Matisse, curious incidents & road-trip revelations

On a midwinter journey to New York, big crowds and big attractions blend with high prices and a splash of magic

In December, New York City dances. Lights sparkling night and day,  revelers dashing across streets to pause and gape at store windows, skaters swooping and sometimes staggering around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, fat little squirrels scampering up and down trees in Washington Square,  traffic doing the slowest dance of the year.

At the Guggenheim Museum, on a Sunday afternoon, hordes of kids are ramping up the action in the main hall. At the Museum of Modern Art, Matisse’s paper cut-outs, in residence through February 10, dance off the walls, lifting the heart and brightening the soul. Some of those cut-outs were done in the 1950s, decades after the artist’s iconic paintings Dance I (1909) and Dance II (1932). The colors in his cut-outs are much, much brighter, and there are no dancers per se, but the shapes are there, and those shapes shimmy as well as shimmer. I saw these “found” dances last month on a two-week visit to my home town, much of it in the company of my grandchildren and their parents.

Henri Matisse, "The Parakeet and the Mermaid." 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, 11' 11/16" x 25' 2 9/16" (337 x 768.5 cm). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Acquired with the assistance of the Vereeniging Rembrandt and the Prince Bernhard Cultuurfond

Henri Matisse, “The Parakeet and the Mermaid.” 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, 11′ 11/16″ x 25′ 2 9/16″ (337 x 768.5 cm). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Acquired with the assistance of the Vereeniging Rembrandt and the Prince Bernhard Cultuurfond

With the family, I saw no dance or theater. Ticket prices are astronomical, which made me realize how deeply privileged I was to grow up in that city in the ’40s and ’50s, when the museums (except for MoMA) were free and the price of a second balcony seat at New York City Center was the same as for a first-run movie. Today, children do get in gratis to the Guggenheim, and, with some negotiation, to the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. But small wonder that the audience for live performance is shrinking, and shrinking fast.

Having said that, every event I attended was well and truly packed, including the museums, where parents of young children (including the parents of my grandchildren) were making art part of their children’s lives.  One such child (no kin of mine) who, her mother told me, takes ballet classes in Maine, used the sculpted railing of the Guggenheim’s ramp as a barre, demonstrating for me the five positions of l’école de la danse with charming accuracy.

Tickets for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway are definitely prohibitively priced, yet the balcony, where I sat in the next to the last row, was full, and with quite a few young people at that. Possibly they were Juilliard students, given a student rate, there to see Alex Sharp, who graduated from the drama program last spring, and whose performance in the lead role gave me the same high as Sarita Allen did, dancing in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations the following night.

Alex Sharp as Christopher in "Curious Incident."  Joan Marcus Photographer, ©

Alex Sharp as Christopher in “Curious Incident.” Joan Marcus
Photographer, ©

The play, an adaptation by Simon Stephens of Mark Haddon’s eponymous novel, begins with a dead dog and ends with a gamboling puppy.  It is funny, heartbreaking, angry, frightening, and at times annoying. But Sharp, portraying Christopher, a 15-year-old autistic teenager who is a mathematical genius trapped by a neurological inability to relate to the people who love him, inhabits that character with every muscle, bone and sinew in his body. He also spoke his lines with far more clarity than more experienced cast members. I could barely understand the narrator of Christopher’s account of his brave, not quite solo journey (he takes along with him his pet rat) in search of his mother. She has abandoned him, his father, and their Swindon community for a less stressful life in London with her lover; the owner, it turns out, of the murdered dog. I have seldom seen a physical comedy shtick as funny as Sharp’s efforts to cope with using a smelly toilet on a moving train; not many gestures as tender as his fleeting acceptance of his mother’s aid. And Sharp’s full-bodied working-out of a complicated math problem in a setting of flashing lights, (post curtain-calls,) is a mind-boggling, movement tour de force. Jumping high to reach a simulated chalkboard, Sharp shows plenty of what ballet critics call ballon: the ability to seem as if you are balancing on air.

Theater critics had mixed feelings about the highly innovative lighting and set design, basically a grid on which minimalist props and video projections create a village street, a railway station, a train car, and the aforementioned railway toilet.  I thought it was brilliant, but having seen many such virtual settings for dance, not particularly startling. Bunny Christie was responsible for the scenic and costume design; Paule Constable for the lighting and Finn Ross the video projections.

The following night, New Year’s Eve, the dancing took place (theatrical dancing, that is) at a recently refurbished City Center, where the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was saying farewell to 2014 with a program of what Balanchine called applause machines, and appearances by some of the company’s alumni in Ailey’s Revelations, which is a masterpiece as well as an audience-pleaser.

The Alvin Ailey company in "Revelations." Photo: Nan Melville

The Alvin Ailey company in “Revelations.” Photo: Nan Melville

In a pre-curtain address noteworthy for its brevity, Robert Battle, who has directed the Ailey company since Judith Jamison’s retirement in 2011, spoke of Revelations as part of the company’s past, present and future. Made in 1960, it is as much this company’s signature work as Balanchine’s Serenade is New York City Ballet’s, although it is very different.  I love Revelations for its honesty and humor, for the music—spirituals, alas, not performed live—for its choreographic blend of the modern techniques of Lester Horton and Martha Graham with Ailey’s idiosyncratic movement details: splayed fingers and lifted upper bodies come to mind,  and the sheer joy of its conclusion. I can’t think of a better way to spend New Year’s Eve, a holiday I basically loathe, than clapping out the beat of Rocka My Soul in unison with an audience dressed to the nines and led by Sarita Allen, who danced in this company from 1970 to 1990 and on this occasion succeeded in transforming her light-stepping, lean, mean body into one of Ailey’s weighted, jolly, extroverted church women. Now for the disclaimer: I know Allen: thanks to my uber-generous New York friend Lillian Kraemer, I first met her about a dozen years ago when Lillian shared with me one of the Pilates lessons she still takes from Allen.  Allen got me hooked on the blend of ballet and yoga developed by Joe Pilates, and in Portland I am tutored by another gorgeous mover, former OBT dancer Nicole Cuevas.

Allen’s contemporary, Desmond Richardson, dancing with Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, another company alum, also knocked my socks off in Wade in the Water, one of my favorite sections of Revelations, and Andre Tyson’s performance in that mind-boggling solo I Wanna Be Ready was also phenomenally good. Current company members Jermaine Terry, Yannick Lebrun (who gave an outstanding performance earlier in the evening in Battle’s African body-slapping solo Takademe) and Sean Aaron Carmon conveyed the frantic fears of the guilty in Sinner Man, dashing around the stage backed by the simulated fires of Hell, but why in the name of all that’s holy did someone at Ailey decide some years ago to make these sinners look bright green?

While it’s safe to say that Revelations was the only real masterpiece on the New Year’s Eve program, Hans van Manen’s skillfully crafted, curtain-raising Polish Pieces set the celebratory tone, the dancers’ primary-colored unitards taking me right back to  Matisse’s cut-outs at MoMA. What’s Polish about the piece is the music, an electronic score composed by Henryk-Mikolaj Gorecki, and a good match for van Manen’s choreographic blend of modern and classical technique. Polish Pieces is a series of solos, duets and trios, all of them high-energy, some of them combative. I was particularly taken by the shapely performance by Akua Noni Parker, partnered by Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

We’ve seen some of Aszure Barton’s work here in Portland; Northwest Dance Project has commissioned her a couple of times, I think, and I haven’t warmed to her rather self-conscious grittiness. Lift, made in 2013 specifically for the Ailey dancers, features a lot of bare-chested male dancers with rippling muscles and women dressed in flippy grass-like skirts, all of this suggesting African tribal dance. It made me acutely uncomfortable, although I very much liked Curtis Macdonald’s score. The audience, which was largely African American, loved it. David Parsons’ 1982 tricky solo, Caught, followed (the manipulation of strobe lights fools the audience into thinking the dancer is not only levitating but also has the ability to be in several places at once) and while Kirven Douthit-Boyd, like all this company’s male dancers, combines athleticism and artistry in spectacular ways, it didn’t quite come off. Perhaps what was startling 30 years ago, when I saw Parsons perform it himself in Lincoln Hall, has lost its energy, or maybe I’m just the wrong person to review it.  One of my seatmates loved it.

In so many ways, New York remains the city of my childhood, particularly during the holidays, where lights and color and movement, pedestrian and theatrical, give it a magical energy. But as we emerged from City Center, where I saw my first operas and ballets, onto West 55th Street, which had been blocked off because of the expected crowds to watch the ball drop at midnight in Times Square, I realized that a lot more than ticket prices had changed. The street was jammed with fire engines and emergency vehicles, cops and men in hazmat suits. Still buoyed by the invitation to “Rocka my soul”, I wished the nearest fireman a happy new year and went on my way: such is the power of art, and let’s not forget it.

Groovin’ Greenhouse: where the dance is

Polaris hosts the biggest dance slice (but not the only one) of the Fertile Ground new works festival. Here's what's coming up.

Groovin’ Greenhouse, hosted by Polaris Dance Theater as part of the larger Fertile Ground festival of new works, is prime territory for festival dance followers, a sort of festival within the festival. It will showcase eight new works by emerging and established Portland-area dance companies, January 22-31 at Polaris’s in-house black box studio theater at 1501 SW Taylor St. Other significant dance projects are debuting during the festival, too, including Eric Nordin and Jessica Wallenfels’ The Snowstorm, which has already developed significant buzz, and Northwest Children’s Theatre’s The Jungle Book, which incorporates traditional Indian dance by Anita Menon.

Groovin' Greenhouse host company, Polaris Dance Theatre.

Groovin’ Greenhouse host company, Polaris Dance Theatre.

At Groovin’ Greenhouse:

Polaris Dance Theater, Jan, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, 31 @ 7:30pm

The Greenhouse’s host company will be performing a new work and score by Artistic Director Robert Guitron.

Automal, Jan. 29, 31 @ 7:30pm

Automal, a newish dance company directed by choreographer Kate Rafter, will be performing Graft, a primordial piece that involves Silly Putt and, explores symmetry in nature, replication, recycling and interconnection. Performers include Ross Calhoun, Kate Rafter, Sara Himmelman, Lauren Vermilion, Paris Cannon, and Ella Matweyou. Music will be made up of covers, arrangements, remixes and originals from Bjork’s 2007 Volta album, in addition to a commissioned rearrangement by Juliet Gordon.

Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance, Jan. 23, 24 @ 7:30pm

Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance, co-founded and directed by Suzanne Chi and Rachel Slater, is brand new to the Portland dance scene. It has commissioned a duet, The Servant, by Tracy Durbin, depicting the complexities of sisterly bonds. Also premiering is Slater’s West Rising Sun. Joined by Eliza Larson, the dancers pose the question, “What is happiness?” Joining Muddy Feet will be WolfBird Dance in an excerpt from its upcoming piece, Your Backwash is Better than Nothing.The Directors, Choreographers and Performers are Selina DiPronio and Raven Jones.

Art in Progress: Choreographers Collective, Jan 30 @ 7:30pm

Art in Progress is a collective of dancers and choreographers inspiring each other to create.The dances are generated by every member and brought to life collaboratively. Company Members include: Adrienne Kirk, Beca Rasch, Dustin Brown, Frieda Carlsen, Kelly Koltiska, and Rachel Swanson.

 Fanina Padykula, Heather Henna Louise and Emilie Lauren, Portland Bellydance Guild.

Fanina Padykula, Heather Henna Louise and Emilie Lauren, Portland Bellydance Guild.

The Portland Bellydance Guild, Jan. 24 @ 7:30pm

Elise Morris, director and president of The Portland Bellydance Guild, has brought together 18 dancers in four styles of belly dance. Playing off the light-and-shadow concept of chiaroscuro, they will represent folkloric, cabaret, tribal and tribal fusion styles. This newly formed guild hopes to unite Portland’s bellydancing community, promote artistic excellence, and demonstrate that belly dance in America can mean many different things.

PDX Dance Collective, Jan. 23, 24 @ 7:30pm

Cycle and Seek choreographed by Hannah Downs in collaboration with the members of the PDX Dance Collective, explores the way in which humans repeatedly run up against their own barriers.

Polaris Jr. Company, Jan. 21, 31 @ 7:30pm

Polaris Dance Theater’s second company, Polaris Jr., will perform works by Jr. Company Director M’Liss Stephenson and guest choreographer Gerard Regot. These works-in-progress will be performed in full in May.

NW Fusion Dance Company, Jan, 30 @ 7:30pm

Directed by Brad Hampton, this pre-professional dance company will perform new works by Elizabeth Bressler, Lauren Edson, and Mahina Moon exploring a range of music from the ’80s to opera.

Dance happenings in the larger Fertile Ground Festival

The Jungle Book, Jan. 31-March 1

The Jungle Book, at Northwest Children’s Theater, is adapted by Anita Menon, Sarah Jane Hardy, and John Ellingson, and directed by Hardy. Through the fusion of traditional Indian dances and western theater, this original adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s tales of Mowgli, the boy raised in the wild, is fantastically formed, with dancing wolves and high-energy Bollywood feats.

"The Snowstorm," at CoHo Theatre.

“The Snowstorm,” at CoHo Theatre.

The Snowstorm, Jan. 16-Feb 7

The Snowstorm is written by Eric Nordin, and directed and choreographed by Jessica Wallenfels, with musical direction and piano performance by Nordin. Presented by CoHo Production & Many Hats Collaboration, this physical theater production combines the classical piano music of Rachmaninoff, classical romance, puppetry and masks. Early audiences have been giving it rave reviews.

CoLevity in That’s How We Roll, Jan 24, 25, 31 @ 5 p.m., Feb 1 at 1 p.m.

Choreography is by the CoLevity Performance Group: Cami Curtis, Stephan Diaz, Hilary Hart and Blake Seidel. The company describes That’s How We Roll as satire in dance form, loosely based on the premise of an eccentric blend of characters in a large happy/unhappy family and told through dance, song, and spoken word.

Frogz at 35: the mime still boggles

Imago shows off its brilliant menagerie for the hometown crowd before hitting the road again. Next stop: France.

Art Without Boundaries is  the title of an internationally focused history of modern dance by former New York Times dance critic and poet Jack Anderson, and it’s also an excellent description of the long-lived variety show of the imagination Frogz, now in the middle of its home season at Imago Theatre.

Sloth on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

Sloths on the loose. (All photos by Jerry Mouawad/Imago Theatre)

The masked theater piece, which is one of the city’s prime performance attractions during winter break, has been crossing all kinds of boundaries – formal, geographical, generational, and cultural – since Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle, Imago’s founders, started it with a single frog 35 years ago.

Today, the cast of characters includes two more frogs, alligators, orbs, a baby, penguins, sloths, paper bags, string, and a cowboy, performed by a troupe of five quick-change artists, with very different training, who are willing to travel the world. Never cute, and never patronizing, Frogz can be hilarious or poignant, satirical or sad, whimsical, or magical. It is family entertainment, to be sure, but with a highly sophisticated edge.

The frog that started it all was born  in 1979, in an untidy two bedroom apartment in Eugene, where Triffle (then Uselman) and Mouawad, who was studying theater at the University of Oregon,  were living together.  “One of the rooms was full of making things,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December.  “We were in our twenties, a lot of stuff came from there, and we eventually had to get a studio.”

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

The couple had met two years before in Portland, in a ballet class being taught by the late Danny Diamond. Diamond’s studio was in the same building as the Richard Hayes Marshall School of Theater Arts, where Marshall taught the methods of Parisian mime Jacques Lecoq. Mouawad was also studying with Marshall, and Triffle, who spent her adolescence in Mt. Angel, getting attention by making her many siblings laugh in the family kitchen, soon got hooked on the Frenchman’s approach to wordless comedy.

Lecoq seldom performed, but was well-known as a great teacher and director. He had invented a system (he was French, after all) that included a number of methods of creating and expressing character without dialogue, using physical improvisation and other movement techniques as well as masks to convey “what lies behind the words.” Actors such as Geoffrey Rush studied with him, but so did architects and psychoanalysts. In the Eighties, Triffle began extensive studies at his school in Paris, assisting him, and following Lecoq’s death in 1999, assisting his son. She is now a certified teacher of the Lecoq methodology.

Juggling fish: doesn't everyone?

Juggling fish: doesn’t everyone?

Mouawad fell in love with theater when he acted in a seventh grade play at the American School in Beirut, hence the drama studies at the U of O. But once he became acquainted with Lecoq’s approach to theater, it made a lot more sense to him than the conventional techniques he was learning there.   He remembered being asked, as a twenty-year-old, to develop the character of a man twice his age, with twice his experience in the world. “That was confusing,” he said. “The world is too complex for a twenty-year old.” What drew him to masked theater and the Lecoq methods was the distillation of the simplest element provided by the mask, and the limited options of how to portray something or someone he was not: a slinky, a polar bear, a baby.

Nevertheless, Frogz in its current, complex incarnation is far from simple to perform. It requires physicality, strength, endurance, visibility, and  something Triffle says you are born with if you have it: comic timing.  “[That] is crucial,” Mouawad said in an interview in early December at Imago Theatre.  “Everything else can be taught.” Rehearsals were about to begin for the current run, and Triffle and cast members Kyle Delamarter and Kaician Jade Kitko were also present for a free-wheeling interview in which laughter overrides the recording of much of what was said. Frogz spends most of its time on tour, circumnavigating the globe, giving 150 performances a year, most recently in this country.

Delamarter seems to have passed his 2002 audition because of what Mouawad called “crazy behavior” before he even went up on stage, where he was challenged to “not be funny.” He was an animator at the time, and was taken into the company to perform in Biglittlethings, one of three incarnations of what my grandson calls the “animal show,”  (ZooZoo was the third). Delamarter has performed in all three, as well as in such experimental works as Backs Like That, Splat and Beaux Arts Club.  The family shows provide the bread and butter that sustain the more (much more) experimental pieces.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Ah, the things that Paper can do.

Delamarter has spent twelve years touring with the show in all its permutations, and what he had to say about audience reaction confirms the observations of cultural anthropologists that body language, as much as other forms of social behavior including spoken language, reveals cultural differences, even in different parts of the United States.  Frogz had a six-week run in Boston some years ago at the American Repertory Theater, before Mouawad’s unsettling version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was performed there. When it came time for the audience participation in the penguins’ game of musical chairs, in which the birds go into the audience, “no one would give us a seat,” Delamarter recalled. This was not as frustrating, however, as a recent performance in Amman, Jordan, where despite being shown a presenter-created video of how to behave in the theater that included instructions about turning off cell phones, the kids (and the adults) ruined the black-light finale by taking pictures with their devices, using the flash, and also tried to see how it all worked by shining their flashlights.

On the whole, “the show translates well because there is no [spoken] language,” Delamarter said. Wherever it’s performed,  “they like it as much as families do anywhere. We did another show for immigrants, and there was no problem.” Kayla Scrivner, production stage manager, who traveled to Egypt and Jordan with Frogz on its previous tour to the region, points out that the less affluent audiences are better behaved: in Egypt, the company did a show for kids who had no cell phones, and the kids were completely attentive to the goings-on.

Some baby!

Some baby!

In this country, audience response often has something to do with the venue and the size of the city.  In small towns, audiences tend to be more receptive because they don’t see much live theater.  When the company recently performed in Crockett, Texas, Delamarter reported, it was greeted by a wall of sound that resembled the welcome the Beatles used to get more than forty years ago. This reminded Mouawad of being in Asia in the Eighties, performing in the Orb mask, and having sixty kids attack him when he came offstage. Onstage, he “could communicate with a theater of 2000 people in Taipei, but I couldn’t ask any of them to get me a cup of coffee.” Or stop attacking him. No matter where they perform, they “carry the masks,” as Lecoq put it, so well and so convincingly that children in particular think inanimate objects like orbs and string are alive; that fighting, cheating penguins are real; that lizards very scary; and polar bears are never to be attacked.

Kitko, a tap dancer by training, joined Imago in 2010 to perform in Stage Left Lost. The first challenge to “carrying the mask,” he says, is the way it limits your vision. “You can’t see what you would like to be able to see, but you get used to it quickly. You have to know that the performers are going to be where you want them to be at the right times; trust them to be out of your way.” A number of tricks help with this: stage floors are marked, so when an Orb, say, is looking down, it knows where it is; and there are sound cues that are inaudible to the viewers.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

Windbags, blowing up some beauty.

In general terms, says Mouawad, to “carry the mask means to perform it. You don’t manipulate it, you don’t have complete power; in some ways you’re collaborating [with it]. The sightlines can make you feel completely isolated from the world around you, but you’re still communicating through the mask.”

Kitko, Delamarter, Jonathan Godsey, Pratik Motwani and Tera Nova Zarra (the only woman in the cast) will be working their masked magic at Imago Theatre through January 4.  Their next stop is France, home of Lecoq technique. Catch them while you can: they won’t return for another year.


Twenty performances of Frogz remain. Check here for times, prices, and reservations.

Dance review: The politics of body-mapping

Yossi Berg and Oded Graf opened White Bird's Uncaged series with a funny case of body politics

On Thursday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, White Bird launched season 15 of its Uncaged Series, with the return of Israeli choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf and the U.S. premier of their “BodyLand.” Berg and Graff originally made their debut in Portland in the Uncaged series in 2011 with 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer. (I missed that performance but you can read a review by my fearless leader Barry Johnson and another by  Marty Hughley, formerly of The Oregonian and now allied with ArtsWatch, too.)

I also attended the master class taught on Friday morning by Graff and Berg at Conduit Dance. I am happy to report that the class was full, 25 students compared to the five that attended Phillip Adams class back in January of this year. The class and choreography appeared to be a synthesis of Berg and Graff’s combined experience as dancers and people in the world. It did confirm a few things I had surmised from the night before: 1) the choreographers enjoy that moment of dropping out of pedestrian movement into dance, and 2) tenderness, sensuality and high drama were common threads throughout.

'BODYLAND' by Yossi Berg & Oded Graf,/ photo   Christoffer Askmansmall

‘BODYLAND’ by Yossi Berg & Oded Graf/ photo Christoffer Askmansmall

“Bodyland” featured five male dancers from four different countries—Berg and Graff from Israel, Pierre Enaux from France, Soren Linding Urup from Denmark, and Robin Rohrmann from Germany. With this mix of perspectives and in the context of the United States and the current world political climate, I was expecting a highly charged, controversial conversation onstage. Instead, the hour-long performance was a mindful and carefully sculpted, visually and aurally beautiful, humorous conversation among the men, both as individuals and as representatives of their respective countries. Humor is disarming and it keeps peoples minds open.


‘Nut': doin’ what comes naturally

In this beloved and most artificial of holiday perennials, George Balanchine wanted his dancers to seem natural. In OBT's 'Nutcracker," they do.

There’s much to love in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, and in the way it is performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre. OBT opened its annual run at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, with live orchestra under the baton of Niel DePonte, and would that the orchestra were present at all performances. Even when the musicians play Tchaikowsky’s score less than perfectly, both they and the dancers, working together, make me see and hear new things in a ballet I’ve watched more times than I can count.

Kelsie Nobriga as a Snowflake. Photo: James McGraw

Kelsie Nobriga as a Snowflake. Photo: James McGraw

Balanchine wanted the children to look natural (actually he wanted all dancers to look natural, in this highly artificial form) and they definitely do in the party scene that begins the familiar story of Marie’s Christmas Eve dream. Johannes Gikas, as Fritz, Marie’s brother, misbehaved so easily, he made me wonder if he is something of a handful at home.  Zaida Johnson, the afternoon’s Marie, thoroughly convinced me that she loved her basically hideous Nutcracker doll (injured by naughty Fritz) enough to risk that spooky Stahlbaum parlor to check on him after everyone else was in bed. Balanchine’s Marie is an activist, moreover,  brave enough to save the Nutcracker Prince from certain death by flinging her shoe at the Mouse King during their duel, although on opening day she missed him by quite a bit. Possession of a lovely port de bras doesn’t necessarily also mean possession of a good pitching arm.

I love, always, and mostly because of the music, the first act’s  “Grandfather Dance,” which is not dissimilar to a Virginia Reel,  and is a multi-generational affair. Company artist Thomas Baker danced a wonderfully arthritic grandfather, partnering Samantha Baybado as a less convincingly ancient grandmother. Chauncey Parsons as Herr Drosselmeier, avuncular in the party scene when he presented the dancing dolls and the Nutcracker, and deliciously sinister as he sets the stage for Marie’s dream, proved himself as good a character dancer as he is a bravura technician.

En route to the Land of the Sweets, Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, in which the excellent Collin Trummel gives fresh touches to a role he could probably do in his sleep, pass through the Land of the Snow, wherein lies some of the most challenging dancing in the ballet. That’s because of the artificial snow, which can make the stage nearly as slippery as the real thing. I was particularly taken with the centered, expressive dancing of Sarah Griffin, a new company artist this year, but all sixteen dancers, some of whom are advanced students, stayed on their feet and stayed together in sparkling fashion, like real snowflakes, none of them looking precisely alike.

When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in 1954, New York Times critic John Martin complained that there was no real dancing in it, that it was nothing but mime and pageantry and spectacle, the very things that Mr. B. had stripped from classical ballet in such works as Four Temperaments and Symphony in C. The Waltz of the Snowflakes in fact is pure, plotless movement, it struck me on Saturday, and so is the Waltz of the Flowers. In some versions of this ballet it can be a boring repetition of Snow, albeit to different music. What saves it here is the Dewdrop Fairy, an invention of Balanchine’s, and a role he made originally for Tanaquil LeClercq, whose speed and chic and technical finesse were legendary. Candace Bouchard, a very different dancer, has made this role her own in the last couple of years, and on Saturday she really nailed it, dancing it with such musicality and delicate strength she managed to distract me from the garish backdrop and ditto tutus worn by the candied flowers. Lighting designer Michael Mazzola does his magical best each year to spotlight the dancing and obscure the set, but there is just so much that even he can do. I noticed this year that he had changed some of the lighting for the preamble to the party, suggesting, as does the music, the spookiness to come.

Balanchine loved acrobatics and had much enjoyed performing what was called the Hoop dance when he was a student at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, so along with the mime that tells the Sugarplum Fairy how Marie and her Nutcracker Prince made it to the Kingdom of the Sweets, he included it intact in his twentieth-century version of the nineteenth-century classic. Jordan Kindell infused his performance of what’s now called Candy Cane with what I imagine is much the same infectious joy as the young Balanchine.

And when danced well, as it was on Saturday afternoon, by Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier’s Grand Pas de Deux can certainly make the heart beat faster and the tears flow. Balanchine broke up this traditional pas de deux and got some flack for it, but Sugar Plum does her variation at the beginning of the second act, and I thought that, while Cheng plucked at the floor with her pointes with time-honored musicality, she was just a little too “look at me” presentational.  That quality went away by the time she danced with the courtly Simcoe, who pulls off the technical tricks here with insouciance and ease.

A roiling of rats. Photo: James McGrew

A roiling of rats. Photo: James McGrew

What I find it increasingly difficult to love are the “national” divertissements of the second act. Hot Chocolate is OK, and Martina Chavez gave it some actual heat on Saturday afternoon; and the Marzipan Shepherdesses can be charming. But Coffee and Tea are really dated, and not in a good way. In the hootchy-kootchy Coffee, Makino Hayashi undulated on pointe as required, but I think took it sufficiently seriously to omit the satiric edge that Alison Roper used to give it, which for me at least makes it nearly bearable to watch. Tea, with its winsome Orientalist cuteness, usually makes me cringe, and my heart sank when I saw that Ye Li, who actually is Chinese, had been given the assignment.  Li, however, omitted the head-tilting cuteness, jumping high and rapidly, but I couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking.

I was curious, too, to see what Colby Parsons, new to OBT this season, would do with the role of Mother Ginger; if he would camp it up the way others have, or play it relatively straight. He played it quite straight, and mostly got laughs when he brushed his teeth, logical after consuming all those sweets, but a bit of didacticism I hadn’t noticed before. That, since the Balanchine Trust is extremely picky about note-by-note, step-by-step fidelity to the master’s original, or more specifically, the version of the ballet set by the authorized répétiteurs, sent me scurrying through histories of this Nutcracker to see if that was part of the original choreography.  Turns out Mr. B. did allow for some improvisation in this role, so it’s permissible. Why the Trust refuses permission to have the party girls win the tug of war against the party boys every now and then beats hell out of me. Kevin Irving asked, and was turned down flat.

Casting changes throughout the run: there are three new Sugar Plums this year: Bouchard, Eva Burton and Chavez, each of whom will put her own stamp on the role.  That was encouraged by Balanchine, and he often adjusted the choreography for individual dancers. Absent the choreographer, it is the dancers, after all, with the help of their ballet masters (in this instance Lisa Kipp and Jeffrey Stanton), who at the end of the day are responsible for providing this Nutcracker much to love.


OBT’s “Nutcracker” continues at Keller Auditorium through Dec. 27. Some performances include live music, and others are performed to a recorded score; be sure to check the schedule. Ticket and schedule information are here.


Creating ‘The Nutcracker': It’s kids’ stuff

Gavin Larsen and a ballet school's worth of students get ready for OBT's annual holiday ballet, opening Saturday

It is 3:45 p.m. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Chattering children in various sizes and shapes, dressed in practice clothes, mill around the lobby outside the main studio in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s current digs on Southeast Sixth Avenue, where Nutcracker rehearsals will soon take place. There isn’t a whole lot of time left before OBT’s annual run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker opens at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday, December 13.

The crowd spills over into the corridor outside the company’s second studio, where children’s ballet master Gavin Larsen is coaching Ruby Mae Lefebvre, one of the Maries, in the first act transition scene between the party’s end and the battle of the mice and toy soldiers.  Two more Maries, Malia McClanahan and Zaida Johnson, sit quietly on the studio floor, backs against the wall, intent on what Lefebre is doing and what Larsen is saying about it.

Eva Burton as the Sugarplum Fairy, rehearsing with ballet school students. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton as the Sugarplum Fairy, rehearsing with ballet school students. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Tchaikovsky’s score is dramatic and scary; Balanchine’s choreography deceptively simple in this part of the story of a young girl’s Christmas Eve dream of warring mice and toy soldiers and a journey to the Land of the Sweets. Marie is alone late at night in the Stahlbaum parlor, having fallen asleep on a settee, holding her injured toy Nutcracker. Her mother has put the Nutcracker into a doll’s bed and tucked a shawl around her exhausted child, but later Marie awakens and rises to look for her new toy. The music swells menacingly, and Marie runs around the stage, terrified at being alone in the dark.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewLefebvre, who is 11 years old, is blessed with an extremely pretty face, which she knows how to use to dramatic effect. (Many older and professional dancers don’t seem to know what to do with their faces, including modern and contemporary practitioners.) The music starts; she runs. Larsen counts for her, and then stops the music to tell her she’s a little behind the beat. Lefebvre tries again; again Larsen stops her to suggest an arm be held lower. Lefebvre tries yet again, her mobile face and speedy feet convincing me of her fear. And then it’s time to move next door to the big studio, so Larsen can work on the second-act entrances before full company rehearsals begin the following week.


Mother Goose in pointe shoes

The Portland Ballet's annual holiday show finds the charm in John Clifford's fairy-tale choreography

Gentle, calm, basically peaceful (except when danger is present in Maurice Ravel’s gorgeous music and the narrative), John Clifford’s choreographic rendering of Mother Goose contains many charms. As performed by the young dancers of The Portland Ballet at the Sunday matinee in the company’s annual Thanksgiving weekend showcase at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall, it delivers a subtle, reassuring message at a time when we are otherwise bombarded by marketers in celebration of the miracle of the Hannukah lights and the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Photo courtesy The Portland Ballet

Photo courtesy The Portland Ballet

Ravel’s best-known scores for ballet are Bolero and La Valse. But the first one he did, in 1912, was Ma Mère l’oye (Mother Goose), originally for piano, then orchestrated for a production at the Theȃtre des Arts in Paris. The stories told in this ballet, in broad, brief choreographic strokes  are Jules Perrault’s versions of Sleeping Beauty,  Beauty and the Beast,  Tom Thumb (aka Hop ‘o My Thumb), and The Princess of the Pagodas. The action is framed as a young girl’s dream, and transitions are made with Mother Goose, toy goose tucked under her arm, summoning the characters.

The curtain rises on one of the loveliest sets I’ve ever seen, designed by Portland artist Liliya Drubetskaya. The young dreamer, danced on Sunday afternoon by Sophia Dahlstrom, is seated in an armchair, reading a large book. The armchair faces a large window overlooking a lush garden—this is not a winter’s tale. The child falls asleep, the chair is pulled offstage, and Sleeping Beauty begins with a group of coltish courtiers playing badminton and the extremely gifted Medea Cullumbine-Robertson deploying her pointes as Aurora.  The music darkens, the lights (designed by Michael Mazzola) do as well, Aurora has a close encounter with the wicked fairy’s spindle, and is deposited on an elaborate bed.

Next up is a different Beauty, the dark-haired Kerridwyn Schanck, dancing an eloquent pas de deux with guest artist Josh Murry, a member of BodyVox, who also reprised the role of Gerard, the desperate shopkeeper in The Fantastic Toyshop, which closed the program. Ravel’s music for Beauty and the Beast is particularly lovely, emotionally and rhythmically complex; and the playing throughout Mother Goose of the PSU Orchestra, under the baton of Ken Selden, was as heartfelt and skillful as the dancing.

Lights and slide projections then take our dreamer and the audience to a dense forest, with a corps de ballet of cleverly costumed trees. Generally speaking it’s the wind that choreographs trees, but the kids in this training company did their charming best. Emily Rapp, swooping down in a canary-yellow wig and pointe shoes on the bread crumbs that little Thumb had dropped in order to find his way home again, thoroughly inhabited the greedy bird’s character and displayed fine technique.

Given my dislike of the artificial cuteness of the Chinese divertissement in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, I dreaded the concluding Princess of the Pagodas. But Clifford is to be commended for at no time in this ballet descending into what the British call twee. The corps of red-clad Chinese servants does some acrobatics; and Nick Jurica, as the snake, did lose his balance finishing his pirouettes à la seconde. But more experienced dancers than he have done that. And Charlotte Logeais, who has beautiful legs and feet and increasingly fine-tuned technique, made a regal princess–and a fiercely kind Blue Fairy in Toyshop.

Mother Goose ends with the dreamer reunited with her parents, costumed ’50s style (no jeans for Mom in this ballet; she’s wearing a dress, and Dad is in slacks and shirt). In a reassuring show of togetherness, the curtain goes down on them reading Mother Goose, the book.  The gifted Mary Muhlbach was responsible for these costumes, and with Jane Staugas Bray, for Toyshop‘s as well.

The Portland Ballet has been performing Clifford’s Toyshop for about a decade, and the tale of an impoverished shopkeeper and his longsuffering wife, the accidentally locked-in children and the toys that come to life, contains many roles that offer opportunities for ballet students at all levels to display their dancing and acting skills. On Sunday, it was 10-year-old Andrew Davis–son of The Portland Ballet’s Jason Davis, ballet master and school principal, and the youngest Pinocchio I’ve seen–who stole the show. His joy in being on stage was palpable, his comic timing impeccable. I missed Alexandrous Ballard doing the Cossack dance, and the Giselle doll’s over-the-top makeup distracted the viewer from Delphine Chang’s perfectly good display of Romantic technique, but Lauren Grover as the Soldier Girl danced with considerable flair and polish. And the PSU Orchestra played well the Rossini-Respighi score that accompanies this Ballet Russes chestnut.

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