Gregg Bielemeier and Susan Banyas talk about aging artfully

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Nicolo Fonte is working with two Portland dance legends on "Beautiful Decay"

Beautiful Decay, choreographed by Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, features veteran Portland dancers Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier as it explores the inevitability of time and its changes on the human body.

This piece seems like a significant step forward in the discussion of age in ballet, specifically, and in the culture, more generally. Our obsession with youth, I think, is hindering the full expression of the dance art, something that develops with age.

I caught up with Susan and Gregg three weeks ago to talk about their experiences inside Beautiful Decay.

So how’s it going, how are rehearsals going?

Susan: Good, it’s fun, we are having a really good time.

Gregg: It’s really fun, the dancers are just so generous, and for me I’m finally moving. I have dance sweat again. I haven’t had dance sweat in three years. (Gregg recently had a double hip replacement)

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Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier. Photo courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

That’s a long time.

Gregg: (Laughing) That’s a long time! Yeah, it just feels good.

Have you gotten a deeper sense of what “Beautiful Decay” is about being inside of it?

Susan: It is starting to unfold now. Nicolo’s idea was that we are the sort of decaying dancers, and the idea of time creates a certain kind of color to how you approach life and who you are, and your essence coming out more as you age. But still time is passing, things change in your body. So he is taking those issues on. And we are expressing it in the context of this piece.

Gregg: The ages cross one another several times, and there are places where you can see it like in the winter section where their bodies (the company dancers) are taking on age in a way, and they are interpreting it in their young bodies. That’s how I see that twisted section. And we also partner with them. There are definite connections and there are also these sort of shadow moments.

Susan: I love also how he has created a sense of time. You’ll see in the first half, it has a more linear feel. All the entrances are from one side and it passes through these rooms, so it’s very chronological, linear construct. Part two is more of a dream scape, so time is handled in more of a dreamscape way. In any relationship I have, with an older or younger dancer, can become malleable. So Gregg can be my there but not there partner, or I can have Peter the young beautiful dancer be my memory character or my alter ego. So there are a lot of options as to how you look at each other.

Gregg: They are really working on getting the dancers to open up. They are really working on being real people, on a real stage, in a real situation.

Susan: I love working with this material. I just love working with the ideas. And the idea “what about getting older”? what about that? At first I was like beautiful decay? Oh great we are gonna be the old dancers in this decaying ballet, we are decaying right before your very eyes, watch us. And now I’m into it. It’s kind of a beautiful thing, I don’t know how to explain it. I really have appreciated the directions and the opportunity to explore this idea. I move a certain way, I like how I move now, I like how I move better now than ever, so then I’m like why why why, what’s that about, so it’s kind of cool.

Guest Artist Gregg Bielemeier with Thomas Baker in rehearsal for the company premiere of Nicolo Fonte's "Beautiful Decay," running Apr. 14 - Apr. 23, 2016 at the Newmark Theatre. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

How do you feel about being contemporary artists in this ballet setting?

Susan: The people are so sweet.

Gregg: I love it. They are so wonderful. And they are really, really working at getting what Nicolo wants. They are bending and twisting in a lot of new and different ways. I think, from what I have seen on the ballet stage these days in contemporary work. It’s a very challenging piece for them because it moves like crazy. I don’t know how they move that fast sometimes, it’s unbelievable, unbelievable.

Susan: It’s fun to watch and it’s so completely out of my realm of experience.

Gregg: Completely out of mine too.

Do you think this is Nicolo’s own exploration into his own aging?

Susan: Yeah, definitely.

Gregg: Oh yeah, and his dad. He created it a year after his father died I think?

Susan: It was a response, time catches up with you at some point, and then you have to figure it out. So I think it was the death and the curiosity about death. He’s not dancing anymore he’s choreographing.

Gregg: I wish he would dance, he moves beautifully.

Susan: I think it’s brave and I think it’s smart to look at dance in an intergenerational, multidimensional way so you don’t get caught in the web of repetition as an artist and I think he is definitely a dynamic artist. So his dynamics are shifting and this is one of those opportunities. I love being directed by him, he’s very clear, he’s a good director, good choreographer. Very passionate.

Gregg: That was one of the reasons I wanted to do this, I love being directed. To me it was like oh great! this was another new experience with another new choreographer, I can only gain from it I can’t loose and at this age, who cares? I don’t even care if anyone likes it, actually I do, I hope they like it but it’s not even in my realm of thinking, i’m just loving diving into it. And also the fact that I finally get to move again, it’s such a reward. I feel like it’s such a reward after three years of lying in bed.

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Gregg Bielemeier and Susan Banyas in Beautiful Decay by Nicolo Fonte with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Have you been changed or altered by this experience?

Susan: Yeah, I have. I feel like it’s sharpened my attack and my approach. I’m alway learning no matter who I work with.

Gregg: I’m standing taller, a friend said, “You look so tall!” It’s because I’m in the ballet; you have to be tall in the ballet.

Susan: Its awakening a certain kind of quality in my movement that I like.

Gregg: Several of the dancers have come up to me and said how much they appreciate our energy, and that there are certain movements they saw us doing that helped them with theirs. I definitely think it’s a fully woven experience

Gregg: It’s interesting because I’m doing a pas de deux, it’s beautiful, but it has kind of a romantic feel to it which I’ve never done before. But I’m a good actor, so I’m loving it. I’m just looking at it like I’m her uncle, it is how I’m approaching it and it has these really kind of intimate moments where I take her arm and wrap it around her head. But at first I thought, “Hmmm, am I going to be able to do this?” It actually feels good now! It melds in, it melds in.

Susan: Because its warm, it’s warm, it’s nice to see that warmth. I like seeing the warmth come out of you, it’s a nice quality. And I’m bringing more formality into hotness, heat. So there’s a nice balance.

Gregg: I like that, I like where my character is going. I like acting, I like movement acting and a lot of that from Susan I’ve learned from working with you and from Jerry at Imago. It’s purely how he moved in the two pieces I was in, I like it, I like that feeling.

The whole idea of aging dancers in ballet doesn’t happen, you just get cut off at a certain point and you are just done and people are just done with you. Its really interesting that Nicolo is talking about this so openly in the choreography. I wonder how this piece will shape the company in the future.

Susan: I think the idea is there in all art forms that you are just kind of starting to get it maybe in your 60’s maybe kind of starting to get a feel for your style, and in all art forms it takes that long, and so it takes that long as a mover or movement theatre artist. It’s silly to think that you’d have to retire then, because you are only just beginning to define a certain kind of way of going at it and that may show up in performance or in other ways Nonetheless, it’s kinda your thing. It’s nice to think about that being acknowledged in some way, and I think that Kevin [Irving, OBT’s artistic director] and Nicolo have acknowledged that we are artists working in a ballet company, we aren’t trying to imitate ballet, it’s our art form. Kevin said that a few times: “You make the artistic decisions, thank you.” Because I don’t know what else to do at this point. I can’t imitate anything else. (Laughing) I’ve tried all that; here is where it landed.

Gregg: I knew I would have to learn how to dance again just because of what my past three years have been, and so to be there doing this, and part of that is that I have these two new things in my body too so it is all new.

Susan: I think they appreciate the kind of quality of presence we bring to the work, it’s not preconceived, it’s like we’re here and we’re moving, moving, moving. It’s not predetermined. That I think is what’s fascinating to Nicolo. When he saw us the first time, he goes, “Did you rehearse this?” No, we are making it up. And I like that. He loved how we were immediately able to work together.

Beautiful Decay runs April 14-23 at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway.

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