Eugene Ballet preview: dance of the mountain king

Company's new full-length 'Peer Gynt' ballet transforms drama into dance

By GARY FERRINGTON

When Eugene Ballet  artistic director Toni Pimble decided to stage Peer Gynt, she faced a daunting challenge: transforming poetry into dance. The company had already proven it could dream big when it comes to creating major new works for the professional stage. Last season’s The Snow Queen featured an original score by Portland composer Kenji Bunch. But now, Pimble had to find a way to tell Henrik Ibsen’s classic verse story of a young Norwegian farm lad and prodigal son whose careless and reckless life harms those who love him and ultimately himself — all without words.

Eugene Ballet premieres new full-length ‘Peer Gynt’ ballet. Photo: Eugene Ballet Company.

Over the last two years, Pimble created new choreography and even costumes herself. Her company also crafted original projected visual art and collaborated with its musical partner OrchestraNext  to fashion a live score, set to the famous music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. On April 14-15, the company closes its season at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts with its new full-length original ballet. “It is an emotional work of love, intrigue, loss, despair and redemption,” Pimble observes.

From Verse to Dance

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a five-act play written in poetic verse, was first published in 1867, but it wasn’t performed until 1876 with Grieg’s incidental music. Pimble began her version of the play by distilling it into meaningful interactions between Peer and a reduced cast of characters that include Åse, his mother, the bride Ingrid, the loyal Solveig, the Mountain King’s daughter, the cunning Anitra and in the final scenes the button maker who holds his past treatment of his mother, Ingrid and Solveig before him. “All the other characters are secondary and intended to flesh out the ballet with ‘entertainment’,” she explains.

With her analysis complete, music selected, and a plot in mind, Pimble began choreographing. As with any story, fairy tale, or long dramatic poem, Pimble suggests, transposing dialogue into dance is cumbersome with the text better left to the speaking role of actors. (See ArtsWatch’s preview of another Ibsen play recently transformed into dance in Oregon, Northwest Dance Project’s Hedda, in which choreographer Sarah Slipper also discusses that transformational process.) Her task as a choreographer was not to retell Ibsen’s story as if it were an acted play, but instead to capture the essence of Peer’s experiences in each scene. She strove to convey through dance how those experiences chipped away at this “exuberant feckless young man until he returns at the end of act two a broken and humbled individual.”

Peer and Mother’s final journey in Eugene Ballet Company’s production of ‘Peer Gynt.’

For example, in the play’s opening scene, Åse, Peer’s mother, tries to bind him to her by showering him verbally with guilt — berating him for his neglect of the farm and other tasks. Instead of using dialogue, Pimble expresses this interaction in dance movement, as Åse wraps a thread about Peer. He wriggles free from the binding and then teases her heartlessly, noting that although she is right in every word, he asks her to be patient as someday he will be a king.

In a second example of transforming words into movement, Peer, now much older, returns home to find his mother dying in the bed that they had once imagined as a sleigh speeding off to the fairy tale world of “the Castle West of the Moon and the Castle East of the Sun.”

In the play, extensive dialogue recounts memories and imagines the journey ahead to that distant castle once again where the king has now invited her for dinner. Pimble chose to place the death bed on casters. “Peer speedily pushes the bed around the stage while his mother rises up and appears to ride the once imagined sleigh,” Pimble says. “At the end of the scene, he takes his mother in his arms and rocks her gently back and forth in front of a video of a moving river – one could think of it as the river of Styx, which she must cross as death approaches.”

This transposition of a play into a story told through classical and contemporary forms of dance has evolved into a 100-minute production with two acts and 11 scenes, all performed to the Grieg’s music by a live orchestra in the pit.

Audiences will recognize familiar musical themes from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites No.1 and 2, which were composed after Ibsen’s play was produced. Each is based upon selected pieces from Grieg’s original 90 minutes of incidental music. The problem with the suites serving as a ballet score is that the selections are not in chronological order with the story. So Pimble spent considerable time during the summer months assembling a score based on Grieg’s music. “Luckily,” she notes, “Grieg was a prolific composer and wrote a lot of instrumental work.” She chose music from the Peer Gynt Suites and short works such as Old Norwegian Romance Opus 51, and Lyric Pieces, Op. 54.

Pimble took an initial stab at assembling the music and then left it alone for a few weeks, since “the ear gets too used to and accepting of music transitions.” she says. Then, she listened to it again with “fresh ears” and made adjustments.

Her primary concerns about her choices and arrangement of selections were what problems they would give music director Brian McWhorter as he would have to find and organize the musical parts and weave them together into a master score.

Photo: McWhorter conducting
Brian McWhorter conducts OrchestraNext. Photo: Bluedot Productions.

“Musically speaking, the mish-mash is kind of like a really cool Grieg mixtape that keeps circling back to the iconic sounds of Peer Gynt,” McWhorter told ArtsWatch. “It’s actually so effective that I’m sure most people will think it was intended to be a complete work.”

Practically speaking, however, it was difficult to put the score together. “I’m not going to lie: it was a total nightmare making the parts.” McWhorter notes. “We purchased eight scores and parts which we painstakingly pieced together. We had to arrange and construct parts for two movements that we couldn’t find anywhere, and we edited well over two dozen transitions in each of the 30 distinct parts.”

‘Peer Gynt’s’ edited score and parts equals 1,326 pages. Photo: Anna Herring EBC.

Having camped out in the copy room for several weeks, McWhorter completed this task. “All told, the edited score and parts came out to 1,326 pages. And once we make all the duplicate copies for the string players, we’ll be somewhere close to 2,000 pages.” McWhorter concludes, “I think it’s fair to say that putting it all together was a “big project.”

Creating The Theatrical Experience

The biggest challenge of a work with multiple events that flow quickly one upon the other as they do in Peer Gynt, is to be able to move seamlessly from scene to scene following the young man’s “adventures through the real and surreal, across deserts and mountaintops” without lengthy changes. Pimble asked Eugene visual artist Satoko Motouji, who teaches watercolor, drawing and design at Lane Community College, to create impressionistic watercolor images for each scene.

Portland based multi-disciplinary artist and engineer Jessey Zepeda cinematically manipulated these paintings to give them a sense of movement, with, for example, passing clouds moving slowly across a painted sky. Zepeda is also using video to suggest blowing sand, roiling stormy seas, and a dark river representing the passing of life. These images, Pimble notes, will be projected on a stage size white cyclorama that serves as a canvas for the projections.

Watercolor backgrounds by Satoko Motouji in Eugene Ballet’s ‘Peer Gynt.’ Photo: EBC.

The staging will also use “physical set pieces such as a cut drop to represent trees, steel pipes to represent stalactites in a cave, a steel mobile hanging in a tent in the desert to represent furnishings and a wall to represent the interior of Åse’s cottage,” Pimble says.

Costuming is critical in a theatrical production, and there are 95 costumes in Peer Gynt. Pimble, taking on the role of costume designer as well as choreographer, spent two years designing, creating, buying, or pulling from resources all of the costumes for the ballet.

The only major change of characters in the play has been turning the Troll King and his people into mountain men and women who will look more like Legolas, the elf in The Lord of the Rings, and a costume inspiration from Alexander McQueen for the women.

Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble – choreographer, costume designer and seamstress. Photo: EBC.

A huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes before the first dress rehearsal, from music to set and costume design, in order to transform Ibsen’s old verses into compelling stage movement and music. But the most important collaboration is between the musicians in the pit and the dancers on stage,” McWhorter notes. “For all the work that the rest of us do setting the stage for a new piece, it’s the dancers and musicians who will carry it.”

Eugene Ballet premieres Peer Gynt Saturday, April 14 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 15 at 2:00 pm. Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Purchase tickets online. Eugene’sWhite Lotus Gallery is exhibiting Satoko’s work throughout the performances of Peer Gynt.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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