Oregon Ballet Theatre opens its twenty-sixth season on Saturday with a Manichean program of narrative ballets titled Amore Italiano. The Manichean idea of dualism, you might recall, views the world as conveniently divided between good and evil, light and dark, or love and hate.
And that’s the great divide of Amore Italiano. Both ballets on the program at Keller Auditorium, as it happens, take place in Naples – James Kudelka’s Sub Rosa in the 16th century palace ballroom of composer Carlo Gesualdo, who was also Prince of Venosa (part of the Neapolitan kingdom); August Bournonville’s Napoli, Act III, in the city’s sunny harbor.
Sub Rosa, set to Gesualdo’s complex, innovative madrigals, is, in today’s pop-culture parlance, a bio-ballet. It tells the tale of the composer’s brutal murder of his wife and her lover, that dramatically expressive action taking place on a platform, while the members of the court move obliviously through Kudelka’s contemporary take on the patterns of the social dances of the time.
The third act of Napoli, on the other hand, is a celebration of life itself, as well as the triumph of good over evil, and love over avarice. Here’s the back story: Bournonville, the great 19th century Danish choreographer, served as director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the king’s pleasure. In 1842, Bournonville displeased his boss and was exiled for a year. Urged by his friend Hans Christian Andersen, he traveled in Italy, where observation of street life in Naples fed his creative soul. The result was a masterpiece called Napoli, which is not, repeat not, about peasants, happy or otherwise, but rather about fishermen, merchants, religious faith and dancing itself: light as air, intricate, fiendishly difficult, glorious dancing.
Sub Rosa and the finale of Napoli offer very different challenges for OBT’s dancers, many of whom have featured roles in both. Martina Chavez, whose sinuous eloquence in the pas de deux in Balanchine’s Agon in last season’s opener earned her a well-deserved promotion from company artist to soloist, is well aware of them.
“Oh my God,” she exclaimed. I’d just asked her about the difference between performing Kudelka’s dramatic classicism and the joyous precision of Bournonville technique. “Sub Rosa is heavy, dark, oppressive.” Working with Kudelka, she said, she had to be flexible about the intentions of her role, which changed while the piece was being choreographed from being the odd woman out in a love triangle to the manipulative woman in charge. “I think I’m an angel of death,” she added.
Napoli, on the other hand, “is freeing, a celebration, and I’m loving it. I don’t feel classical ballet is my strong suit, but [the Bournonville technique] has brought it into focus, and given me more to offer.” She referred specifically to the signature low port de bras (carriage of the arms), which made her much more aware of the use of her upper body. “[My role] in Sub Rosa is expressive without moving much,” she said. “Both are a pleasure to dance.”
Chavez had just come out of a company class taught by Eva Kloborg, wife of Frank Andersen, former artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, both of whom spent four weeks in Portland meticulously, lovingly, staging Napoli. Kloborg next March celebrates her 40th anniversary with the company, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she demonstrated the combinations she was teaching OBT’s dancers.
I fell in love with Bournonville in 2005, when I went to Copenhagen as a member of the international press corps covering the third celebratory festival of his work, which Andersen organized in honor of the 200th anniversary of the choreographer’s birth. There were eight nights of performances, all of them attended by Denmark’s queen.
Andersen fell in love with the dancers of OBT, he told me, when he was in Portland for two weeks last January-February to teach Bournonville technique through some of the divertissements in Napoli’s finale. What he specifically fell in love with was “the dancers’ hunger, openness, interest, and their always wanting more.” Six of them – Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Avery Reiners, Jordan Kindell, Katherine Monogue, and Jessica Lind – spent a week in Copenhagen last summer immersed in all things Bournonville.
Andersen is using the whole company in Napoli, including children from OBT’s School. Nine days before performance, the company was looking good, but judging from observation of a couple of Napoli rehearsals and 10 minutes or so of Sub Rosa, dancers to watch are guest artist Amy Watson, principal ballerina of the Royal Danish Ballet (I saw her perform in 2005 when she was a soloist), new OBT soloist Peter Franc, Colby Parsons, Bouchard, who was born to dance Bournonville, Xuan Cheng, Reiners, and Kindell.
The only live music of the evening will be provided at the beginning by violinist Aaron Meyer and his six-piece band, who will play Italian classics: probably not Puccini, but certainly something by Vivaldi.
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Amore Italiano opens Saturday at Keller Auditorium and continues for five performances through October 17. Schedule and ticket information are here.