OBT25: the Agon and the ecstasy

Oregon Ballet Theatre leaps into its 25th season with a Balanchine masterpiece, salutes to its past, and a creative new venture with Pink Martini

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurates its 25th anniversary season on Saturday at the Keller Auditorium with a bold, demanding program that  pays homage to the company’s past and celebrates its continuing, if often financially fragile, presence as the city’s resident ballet company.

The program starts with Agon, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine’s mid-twentieth century jazz-inflected masterpiece, and ends with the world premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s  Never Stop Falling (In Love), made and performed in collaboration with Pink Martini. These two pieces bookend excerpts from longer works by choreographers who have played significant roles in shaping OBT’s eclectic style.  They include founding artistic director James Canfield’s “bedroom pas de deux” from his staging of Romeo and Juliet, former artistic director Christopher Stowell’s “jail house” pas de deux from Carmen, and a duet from former resident choreographer Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love, which premiered in the spring of 2013, originally commissioned by Stowell.

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing "Never Stop Falling (In Love)" at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing “Never Stop Falling (In Love)” at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Rehearsals for OBT 25, as this opening show is called, began in late August, when the public open rehearsals called OBT Exposed were in residence for the first time at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was hotter than hell’s hinges, which didn’t stop the dancers from giving Fonte their all as he started making, and demonstrating, the high-energy movement for Never Stop Falling (In Love). Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini’s leader, came to see what was going on the first time I was there, and returned the next day, which was just as hot as the previous one, with lead singer China Forbes, and a violinist. A piano was found for Lauderdale, and they joined the rehearsal, energizing the dancers as only live music can.

During a joint interview with Fonte and Lauderdale the following week, both emphasized that this is a true collaboration of musician and choreographer, with both artists working together on the selection of songs for what Fonte called “a soundscape,” and the tempos at which they are played.  “This has been a fantastic learning experience for me,” Lauderdale said. “When we selected some of this material, I realized that some songs we recently recorded, the tempos were just really too fast for dance, and [need] much more space to breathe and jump.”

At the time of the interview, they were still changing the playlist, in part because, Lauderdale said, “I don’t want this just to be Pink Martini with dance, I want for us to write something that feels new, not just a rehash.”

Lauderdale characterizes his music as “old-fashioned global symphonic pop,” making it a good match for Fonte’s contemporary take on neoclassical ballet.  Nevertheless, as OBT’s audience knows, Fonte usually makes dances to classical scores. Left Unsaid is accompanied by Bach; Petrouchka and Bolero, which Stowell commissioned Fonte to make for OBT during his tenure as artistic director, are performed to Stravinsky and Ravel, respectively.

Kevin Irving, who took over the company last year, and is Fonte’s partner in private life, gives him a lot of well-earned credit for “finding his way into music he doesn’t usually respond to,” and creating “very physical movement for the whole company.”

Never Stop Falling was looking good in a run-through at OBT’s studios earlier this week that included the Pink Martini musicians, with Lauderdale at the piano and Forbes at one point moving among the dancers holding a water bottle in lieu of a microphone.  The dancers were still in practice clothes rather than Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak’s costumes, which I’ve not seen. Watching were Dennis Buehler, the first company executive director I’ve seen set foot in the studio since Johann Jacobs, and OBT School director Tony Jones, whose soft-voiced, relaxed style of teaching company class several dancers have told me they love.

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in "Never Stop Falling (In Love)." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in “Never Stop Falling (In Love).” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

It is indeed a high-energy piece, although it begins quietly, with Martina Chavez alone on stage, unfolding one of her beautiful legs to the side in an endless développé, then closing it into a tight fifth position just before Chauncey Parsons makes a rapidly pirouetting entrance. This beginning proclaims clearly that this is a classical ballet, made to be performed by 21st century classically trained dancers. It’s a celebration of the art form as well as of OBT’s anniversary.

The rest of the cast enters one at a time, extending their limbs with Balanchinean space-devouring reach.  As the piece  and the music build, the rhythms become infectious, and I realize I’m tapping my foot on the floor, at the same time that I spot Lauderdale, seated at the piano, pounding out the beat with his left foot, dancing along with the dancers.

Much of the 40-minute piece involves a substantial number of high-flying jumps and some extremely risky lifts (especially for Xuan Cheng, who gets sent flying through the air by Brian Simcoe and Avery Reiner). It ends, as is customary for program closers, with everyone on stage dancing joyously – and in this case, some dancers playing drums, including Michael Linsmeier, who has rock band experience, and Brett Bauer.  There is respite for the audience if not the dancers in a section danced by Parsons and his brother Colby, new to the company this year, to Chopin’s Berceuse, played by Lauderdale.  With Fonte’s assistance, the brothers were still polishing movement that demanded both impeccable musicality and control.

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing "Agon" at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing “Agon” at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

There is no part of Agon, a rather different collaboration of composer and choreographer, that does not demand those qualities, with the added challenge of music that is almost impossible to count. Balanchine, according to Todd Bolender, who originated the Sarabande and first pas de trois, which Chauncey Parsons will dance opening weekend, never did counts for any of his ballets, leaving it up to the dancers to make up their own.  Fortunately, for OBT’s dancers, Balanchine Trust répétiteur Bart Cook, who during his career with New York City Ballet danced all four of Agon’s male roles, was rapping out counts like mad when I watched a rehearsal late last week. OBT ballet master Jeffrey Stanton, who danced the central pas de deux countless times with Pacific Northwest Ballet, was taking notes. Irving, who danced it during his eight-year stint with Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, was also in the studio. Each learned the ballet from different people: Cook from Balanchine himself, who changed a bit of the choreography for him; Stanton from Francia Russell, who was present at the creation; Irving from Sara Leland, to whom he says he owes his career. When OBT performed Agon the first time, in 1999, it was staged by Patricia Neary. Which is all by way of saying that no version of Agon is set in stone.

“With purpose,” Cook instructs the dancers, as the run-through begins with Parsons, Kindell, Adam Hartley and Brian Simcoe standing, facing upstage. They turn and break into a pelvic-thrusting dance that briefly tosses classical spinal placement out the window.  Parsons dances the first pas de trois with Sarah Griffin, who joined OBT this season and is clearly an extremely talented addition, and company artist Eva Burton, who is equally gifted.

As the rehearsal proceeds, Cook makes gentle suggestions and sardonic comments: “this is much ado about nothing,” he says, and at one point, “this is a weird, uncomfortable step.”  To Kindell, who dances the second pas de trois with Hartley and Candace Bouchard (who gets a terrific Spanish tinged solo), he says, “Don’t rush it.  The timing is more important than the size of the jump.” Chavez, whose long-limbed body seems made for the Agon pas de deux, and Brian Simcoe, one of the few native Oregonians in the company, move smoothly through the body-bending duet, and Bart tells the dancers they “are mechanically correct, [but they] need to be less academic.”

A great deal has been written about Agon, its intellectuality, Balanchine’s radical casting of Caucasian Diana Adams and African-American Arthur Mitchell in 1957, the year the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown vs the Board of Education that at least attempted to end the segregation of public schools. Historians put the moment into the context of the Russians’ launch of Sputnik into outer space; Balanchine himself called Agon a “computer that smiles”; critics for the past half-century have written about it in the same reverent tones as Christ’s apostles used to describe the Epiphany.

Forget it.  Jittery, sophisticated, urban and urbane, at the end of the day, when danced with the “verve, aplomb, dynamic power and artistic expression” that Irving wants from OBT’s dancers no matter what they’re performing, Agon provides a hell of a good time for the audience. I came out of New York City Center, the year it premiered, a 19-year-old college student, feeling as high as I got in those days on two glasses of champagne. And, while the music, which will not be performed live, is not exactly easy-listening, it’s not a chore, either. If you watch the dancers closely, their combative, courtly movement clarifies the clashing rhythms of the score (“agon” means “contest” in Greek) as well as the Renaissance court dances Stravinsky used to structure it.

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield's "Romeo & Juliet." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I’ve been watching OBT all of its life, and before that, Pacific Ballet Theatre (for which Canfield originally made Romeo and Juliet, his first evening-length ballet) and Ballet Oregon, founded by V. Keith Martin, which after much negotiation merged in 1989 to form the present company. Over the years, most of which have been bumpy financially, there have been a great many changes in company personnel, in the size of the company (it was down to fifteen dancers in 2000 when Lauderdale and Canfield started to collaborate on an evening-length ballet based on Felix Salten’s Bambi, don’t ask) the repertoire, and  the funding.

There has also been an astonishing amount of continuity.  Lisa Kipp, who is now OBT’s rehearsal director, danced with Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre (she understudied Juliet in R and J) and then briefly with OBT.  She returned as ballet mistress when Christopher Stowell assumed the artistic directorship in 2003.  Tracey Sartorio, now Irving’s assistant, was one of OBT’s 25 company members its first season, partnered frequently by the late Michael Rios. BodyVox’s Jamey Hampton, who was on the search committees that found both Irving and Buehler, choreographed Wild Man for OBT, commissioned by Canfield.

In April, OBT will celebrate the future with the inauguration of OBT II, a second company of apprentices and advanced professional students from OBT’s School, with a bow to the company’s past. Carol Shults, former company historian and teacher, and with Sandra Baldwin, a director of the Dennis Spaight Trust, has already staged Spaight’s Crayola, which is performed without music, to the sound that pointe shoes make as they hit the floor.

Meanwhile, OBT starts a five performance celebration of its Silver Anniversary Saturday night at the Keller, in a program that enlightens, amuses, and proclaims loudly that this company is still here, dancing its collective feet off.

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OBT25 opens Saturday, Oct. 11, at Keller Auditorium, and continues through Oct. 18. Ticket and schedule information here.

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