OBT School show: a serenade to the future

Lots of promise lights up the ballet stage. But with director Damara Bennett moving on, what's next?

Chloe Shelby and Joseph Warton in "Serenade." Photo: OBT School

Chloe Shelby and Joseph Warton in “Serenade.” Photo: OBT School

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Annual School Performance opened at the Newmark Theatre on Thursday night with George Balanchine’s sublime “Serenade,” and closed with excerpts from the same choreographer’s ridiculous “Who Cares?”, a piece I enjoyed watching for the first time ever, because of the obvious joy and technical skill with which these young dancers performed it.

In between, we had fairly standard recital stuff, including Jerome Robbins’ “Circus Polka” with Kevin Poe as the gentle ringmaster; that complex exercise in working together, the Maypole Dance from Sir Frederick Ashton’s “La Fille Mal Gardeé ”; Christopher Stowell’s “Rose City Waltz”; and “Etudes Variations: Boys,” followed by “Etudes Variations: Girls”.  Note: there are a lot more boys in the school than there used to be, and many more students of color;  both will benefit the art form in the future, if not Oregon Ballet Theatre itself, and the Portland audience.

Excerpts from “Serenade” were included in last year’s SOBT show, leaving the audience hungry for more.  This year, we got to see all of the first piece Balanchine made in this country, in which he famously incorporated into the choreography the latecomer to rehearsal, the dancer who fell. OBT ballet master Lisa Kipp staged it, Gavin Larsen polished it, and in most respects  it looked like the “Serenade” I remember from my youth,  when City Ballet’s season opener always included the intensely musical work.

Here, the soloists were all accomplished technically; that’s no surprise from Jordan Kindell, who is now an OBT company artist, or apprentices Kelsie Nobriga and Chloe Shelby, and  advanced student Maggie Weirich, also featured in “Who Cares?,”  is clearly very promising. But Joseph Warton, who is all of 14 years old, his long limbed body still in the coltish stage, while a somewhat tentative partner, danced in “Serenade” with a maturity beyond his years and experience, and was a knockout  in “Who Cares?,” his pirouettes precise, centered and finished, his joy in the dancing both palpable and infectious.

Live music made a huge difference, as it always does.  Tchaikowsky’s  “Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra, Op. 48,”  transposed for piano, was eloquently performed by David Saffert, an extremely gifted musician who knows how to play for dancers, an unusual and often underappreciated gift.  “Rose City Waltz,” which Stowell made for the School at the end of his and departing school director Damara Bennett’s first year here, is danced to the familiar strains of the   Act 1 waltz from “The Sleeping Beauty,” also played in a piano version by Saffert. There are roles for several levels of students, and they all did well; Bennett did the staging, and she is a particularly fine teacher of children, which showed in this and in “Circus Polka” which gives the tinies in pink a tiny moment in the spotlight.

Joined by company members Christopher Constantini and Kindell, wearing the glitzy costumes created by the OBT costume shop for the version of “Who Cares?”  they performed several years ago,  the advanced students whipped their way through the technically demanding choreography Balanchine made to such Gershwin tunes as “Somebody Loves Me,” “Bidin’ My Time,” “s’Wonderful,” and the exuberant finale, “I Got Rhythm,” with considerable éclat. As a program note tells us (as well as the backdrop of the city’s skyline) Balanchine intended the work to be particularly evocative of New York and its American energy.  That’s an energy that Portland, for all of its hip reputation, doesn’t have, but “Serenade,” at the beginning, and “Who Cares?” at the end of the concert, put me back in my home town for an evening, and I’m grateful.

When Bennett came here, she revived a school that was failing.  I hope her successor will build on her achievements, and that the end of the year shows will continue to be a pleasure for both the student dancers and the people who watch them perform.

One Response.

  1. Baby face says:

    Great article!

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