By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST
Toward the end of Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero,” which Oregon Ballet Theatre performed for the first time on Saturday night, six women, dressed in the square-necked bodices and full skirts of Renaissance Europe, executed a series of 20th century backward flutter kicks. It was proof, indeed, that the company, with newly arrived artistic director Kevin Irving at the helm, is still alive and kicking up a storm.
“Por Vos Muero,” which translates as “I would die for thee,” was a watershed piece in Duato’s development as a choreographer when he created it on his own company in Madrid in 1996. In it, spoken text, spliced with period music to drive the dancing, the blending of American traditional modern movement with classical technique, the use of props, and the changes of costume, all come together to create an integrated and quite beautiful expression of what I would describe as Spanish soul.
The piece, which opened the first program of OBT’s new season, begins with twelve dancers – six men and six women, in flesh-colored body suits – standing with their backs to the Keller Auditorium audience. As lines from the poetry of Garcilaso de la Vega begin, they walk toward the back of the stage, and then start to separate into solos and duets, spiraling their bodies, extending their legs in space-eating ways, flexing their feet, isolating hips, legs, arms in a clean performance of Duato’s signature movement style. The standouts in this section, indeed the whole piece, are principals Alison Roper, Brian Simcoe, Brett Bauer, Xuan Cheng; soloists Candace Bouchard, and Ansa Deguchi; and Jordan Kindell, a product of OBT’s School who is now a company artist. His authority in the Duato as well as in Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as well as his technique and musicality, make him a compelling dancer to watch even in minor roles.
After several minutes of setting the tone and the universality of the dancing body, the dancers in “Pos Vos Muero” exit and return, dressed in costumes for the women that are as lush as the movement, and period tunics over form-fitting shorts for the men. Roper and Simcoe dance a stately, courtly duet, much more spaciously conceived than it could have been performed in the confines of a 16th century palace ballroom. Later they will dance a pas de deux with boneless and heart-stopping fluidity and musicality on Roper’s part, graphically announcing that “I would die for thee.”
A percussive, finger-snapping folk dance comes between these pas de deux. The port de bras and head-shaking movement are rhythmically complex and a bit fussy, yet the dancers visibly enjoy themselves. A playful trio performed by Deguchi with two men garners a round of applause from the audience. Then our sextet of kicking women, who are holding buskers’ masks, are followed by an athletic, swirling ecclesiastical dance by the men (of course), who are dressed in vestment-like capes and are swinging thuribles, or incense burners. Finally the whole cast comes on stage again, looking naked. This part, I’m sorry to say, includes a duet in which the woman is dragged by her ankle by the man across the stage – reflecting Spanish machismo, no doubt, although choreographers from other cultures have committed similar moves as well, and more recently than this. “Por Vos Muero” ends with a single, clothed dancer, exiting the stage. It could have ended sooner.
OBT’s dancers rose well to Irving’s challenge to learn a new way of moving. New to them, anyway. But while loosening their upper bodies and grounding their bodies instead of elevating them does present some difficulties for classically trained dancers, Duato’s vocabulary doesn’t vary much throughout this piece, or if it comes to that, in the more recent evening-length Bach piece that was seen here in 2002 when White Bird presented Duato’s company.
As for the blending of different techniques, the use of spoken text as well as music, the performance of ballet in slippers rather than point shoes, other choreographers have been doing this since the middle of the last century. Not, of course, to express Spanish soul, but to say something about their own lives, their own cultures. Todd Bolender’s “The Still Point,” comes to mind. It premiered in 1955, two years before Duato was born, with a title taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,”and a score by Claude Debussy, and it can be danced effectively by either a ballet or modern company. Longtime OBT viewers will remember Bebe Miller’s “A Certain Depth of Heart, Also Love,” commissioned by James Canfield, in 1994, which was danced to spoken text, popular and classical music, and included Miller’s personal vocabulary of angular, joint-isolating movement combined with such classical tricks as multiple pirouettes à la seconde. Canfield, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer who was OBT’s founding artistic director, and had performed to both classical and popular music, commissioned that piece to challenge the dancers and give them new ways of moving – and to re-state, no doubt, his own aesthetic roots.
Repertory invariably reflects the artistic director’s experience and point of view, no matter who it is. This applies in spades to Christopher Stowell’s one-act “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which closed the program with wit and charm, and on the whole clear, precise neoclassical dancing. It was accompanied by Mendelssohn’s gorgeous music, played live by an underrehearsed orchestra under the baton of Niel DePonte. Stowell, who had performed Oberon as a guest artist in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of Balanchine’s evening-length version in 1997, made this one in 2007, halfway through his tenure as OBT’s artistic director. Roper was in the original cast as Titania, her performance last night in the same role was technically polished and versatile. Also very funny, particularly in her besotted tango with Kevin Poe, superbly funny as Bottom, twirling his donkey tail lasciviously, wiggling his ears, clenching a rose in his teeth. In the extended reconciliatory pas de deux with Brian Simcoe’s princely Oberon, Roper’s dancing was as tenderly romantic as Mendelssohn’s score.
As Puck, which calls for both acting and bravura dancing, Ye Li did a fine job, but I missed the departed Javier Ubell’s mischievous explosiveness. Deguchi’s pert, speedy Peaseblossom, coupled with her performance in the Duato, shows her to be a dancer coming into her own, and this also applies to Makino Hayashi as a wounded, rejected Helena, with Brett Bauer doing the rejecting as Demetrius, mooning after Hermia, skull in hand. Along with Xuan Cheng’s feisty Hermia and Michael Linsmeier’s boyish Lysander, they “read” well in the mayhem created by Puck, Cupid and Oberon. In the thankless role of the Changeling, the bone of contention between Oberon and Titania, young Johannes Gikas performed with presence and aplomb beyond his years, and the children from OBT’s School who were cast as woodland creatures (mostly butterflies) charmed the audience with their cuteness-free grace. For that we owe their coach, Gavin Larsen.
I had forgotten what a lovely production this is—we’re lucky to have it, and it’s because of Stowell’s performing career in San Francisco that we do. Sets and costumes were designed by Sandra Woodall, and both are gorgeous. My only quibble is the size of the wings worn by Titania, which momentarily got in the way of the partnering in that extended pas de deux.
“Dream,” the umbrella title for this show (it ought to be Love, it seems to me), repeats next weekend, with some cast changes. I had a good time. You will, too.