Enchanted Toyshop, all Gift Boxed

The Portland Ballet's holiday special features John Clifford's charming revision of a Ballets Russes original, plus a new piece by Anne Mueller

At the opening of The Portland Ballet’s annual holiday concert at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall on Friday afternoon I found quite a few reasons to be thankful. Many of them were kids, dancing their hearts out in John Clifford’s version of The Enchanted Toyshop.

Originally titled La Boutique Fantasque and choreographed by Leonide Massine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (it premiered in London in 1919), Toyshop in Clifford’s version discards most of the libretto conceived by Massine and painter André Derain, who also designed the sets and costumes.  Derain’s designs are meticulously replicated for TPB by the wonderful Mary Muhlbach, who was also responsible for new designs for added characters:  Pinocchio, who serves as master of ceremonies; Amélie, the shopkeeper’s wife; the Blue Fairy; the Giselle doll; and hordes of miscellaneous children visiting the toy shop with their parents.

Kerridwyn Schanck, Andrew Davis, Lauren Kness in "Toyshop." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Kerridwyn Schanck, Andrew Davis, Lauren Kness in “Toyshop.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The Enchanted Toyshop – set to music by Gioacchino Rossini, arranged and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, and expanded by Clifford with more of Respighi’s music orchestrated by Benjamin Britten – offers comedy and pathos, fantasy and romance, a thoroughly satisfactory happily-ever-after-ending, and a lot of dancing, mainly by mechanical dolls who have come to life. (Think Nutcracker, think Coppélia, and sophisticates can also think Mary Oslund’s Reflex Doll.)

Of the cast I saw on Friday afternoon (it changed Friday night), I particularly enjoyed (in no particular order) young Zachary Brant as Pinocchio, who served as master of ceremonies for the doll variations, and looked amusingly leggy in a comic pas de deux with Willa Clare Truby as a quick-footed Giselle doll; Nicolas Bierwagen, in his second year at TPB, who commanded the stage as well as his limbs as one of the card-playing dolls; Julia Wilson and Henry Winslow, who lead the Tarantella dolls with clean, technical speed; and Evan Lindsay, who did fine as the Cossack Soldier. Andrew Davis, the 12-year-old-son of faculty member Michelle Davis and  ballet master and school principal Jason Davis, demonstrated astonishingly clean, precise technique as the Can-Can master. Lauren Kness, another gifted career track dancer, wielded considerable magic as a feminist Blue Fairy, emboldening Naomi Rux as the shopkeeper’s wife to abandon her angry husband, well-played by Puneet Bhandal.

It was Rux and Bhandal who truly moved me in Friday afternoon’s performance. Both are members of PBT’s career track program, Bhandal in his third year, Rux in her first. Both can certainly dance (Rux, whose face bears a striking resemblance to Suzanne Farrell’s, has participated in summer programs at Ballet West and the Harid Conservatory as well as TPB, and Bhandal at Ballet Tucson). With their well-trained bodies and sensitivity to the music, they can also express anger, hurt feelings, reconciliation and tenderness, the last two in a gentle pas de deux that for the first time in many viewings of Boutique Fantasque brought tears to my eyes.

One of the pleasures of The Portland Ballet’s annual holiday concert is the live music provided by the Portland State University Orchestra, which alas, is not playing for Toyshop this year.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the orchestra is playing the segments of  Georges Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suites that TPB co-artistic director Anne Mueller and conductor Ken Selden selected together for her new ballet, Gift Box, a curtain-raising showcase of the technical skills of the Youth Company and Career Track dancers.

It’s lovely, thoroughly danceable music, and the orchestra played it very well indeed; but I wish fewer segments had been chosen, or shorter ones, because Gift Box – charmingly costumed by Amy Karol, who designed the traditional tutus and doublets – is just a hair too long: a number of young children in the audience, and even a few adults, were visibly restless before the ballet ended. Mueller’s complex, challenging choreography was well danced (if occasionally tentatively so), particularly by the principals, Kerridwyn Schanck, Elliana Kirk, Evan Lindsay and Henry Winslow, all of them promising young artists.  And I took some delight in ensemble choreography that was charmingly reminiscent of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs and very well-danced, indeed.

The Portland Ballet does a good job: for an hour and a half or so on Friday afternoon, I was oblivious to world events, and for that, I am truly grateful to everyone involved in TPB’s holiday show – especially these gifted young dancers.

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TPB’s The Enchanted Toyshop and Gift Box conclude with performances at 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27. Ticket information here.

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