Ballet Diary 8-9: Curtain Call

ArtsWatch's ballet spy presents closing thoughts on a 9-week learning experience...and flowers


Note: This is the final installment of a multi-part summer series, wherein ArtsWatch writer A.L. Adams bravely broaches beginner ballet classes with Northwest Dance Project and keeps a Ballet Diary for our amusement and edification.

Our ballet teacher Renee Meiffren is such a B4L (Ballerina 4 Lyfe) that as she makes a sad announcement, she habitually flutters her fingers in front of her face like Stravinsky’s Firebird crying. During our eighth lesson, she informed us that our ninth week of class would be her last; she was dipping out early due to family emergency. After that, she’d leave NW Dance Project to give private lessons.


These final two classes have been”crunch time”; time to stretch our necks up and our shoulders down one extra centimeter, time to balance in sous-sus for two extra seconds, time to perk up and point the limp tondues with which I’ve been closing my ronde du jembes en l’air. My battements have also gotten a crash course in follow-through force, with Meiffren crouching in front of me and holding her hand where my foot should kick. “I don’t want to kick you!” I exclaim. “Go ahead!” she says. “I didn’t know it was THAT kind of class,” I quip. “Maybe YOU should be paying ME.” (The class laughs because we’re all adults here, and ballet processes are still painful enough for some of us that S&M humor is oddly appropriate.)

You know the secret of a Hollywood high-five?


Jayanthi Raman rides the tiger

The Bharata Natyam dance master dedicates her updating of the form to Shakti, the tiger rider

Saturday night, at the Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, on a stage crowded with musicians—superb musicians—and their instruments, Jayanthi Raman, richly, colorfully dressed in pleated, jeweled silk, starts her solo from a squatting position, knees turned out to the side, bare feet arched as elegantly as a bas relief of an ancient temple dancer’s.

Slowly, as the music starts, she rises and begins to perform the hand gestures, foot stamps, and shifting facial expressions that are the hallmarks of the South Indian classical dance form known as Bharata Natyam.

Jayanthi Raman dances with keyboardist Osam Ezzeldin and violinist Vidwan Ganesh Rajagopalan/Courtesy Rasika

Jayanthi Raman dances with keyboardist Osam Ezzeldin and violinist Vidwan Ganesh Rajagopalan/Courtesy Rasika

Raman began her dance training in India as a child, and  got a medical degree as a young woman. She came to Portland 25 years ago with her husband, retrained to get her medical license and worked as a research doctor at OHSU. At the same time, she began dancing in street fairs (I first saw her at ArtQuake), started a school and with others founded Rasika, which produces Indian music and dance performances, many of the artists brought over from India. A few years ago she decided to focus entirely on her dancing and choreography, and she has had considerable national and international success, including a National Dance Project touring grant.


Ballet Diary 7: sleek new superhips

In which our reporter advances to adequate in beginning ballet class, and tries a little twerking, too

I should have known that one of these weeks (during my 10-week Adult Beginner Ballet course through Northwest Dance Project) there’d be no time for a contemplative pre-ballet-class stroll, that something (like a guest spot on a Wanderlust Circus Orchestra bill) would send me darting downtown by car, wedging into an “entertainment district” loading zone the second the clock hit 7, hastily dropping off a bouzouki player in front of Dante’s and speed-striding up to PSU in my full ballet-lesson regalia.

I was (almost) late, and to compound my rush, the class had moved up a floor to make use of a room with better AC. Phew.


Now maybe someone can explain to me what the hell has happened to my body. Because it seems to be…suddenly better. And I demand answers.


Ballet Diary 5-6: quicker turnarounds

As she learns to move her feet, our writer/dancer keeps this short and sweet

This week, my ballet diary has to be short. It just has to. If you want longer stories, refer to previous weeks. It’s actually week 6 of Northwest Dance Project’s 10-week Adult Beginning Ballet course, but I had to miss one, making this the fifth post. Every week now, it seems that my philosophical insights are fewer, my movements are slightly more intuitive, and the ballet classes cycle is hurtling by faster and faster. This means it’s time for a Training Montage. ballet56_slippers_web Feel free to set the following to any music you like— Chariots of Fire, Eye of the Tiger, the “song of the summer,” Yakkety Sax. Okay, here goes: My feet on a checkered-tile kitchen floor, repeatedly leaping from fifth position into a wobbling semi-sous sous, crossing heels and closing into the opposite fifth. Sometimes bare, sometimes in ballet slippers, and sometimes in moccasins. My arms wide in second position, then one coming in for third. Right, then left. Me lifting my face with a pseudo-sophisticated air, then breaking character as I totter on my tiptoes. One shot of me affecting arms in third, attempting a right turn, and sweeping things off a shelf. A decent left turn that goes 360, followed by a desperate right turn that goes about 390 and ends in a stagger. Close-up of my face complaining on the phone with ballerina friend. Close-up of her mouth laughing. Me staring intently at the mirror. Head-snap. Head-snap. Head-snap. Regimented sets of my classmates’ feet doing rond de jambes and the foot-stretching weight-baring toe-balance our teacher Renee Meiffren calls “the doo-dad.” Me in class, hands on hips, diagonally skipping across the studio. Thanks to a note from Meiffren about how my feet should meet, sous sous-style, en l’air, I can now do this without looking terrible. The only man in the class and I continue our skip-step across the room after the music stops, then laugh and high-five. Every good training montage ends in a high-five. See you next week.

READ THE REST: Ballet Diary: An Artswatch Writer Tries NWDP’s beginner ballet


A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


Stowell heads south as Oregon Ballet Theatre nabs a new ED

Christopher Stowell has a promising new job at the San Francisco Ballet, and his old company has a new executive director

Christopher Stowell, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director from July of 2003 to December 2012, is returning to San Francisco Ballet as ballet master and assistant to Helgi Tomasson, company artistic director and principal choreographer, effective August 25.

“I’m so happy to officially announce that I’m returning to SFB! I’ll be working alongside Helgi both in the studio and as his liaison to the administrative staff,” Stowell said on his Facebook page on Friday, adding that he “can’t wait to get back to the city and company I love.”

Christopher Stowell rehearses "Rite of Spring" at OBT/Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover

Christopher Stowell rehearses “The Rite of Spring” at OBT/Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover

In his role as ballet master, Stowell will teach SFB Company class and rehearse ballets for the repertory season, as ballet masters do in every company, working once again with former OBT dancers Julia Rowe and Grace Shibley, However, as assistant to Tomasson, to whom he will report directly, Stowell will have his fingers in just about every aspect of the company pie on both the artistic and administrative (read financial) sides.

“Many may remember Christopher from his long and successful career in the Company,” Tomasson said in a company press release. “[He] joined San francisco Ballet in 1985 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1990. I look forward to working closely with both him and our current Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director in these complementary roles,” he said.

Since leaving OBT at the end of 2012, Stowell has been exceedingly busy teaching internationally, choreographing, and staging work by other choreographers, most recently Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush” (which is in OBT’s repertoire) at the Beijing Dance Academy in China and Balanchine’s “Liebesleider Waltzes” (with Francia Russell) for SFB.

In an interview I had with Stowell last month,slated down the road for publication in Ballet Review, I asked him what his ideal company would be. His answer? “One in a city which has a history of supporting ballet,” citing San Francisco as one which gives just as much support to the arts as it does its sports teams. San Francisco Ballet is well established; it is the oldest professional ballet company in the United States and one of the largest. Looks like Stowell has struck gold.


While Stowell was heading south, Oregon Ballet Theatre was making some news itself, today announcing that its current artistic director, Kevin Irving, has signed a three-year contract to lead the company’s artistic side. At the same time, OBT announced that after an 18-month search, it had chosen a new executive director, too. He’s Dennis Buehler, and comes to Portland after leaving as executive director of the Milwaukee Ballet in February of this year.

Petrouchka sees himself and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte's "Petrouchka"/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Petrouchka sees himself and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte’s “Petrouchka”/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“I quickly felt a strong connection with Oregon Ballet Theatre and could not be more delighted to be joining Kevin and the entire OBT team at this time,” Buehler said in the press release announcing his appointment. “They have positioned themselves very well and I am confident we can continue to develop this company into one of this country’s premier dance organizations. Portland is a region that makes access to the arts a high priority and Oregon Ballet Theatre is building a foundation to sustain that for generations to come.”

The budget of the Milwaukee Ballet is very close to that of Oregon Ballet Theatre (around $5 million according to its most recent 990 report), its programming is similar, and it also has a ballet school, which received national accreditation during Buehler’s tenure.

Buehler will start at OBT in September. The company begins its 25th season October 11-18 in Keller Auditorium with a world premiere by Nicolo Fonte, three duets by James Canfield, Stowell, and Trey McIntyre, respectively, and Balanchine’s “Agon.”

Ballet Diary 4: breathe like a pro

Four weeks into her crash course in dancing, our ballet aspirant's body demurs, but her lungs learn a lesson

Walking back on the Hawthorne Bridge after last week’s ballet lesson, I felt a sense of pure…expanse.

The weather was hot and balmy, sunlight still bright even at 9 pm. My bad ankle hurt in the sharp-pang, woken-up way, the halfway point between its dull-ache swell and those rare times it pretends it’s fine. The Willamette was blue, the bridge railing was red. The dragon boats were out. It was all popping.

I was flooded with ballet insights to share with you, the ArtsWatch readers who are following my mid-life efforts at beginner ballet training from Northwest Dance Project (really more a form of arts writer continuing education than an attempt to master the art—the words “college try” apply). But it’s only now, after another week has passed, that I’m finding the words and time.

ballet 4

As I left Lincoln Hall (NWDP’s summer home), I’d passed my teacher, Renee Meiffren, in the breezeway. “Good job today!” she beatifically lied. But I’ll take it. Because I do try.

The first thing I was going to tell you was to clarify a detail from a prior post. “I think when you describe corps de ballet, you really mean barre,” a fellow arts writer discreetly corrected me on Week 3. It would seem so, but no. I did say—and mean—the corps de ballet. Meiffren had arranged us in a tight row on Week 2 and had us hold hands, explaining the configuration of corps de ballet and letting us try a few steps in that arrangement. I revised my text to make that more apparent.

“Sounds more like a ‘ballet appreciation’ class,” sniped my friend, who, out of respect for the discipline and technique that ballet requires, balked at the idea that newbs would get to try advanced moves, just for fun, possibly too early in their learning curve.

Back when I was considering an education minor, this very debate was all the rage in language arts. Do we drill students on sentence structure, punctuation and parts of speech, preparing them for the privilege of expressing themselves later…or do we just let them tell their stories right now, and then try to help them refine their craft as they go?

“You’ll entitle sloppiness!” frets one side.
“You’ll crush expression!” worries the other.

Perhaps both fail to account for the different ways we learn. A chance to try the “fun stuff” first can inspire some amateurs, but it gives others a dangerously false sense of mastery, or a dangerously discouraging recognition of how far they are from competence. Meanwhile, dogged repetition of basics can provide comforting consistency and realistic goals for some new learners, but it can leave others bored and unstimulated. In any case—I found out which kind of learner I am.


At Conduit, a vote for brevity and wit

Dance+ continues with a smart, quick dance by Kyle Marshall

Brevity, the long-winded Polonius says in Hamlet, is the soul of wit. That can also apply to non-verbal communication, and Kyle Marshall’s “Soundboard,” the shortest of the nine pieces included in this year’s version of Conduit’s annual Dance+ Festival, is a perfect example.

The New Yorker is the real deal, a young choreographer (he received his BFA in dance from Rutgers University in 2011), and with “Soundboard” he has made a solo for himself that is at once lean and expansive. A beguiling dancer, he not only engages with the audience (he makes eye contact, even!) he embraces it, a rarity in the frequently solipsistic terrain of contemporary dance.
It can be tricky to dance to spoken text, but Marshall, costumed by Meagan Woods in well-tailored slacks and open-necked shirt, moves with ease and energy and engagement to the words of Allen Ginsberg, spoken by the poet—the “soundboard” of the title. I found much of the verbiage in both Dance+ programs (and there was a lot of it) difficult to hear, but such phrases as “contained in my room” and “privilege to witness my existence” were amplified by Marshall’s spacious movement. It was our “privilege to witness [his] existence as a dancer,” not to mention his sheer joy in performing, pushing at air with his hands, walking, jumping, spiraling through and around the wonderful space that Conduit is for dancing.

Kyle Marshall in 'Soundboard' at Dance+/Jim  Lykins

Kyle Marshall in ‘Soundboard’ at Dance+/Jim Lykins

Small wonder that Marshall is currently performing with Doug Elkin, Tiffany Mills (with whom Tere Mathern shared an evening at Conduit in March) and Woods, another Rutgers graduate, who apart from costuming for Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Robert Battle and the like, has her own company and also runs a festival.

“Soundboard” concluded the first half of Part II, which I attended Thursday night. The show began with “Veil,” also a solo, choreographed and performed by Zahra Banzi, arguably another “witness” to the existence of the artist, in which she danced with her own shadow, projected and animated by Dylan Wilbur. I thought of Lucinda Childs’ groundbreaking “Dance,” which premiered at BAM in 1979, in which film of the dancers was projected simultaneously with live performance of the same movement, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying Banzi’s honest, expressive, heartfelt dancing. Like Marshall, she is a generous mover, and there was some playfulness in the way she interacted with Wilbur’s animation.

These solos bookended “before the dawn,” a collaboration of Meshi Chavez—who, the program note says, is passionate about butoh, arguably the most culturally specific dance form in Terpsichore’s quiver—and electronic composer Roland Ventura Toledo, performed by Teresa Vanderkin and Joe McLaughlin. The same program note tells us that the duet “was inspired by Ankoku, (the spiritual aspect of dance) and by imagery of moths, moonlight, longing and desire. It seeks to create a sense of something that has no beginning or end.”

“before the dawn” certainly created a sense of having no end (I didn’t think it ever would), and it has a very clear beginning as Vanderkin, who has a gorgeous long-limbed body and looked extremely chic in a purple tiered cocktail dress, and McLaughlin, in street clothes, inched their way along an invisible line in single file to the front of the space. “Tip-toeing toward Bethlehem” crossed my mind, a paraphrase on Yeats’ “slouching toward” ditto from “The Second Coming,” quoted in the program notes for “Beast” in Program I.

Then as the music started to sound like bombs going off and Vanderkin lifted her arms and began to move spastically, I couldn’t help thinking of the corpse of a Palestinian child on the beach in Gaza, whose image was on the front page of Thursday’s NY Times. That’s not the composer’s fault or the choreographer’s—this piece was made long before this latest appalling development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that also seems to have no end, but it certainly colored my perceptions of the choreography, making it seem pretentious and glossy. The music, on the other hand, was shattering, physically and emotionally.

Zahra Banzi performs "Veil" at Conduit's Dance+ Festival/Photo by Jim Lykins

Zahra Banzi performs “Veil” at Conduit’s Dance+ Festival/Photo by Jim Lykins

“Confluence,” Christopher Peddecord’s new film made in collaboration with Northwest Dance Project’s Lindsey Matheis, followed the intermission. Let me say at the outset that as a long time viewer of dancing, committed to the immediacy of the exchange that takes place between artists and viewers (or listeners) that occurs only in live performance, as endangered a species as the polar bear, I vastly prefer to watch the melding of film and live dancing (see above) to a stand-alone film in a concert of this kind. And while “Confluence” was performed by many excellent dancers, including Banzi, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Jordan Kindell and Michael Linsmeier, and Northwest Dance Project’s Victor Usov, they were given to perform just about every movement cliché in the book, from aggressively glittering eyes to what looked suspiciously like a group grope. I liked last year’s Peddecord film considerably better; in that one, his approach was reminiscent of the surrealism of Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Part II concluded with “Radiation City,” performed by its creator, radical child/Alexander Dones and Kara Girod Shuster, a native Oregonian and former BodyVox member. The piece also incorporates film, starting with a humor-tinged list of ways to die that includes self-immolation, a metaphor for radical child’s motto: “create. Love. burn,” a more dramatic version of the late Jann Dryer’s motto: “Frame it. Do it. Drop it.” It’s way too long and way too wordy and terribly self-conscious, but both Dones and Shuster are very good dancers, and there is a kernel of innovative movement, particularly in the fall/catch/fall partnering, that would be easier to see if some of the verbal distractions were pared away. “Radiation City” is overstuffed with ideas and needs serious editing, the hardest thing for young artists to do.

“Luna,” the piece that concluded Part I of Dance + and in which I took the most pleasure in watching, also needs editing: It’s about five minutes too long. Created and performed by Anna Conner and Company, the Seattle choreographer had the courage to provide no program notes, but to rely on the dancing to deliver her message about the friendship, erotic and otherwise, of women. I liked it a lot.
Also “Black Friday,” sort of a visual commentary on Marx’s “alienation of the worker” applied to the consumer, and yes, a film, but I thought “Beast” needed a lot more fine-tuning and “Revivify” left me cold and bored, partly again because I couldn’t hear the text. (And in case anyone is wondering, I wear two hearing aids.)

Having said all that, Dance+ this year and in previous years has produced some interesting, innovative work, which is invariably well danced. So I am grateful to the director, Tere Mathern, and the funders, for giving these artists the opportunity to explore their ideas and hone their craft and show their work, and the Portland audience the chance to see the results. I look forward to seeing new artists next year, who perhaps have been challenged to make fifteen minute works rather than twenty. Gassy or not, Polonius had a lot of things right.

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