OBT serves a little dessert

The ballet company's intimate new show at BodyVox puts a capper on the season and hints at things to come

And now, for a little light dessert.

The last time we saw Oregon Ballet Theatre, in April at the Newmark Theatre, it was the end of an era – an ambitious program paying tribute to the retiring principal dancer Alison Roper, who had spent her entire distinguished ballet career at OBT. The program was fraught with meaning: a farewell to a beloved performer, and also an emphatic stamp on Kevin Irving’s first season as artistic director. The whole affair had the feel of a celebratory gala banquet.

Avery Reiners with Ansa Deguchi and Katherine Menogue in Michael Linsmeier's "Found You." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Avery Reiners with Ansa Deguchi and Katherine Menogue in Michael Linsmeier’s “Found You.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

On Wednesday night, OBT played progressive dinner, moving on for its seasonal dessert to the intimate and casual BodyVox Dance Center, where it opened CREATE, an evening of short works choreographed by company dancers. The setting is ideal for the program, which continues through Sunday, June 1: professional but close and conversational, almost like a studio except it has more seating and more sophisticated technical systems. It’s an energizing space that creates an instant connection between audiences and performers.

For OBT’s audiences, who are far more used to seeing the company in the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium or, when they’re lucky, the 880-seat Newmark, the evening is something of a peek behind the curtain to the inner workings of the dance studio. And it’s a chance to see the dancers stretch their wings and take a stab at creating new works instead of simply (although there’s really nothing simple about it) interpreting them.

The most charming of the program’s seven new pieces is Ansa Deguchi’s Nuevo, partly because of its tango-inflected score by the great Ástor Piazzolla and partly because it showcases the skills of two of the company’s best dancers so well. Chauncey Parsons and Xuan Cheng move through this stylized courting dance swiftly and sensually, like flexible knife blades cutting to the chase.

The program’s first half is devoted to an open rehearsal of Nacho Duato’s Cor Perdut, and it’s an appealing, conversational way to kick things off. Cor Perdut was the highlight of OBT’s April program, when it was performed by Roper and Jordan Kindell. Irving, who worked closely with Duato for several years, thought it would be good for other company dancers to experience the piece, too. He divided the company into eight teams, then had an audience member pick one team out of a hat to rehearse the piece. On opening night, Candace Bouchard and Brett Bauer won the lottery, with Martina Chavez and Brian Simcoe shadowing them in the background.

Irving divided his time between working with the dancers and explaining what was going on to the audience. For people who’ve spent time in dance studios, it was familiar stuff. For others, it had to be an eye-opener. Even for experienced hands, it was fascinating to see how complex Duato’s pieces are, the things that are important to him (spacing, Irving stressed more than once), and how much work goes into re-creating the nuances of a specific dance: Irving spent a good deal of time emphasizing the importance of moving through certain steps swiftly rather than freezing in them. It was a bracing reminder that mastery is built on a foundation of many mistakes.

Roper, who shifted full-time to the company’s development department on the Monday morning after her final performance, was a part of CREATE, but not as a dancer. Her piece Passages is part of the program, danced by veteran performers Bauer, Bouchard, and Haiyan Wu, to a score by John Van Buren, the Portland-born composer who has spent much of his career in Germany. (Passages premiered earlier this month at the Route 11 Dance Festival in Lexington, Virginia, run by former OBT marketer Erik Jones; CREATE’s other six works all had their premieres Wednesday night.) Van Buren’s music is knotty, with ambiguous relationships, and so is the dance. “I chose a piece of music that I thought would be very difficult to choreograph to,” Roper said in program notes, and that rigor comes across in the demanding and tautly focused movement. In a way, Roper’s still serving as a model of professionalism to the company’s younger dancers.

Michael Linsmeier’s Found You, on the other hand, is a punk/surf goof of a dance, an encounter between a dumpster diver (Avery Reiners) and a couple of ghoulish vamps (Deguchi and Katherine Monogue) who love ’im and … well, you’ll have to find out for yourself how they leave ’im. Makino Hayashi’s Brother and a Sister, which she performs with Linsmeier, Kindell, and Simcoe, weaves through the evening, before and between the other pieces, like a needle threading it all together. It’s a good way to bring some order to a program of otherwise unrelated short works, and Hayashi’s distinctive, mostly white costuming creates a ravishing recurring theme. It’d be good to also see a little sharper focus on the relationships among the snippets themselves.

Brett Bauer with bassist Will Gibbs in Candace Bouchard's "What Was Asked of Them." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Brett Bauer with bassist Will Gibbs in Candace Bouchard’s “What Was Asked of Them.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Bouchard’s What Was Asked of Them, for Wu, Bauer, and Christopher Costantini, is a highly musical piece performed live by acoustic bassist Will Gibbs to a new score by Portland composer Richie Greene. Apprentice company dancer Ethan Schweitzer-Gaslin marshals eight dancers in his ambitiously geometric Tangent to the Curve; and Jenna Nelson’s seven-dancer Particle closes the program with a little Vegas-showgirl sizzle.

All in all, CREATE is an easygoing evening that, for a change, doesn’t stress polish in its choreography as much as it provides a casual and inviting inside look at the dancers and the process of creating dance. Companies performing traditional art forms in large concert halls (in Portland, that means mostly the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, and OBT) are learning that in order to survive and thrive they need to make other, closer, connections with their audiences. It’s a new world out there, and it requires a little nimbleness in approach.

As a group, this set of dances doesn’t reach the level I’ve seen at similar short-works programs from independent producers like Eowyn Emerald Barrett or Lindsey Matheis, or at the contemporary dance center Conduit. But the comparison’s a little misleading, because those programs mostly feature more experienced (if often also young) choreographers. And besides, polish isn’t the whole point. OBT needs this sort of more intimate programming. Audiences gain a lot from the inside view, which can rekindle their enthusiasm for the art form. And the dancers need a chance to reach beyond their ordinary roles and try something new. How do they become experienced choreographers if they don’t start somewhere first?

In that sense, CREATE is a genuinely exciting show, emphasizing that creation is truly more of a process than a result. I’d like to see this sort of programming become a regular thing. Who knows where it might lead? Sometimes, dessert anticipates a new main course.

 

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Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m nightly through Saturday, May 31, plus 2 p.m. May 31 and Sunday, June 1. Ticket availability is tight; information here.

 

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