By DAMIEN JACK
There is nothing dry and dusty about Impact, the program topping off Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th season. After last Friday night’s performance I was making my way out of the Newmark when I heard a woman in front of me turn to her friend and say: “I hate ballet, but that was (bleeping) fantastic!” Now, I happen to love ballet. I’m a balletomane. A ballet queen. Yes, I am. I’m somewhat obsessed. I love to write about ballet, to talk about ballet, and most of all to watch ballet. Still, there are moments—sitting through yet another mummified production of Swan Lake or the latest robotic, ice-cold “contemporary” ballet—when I, too, hate ballet and feel like it’s time to tap out a shim-sham on the art form’s dying corpse. What’s exhilarating about the OBT program is that it makes you feel that ballet has a future. More importantly, from start to finish, you see that this program is alive to the present moment.
The program–which concludes with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, April 23-25–opens with a world premiere: Instinctual Confidence, the work of a young American choreographer, born and raised in Harlem, named Darrell Grand Moultrie. He quite rightly refers to his style as “genre jumping.” Moultrie’s career has jumped from Broadway to ballet and, yes, even to Beyoncé—he worked on her “Mrs. Carter Tour”—and back again. Instinctual Confidence doesn’t look like any dance I’ve seen before. It’s a hot mess. Moultrie delivers a tasty mix of movement styles, rhythms and steps. The piece is all derring-do. He’s not afraid to risk a move that’s so unexpected and odd that it reads at first as ugly. The way something in a Cunningham dance might look the first time you see it. But the work is so compelling that you can’t for a moment look away. Throughout the piece a dancer will move into a position drawn from the vocabulary of classical ballet, then suddenly shift out of it—moving into an ever-morphing series of movements that flow further and further away from the classical. A great deal of the fun of the piece is in watching that metamorphosis. And it’s a very speedy ride with Kenji Bunch’s propulsive score helping to push the pedal—even the “slow” sections of the dance feel explosive.
That speed makes Instinctual Confidence difficult to read after just one viewing. However, certain images and dancers linger in the mind. Makino Hayashi’s riveting, cat-like entrance and solo is danced to the music of her own breathing and the sound of her feet and body moving across the stage. She creates a mood and atmosphere that all of the dancers will follow—intense, tough, competitive. Martina Chavez is a knockout in another memorable solo—she looks for all the world like a young Martha Graham. The purple dress she wears is quite unlike the sleek black costumes worn by the other dancers (all designed by Christine Joly de Lotbiniere), as is the choreography Moultrie created for her. To my eye that too seems to be, at least in part, a kind of tribute to Graham, complete with signature turns and leg kicks; but the impression might simply be created by the way that the dress combines with the movement.
There’s a later moment in the ballet when the stage is suddenly crowded with dancers and you can’t possibly take in everything that’s going on, but then Brian Simcoe and Chauncey Parsons come tearing onstage at full speed and spinning like tops, and you can’t look at anything else. Simcoe, always a standout, is on fire throughout Impact. His dancing is wonderfully finished; every movement is fully inhabited, given its full weight. He’s unfailingly musical. There’s nobility to all he does, but there’s never anything stuffy or pompous about his dancing.
Parsons plays a key role in the section of Instinctual Confidence that seemed to have everyone in the theater talking during intermission. Moultrie has dressed a trio of men (Parsons, Michael Linsmeier, and Jordan Kindall) in ice blue tutus. Nothing else. Just tutus. In a program note the choreographer insists he “is not making a statement about gender,” but it’s difficult to think of another costume as strongly gendered as the tutu. We can’t help but see the figure of the classical ballerina somewhere in the back of our mind while watching these men perform. At the same time, there’s nothing campy going on. Several members of the audience guffawed when the guys first appeared, but the laughter quickly died away. The three don’t interact. They are a unit, but separated; and each man is completely absorbed, intense and focused on performing (as if they were defusing a bomb or cracking a safe) a complex series of stretching and reaching movements. The intensity is coupled with a vulnerability that derives in large part from the way the tutu transforms the male body. The dichotomy is surprisingly moving.
Where Instinctual Confidence is least interesting and most conventional is in its two pas de deux. These are well-made, fierce, and beautifully danced, with Brian Simcoe and Xuan Cheng making an especially fine couple. That said, why is it that contemporary ballet has been so slow to drag the pas de deux out of the 19th century when it comes to gender roles? You’d think feminism had never happened. Queer people don’t seem to exist at all. The form has changed only in that it’s more virtuosic and more openly sexual than ever. A female dancer is often encouraged to play tough in the pas de deux, but generally that toughness is all about affect and not about choreography. What gives? In a piece and a program that otherwise is so connected to the here and now, this is a peculiar but all too familiar slip.
Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, which had its world premiere at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet back in 1979 and was first seen at OBT in 1990, might seem, given its age, an odd fit on this program; but as much as any of the other pieces it is devoted to re-thinking and enlarging our conception of genre. Spaight, whose death in 1993 from AIDS was a terrible loss to the dance world, reinvents the training or teaching ballet, a work designed for young dancers. It’s a form that has inspired fine work from many choreographers, including Balanchine and Robbins.
Crayola dispenses with the usual musical score so that the dancers move to the rhythms and sounds made by their own toe shoes. Spaight also removed the (often tedious) mime associated with classical ballet, replacing it with American Sign Language. In addition to the expected classical steps, Spaight has his dancers perform pedestrian movement: walking, standing, and sitting. Those might appear to be simple things to do in comparison to, say, bourréeing across the stage, but many would argue they are just as hard, perhaps harder, to master. Spaight was teaching his dancers how to hold the stage; how to command attention. The young, apprentice dancers who make up OBT’s new junior company OBT2 dance the piece with style and precision (no easy task without music to hide behind), and their gestures are so eloquent you know just what they are telling you with their silent words even without the aid of an interpreter.
Nicolo Fonte’s Presto is something else entirely. It is a short trip in a very fast machine. As soon as it’s over you want to press replay and see it all over again. Driven by Ezio Bosso’s fun stop-and-start score, the dance is an explosive workout for four dancers: Ansa Deguchi, Avery Reiners, Eva Burton and Colby Parsons. You can’t imagine how they get through the thing, but part of the pleasure of Presto is seeing the dancers take pleasure in testing themselves. You sense, too, that Fonte had fun making the piece—taking the virtuoso showpiece right to its breaking point. Fonte’s choreography is marked by a proud, drawn-up torso and a precise, sharp attack that calls to mind flamenco dance, but it’s flamenco combined with ballet and done on a high wire.
The night comes to a powerful conclusion with Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement. The company dances this one barefoot, but with the very same ease and commitment that characterized the previous works on the program. Here, however, the material grows dark. Set to Toto Bissainthe’s haunting creole songs, Rassemblement is a mix of nightmare and dream. It is, in part, about the oppression suffered by slaves in colonial Haiti. It is also about their resistance to that repression and their hunger for liberation. The dance is at its best during its surging, rhythmically propulsive ensembles. The sections that attempt to represent the traumas faced by an enslaved people, while affecting, are (understandingly perhaps) a little too prettified. Still, this is one of Duato’s most sensitive and lyrical works, and a welcome addition to the OBT repertory. Brett Bauer and Makino Hayashi made a strong impression in their duet, a mix of delicacy, melancholy and eroticism. Martina Chavez was electrifying in a too-brief solo that made you want to follow her right down the road to revolution.
Revolution and evolution are just what ballet needs. OBT is giving it a roll, and it’s already paying off. Best of all, OBT will be repeating the entire Impact program beginning on Thursday April 23 and running through Saturday April 25. Ticket and schedule information are here.