By Martha Ullman West
Mark Goldweber, founding ballet master of Oregon Ballet Theatre, died Friday night, December 9, in Salt Lake City, where since 2007 he had held the same position at Ballet West. He was 53.
I’m told that when his death was announced just before the curtain went up on OBT’s performance of the Holiday Revue show at Keller Auditorium on Saturday night, there was a collective gasp from the opening night audience.
That says a lot: Mark left Portland 15 years ago in 1996 to become ballet master at the Joffrey Ballet, where his career as a dancer began. But before leaving, he spent nine years helping to shape OBT, the city’s first established professional ballet company. He was brought to town by his old friend, James Canfield, who had been suddenly thrown into the job of artistic director at Pacific Ballet Theatre when Greg Lawrence departed in fall of 1987, just before Nutcracker auditions. Mark came to Pacific Ballet Theatre as both dancer and ballet master, and when PBT consolidated with Ballet Oregon a few months later to form Oregon Ballet Theatre, with Canfield as artistic director, Mark continued as ballet master.
Wherever he went, whatever he did, as dancer and ballet master, he set a high standard, based not only on technique and talent, but also on his passion for his art form and its history.
Mark — I call him that, because over the years we became friends, our paths crossing from time to time in New York and once in Kansas City — was born in Coconut Grove, Florida, where he started his training at Miami Ballet (not to be confused with Miami City Ballet) with former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Thomas Armour.
When he was 12, as he told Dean Speer and Francis Timlin in a 2002 interview for CriticalDance.com, he spent a summer at the School of American Ballet as a Ford Foundation scholarship recipient, living in Violette Verdy’s apartment with the ballerina’s mother. At Mary Day’s Washington Ballet Academy, where he spent a year, he met Canfield and Patricia Miller, and they all went on to dance with the Joffrey Ballet and then here.
Short, with a compact, broad-shouldered, powerful body, Mark was taken into Joffrey II at 17 and into the main company two years later. He electrified audiences as the Boy in Blue in the Joffrey’s revivial of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs, the exuberance of his dancing matched only by the precision of his technique.
The Joffrey, it should be remembered, is known for initiating the rage for rock ballets — Robert Joffrey’s Astarte made it onto the cover of Time Magazine when it premiered in 1967 — as well as revivals and reconstructions of the 20th century canon: Petrouchka and Kurt Jooss’s Green Table, among others, in both of which Mark and Canfield were filmed performing various roles.
Mark came to Portland he told me years ago because he wanted to dance in Canfield’s choreography. While I remember him first dancing in what was likely his own staging of the Peasant Pas de Trois from Swan Lake with the soaring presence and panache that proclaimed to the cheering audience that here was at last the real goods, he was a terrifically impetuous and witty Mercutio some years later in Romeo and Juliet, the first evening-length ballet Canfield choreographed.
In Canfield’s Carmen, a very different Terpsichorean paella from Christopher’s Stowell’s recent premiere of the ballet, Mark danced a jazzy waiter with a sense of humor, wielding his tray like the ultimate frisbee. That jazziness also came to the fore in the late Dennis Spaight’s Ellington Suite, in which he performed in a pas de trois.
Mark had his greatest impact on the company as ballet master, however, bringing his near-photographic memory for choreography, his knowledge of history, his acute eye for detail, and his experience dancing in a wide range of repertory at the Joffrey to Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers. It seems doubtful that OBT could have performed as well as they did such a wide stylistic range of ballets as Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom, Robert Joffrey’s Pas des Dèesses, Canfield’s hotly vulgar The Third Stage (which I loved) and Donald Byrd’s Life Situations: Daydreams of Giselle paired with the traditional Giselle, staged sensitively and knowledgeably by Goldweber himself in the spring of 1997
1996, just before he skipped town to return to the Joffrey.
Watching OBT perform its current Nutcracker on Saturday afternoon, as beautifully danced as it was, I couldn’t help feeling incredibly sad not only for Mark’s loss as a friend but also for the ephemeral nature of everything he contributed to Canfield’s Nutcracker, with its lovely costumes and elegant sets by Campbell Baird. (It’s disappearance from OBT’s rep was not, repeat not, the fault of Christopher Stowell.)
When it was decided to have a Czarist Russian theme (some readers will remember that in this version Drosselmeier became Faberge, Marie is a student at the Imperial Ballet School and the great ballerina Kchessinskaya is a party guest who becomes the Sugarplum Fairy in Act II), Mark’s passion for Russian history came into play in the creation of the scenario by Carol Shults and in the way the dancers were trained, both in the execution of pas de chats and pirouettes and but in walking and standing as Russian aristocrats did.
Former OBT dancer Nicole Cuevas has warm memories of Mark’s coaching in the studio. “He could make it intimate, personal,” she told me this morning. “I remember him helping me with, I think, Sugarplum. He did it with a gentle energy.”
I watched him one day coaching the children in the Nutcracker party scene with the same gentle energy, although he was unambiguously firm, teaching them good manners along the way. Ballet itself has suffered a big loss, as well as his many friends, in Portland, Salt Lake, and throughout the ballet world.
We were all lucky to have him, but it was for much too brief a time.