Martha Ullman West

 

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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Rodin and the shape of dance

A dancer's tour through the Portland Art Museum's big Rodin exhibition reveals the movement in the metal

There are many ways to look at art, all kinds of art, depending on your experience, your history, your knowledge, your point of view and your passions. Personally, and professionally, I am always interested in the links between dance and visual art, which are many and varied and not always obvious.

So is Portland Art Museum docent Carol Shults, whose ballet expertise ranges from teaching it to lecturing on its history, and is a friend of mine. For several years she has been leading special tours of the museum’s collection, and when appropriate, visiting exhibitions, in a series titled “Dance and Movement in Art.” The most recent was the first Saturday in February, when she offered a glimpse – more than a glimpse – of the intersection of dance and sculpture, first with a piece in PAM’s permanent collection, then with a close look at several pieces in the exhibition Rodin: The Human Experience, selections from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collections, on view until April 16.

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Fujikasa Satoko, “Flow #1,” 2011, stoneware with matte white slip, Museum Purchase: Funds provided by The Asian Art Council, © Fujikasa Satoko, 2013.15.1

The tour began in the Schnitzer Family Gallery on the main floor, where modern choreographer Gregg Bielemeier performed his own fluid, meditative movement take on Flow #1. The abstract ceramic sculpture is part of a series of meticulously fashioned, delicately balanced pieces that Japanese contemporary sculptor Fujikasa Satoko conceived of when she was only thirty-one.

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In stride: a tight, bright ‘Nutcracker’

Oregon Ballet Theatre's newest version of the Balanchine holiday ballet shines from tip to toe

Little girls in party dresses;  lobby kiosks packed with nutcrackers and pretend tiaras and Christmas tree ornaments; the sound of the orchestra tuning up; parents rushing down the aisle with booster seats for the littlest audience members; the aroma of fresh baked cookies.  All were part of the anticipatory chaos at Keller Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, just before Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its annual run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

Students from the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre performing as Angels in this year’s OBT “Nutcracker.” Photo: James McGrew

My sequin-clad granddaughter (hers were pink; a little girl in front of us was wearing purple) and less dressed-up grandson were with me for the best-rehearsed, best-danced opening performance of  this Nutcracker I’ve seen in the thirteen years OBT has been performing it. Clarity, musicality, technical precision that looked spontaneous (artistry, in other words) were the hallmarks of the opening matinee, making a ballet that is way too familiar to yours truly look fresh and new.

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Enchanted Toyshop, all Gift Boxed

The Portland Ballet's holiday special features John Clifford's charming revision of a Ballets Russes original, plus a new piece by Anne Mueller

At the opening of The Portland Ballet’s annual holiday concert at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall on Friday afternoon I found quite a few reasons to be thankful. Many of them were kids, dancing their hearts out in John Clifford’s version of The Enchanted Toyshop.

Originally titled La Boutique Fantasque and choreographed by Leonide Massine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (it premiered in London in 1919), Toyshop in Clifford’s version discards most of the libretto conceived by Massine and painter André Derain, who also designed the sets and costumes.  Derain’s designs are meticulously replicated for TPB by the wonderful Mary Muhlbach, who was also responsible for new designs for added characters:  Pinocchio, who serves as master of ceremonies; Amélie, the shopkeeper’s wife; the Blue Fairy; the Giselle doll; and hordes of miscellaneous children visiting the toy shop with their parents.

Kerridwyn Schanck, Andrew Davis, Lauren Kness in "Toyshop." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Kerridwyn Schanck, Andrew Davis, Lauren Kness in “Toyshop.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The Enchanted Toyshop – set to music by Gioacchino Rossini, arranged and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, and expanded by Clifford with more of Respighi’s music orchestrated by Benjamin Britten – offers comedy and pathos, fantasy and romance, a thoroughly satisfactory happily-ever-after-ending, and a lot of dancing, mainly by mechanical dolls who have come to life. (Think Nutcracker, think Coppélia, and sophisticates can also think Mary Oslund’s Reflex Doll.)

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Giants 3, masterpieces 1

Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Giants" program promises big things. Only Balanchine's "Serenade" fully delivers.

What makes a ballet a masterpiece?

George Balanchine’s Serenade, the first work on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s  “Giants” program, which I saw at the Keller auditorium on Saturday night, set me thinking about that. Because, in my view, it is the only masterpiece on a program that also included William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and the premiere of OBT resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s Giants Before Us.

Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for String Orchestra, premiered in 1935, following a preview on the Warburg estate in 1934, and was the first ballet Balanchine made on American dancers.  It is at once a  tribute  to his own training in pre-revolutionary Russia at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, and the cornerstone  of the new American classicism that Lincoln Kirstein charged him with developing.

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, Jacquelin Straughan in "Serenade." Photo: Yi Yin

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, Jacquelin Straughan in “Serenade.” Photo: Yi Yin

Balanchine liked to use cooking as a metaphor when speaking about his work.  The version of Serenade that OBT’s dancers are performing—and damned well—was slow-cooked for three decades, the fourth movement of the score inserted in 1941, the lovely, flowing costumes replacing unbecoming tunics in 1950, the master chef adding ingredients and correcting the seasoning, if you will, until the mid-’60s. Balanchine changed his ballets all the time, of course, adjusting steps to suit the dancers who performed them over the years, or, more often, to challenge them to jump higher, spin faster, travel farther.

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