First steps: OBT learns a new way

In the studio with new artistic director Kevin Irving, the company dancers prepare for a new season and a fresh approach

Ye Li, Brian Simcoe rehearse "Por Vos Muero." Phot: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ye Li, Brian Simcoe rehearse “Por Vos Muero.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s main studio is still unlit when I enter the building at 9:45  a.m. on the last Monday in September, although some of the dancers are doing their pre-company class warmups, looking a little like ghosts.

I’m here to watch Kevin Irving teach, and later in the morning rehearse the dancers in Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero,” a company premiere. At the time of my visit there are two weeks to go before OBT opens its first season under Irving’s artistic directorship, with a highly theatrical program that includes a reprise of Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Stowell resigned as OBT’s artistic director last December in the wake of an austerity move by the company, which despite a good deal of artistic success was on shaky financial ground. His departure sparked a chain of events that led to the arrival of Irving, the American former artistic director of Sweden’s Goteborg Ballet, and the inevitable switches in style and routine that a change in leadership entails.

The company’s first program under Irving’s leadership opens this Saturday, October 12.

Principal dancer Alison Roper appears, seemingly out of nowhere, dressed for class. She turns on the lights in the studio, and dancers continue to trickle in, including Yang Zou, who retired from the stage last season, and who tells me he wants to feel like a dancer again, just for a little while.  Company accompanist Irina Golberg takes her place at the piano (she’s a fine musician, sensitive to tempo and the dancers’ needs). The dancers take theirs at the barre, and Irving begins to teach, speaking softly but firmly.

OBT DREAM - Fall 2013“Feel the power of the floor,” I hear him say. “Pay attention to the external rotation of the hip.”

Irving stops next to Kohhei Kuwana, a new company artist, and has him demonstrate exactly how he wants the hip rotation accomplished. Irving pays a great deal of attention to individual dancers during the course of the class, giving many corrections, which means lots of help.  For many, this is a completely new way of moving. The class has a different kind of energy from Christopher Stowell’s; one dancer tells me after class he misses the speed.  Another is grateful for the scope of the corrections.

Irving is preparing the dancers to perform Duato’s signature movement, in which the emphasis is on shape rather than line, and technique is in the service of dramatic expression. Over the years, the Spanish choreographer (he was born in Valencia, in 1957)  has developed a vocabulary that fuses the classical vocabulary—pirouettes, jetés,  pas de chats, pas de bourrés, and the like—with the floor-bound, swooping curves of traditional modernism as developed and practiced by, among others, Martha Graham and José Limon. Not performed in point shoes, “Por Vos Mueros” nevertheless is a ballet, and an intensely theatrical one at that.  The title, which comes from a Renaissance poem, translates as “For you I would die.”

In due course, the women put on their point shoes while the middle of the studio is cleared of the barres and the traditional center work begins.  “Work with your lower back,” Irving instructs the dancers. “Move your spine and lift up out of the floor. At some point,” he tells a male dancer who is putting more emphasis and care on the leg he is extending than the one that’s supporting his body, “you have to accept that people are looking at both sides of your body.”

Class runs slightly overtime. Rehearsal, accordingly, starts late.

OBT DREAM - Fall 2013“Por Vos Mueros,” like “Midsummer,” is to some degree a text-based work. It begins with a reading of lines from poetry by Garcilaso de la Vega, who is said to have brought Italian Renaissance poetry to Spain.  The dancers perform to text as well as music, in this instance Spanish Renaissance music, and while there are little love stories contained in the duets and the solos, the piece is about the universality of dance itself as cultural expression. Dancing in Renaissance Spain was not at all a class-based activity. Aristocrats, merchants and peasants all danced, as did a group of choir boys trained in Seville and Toledo, called Los Seises, who still perform in Renaissance costume in churches as part of the liturgy, expressing religious faith. Duato’s vocabulary expresses all of this in highly textured fashion, and costumes are a part of that.  In the opening section, the dancers are in flesh-colored tights and look nude. In other sections, the men are in black shorts, the women in full skirts that are part of the fluid choreography. “The music is the wave you are riding on,” Irving calls out during rehearsal, and the dancers are starting to ride it with considerable skill.

In Spain, romantic passion can make you willing to die for the object of your affections. In Elizabethan England, love, at least according to Shakespeare (who could be as fatalistic as any Spanish bullfighter entering the ring), is out of your control, out of your hands. In “Midsummer,” he makes fun of this verbally, and how. In his highly sophisticated distillation of the play, Stowell uses the language of classical ballet in the service of comedy, the most difficult kind of ballet to pull off, and OBT’s dancers have in past performances done it very well, indeed.  Roper, who retires at the end of the season, is featured in both ballets (she originated the role of Titania in “Midsummer,” and dances with Brian Simcoe in “Por Vos Muero”). Kevin Poe will again appear as a superb Bottom in “Midsummer.”   The four new company artists – Jennifer Christie, who was an apprentice last year, Kohhei Kuwana, Jenna Nelson and Avery Reiners – are having their versatility tested right out of the gate.

Next stop: Saturday night. It’s a whole new season, and for OBT, a whole new day.

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The show, which has the umbrella title of “Dream,” opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Keller Auditorium and closes on Sunday, the 19th. “ Midsummer” will be accompanied by the OBT orchestra under the baton of music director Niel DePonte. Consult www.obt.org for details.

 

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