After a season in the yawning expanses of the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium (a hall that both Portland Opera and Oregon Ballet Theatre have learned to work with very well despite its eccentricities) it’s nice to see OBT finishing its regular season in the more congenial folds of the Newmark Theatre. The Edwardian-style Newmark strikes a fine balance between formalism and comfort, connecting audiences and performers in a warm oval embrace. It’s a lovely hall for dance, enveloping and intimate yet also, with 880 seats and three tiers, big enough to handle a decent-sized crowd. Its main drawback may be its small orchestra pit, but that just means you choose your repertory to fit the space.
For the most part OBT’s Chromatic Quartet, which opened Thursday, does that exceptionally well. The lone piece with live accompaniment, Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy (danced beautifully at Thursday’s opening-night performance by Haiyan Wu and Brian Simcoe), needs just two performers to fill the hall with Arvo Part’s haunting and broken music: pianist Carol Rich and violinist Margaret Bichteler. Val Caniparoli’s familiar Lambarena uses a recorded blend of Bach and traditional African music, and Matjash Mrozewski’s The Lost Dance, in its world premiere, is performed to a recorded contemporary score by Owen Belton that’s meant for electronics. It would have been good to hear Stravinsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major performed live for the program opener, Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, especially since the rhythmic meeting of the music and the dancers is so essential to the piece. But a good recording, if not ideal, was at least second-best.
Dance critic Martha Ullman West reviewed the opening-night performance perceptively, as always, for Oregon Live, and I have little to add. I recommend you click the link to see what she has to say, which in part is this: “(T)he dancers (put) heart, soul and technical skill into the performance of four wildly different ballets.”
One thing that struck me quite happily was the rhythmic connection, whether purposeful or by happenstance, between Balanchine’s 1972 choreography for Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Mrozewski’s for the brand-new Lost Dance. It’s not that the movements themselves are all that similar (as Martha notes, Lost Dance’s lightly nostalgic mix of pop, classic and modern influences is closer to Tharp than Balanchine). It’s that both play very tricky, off-kilter rhythmic games that require the dancers to understand what’s going on off the beat as well as on it.
Stravinsky’s music is from 1931 and feels historic yet also intensely, compulsively modern in its drive and energy, and Balanchine, who was at once a nostalgist and a brilliant innovator, responded naturally to it. The result is a ballet that creates its beauty from a nervous complexity of angular shapes, and must be devilishly hard for dancers to perform without giving the impression that they’re anxiously counting out the beats inside their heads. Martha noted, correctly, that the performance on Thursday was sometimes a little too cautious, but not always: Alison Roper, Yang Zhou, the fast-rising Grace Shibley and others swept beyond the counting and deep into the heart of the music. I have a feeling that the company will only improve as it moves past its initial uncertainties and gets this marvelous choreography deep inside its bones.
Owen Belton’s dance floor-infused electronic score for The Lost Dance could hardly be more different from Stravinsky’s music, except that both are demanding rhythmically. It’s the kind of music that a lot of choreographers noodle around in, trying out different movements without feeling any urgent need to shape them. Yet the shapes that Mrozewski discovers are clear, complex and riveting, and the dancers respond with precision and enthusiasm. Company and choreographer seem to click. Now that they’ve been introduced, it’d be good if they kept the relationship going.
I’m a little more open to the pleasures of Lambarena than Martha, who refers to it as a “gimmicky fusion of the baroque and the tribal.” Maybe its gimmicky, but it’s also gorgeously designed, and uplifting without any of the icky connotations of the word, and I find the blending of Bach and traditional African music quite affecting. The dance isn’t “authentic,” and I don’t think it pretends to be. It’s simply an appreciative nod by an artist of one culture to artists he admires in another. I’ve seen it performed several times, by different companies, and when it’s danced well, as it was here, it works. In one sense it’s like Carmen or Carmina Burana: a person can walk off the street with little knowledge of the discipline and respond immediately to what she sees and hears. That’s not a bad thing at all. Watching it Thursday, and especially watching Kathi Martuza’s full-throttle return from maternity leave, I thought, “Ah. Here you are again, Lambarena. Nice to see you. You’re looking good, Live long and prosper.”
A final note: With 28 company dancers and seven apprentices, OBT has reached the size and talent level to be able to do multiple castings of its programs. Different dancers in major roles can bring remarkably different nuances to the ballets, which means that if you’re really interested in a piece you might want to see it performed more than once, by different casts. You can check OBT’s Web site for casting information here. The production continues through April 28.