everything, including a time to dance. For the young dancers in The Portland Ballet’s Studio Company that time is now, and as they showed in the closing performance of their annual studio concerts Sunday afternoon, did they ever!

The program, designed by TPB co-artistic directors Nancy Davis and Anne Mueller to demonstrate the stylistic range of these pre-professional dancers, certainly had its challenges, as did the venue. As lovely as the studio theater is, the audience sits very close to dancers who quite rightly are being taught to project in the large opera houses and theaters in which they dream of dancing one day in the not too distant future.

The Portland Ballet performs the contemporary “Rip/Tide,” created by BodyVox directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland and set by Zachary Carroll. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Two of them already have. Lauren Kness and Henry Winslow (the sole male in the company) performed last December as guest artists in the Ballet Nacional Dominicano’s Nutcracker at the Teatro Nacional in Santa Domingo, dancing an “Arabian” pas de deux choreographed for the occasion by John Clifford.

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Swan Lake? Yes and no.

With its new version told through the experiences of the Prince, Oregon Ballet Theatre's production feels like something else

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new Swan Lake, with a reconceived libretto by artistic director Kevin Irving, opened at the Keller Auditorium last Saturday night. The house was filled with the usual suspects, as well as a gratifying number of young people, including a few little girls in party dresses.

With choreography by Irving, resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, and OBT School director Anthony Jones (after Petipa/Ivanov); and Filippo Sanjust’s set (to which a smithy has been added by designer Bill Anderson); this production certainly looks like Swan Lake. But it doesn’t quite feel like it.

I would attribute that partly to the incoherent libretto and partly to the crazy quilt of bits and pieces of choreography and characters from other ballets OBT has performed, specifically Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli, Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, and Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

OBT’s Peter Franc as Prince Siegfried, lakeside with the swans. Photo: Emily Nash

Since its premiere in Moscow in 1877 – and as have many of the ballets in the classical canon – Swan Lake has been adjusted, recast, torqued, tweaked, and completely transformed to reflect the points of view of those who restage it and the cultural environments in which it is performed. There is no set in stone text for Swan Lake, and I am not a Swan Lake fundamentalist — I quite love Matthew Bourne’s version, set in 20th century London, with an all-male swan corps and keyed, sort of, to the British royal family. And in fact, Petipa himself was the first to make major changes in the libretto, in 1895, and that remains the one with which audiences are most familiar.

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