What is specifically Cuban about the Malpaso Dance Company, which concluded White Bird’s 2015-16 season at the Schnitzer Concert Hall last Wednesday night, shortly before The Portland Ballet‘s annual shows (see below) over the weekend at Lincoln Performance Hall?
I asked a friend who has been to Havana, though not in the recent past, and she listed the following: “the men’s long hair; the street clothing was likely what you would see young people wearing in Havana; and the rhythm – swaying hips and loose limbs were very Cuban.”
That hip-slung, loose-limbed movement style, and the street wear, get announced, as they should be, in the first piece on the program. Ocaso is a duet performed by the long-haired Osnel Delgado and Beatriz Garcia. He’s wearing bright yellow trousers; she’s in a simple, dark dress. But Delgado, a company founder, who made the piece, chose music that could have been used by any contemporary or ballet choreographer in today’s world: a sound collage of Autechre’s Parallel Sun, the Kronos Quartet’s White Man Sleeps, and Max Richter’s Sunlight. Globalization struck the dance world long ago, and Cuba has only been isolated from the United States, let’s not forget.
Moreover, like so many dances these days, Ocaso begins in darkness, and here we go again, I thought. Not so. Once the lights went up, I was delighted to see something quite different from the usual dance of alienation: a couple relating to each other with dancing inflected with little rhythmic steps reminiscent of flamenco, aggressive contact that looks a bit like Capoeira (the Brazilian martial art), in a piece that vividly presents two people who are in love, passionately and tenderly. I don’t know if that’s characteristically Cuban, but it’s definitely not characteristic of a lot of the over-intellectualized contemporary dance we are seeing.
Ocaso sums up the company style and Delgado’s choreographic point of view, briefly and sweetly. Would that that were true of 24 Hours in a Dog’s Life, the evening’s closer, and the only piece on the program accompanied by live music, provided by the Chicago-based Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, which has collaborated with Malpaso almost from its inception. Choreographed in 2013 by Delgado in collaboration with the dancers, the piece seemed endless, incoherent, and in cohesive. The music, which was terrific, was over-miked and therefore painfully loud, making it difficult to take in what was happening on stage.
Again the dancers, all nine members of the company, danced in street clothes, and I do love seeing female dancers wearing skirts, especially skirts that move with them. But perhaps because the musicians were in the pit and invisible to those of us sitting in the orchestra, the choreography looked pasted on the dancers, making them look close to robotic, and disconnected from the music – not good when it’s an improvisational form like jazz. There was no lack of energy, as the dancers moved very fast, turning somersaults, taking little jittery steps in the beginning of a piece that soon became pretty uninteresting to watch.
This was scarcely the case with Trey McIntyre’s Under Fire, the middle piece on the program, made in 2015 for this company and co-commissioned by The Joyce Theater Foundation and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. For some years now McIntyre, who back in the last century was Oregon Ballet Theatre’s resident choreographer, has been working internationally, in the service of cultural diplomacy, unofficially when he set work on ballet companies in Georgia (the one in the former Soviet Union) and Stuttgart, Germany; and officially in 2012, when, under the auspices of DanceMotion, a cultural diplomacy program run by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the State Department, the Trey McIntyre Project went on a tour of Southeast Asia. During that tour, the company bonded aesthetically and personally with the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company. A witty piece titled The Unkindness of Ravens, in which the Korean dancers performed with their American counterparts, was one of the happy results of that collaboration, and I saw it performed at BAM in the fall of that year.
Under Fire is a model expression of North American optimism. When he disbanded the performing arm of the TMP, McIntyre says in a program note, “I wanted to burn all of my paper, all of the printed documents that had followed me for my life and had become a weight and a burden.” Getting rid of that burden didn’t entirely work: not all the paper became ash; some of it compacted, and it became, he says, “more of what it is. This struck me as an elegant metaphor for human life.” His statement ends: “The more we try to burn away and change our exterior, the more our essential born selves become more evident and manifest.”
Eight of Malpaso’s dancers did well, very well, with McIntyre’s highly athletic, torqued, classically based choreography, performing with a wonderfully fluid, boneless quality that gets angular when infused with Spanish syncopation or off-kilter jumps. A male trio surprises us with its formality, and all of this is danced to the folk-tinged singing of Grandma Kelsey. At the end of the piece, seven of the dancers lift one woman high, high above their heads, a phoenix indeed rising from the ashes in an expression of the very American idea that we are constantly remaking ourselves, and we’re not doing it alone.
Excerpts from Mercury Half-Life, one of the last pieces McIntyre made for his company, closed The Portland Ballet’s annual show at Lincoln Hall (I saw it Friday night) on an equally life-affirming note. Set to the music of Queen, the piece is in part a tribute to Freddie Mercury, the band’s lead singer, who died at age 45, hence the “Half-Life” of the title.
It’s a long piece in its entirety, 50 minutes, and like most of McIntyre’s work, can be damnably difficult to dance. McIntyre adds tap-dancing to his idiosyncratic mix of classical and modern movement here, but that’s only suggested in the segments chosen for the Portland Ballet dancers. These included some extremely physical duets, a couple of solos requiring rapid shifts in technique (in one, I saw the joint-separating movement I associate with Bebe Miller), and ensemble dances reminiscent of high-school marching bands, the eight cast members strutting and walking across the stage in impeccably conformist unison; then, in an expression of rugged individualism, breaking out into explosive solos and duets.
Mercury capped an extremely varied, fast-paced program, skillfully designed by TPB’s artistic directors, Nancy Davis and Anne Mueller, to give multiple opportunities for these pre-professional students to show what they can do, how well they’ve been trained, and where they might be headed.
The show began with Mueller’s staging of a suite from Raymonda, a “roots ballet,” if you will, choreographed by Marius Petipa with music by Alexander Glazunov. While the dancers, mostly, acquitted themselves well in this demonstration of 19th century Russian technique, they were ill-served by the size of the Lincoln Hall stage: tutu ballets have always looked awkward there, even when performed by professional dancers. Nevertheless, Medea Cullumbine-Robertson and Bernadette La Marsch performed their variations with the detailed presence and amplitude of real ballerinas; and Evan Lindsay, partnering La Marsch with courtly care, jumping high and finishing precisely, demonstrated considerable potential for dancing one day with a major company.
Gregg Bielemeier’s thoroughly contemporary Separate Times: Similar to but Different Than, the second piece on the program, challenges these dancers to shift stylistic gears in a major way, a necessary skill, as the lines between grounded modern dance and airborne ballet are increasingly blurred. Bielemeier, who made his professional debut as a ballet dancer (not) with Oregon Ballet Theatre in Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay a few weeks ago, starts this mysteriously titled piece with the 21 cast members deployed on the floor of the stage. From that point on, to a score created by young Jeremy Reinhold for this piece, he keeps those dancers moving like the devil – and never in unison – for the duration. Spinal placement gets thrown away; there are no virtuoso tricks, just movement, free playful movement that looks more spontaneous than it actually is. The dancers clearly loved doing it, and the audience, me included, certainly loved watching them.
Two pieces by ballet master and faculty member Jason Davis, one new, the other a revival, served as showcases for different aspects of TPB’s training. Ocho Niñas en Rojo, to music by Luigi Boccherini, a rather tepidly performed demonstration of the Spanish character dance these kids will need to perform in The Nutcracker and other 19th century ballets, fulfilled its function, but Simplicity, a revival of a pointe piece set to Chopin, goes way beyond that. It’s set to a recording by Robert Huffman, TPB’s superb accompanist who died earlier this year, which he gave to Davis several years ago. The dancers, clad in costumes that viewers of Dennis Spaight’s Gloria would instantly recognize, delivered a heartfelt, intensely musical tribute to Huffman, and clearly enjoyed the fluidly swooping steps they’d been given to dance.
The conventional wisdom in this country is that if you can dance Balanchine, you can dance anything, so a little bagatelle called Valse Fantaisie that the 20th century master tossed off in 1953 to Russian soul music (i.e. composed by Mikhail Glinka) initiated the second half of the evening. John Clifford did the staging, and Cullumbine-Robertson, Ethan Myers (another dancer who’s headed for high places), Annie Garcia, Lauren Kness, Ophelia Martin-Weber, and Dori Pollard performed with the speed, daring and, most of the time, precision that Balanchine’s work demands.
While no pointe shoes are to be seen in Mercury Half-Life, it occurs to me that in many respects, McIntyre’s contribution to the evening made a perfect show closer, since it summed up its many diverse parts in an expression of North American culture that is just as viable as Delgado’s curtain-raiser for Malpaso. Michael Mazzola’s lights, especially for Separate Times, contributed to the aesthetic joy, and as usual, Wendy Mathews and Mary Muhlbach did an astonishing job with the costumes.
There will be two more opportunities to see The Portland Ballet dancers this season. On June 10-11, alumni will return to the company studios to dance with the current career-track students in 15th anniversary performances of new choreography by Mueller, Clifford, and Eowyn Emerald Barrett. A memorial for Robert Huffman will take place at Lincoln Hall on Monday, June 13. Check The Portland Ballet’s website for details.