By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST
Ballets specifically linked to paintings and sculpture don’t always work. They can be highly contrived, as was the Degas-inspired version of “Swan Lake” that Christopher Wheeldon created for the Pennsylvania Ballet some years ago, or for that matter James Canfield’s “Degas Impressions,” inspired by the painter’s “Foyer de la Danse.”
So on Saturday night I attended Oregon Ballet Theatre’s season-opening repertory show, titled “Body Beautiful” – as is the Portland Art Museum’s current exhibition of Greek sculpture from the British Museum – with a certain amount of trepidation.
I needn’t have feared. Artistic director Christopher Stowell took the stuff of Greek myth and ran with it, opening with George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” in the uncut version that not even New York City Ballet does, and closing with William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail,” which has nothing whatsoever to do with Greek myth, but turns the dancers into what Martha Graham called “athletes of God.” In between was Kent Stowell’s lushly romantic “Orpheus Portrait,” and the premiere of Stowell the younger’s “Ekho,” based on the myth of Narcissus and Echo, with truly lovely set pieces designed by Seattle installation artist John Grade, whose first work for the theater this was. Let’s hope it’s not the last. Bruce Guenther, PAM’s chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art, was the matchmaker for this marriage of true minds.
That other marriage of true minds, in this instance of Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, began with the making of “Apollo” in 1928. The last time OBT performed it, there was no money for live music in the budget. This time, Niel dePonte was in the pit, conducting the score for the first time, and while the music sounded somewhat tentative and muted in the beginning, ten minutes into the ballet the orchestra had hit its punchy stride.
Chauncey Parsons made his debut in the title role, staggering convincingly out of his swaddling clothes and taking his first baby steps, executing the adolescent god’s exuberant jumps, learning to play the lyre, texturing his performance with the muses with a playfulness that made the ballet fun to watch. As Terpsichore, Alison Roper danced with technical authority and acute musicality, but Parsons is the wrong partner for her – they are physically mismatched. Sadly, Brett Bauer, who was supposed to open as Apollo, was injured in rehearsal last week, and for complicated casting reasons, Parsons opened instead. Candace Bouchard tore into her role as Polyhymnia, fleet and sure-footed, and Yuka Iino’s elegant Calliope made me want to see her as Terpsichore.
Yang Zou and Haiyan Wu, who are partners in life, aren’t often given opportunities to dance together at OBT, and that’s a shame. Their performance of “Orpheus Portrait” was nothing short of stunning, their beautiful, yearning bodies telling the tragic tale of Eurydice’s death with such heart-rending eloquence I forgot how much I dislike the backdrop, and if it comes to that, Franz Liszt’s soupy symphonic poem.
Which leads me to “ Ekho” and its lovely score, music by CPE Bach and Christoph Willibald Gluck, seamlessly braided by dePonte, who has done this sort of thing before, for example for Canfield’s “Nutcracker” and Trey McIntyre’s “Peter Pan.” “Ekho” is a story ballet without a point shoe in sight, an interactive contemporary set that reminds me a bit of Isamu Noguchi’s wonderful set pieces for Balanchine’s “Orpheus” (and wouldn’t it be nice to see that on a program here with Apollo and Agon?) which at the same time made me think of Renaissance paintings of nymphs and putti frolicking in the forest. Sometimes the dancers are inside the set pieces, which are meant to represent trees; at other times they look like abstractions of Greek columns.
“Ekho” distills the legend of Narcissus, the youth who can love only his own reflection (a not unfamiliar characteristic of the adolescent male) and the “chatterbox wood nymph,” as she’s aptly described in a program note, who falls hopelessly in love with him. Both return to nature, he as the eponymous flower, she into the ether, in some versions echoing forever after the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. As Narcissus and his reflection, Brian Simcoe and Lucas Threefoot, respectively – their bodies so similar they could be twins – dance a space-grabbing pas de deux that’s a melding of classical and modern technique. As Echo, Xuan Cheng infuses her dancing with the fragility of porcelain and the tensile strength of silk. The ensemble dances Stowell has made for the nymphs and their male counterparts are nothing short of delicious, and performed with unity and éclat by Martina Chavez, Ashley Dawn, Ansa Deguchi, Olga Krochik, Julia Rowe, Adam Hartley, Jordan Kindell, Ye Li, Michael Linsmeier and Javier Ubell.
The ballet moves so fast, the viewer might not notice a pose taken from a statue of Mercury here, or a sideways movement from a Greek vase there. It’s richly textured in every way, a visual and musical treat for the eye and the ear, enhanced by Michael Mazzola’s lights. Do not be deceived by the earnestness of the program notes: this is a work of immense charm and delight.
If “Ekho” moves quickly, William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail” revs up Balanchinean speed enough to break the sound barrier, abetted in creating that impression by Dutch composer, and frequent collaborator, Thom Willems’ pulsing score. I loved seeing these dancers, their fine-tuned bodies revealed in simple leotards and tights, which unlike unitards separate the upper and lower body so you can pay attention to the way the legs and arms work in concert or counterpoint, generally mix classical technique with pedestrian movement and make it work.
The 14-member cast was so good I frankly didn’t want it to end, particularly Linsmeier, Ino, and Xuan Cheng, as the mysterious woman in a tattered garment who wanders onstage toward the end. One of the homeless? Victim of a disaster? Who knows: Forsythe always makes you wonder.
The works on this “Body Beautiful” program, in fact, are filled with imagery that makes you wonder, from the sunburst in “ Apollo” created by the gathering of the muses’ legs, to the transformation of the set pieces in “Ekho,” to the lost soul in “The Second Detail.” It’s a terrific program, very challenging for the dancers, and they do it extremely well.
On a sad note, these performances are dedicated to Yvonne Mounsey, a New York City Ballet dancer who died last week. She was known as a great teacher, and for her dancing as the Siren in Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son,” which OBT will perform in June for the first time.
Closer to home, there has been another loss. Michael Rios, whose performance of the central pas de deux with Nicole Cuevas in “Degas Impressions” made that ballet memorable for good reasons, died last week. He was a beautiful, compelling dancer; elegantly jazzy in Dennis Spaight’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” impeccably classical partnering Elena Carter in Act III of “Sleeping Beauty,” and I have missed him from that stage, ever since he retired, too young, many years ago.
“Body Beautiful” repeats Friday and Saturday, October 19 and 20, at Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay Street, Portland. Ticket information here.
Catherine Thomas reviewed “Body Beautiful” here for The Oregonian.