OBT dancers: Making an ‘Impact’

From Spaight to Duato, the ballet company's Newmark program revels in variety and the spice of life

“The rhythm of my dancing is the same as the beat of my heart.  I think. I imagine. I hear.  I feel. I do it for you.”

That is a translation of the American Sign Language the dancers “speak” in Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, the second piece on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary season wrap-up, which opened at the Newmark Theatre on Thursday.

"Crayola," from left: Kimberly Nobriga, Samantha Allen, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, Shea McAdoo, Paige Wilkey. Photo: Yi Yin

“Crayola,” from left: Kimberly Nobriga, Samantha Allen, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, Shea McAdoo, Paige Wilkey. Photo: Yi Yin

OBT’s dancers–all of them, not just the apprentices and professional level students who performed Crayola–danced those words in every piece on the Impact program, their commitment to the choreographers’ wildly different points of view driving them as much as the music, or, in the case of Crayola, the sound of their point shoes hitting the floor.

I’ve long thought Crayola a deceptive title for a piece that is not about dancing crayons, cute as that might be, but rather dance as the most human of the arts. In new, soft, costumes designed by New York cinematographer and costume designer Christine Meyers, with the sign language updated by the mother of one of the dancers, this iteration of a dance I’ve seen many, many times charmed me in ways it has not in past performances.  All six dancers–company apprentices Kimberly Nobriga, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, an Paige Wilkey; SOBT students Samantha Allen and Shea McAdoo–executed the intricacies of Spaight’s arrangements of the classical vocabulary with precision and wit.  Wilkey, whatever she did, from holding an unsupported arabesque to whipping out fouettés to  bourréeing rapidly across the stage, showed the promise and personality of a true ballerina, and I hope she sticks around. I would also love to see this company (OBT2, that is) perform Spaight’s Theatre Dances, made originally for the Jefferson Dancers, and about the young dancers for whom he felt such empathy.

fEARnoDANCEFORM might have made a more informative title for Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Instinctual Confidence, a world premiere set to music (mostly) composed by Portland composer Kenji Bunch, artistic director of fEARnoMUSIC, which opened the show.  Choreographer and composer met when they were students at Juilliard and share a highly eclectic vision of music and dance, melding popular culture with high art, as others, such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Rennie Harris, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Virgil Thomson have done before them.

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, and Chauncey Parsons in "Instinctual Confidence."  Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, and Chauncey Parsons in “Instinctual Confidence.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Moultrie incorporates the pedestrian running of postmodern dance, classical ballet, a touch of street dancing, and children’s play into a fast-moving piece in which there is a bewildering number of undeveloped movement ideas, making it difficult for me, at least, to figure out what it’s about.  Program notes informed me that it’s basically about the dancers, these particular dancers, its official title intended to convey the unself-conscious, confident actions of children at play. Some of the movement did just that: the opening’s  runs, floor rolls and a kind of stylized tag, indicating kids playing in the streets of New York as Moultrie himself did as a lad; Martina Chavez–in a lovely turquoise dress designed by Christine Joly de Lotbinière, who also designed the workout clothes look-alikes for the rest of the cast–spinning like a little girl who is delighted with her new party dress; a trio of men playing dress-up in tutus, which Moultrie intended  to give them the experience of having their dancing restricted by tulle. It’s not meant to be funny, and it isn’t. Many audience members loved this trio, and while it was certainly well-danced by Michael Linsmeier, Chauncey Parsons and Jordan Kindell, it somehow didn’t grab me.

For me, the highlights were the two high-energy pas de deux, particularly the first one danced by the technically impeccable Brian Simcoe and the versatile (and how!) Xuan Cheng, and Michael Mazzola’s lights, some of them a stunningly beautiful re-creation of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings. The piece ends with the whole cast on stage, dancing in unison against a brilliant and celebratory red wall, to wonderful jazzy music, which then shifts to a more lyrical sound during which we see a male dancer dragging a female dancer across the stage floor.  This is a male chauvinist movement cliché I damned well don’t ever want to see again.

Martina Chavez in "Presto." Photo: Yi Yin

Martina Chavez in “Presto.” Photo: Yi Yin

What I would like to see again is Nicolo Fonte’s Presto, the penultimate piece on the program.  Danced by Chavez, Simcoe, Cheng and Parsons, who did some partner switching, it’s nine minutes of aggressive, classical dancing that demands a punching thrust of the limbs coupled with extremely sharp attack. Chavez shone in this one, and all four dancers were visibly enjoying themselves.  Presto, which takes its title from Edio Bosso’s score, was originally made for Ballet West, where Fonte is resident choreographer and David Heuvel, who designed the incredibly elegant shorts and tops, is resident costumier.

For Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement, OBT’s dancers shed their shoes and classical decorum to deliver a gut-wrenching performance of a work that made little impact on me when I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet dance it several years ago. Perhaps this is because the cultural context has changed. The 1990 piece, inspired by Haitian Creole songs recorded by Toto Bissainthe, is about 18th century plantation slaves, forbidden to practice their own religious rites and punished for doing so. As I watched the section in which Kindell, who completely owns this role, is brutalized by a couple of cops, I couldn’t help thinking about all the police shootings of African Americans we’ve seen as recently as last week in the land of the free and the brave. Movement taken from Martha Graham’s Lamentation (the dancer completely covered by cloth, body sunk in a wide second position plié,) also made me think of Franco’s Spain, where Duato, born in 1957, grew up under the oppressive eye of the Guarda Civil.

While all the dancers gave this highly emotional work everything they had, their commitment and understanding of the subject informing their dancing, I couldn’t take my eyes off  company artist Sarah Griffin, who gave a performance that was as passionate as it was political, or Kindell, or Cheng.  The closer for repertory shows, traditionally, is lighthearted and cheerful, like Balanchine’s appalling Stars and Stripes or his magnificent Symphony in C. Irving, who staged Rassemblement and as artistic director selected and commissioned the works on the program he titled Impact, ended this show with a work so well-danced that, while less than cheerful, it serves as the most powerful illustration of the program’s theme.


OBT’s Impact continues through April 25 in the Newmark Theatre, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19; and 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 23-25. Ticket information is here.

3 Responses.

  1. Adam says:

    It’s Sarah Griffin, not Sarah Fergsuon.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thank you Adam, of course it’s Sarah Griffin, my profound apologies to her. She’s one hell of a dancer, especially in Rassemblement.

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