The dancing dolls, preceded by a magical firebird, returned to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on Friday night when The Portland Ballet Youth Company opened its annual Thanksgiving weekend concerts accompanied by the PSU Symphony Orchestra.
“The Firebird,” whose haunting 1910 score was Igor Stravinsky’s first for ballet (Michel Fokine did the choreography), opened the ambitious program with Marina DiCorcia in the title role and Devin Packard as the hapless Prince Ivan.
Wandering around in the moonlight, in classic-ballet hero fashion, clutching a bow and arrow, Ivan finds himself in an enchanted garden where he spots a bright red bird. Clad, needless to say, in a tutu. Their actual meeting seems to take forever, not because of Clifford’s choreography, or the promising young dancers’ execution of it, but because of the orchestra’s funereal tempo. For any of these dancers going on to professional careers, this did provide a learning experience in coping with conductors, and for the young musicians, a lesson in the difference between playing for dancers and performing for an audience of listeners only. More balletically experienced conductors than Ken Seldon, who heads the PSU orchestral program, don’t always grasp that difference.
Ivan captures but does not kill the Firebird, and she is so grateful for her release that she gives him a red feather with which he can summon her help if he needs it, which he will. Clifford has provided some pretty difficult steps on point for the Firebird, and Di Corcia, who has been studying ballet since she was 3 (she’s now 17), the past five years at the Portland Ballet Academy, performed them with precision and style, particularly in the solo that celebrates her freedom. That solo is packed with a daunting series of unsupported turns and jetés, and while Di Corcia doesn’t yet have the finish or finesse of a professional dancer, she performed with considerable presence and aplomb.
Enter a group of enchanted princesses, nine of them, in flowing costumes, led by Emma-Anne Bauman as Princess Elena, also 17. Ivan falls in love with the willowy princess at first sight, and emerges from his hiding place to let her know it. Packard, who has been dancing for only three years, injects his role with the appropriate adolescent gawkiness and rough edges, and everyone dances a happy, if musically too slow, little dance. For a while. Music and stage darken (Michael Mazzola designed the lights), Ivan is attacked by a little monster, followed by a second, a third and a fourth, and the wicked evil sorcerer Kaschei appears in skeleton costume and a wig of long scraggly hair, accompanied by a group of bigger monsters. A chaotic dance takes place with seemingly a cast of thousands (Clifford is extremely good at ensemble choreography, which is no surprise since he learned it from a master named George Balanchine), Ivan fumbles for the feather, the Firebird appears and counter-enchants Kaschei and his monsters with a series of tours en ménage. The monsters turn back into villagers (and a backdrop appears with three onion domes), Ivan and Elena wed (minus anyone officiating) and all but the Firebird, who has possibly been so unwise as to fall in love with Ivan, live happily ever after.
“The Magic Toyshop” does end unambiguously happily for everyone concerned. For 10 years now, the Portland Ballet has been performing Clifford’s staging of Leonid Massine’s originally titled “La Boutique Fantasque,” which features an exhausted shopkeeper (Gerard, performed by guest artist Josh Murry) and his wife, Amélie (who does all the work and gets all the blame), more dancing dolls than the main floor of F.A.O. Schwarz can hold, and a charming score by Giacomo Rossini which the PSU orchestra played far better than “Firebird.”
I’m told Sir Frederick Ashton thought this ballet was Massine’s best, and it struck me, as I watched students of all ages and experience performing the dolls’ divertissements that take place after the shop closes, that it provides an education not only for the young dancers, but for the audience as well. There is, for example, a takeoff on Romantic ballet by the Giselle doll, danced on Friday night by Dori Pollard with considerable wit and skill while pursued by Ethan Myers as a very annoying Pinocchio. We get a Russian variation (Matrushka dolls, lots of them) complete with a Cossack dance that Zach Lyski, who made a good recovery from a stumble Friday night, infused with almost the panache of Alexandrous Ballard, who used to dance it.
A tarantella was danced with eye-popping precision and joy by 14-year-old Medea Cullumbine-Robertson and Nick Jurica, and I thought the Can-Can girls (Julia Bullard, Cleo Forman, Emily Rapp, Ruby King and Willa Clare Truby) were best at staying in doll-like character. The audience always adores the French poodles, who were perfectly decently danced by Azelle Chang and Sarah Jurica on Friday night, on point at that. I confess that the poodles’ charm eludes me, but then, I don’t much care for the real thing.
As the naughty American children (of course they are!) who get left behind when the shop closes and are the viewers of these and many other dolly divertissements, Safia Barmada and Alexa Campbell, who appear to be very young indeed, were clearly enjoying themselves with the natural ease of born performers. Eventually, the kids’ parents realize they’re missing, and return to collect them, blaming the shopkeeper for locking them in. He in turn blames Amélie, his wife, who was danced on opening night by Ann Bauman, transformed at intermission from a radiant Princess Elena to a plain and weary woman. But, this is a story ballet after all, and there is a fairy godmother of sorts, in the person of the Blue Fairy, who transforms Amélie into the young beauty she once was, and the couple makes up, dancing a stately pas de deux. As the Blue Fairy, Charlotte Logeais carried herself with warmth and majesty; she’s an experienced dancer, and it showed.
A grand finale wraps it all up and ties it with a festive ribbon. I’m sure every child in the school was not on that stage, but it certainly looked like it. Giving every student a role is no mean feat, and artistic director Nancy Davis exercises considerable skill at doing just that.
As usual, Mary Muhlbach, assisted by Jane Staugas Bray, did a phenomenal job with the costumes for both ballets, I’m sure on less than a shoestring.
There are two more performances on Sunday, at 1 and 4 pm, for which the casting will be different and I imagine the orchestra much improved. This annual institutional collaboration is to be commended, glitches and all. Ticket link here.