OBT25: a gala, a reunion, a celebration of ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre's 25th anniversary show brings back the company's past and looks toward its future

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurated its twenty-fifth anniversary season on Saturday night with OBT25, a program that was part gala performance and part family reunion – and, if you will, a serious celebration of a performing art that historically has had a hard time getting established in Portland.

Wearing his opening-night purple tie for his pre-curtain speech delivered from the floor of the orchestra, artistic director Kevin Irving dedicated the performance to three OBT artists who are no longer on the planet: Dennis Spaight, the company’s first resident choreographer and associate artistic direct; Mark Goldweber, who as ballet master was instrumental in instilling the company’s strong work ethic; and Michael Rios, an impeccable and mischievous classical dancer.  And Irving set the audience thinking by quoting French film theorist André Bazin, who said: “Art emerged from the human desire to counter the passage of time and the inevitable decay it brings.”

Artslandia-ORAWreviewI didn’t see much decay, inevitable or otherwise, in dancers, musicians or choreography, although the Keller’s ever-decaying sound system nearly wrecked the pas de deux from Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love. The Fleet Foxes music was ear-splittingly loud. Come to think of it, most of the music, whether live or recorded – with the exceptions of the piano and violin accompaniment to Christopher Stowell’s Seguidilla Pas de Deux, played by Carol Rich and Nelly Kovalev, respectively; and  Thomas Lauderdale’s heartfelt playing of the Chopin Berceuse and China Forbes’ singing for Nicolo Fonte’s Never Stop Falling (In Love) – was almost unbearably over-amplified.

There’s been considerable passage of time since George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky made Agon, which opened the show, and yet there’s definitely no sign of wear in this work that expresses the jittery, cocky, competitive atmosphere of post -World War II New York – and when danced well, which it was here, is equally reflective of our own increasingly terrifying times.

Brian Simcoe and Chauncey Parson (foreground), Adam Hartley and Jordan Kindell (background) in Balanchine's "Agon." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Brian Simcoe and Chauncey Parson (foreground), Adam Hartley and Jordan Kindell (background) in Balanchine’s “Agon.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

It’s not an easy work to pull off, this ballet with its complex rhythms, intricate partnering, speedy deployment of limbs and elegant references to the Renaissance court dances on which the classical vocabulary is based. Original cast member Todd Bolender once said it was a miracle if all the dancers (there are a dozen in the cast) finished together, on the same beat, in the ballet’s complicated finale.  This was not a problem on Saturday night.

Chauncey Parsons, dancing the Sarabande solo, needs to loosen up a bit more, and no doubt will in later performances, but his partnering of Eva Burton and Sarah Griffin in the first Pas de Trois was spot on. And a tricky partnering it is, with the daisy-chain effect familiar to viewers of the much earlier Apollo. Burton and Griffin’s duet was filled with the detailed finesse of far more seasoned performers.

Xuan Cheng and Michael Linsmeier in Trey McIntyre's "Robust American Love." Photo: Blain Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng and Michael Linsmeier in Trey McIntyre’s “Robust American Love.” Photo: Blain Truitt Covert

Candace Bouchard, who is  an experienced performer, danced Dewdrop in Balanchine’s Nutcracker with the speed, musicality and limpid clarity that the role demands, and did likewise with the Spanish-tinged details of the solo that is part of the second Pas de Trois, partnered by Jordan Kindell and Adam Hartley.

But the dancer who emerged as the star of Agon and of Never Stop Falling was company artist Martina Chavez, who, Irving announced at the after-party, has just been promoted to soloist. The dark-haired, dark-eyed dancer from San Antonio, Texas, has the high-waisted, long-legged body that Balanchine loved, making her a natural for the pas de deux originally danced by Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell. This role calls for something much more difficult than speed. It demands steely control and fluidity, and a physical connection with the male partner — in this case Brian Simcoe, who matches Chavez in length of limb — that is both manipulative and intimate. I’ll not soon forget the image of Chavez, one leg on point, other smoothly hooked around Simcoe’s neck, proclaiming that in Balanchine’s work the ballerina is the boss. They were both fantastic; I took no notes.

Three stylistically very different duets followed Agon, all of them about love, doomed and otherwise, each of them introduced by various Portland luminaries and OBT alumni, which is where the family reunion part came in. Former OBT dancer Matthew Boyes, along with White Bird board member Sandy Holmes, warmed up the audience for Xuan Cheng, one of this company’s most versatile dancers, and Michael Linsmeier, who gets better all the time, in a duet from Trey McIntyre’s well-named Robust American Love. McIntyre’s  work was originally danced by Alison Roper, who staged it here, and Lucas Threefoot, who is now a member of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Cheng and Linsmeier are very different dancers from the original cast, both physically and in their approach to the art, and yet they thoroughly inhabited McIntyre’s idiosyncratic movement vocabulary, giving the duet the weight and playfulness that make it unmistakably his work. The ballet, which premiered in the spring of last year at the Newmark Theatre, read infinitely better in the smaller space. The fault is not the dancers’.

From left: Katherine Monogue, Eva Burton, Chauncey Parsons (leaping), Michael Linsmeier in Nicolo Fonte's "Never Stop Falling (In Love)." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

From left: Katherine Monogue, Eva Burton, Chauncey Parsons (leaping), Michael Linsmeier in Nicolo Fonte’s “Never Stop Falling (In Love).” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Former Portland mayor Sam Adams, in tandem with Portland Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman, did the introduction of the  Segudilla Pas de Deux from Stowell’s Carmen. It was was danced by Roper, who returned to the stage for this show after retiring at the end of last season, and Chauncey Parsons in the roles they originated at the ballet’s premiere in 2011.  This is the part where Carmen seduces Don Jose into freeing her from a prison that’s guarded by him (what were they thinking!) and two others – Colby Parsons and Thomas Baker, in this instance – who have to stand perfectly still with their backs turned, high on a set piece that was a noble experiment that failed. Parsons, who has performed such oblivious aristocrats as Swan Lake’s Siegfried and Giselle’s Albrecht, is just as convincing at callow cluelessness; and Roper, moving like a female Lucifer in serpentine form  certainly did the job on Saturday night. They, and Stowell, were applauded long and hard.

At every family reunion, someone’s brother-in-law talks too much. That role was filled by Pepe Raphael, the dancer formerly known as Pepe Luque, a founding member of OBT. He and Tracey Taylor, also a founding company member, introduced the “bedroom pas de deux” from James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet. When Canfield, who now directs Nevada Ballet Theatre in Las Vegas, was in town last May, he set the tragedy-tinged duet on the excellent Simcoe and on principal dancer Haiyan Wu, whose command of Romantic style and wordless acting Portland audiences know well from her performances of the title role in Giselle. Wu is now on maternity leave, ( she’ll be back), and Deguchi’s interpretation of a 14-year-old bride who has to grow up fast was heart-rending, fresh and charming: exuberant as Simcoe lifted her and swung her around his back to perch her on his shoulder; desolate as he left her, weeping, on the edge of their bed.

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in James Canfield's "Romeo and Juliet" pa de deux. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in James Canfield’s “Romeo and Juliet” pa de deux. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

After an intermission in which a relaxed-looking Canfield held court at a lobby bar, fielding questions about why he hadn’t taken a bow after Romeo and Juliet (“I didn’t know I was supposed to,” he said), the curtain rose on Never Stop Falling (In Love), with Lauderdale at the piano stage right, Chavez seated on the floor facing him, the instrumentalists of Lauderdale’s lauded orchestra Pink Martini seated high above the stage (on a set piece recycled from McIntyre’s Aliss (In Wonderland), in which Miss Liddell jumped through a giant television set rather than a rabbit hole), and Pink Martini singer China Forbes poised on a staircase.

In an interview last month, both Fonte and Lauderdale, responded to a question about making space for improvisation by dancers and musicians in the negative. Luckily, OBT’s dancers do have improvisational skills: no doubt due to insufficient rehearsal time in the Keller, as well as inexperience in playing for the ballet, Lauderdale jumped the gun with the music for the title song, so the dancers had to perform an entire section to the wrong music. I don’t think most of the audience noticed a thing (what I thought was that Fonte had changed the choreography at the last minute) and that’s because the dancers covered the error a hell of a lot better than Rudolf Nureyev did in similar circumstances. In the same auditorium, years ago,  the small orchestra Nureyev was traveling with failed to start the music for a section of Balanchine’s Apollo, leaving him standing, still and bewildered, in the center of the stage.

Apart from that, Fonte’s  closing “applause machine” does exactly what it’s supposed to: it showcases the dancers, celebrates the company, and contains some truly lovely moments, one of them a gentle interaction between the dancers and a strolling Forbes. The Parsons brothers’ gently  physical duet,  a gorgeous classical pas de deux by Chavez and Brett Bauer, and a solo tailored by Fonte to Kindell’s developing technique and extraordinary stage presence are others. The closing section, danced to “Jolie Garcon,” includes the men of the company literally beating the drums for the art of the ballet.

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OBT’s program repeats Thursday through Saturday evenings, Oct. 16-18. Schedule and ticket information are here.

3 Responses.

  1. Clare says:

    Please correct the spelling of Nelly Kovalev’s last name.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    My apologies for the typographical error in Ms. Kovalev’s last name; I have requested a correction.

  3. Martha Ullman West says:

    An addendum, based on a return on Friday night, especially to see Agon, which was even better than opening night, and Never Stop Falling (In Love). That was much more smoothly performed throughout, by both the musicians and the dancers and I still think that the duet by the Parsons brothers is the highlight of the piece. In addition, Michael Mazzola made some significant changes in the lighting and the set, making both far more dramatic than they were opening night. I do think the piece needs tightening and more of a choreographic arc. There are at least two potential endings before you see the joyous finale. Lots of good and difficult dancing in it, however, and tailor made for these dancers.

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