OBT slips on the slipper

Ben Stevenson's romantic version of "Cinderella" puts a fairy-tale spin on the ballet company's season

“Outside girl, go here! Cabriole girl, here’s what I want you to do! Inside girl, where are you?”

Janie Parker, a lithe woman wearing shiny powder-blue tights with a loose black tee-shirt  over them, and pink ballet slippers on her feet, doesn’t look like the prima ballerina of Houston Ballet, which she was when Trey McIntyre was a member of the corps.  Nor does she look like  an army drill sergeant, but she certainly sounds like one.

Xuan Cheng in rehearsal as Cinderella. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng in rehearsal as Cinderella. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Last Wednesday afternoon, in the main studio at Oregon Ballet Theatre, Parker was in the final stages of setting the Act III ballroom waltz in Ben Stevenson’s version of Cinderella.  They were 10 days away from opening night at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 28.  All six performances (it’s a two-weekend run) will be accompanied by live orchestra, led by Niel DePonte, who elsewhere in the building was watching video, with Sergei Prokofiev’s difficult score in hand.

Small wonder Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother require a dance master before attending the Prince’s ball. In Stevenson’s choreography for the famous waltz – which is introduced at the end of Act I, when Cinderella is en route to the ball, then reprised in the ballroom scene – the steps are as complex and detailed as the music, with seemingly a slightly different step for every note.

This, along with Stevenson’s intensely romantic point of view, leavened in this work by the English music-hall antics of Cinderella’s en travestie stepsisters (think Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire), makes the ballet extremely challenging for the dancers, most of whom are accustomed to a “cooler” approach to the art of the ballet. That, however, is one of the  reasons  company artistic director Kevin Irving chose Stevenson’s rendition of a ballet that has hundreds of different versions. “It challenges the dancers with new skills,” he told me. He also likes “the romantic approach, choreographically and philosophically,” and cited “virtues over looks and goodness rewarded” as themes of the ballet. And he wanted to add a new evening-length ballet to OBT’s repertoire in the company’s 25th anniversary season.

Stevenson, who is British by birth, and British-trained, danced with the London Festival Ballet and The Royal Ballet before coming to this country , where in 1970 he made Cinderella for the National Ballet of Washington. A year later he was co-artistic director with his compatriot, Frederic Franklin, and choreographed a new Sleeping Beauty for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The National Ballet was short-lived (Nancy Matschek, who established the even shorter-lived dance major at Portland State, danced with it.)  Stevenson has spent the bulk of his career in Texas, however, first putting Houston Ballet on the national and international maps and now directing Texas Ballet Theatre, near Dallas. That company built the sets and costumes on loan for the Portland run.

In the three quarters of a century since Prokofiev began composing the score for a Soviet production of this most universal of fairy tales, there have been countless choreographic takes on the rags to riches story, which exists in some form all over the world. I’ve seen Sir Frederick Ashton’s for the then Sadler’s Wells Ballet, in New York when they made their first American tour in 1949, with the stunning Moira Shearer in the title role. Most recently, a couple of years ago, I saw Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan’s version performed by Kansas City Ballet. Kent Stowell’s is in the repertoire of Pacific Northwest Ballet; Eugene Ballet’s artistic director Toni Pimble has one that is quite close to Ashton’s (though she says she’s never seen it); Pimble’s was last seen in Portland in 1988, when OBT forerunner Ballet Oregon had several collaborative seasons with  her company.

There are many, many roles for dancers in Cinderella, but in Stevenson’s version, none for little kids, who in some productions appear gratuitously in Cinderella’s kitchen and elsewhere. However, upper division students from OBT’s School are incorporated into the ballroom scene, and they were definitely learning a lot when I watched rehearsal.  All casting is subject to change, but Xuan Cheng, Ansa Deguchi and Eva Burton are slated to dance Cinderella, with Chauncey Parsons, Brian Simcoe and Colby Parsons as the Prince. Like most of the choreography in this ballet, the partnering is intricate and dramatic.

Brett Bauer, both Parsons brothers, Michael Linsmeier, Ye Li, Adam Hartley and Thomas Baker have been cast in the extremely challenging role of the Step Sisters; they will be cavorting a fine line between slapstick and burlesque, and they will have to do it on the music. Ballet Master Lisa Kipp has been cast as Cinderella’s Stepmother; Baker in the small but important role of the dancing master.

All Cinderellas include a number of bravura turns.  Stevenson’s has a Jester. Li, Avery Reiners and Linsmeier will get a chance to show off their athletic, Soviet-style technique in this role in Act III.  For the women, there are the divertissements for the fairies; Autumn will be danced by Candace Bouchard, who will also exercise her dramatic skills as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother; Summer by the beautiful Martina Chavez.

Cinderella in some respects is a better “first ballet” for children than The Nutcracker. Kids know the story well; it’s a “happily ever after” ballet; and there is a great deal of action: it moves very fast in Stevenson’s version.  Grown-ups will enjoy those qualities, too, as well as the melding of difficult music with demanding choreography, which when I watched rehearsal,  OBT’s dancers were well on the way to perfecting.


Cinderella runs for six performances, Feb. 28-March 7, at Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W Clay St. Ticket and casting information here.

Skinner/Kirk: town & country

"Nat's Farm" and "Urban Sprawled" bridge the great dance divide in the company's sterling annual show at BodyVox

Vanessa Thiessen embraces life by jumping: high and rhythmically and joyously.  You can see it in her eyes, in her smile, in the stretch of her arms and legs, as she breathes in the sea air, smelling the salt, feeling the summer sun.

That solo takes place about midway through Nat’s Farm, Daniel Kirk’s and Eric Skinner’s new piece, which premiered on Thursday night at BodyVox as the second half of Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble’s annual concert.

From left: Thiessen, Kirk, Skinner in "Nat's Farm."

From left: Thiessen, Kirk, Skinner in “Nat’s Farm.”

Nat’s Farm was made last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, during a three-week Bessie Schonberg Choreographic Mentorship Residency at The Yard, an artist’s colony for which Schonberg, one of the founding mothers of American modern and contemporary dance, served as artistic advisor for some years before her death in 1997.  It is a wonderful breeding ground for dance. Thiessen, who like Kirk and Skinner is a former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer, participated in the residency, as did composer Tim Ribner, who is responsible for the terrific score.

The piece begins with Ribner walking toward the musicians, beating a large shell solemnly and steadily against a small rock, while Native American storyteller Kristina Hook-Leslie chants a recorded “thank you for the gift, thank you for my life, thank you for the ocean, thank you for the wind, thank you for it all.” The dancers – Skinner, Kirk, Thiessen, Brennan Boyer and Holly Shaw – arrive on stage, dancing with ritualistic gravitas as the band starts to play, their steps a little  too on the beat.

Skinner and Kirk, at angles.

Skinner and Kirk, at angles.

The music, performed by Ribner, Max Ribner and Michael Dougherty, builds, sounding  like  waves hitting the beach, and the dancers shift to high-energy fluidity, executing pirouettes and lifts in a melding of modern and classical technique,  in response to the music and each other. I think of  Isadora Duncan, standing on the beach in Northern California early in the last century, inspired by the curve and curl and energy of the Pacific to develop a form of dance that is rooted in nature.  Skinner and Kirk have been going to Martha’s Vineyard for more than thirty years, and the impetus for Nat’s Farm comes from the Atlantic, as well as various occupants of the island: Hook-Leslie is a member of the Wampanoag tribe; Thiessen’s solo, Skinner says, was “inspired by two-week-old baby goats that we met the first day we were on the island.”

While it’s not a classic like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Ribner’s score meets Kierkegaard’s requirement “that the music not appear as an accompaniment but reveal the idea.” That’s particularly true  for Thiessen’s solo, a kind of scat-song, and the trio for her, Skinner and Kirk that precedes it. In the latter case, the Latin-flavored music changed the ritualistic tone of what came earlier, and it was danced with such ebullience and effervescence that I stopped taking notes, the better to enjoy it.  What followed Thiessen’s frolicking dance was a ragtime tune for Skinner and Kirk, the lead-in for a duet that is all about their history with each other, the time they’ve spent dancing, and loving, and living and working together, those signature lifts of theirs saying it all about tenderness and support.

Nat’s Farm ends as it began, with the rest of the cast joining them onstage, then walking off quietly as Hook-Leslie finishes her story: “It’s a good thing, it is, we’re all a part of the ocean, I try to have these kind of talks with the little ones because if I don’t say it it will get lost, I don’t want it to get lost, I don’t want us to get lost and forgotten.”

Kirk and Skinner founded their company twenty-seven years ago, in 1998; they’ve been making work for a long time, and in Nat’s Farm that experience shows.  It is beautifully crafted and structured, visually interesting, and its dance, music, and text are very well-integrated indeed. If some of the lyrical moments are a bit too smoothly so, making them look mechanical rather than heartfelt, that is easily changed. My only real quibble is with the costuming: street wear combined with practice clothes, the woven, tailored shirts interfering with the line of the movement.

The company in "Urban Sprawled."

The company in “Urban Sprawled.”

That was really true of Urban Sprawled, which opened the program, and which was originally made by Skinner in 2007.  It is performed by the same cast as Nat’s Farm with the addition of the elegant Mari Kai Juras, who also dances with Eowyn Emerald. The crisp white shirts didn’t fit anyone very well: post-modernism notwithstanding, as my seatmate commented, there is a difference between ordinary clothes and costumes. Having said that, the neckties and suit jackets worn with slacks by the three men are part of the urban feel of the piece, just as the unison choreography, some of it looking like morning calisthenics, contributes to the anonymous feel of large cities. One witty section is reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s acidly funny Cloven Kingdom – no surprise there, since Kirk and Skinner performed in it when dancing with OBT. In general, the choreography is highly athletic for both men and women, with Thiessen holding the stage as she has been doing since she was a little party guest years ago in OBT’s Nutcracker.

Opening night had the atmosphere of a family reunion, speaking of OBT, with the ballet company’s artistic director Kevin Irving in the audience, as were a couple of board members, some long-time company supporters, and a chic-looking Alison Roper, lately retired as a principle dancer from OBT’s stage. Several had come specifically to see Thiessen, who left OBT for San Francisco and Michael Smuin’s company when the artistic directorship shifted from James Canfield to Christopher Stowell. She is now back in Portland, freelancing still in the Bay Area as performer and choreographer – and now, like Skinner and Kirk, a seasoned artist who, also like them, knows exactly what she’s doing on stage. Young companies, when they’re as good as Nederlands Dans Theater 2, which performed in Portland last week as part of the White Bird season, are wonderful to watch, to be sure. But there’s immense pleasure to be had in seeing the well-honed artistry that comes only with experience. Examples? Skinner and Kirk’s duet in Nat’s Farm and Thiessen’s solo. I thank them for the gift.


Skinner Kirk Dance Ensemble repeats its program at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-21, and 2 p,m, Saturday, Feb. 21, at BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 N.W. 17th Ave. Ticket information is here.

Fertile Ground review: Finding their way in the storm

The Snowstorm deftly combines music, movement, and more to create magical theater.


Editor’s note:  CoHo ProductionsThe Snowstorm, which closed last weekend after a too-short at Portland’s Coho Theatre, was one of the biggest hits of this year’s Fertile Ground festival, its entire run selling out after the first weekend’s performances. Its unusually rich combination of elements inspired ArtsWatch to cover it with an unusual team approach, using writers experienced in each of its three primary components: veteran Portland concert pianist Maria Choban to discuss the music, dance writer and choreographer Jamuna Chiarini to consider the dance, and Brett Campbell to take a look at the theatrical elements.

In the The Snowstorm, music precedes words from the downbeat. As the audience walks in, a pianist casually tickles the ivories at a grand piano, and the actors mingle and chat with each other among the seats. It’s hard to tell, until the lights cue us, just where the performance ends and reality begins, or is it the other way around? Gradually, the cast members array themselves in chairs on stage in front of us, facing the back of the stage, where we soon understand they’re watching a turn-of-the-century parlor piano recital. We audience members suddenly feel as though we constitute the rear ranks of that stage audience. Both accompanist and audience are in effect onstage.

That’s not the only oddity at the play’s outset. As the music plays, we see the youngest “audience” member start fidgeting, and soon the players start transforming (via the young boy, Pavel’s, imagination and Tony Fuemmler’s arresting masks) from the bourgeoisie of belle époque Veliky Novgorod into dancing wild creatures far more fascinating to a 10-year-old than proper Russian gentry. Already we can tell: this story will be told as much via movement, music and magic as conventional dialogue.

Jamie Rea, Elisha Henig, and Matthew Kerrigan star in The Snowstorm. Photo: GaryNorman

Jamie Rea, Elisha Henig, and Matthew Kerrigan star in The Snowstorm. Photo: GaryNorman

In that opening scene, the accompanist, Eric Nordin, assumes the nonspeaking role of Andres, the touring musician whom the “audience” — that is, the players — have come to hear perform. And although after the recital ends, the parlor gives way to other sets, and we audience members (the real audience, that is, not the performing “audience”) return to our usual role as detached observers, Nordin never leaves the stage. For the next two hours, while the rest of the action happens elsewhere on stage around him, he plays a dozen and a half tunes by Rachmaninoff, the late-Romantic Russian composer whose music fairly bursts with the emotions the upper middle class characters are forbidden by social convention to express — yet are clearly feeling.

Nordin is also The Snowstorm’s scriptwriter and co-creator, with director/choreographer Jessica Wallenfels, and his piano almost becomes a character summoning the past in this story about a father and a middle aged woman who meet at this recital, and who’ve both suffered grievous losses. Via flashbacks to the events of a decade before the play opens, as is common in so many plays and novels these days, we’ll spend the rest of this melodrama (using the term in its original sense) discovering just what past tragedies brought the unfortunate pair to the state we first glimpse them in, and learning how they affected a father’s relationship with his young son, and a woman’s relationship to society. The ultimate outcome of their encounter is pretty predictable, too, but that doesn’t stop this “original fable” from being one of the most enjoyable and fully realized productions we’ve encountered at Portland’s Fertile Ground festival.


Wit and dash from Nederlands 2

After more than a decade, the company returns to the White Bird series. It's been too long between laughs.

When the curtain went up Wednesday night on a pair of  Nederlands Dance Theater 2 dancers, standing motionless in a spotlight on an otherwise darkened stage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, I confess my heart sank.

This seems to be the choreographic beginning du jour. Every section of the Russell Maliphant Company’s program last month at Lincoln Performance Hall – like this concert, part of the White Bird dance season – started with some version of that stop-frame gambit. I spent that evening waiting for the dancers to move, travel through space, show some energy, express something other than gloom and angst. Not that the Maliphant dancers aren’t wonderful: they are. But the choreography? Not so much, though it had its moments.

Nederlands Dance Theater 2 in "Cacti." Photo: Rahi Reznavi

Nederlands Dance Theater 2 in “Cacti.” Photo: Rahi Reznavi

On Wednesday, however, it didn’t take long for my heart to lift. More dancers poured onto the stage in Johan Inger’s I New Then, which, as all good curtain-raisers do, announces who these dancers are (seven out of the company’s sixteen).  They are young and energetic, very.  This is NDT’s second company, and the training ground for the main one. They are men and women, and in this piece you can tell the difference: the women wear skirts, what a concept. They are beautifully trained, they have bodies so flexible that the movement becomes boneless, like a cat’s, and in a series of trios, duets and solos, they demonstrate fine-tuned multiple techniques, musicality (in this instance, to a score made up of songs by Van Morrison), distinct individuality as people and, Deo gratia, a sense of humor.

In fact, the entire evening (and it’s quite a long one) is laced with humor, ranging from the sophistication of I New Then and Shutters Shut to the satirical wackiness of  the closing Cacti.

According to program notes, I New Then is about five boys and four girls rebelling against a group. They don’t, it seemed to me, rebel so much as separate themselves; there is little of the aggression we associate with rebellion. At one point, following a tender duet with a man, one young woman expresses her individuality acrobatically, performing a deep backbend and then walking backward on her arms and legs. The mixture of techniques employed by the choreographer, pedestrian movement as they run and jog, the aforementioned acrobatics, African tribal dance-flavored separation of the joints,  places I New Then in the postmodern pigeonhole, nothing more so than the changing of costumes on stage as part of the “story.” That’s something I’ve not seen since the early Eighties, when such dressing and undressing was an integral part of David Gordon’s work. That section, the last one, was danced to Morrison’s Crazy Love, in which one couple, observed perhaps enviously by a man on the other side of a set piece resembling a chain link fence, tore off their clothes, with intense musicality and stylized lust.

One critic has complained that Shutters Shut, company artistic director Paul Lightfoot and resident choreographer Sol Leon’s Terpsichorean take on Gertrude Stein’s reading of her poem If I Told Him, is old-fashioned.  Performed on Wednesday night by Imre van Opstal, who is Dutch, and Spencer Dickhaus, a Juilliard graduate who hails from Minnesota, the pair lip-synched the poem, whose subject is Picasso, while executing jerky little syncopated steps to the sound and rhythm of Stein’s reading, relishing their own dancing as much as the poet savored words. Dancing to text alone isn’t new, of course (although some young Portland choreographers seem to think it is) but then neither is dancing to music, or electronic scores made in collaboration with the composer.  This little dance, only four minutes long, is a perfect illustration of  the equally old-fashioned saying that brevity is the soul of wit: it’s funny as hell, and I, and the audience, loved it.

Sara, an exploration of the spiritual and emotional state of a woman, and choreographed by Israeli dancemakers Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, may be the most overtly serious piece on the program. Nevertheless it contains not a shred of what Louis Horst, decades ago, called the “eyewash of angst,” something we are seeing far too much of in contemporary dance at the moment. Sara, program notes tell us, “revolves around memories, dreams, emotions, inspiration, loneliness, sorrow, caring and sharing, about life.”

The work is performed by seven dancers, this time four women and three men, costumed in flesh-colored body suits, to a lovely electronic score by Ori Lichtik composed simultaneously with the choreography.  It begins with six dancers in a cluster, and one, the Sara of the title, separated from them by a few feet of space, all of them dancing the same steps. Soon the choreography for group and soloist differentiates, and at times the group functions as a kind of chorus, commenting on what the soloist is doing. Some of the score, which includes some vocalizing, reminded me a little of Meredith Monk’s early work. Visually, the costumes made the dancers look at times like Cranach’s nudes (without the hats!), at times like Chinese clay warriors.  Sara was made specifically on this company; like Dennis Spaight’s Theatre Dances, made on the Jefferson Dancers, it is about the young dancers, and shows both their strength and their vulnerability with some highly effective inward turning movement.

Alexander Ekman’s Cacti closed the show with considerable wackiness and a lesson in dance history, its narration sticking needles in the pretentious nonsense often perpetrated by the academy in the name of dance theory. I’m tempted to call it a “kitchen sink” piece, because it has everything in it, but. That’s often a pejorative, but in this instance, everything seems to work. It begins with highly theatrical shafts of light and stage smoke, and a voiceover about technology versus art and the effect of technology on primitive cultures. One male dancer, moving sideways across the stage, refers at this moment to Nijinksy’s Afternoon of a Faun, a piece that was considered primitive (shockingly so) at its 1912  premiere.

The sixteen cast members then arranged themselves in rows, seated on platforms and looking like a gamelan orchestra – and again, according to program notes, become the unseen instruments they play.  This idea isn’t exactly new, either: think of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, set to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, in which the two principal women represent the two violins.  Nacho Duato, more recently, did this somewhat differently in his Multiplicity: Forms of Silence and Emptiness, also set to Bach, in which a dancer being a cellist “plays” a female dancer, who is the cello.  In Cacti the dancers stayed seated for quite a while, only moving their arms and upper bodies, but in time they got to their feet and rearranged the set pieces, in the course of which they did some explosive jumping.  The music changed, as did the lights, and the dancers went offstage and reappeared carrying a varied collection of cacti. It was an exercise in Surrealist art that summoned to mind that wonderful Picasso sculpture of a baby carriage containing a swaddled loaf of bread.

The ensemble movement is highly innovative and interesting, but the high point of Cacti is a little duet, inserted toward the end, two dancers rehearsing together, with what they’re thinking appearing in cartoon balloons over their heads that maybe echoes the rehearsing dancers in Jerome Robbins’ version of Afternoon of a Faun. “I can’t do this any more,” she says, and he says, “But what about the cat?” – so you realize there’s more than rehearsing going on with this couple, as a stuffed toy cat falls to the floor from the flies, with a resounding, literally boneless thump. The piece concludes with the dancers engaged in a final and interesting rearrangement of the set pieces, plus the cacti, which are an integral part of the absurdity.

It’s been more than ten years since NDT2 performed here, five years since they performed in New York, where they danced at the Joyce just before coming to Portland.  That’s way too long between laughs.

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.

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