New guy in town: Kevin Irving takes charge at OBT

The ballet's new season brings austerity, a farewell year for Alison Roper, and a new beginning with a new artistic chief

Artur Sultanov and Alison Roper in "Bolero." The new season will be Roper's 18th and final before retirement. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Artur Sultanov and Alison Roper in “Bolero.” This will be Roper’s18th and final season before retirement. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

On a late Friday morning the parking lot at Oregon Ballet Theatre is almost empty, and the foyer inside the Southeast Portland ballet building isn’t much busier: a receptionist, a couple of people behind the ticket and membership counters, not much more. Nothing cooking behind the big glass windows to the main studio: It’s August, and it’s dog days.

But up a flight of stairs to the studios’ big open workspace, the story’s different. People are criss-crossing the room. A group of four or five are huddled in midroom, deep in conversation. One man, a ginger-haired, softly freckled fellow with the lean and muscular build of a former dancer, breaks away from the pack.

“Why don’t you follow me into my office,” Kevin Irving says. “We can talk in there.” And he leads me past a little squeezed-in alcove with a couple of desks and laptops into a bigger corner room, with large windows on two sides and the telltale look of a not-quite-settled-in space.

*

Irving was named artistic director of OBT in early June, and he’s been working pretty much nonstop since then. But he’s been in Portland just three weeks, and things are still a whirl: meeting people, going over budgets, setting up appointments, making a few adjustments to the season schedule he inherited.

Kevin Irving/OBT

Kevin Irving/OBT

There’s a huge amount to be done before the new season opens in October with the company debut of European superstar Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero” and former OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The season, fashioned mostly by interim artistic director Anne Mueller after Stowell’s surprise resignation in December, looks both familiarly and unfamiliarly appealing on paper, with another Duato piece in the spring plus the return of such hits as Christopher Wheeldon’s “Liturgy” and James Kudelka’s “Almost Mozart,” plus the local debut of “Petal,” by Helen Pickett, a highly regarded dancemaker who is choreographer in residence for Atlanta Ballet. The works by Duato and Pickett – both new choreographers to OBT’s repertory – are the result of Irving’s modest but significant reshuffling of the lineup. And the season allows several opportunities to spotlight Alison Roper, the company’s regal principal dancer who is entering her 18th and final season with OBT before retiring.

During an hour-long interview Irving breaks away, politely, a couple of times when he sees someone he urgently needs to speak with. Once it’s to collar Ken Hick, the ballet’s board president, who came into office last fall with yet another financial crisis hanging around the company’s neck and then faced the abrupt resignation in December of Irving’s predecessor, Stowell, who led OBT for nine years and helped it build a national reputation as a rising ballet company.

Irving is only the third artistic director in the company’s history – Stowell succeeded founding artistic director James Canfield – and he comes in with eyes wide open, understanding the contours of his double-edged inheritance: a company of well-trained and high-level dancers; an organization with severe financial and structural difficulties. Since 2008, when a booming international economy hit a pothole the size of Greece, OBT has been going through what Irving calls “an ongoing cycle of success and peril, success and peril.”

Irving believes the company’s rebuilt board and other supporters understand the practicalities of writing a responsible budget and the pitfalls of being overly optimistic about income. And he’s signed on to the board’s “very sober approach,” determining before he accepted the job that there “was nothing that was too challenging to solve.”

“Real artistic vision demands that we look at sustainability,” he said. “I live in the real world. I’ve dealt with budgets for many, many years. … I’m a pragmatist.”

*

Right now, pragmatism dictates a sharply reduced company. OBT enters its 2013-14 season with 20 company dancers and 6 apprentices, down from 28 and 7 last season. And several of those who’ve moved on were leading figures whose skills will be hard to replace. Further, the season will include much less live music than audiences have grown accustomed to. Irving regrets the cuts but considers them necessary. And he says that as important as live music is, his first priority is to the dancers. Their salaries are low, they don’t have enough weeks on their contracts, and there should be more of them. Dealing with those realities, he says, comes first.

Still, he seems to have a genuine if measured enthusiasm about the future. “I’m convinced that we are building now a new future for the company,” he says.

So far, the building is being done with a lot of missing pieces. OBT has been without an executive director for a long time, and originally planned to fill that spot before hiring an artistic director. Paul Nicholson, the recently retired executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has signed on to help widen the search. The OBT school, a crucial part of the company, is also without a director since Damara Bennett resigned to return to the San Francisco Bay Area. And key support and development staff have come and gone at a dizzying rate. “There was something that was not functioning if there was a revolving door,” Irving says. “Because we’re a team. One of my main functions is to be a team leader.”

He’s been that elsewhere, successfully, including a 2002-07 stint as artistic director of Sweden’s highly regarded Goteborg Ballet, and several years as ballet master and head of the artistic department for Duato’s Compania National de Danza in Spain. He stages ballets by Duato and by Nicolo Fonte, who has a history with OBT (his ballet “Bolero,” set to Ravel’s music, returns as part of February’s program) and who is Irving’s partner.

Unlike Canfield and Stowell, who were choreographers and created many works for the company, Irving doesn’t choreograph. His approach to the artistic-director job is more curatorial, deciding which dancemakers to bring into the fold and balancing the season. The addition of two works by the eagerly sought-after Duato is an immediate result of Irving’s personal connections. The 2014-15 season lineup, which will be the first that Irving will choose on his own, should give a clearer look at his aesthetic. He says ballet is rooted in classical technique, but he likes the broad variety of possible interpretations and explorations from that base. Considering his extensive European experience, it’s reasonable to expect a decent mix of work by choreographers from Europe, where ballet tends to have a more contemporary edge. “That’s what’s so exciting about ballet in the 21st century,” he says. “We don’t have to limit ourselves to one thing.”

*

One thing missing from the coming season will be a new work originally scheduled from Mueller, who was the other finalist for the artistic director post. Mueller left the company after Irving was hired to become managing director of the theater company Bag & Baggage Productions. Irving says her choreography project for OBT is “on the back burner.” Mueller, a longtime company dancer since the Canfield days before moving into administration, was exceptionally popular with ballet followers. So was Stowell. One of the challenges Irving faces is to move the company and its fans beyond any lingering resentments over the changing of the guard.

But the reality is, life changes. In his nine years Stowell almost completely rebuilt the dancing company: Mueller and Roper were the last holdovers from the Canfield days. At the end of this season, when Roper retires, there’ll be none. Companies go through leadership switches all the time, and new leaders inevitably bring a fresh way of looking at things. That can be disconcerting but also quite exciting. Irving arrives with an impressive record of achievement, and it’s also clear he has very strong notions of what he wants to do, and the will to make it happen. He may be a team player, but he also seems very naturally the leader of the team.

And that means, sometimes, not doing something just because that’s the way it’s always been done.

Canfield and Stowell both made their offices inside the main-floor vault of this former bank building, behind a huge round locking safety door. Down a narrow hallway from the main studio space, it’s like a quaint bunker, charming in its way but also hidden away, with no natural light. Irving immediately moved upstairs, where there are windows. The view’s nothing special – pretty much a blue-collar cityscape. But unlike the old bank vault, it takes in the outside world. Irving can look out those windows and connect immediately with the city. “I can’t see anything romantic,” he says wryly, “about that vault.”

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