Remembering Dennis Spaight, 20 years later

The Portland choreographer, who died in 1993, left a vivid legacy of dance

 

Dennis Spaight in the studio, 1988

Dennis Spaight in the studio, 1988

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

When I walk past a park bench facing the Mark Wing of the Portland Art Museum, I often think of Dennis Spaight, who at the time of his death, twenty years ago on February 6th, 1993, was Oregon Ballet Theatre’s associate director and resident choreographer. For some years, before the museum remodeled it, the building housed Oregon Ballet Theatre’s studios, where, between 1989 and 1993, Dennis made some damn good ballets.  I interviewed Spaight on that bench several times in those years, when the sun was shining, and he needed to get some air during a rehearsal break from those stuffy studios where he created so much work.

The first was “Scheherazade,” Spaight’s first ballet for OBT, the company formed from a merger of Pacific Ballet Theatre and Ballet Oregon, where he had been the artistic director.  It premiered in the fall of 1990, initiating the new company’s first season. With sets by Henk Pander, costumes by Ric Young and lighting design by Peter West, it was a collaboration made in heaven. Dennis loathed the original libretto, its sexism and violence, but he loved Rimsky-Korsakoff’s lush music.  So he made the storyteller, Scheherazade, the heroine of the piece, and while she does get killed, she is a redemptive figure: in the ballet’s gut-wrenching conclusion, you see her following her own bier as it is carried off stage.  The artist/storyteller may die, Spaight seems to be saying, but the art lives on.

Spaight

Spaight

For the opening of the ballet Young designed gloriously colored pleated silk skirts for the harem girls, and they were very much a part of the choreography.  For the warriors, he made costumes based on medieval Japanese armor, and Spaight used Asian martial arts movement as well as Tai Chi, and the harem girls became “a monstrous regiment of women”—there was no keeping them off the battlefield! Pander created his highly theatrical, glowing set pieces while he listened to the score, and West’s lighting designs were as musical as the choreography they revealed.  The ballet hasn’t been performed in Portland since 1994. It was on a program that paid tribute to Spaight, but the Nashville Ballet, the Eugene Ballet and Ballet Idaho have performed it in the last decade, and done it very well.

Spaight, whose heritage was Irish (and he danced with the Irish National Ballet, as well as Bejart’s Ballet of the XXth Century, San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet before coming to Portland in the early 1980s,) was intensely proud of being an American choreographer. One of several statements about that was “Ellington Suite,” made on OBT, with the Woody Hite band live on stage with the dancers.  “What composer,” Spaight said to me at some point, possibly sitting on that bench, “is more American than the Duke?”

Gershwin, of course, comes to mind, and Spaight did an elegant, sophisticated  “Rhapsody in Blue” for Ballet Oregon, really a tribute to the Depression-era musical films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, then set it on OBT, where the late Michael Rios and the very much alive Nicole Cuevas can be seen dancing a pas de deux from it:

So does Aaron Copland, and for the Jefferson Dancers, Spaight made “Theatre Dances,” then reset it on OBT. It was very much about the JD’s, however, their sensitivities and triumphs as young dancers, and I remember their performance much more vividly than the technically better OBT’s.)

“Ellington Suite” is a joyous, jazzy work. The live music energized dancers and audiences alike, and who who saw it can forget watching Patricia Miller, in point shoes, in a sexy black dress, and wearing a boa, dancing to “Satin Doll,” sung by Shirley Nanette? The compact Mark Goldweber also had a terrific role in this ballet, dancing with a group of tall, leggy ballerina showgirls, though only Miller was on point.

Not so joyous was Spaight’s “Danse Sacrées et Profane,” and on a sunny day in 1991, after I’d been to a rehearsal, we sat on that bench and talked about it. Set to music by Claude Debussy, and a text by Kahlil Gibran, with a cast that included children from OBT’s school, the piece is both elegiac and life-affirming.  I knew Dennis was ill and I asked him if this was his AIDS ballet and he laughed at me. (We were seeing a lot of AIDS ballets and modern pieces as well in those days; it had become, if you will, a genre, and some of them were really godawful.)  “Danses Sacrées,” for which David Heuvel designed costumes that looked as if they had stepped straight out of a Botticelli painting, was really about family, about children and their importance. This man who never had kids of his own had quite young nephews, who were the apple of his eye. One of them was lucky enough to look just like his green-eyed, dark-haired handsome uncle. As OBT’s resident choreographer, Spaight was interested in using children from the school in something other than “The Nutcracker,” so several young ballet students were included in the cast and at the end, someone’s baby was held aloft. For some people this was too sentimental. For others, like me, it reinforced the Botticelli theme and proclaimed in no uncertain terms that life goes on.

***

The last ballet Spaight made for OBT, not too long before he died, was “Frauenliebe und leben,” and he invited me to the studio to watch him finish it. I’d been banned from the studios by James Canfield for some reason (this happened from time to time during his tenure as artistic director at OBT) and Spaight knew it. When I arrived, and stood for a minute in the big studio’s doorway, Spaight stopped the rehearsal, walked haltingly to me and took my hand and led me to a chair next to his. I have never seen an atmosphere like that one in a ballet studio, before or since: Spaight was by that time very ill, and having trouble with the sound system. Every time he fumbled, two or three of the dancers would come rushing over and take care of it for him. The result was an eloquent dance about many of the things that most mattered to the choreographer: neoclassical ballet, great music, women (Spaight believed women were as he put it “better people” than men).  The ballet is set to Robert Schumann’s song cycle about a woman’s love for a man, from first meeting, through courtship, to marriage and then to widowhood, and was a series of solos for the women in the company framed by ensemble choreography. Cuevas, whom you see in the clip, told me this week that dancing in that ballet, working with Spaight at the end of his life, “was a great gift.”  Watching him finish it was a gift to me as well.

“Frauenliebe” may well be my favorite, but I also loved the orgy Spaight choreographed for the Portland Opera’s 1991 or 92 production of “Samson and Delilah”; his “Gloria,” set to Vivaldi’s eponoymous mass, made originally for Richmond Ballet; “Triptych,” originally made for PNB, in collaboration with composer Jon Brower; “Haydn Quartet,” a tutu ballet in Balanchinean style,;and “Schubert Songs,” originally a collaboration with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. He also made some real turkeys, as he called them. We won’t go there. This is a hymn of praise.

Spaight’s life was painfully short, his talent broad and deep. We were lucky to have him here, and I hope – do I ever – that someone will do some of these ballets again. In their entirety, not just the snippets from “Gloria,” and “Ellington Suite” that we saw in 2009 for OBT’s “Emerald” anniversary.

Thank you, Dennis, for the gifts you gave us.

11 Responses.

  1. Daniel Kirk says:

    It is impossible to fathom that it has been 20 years and a day since the announcement to the company, as we warmed up for our final matinee of Romeo and Juliet, that Dennis was gone. A silence fell on the stage at the Keller as we each processed the news and wondered how we would be able to get through such an emotionally demanding performance on this sad day. The silence was amplified by the emptiness of that giant hall. All those empty seats that would soon be filled, the empty orchestra pit, the darkened stage… all of it left an indelible impression on me that seems as though it was perhaps only a year ago. Time is funny that way. Dennis changed my life in many ways. I met him in Pennsylvania and it was he who brought me to Oregon to dance at OBT in 1989. I think of him often, and looking back, give many thanks.

  2. Ray Castro says:

    I too knew Dennis Spaight, well I had a drink with him in the bar in Spokane when my daughter was Clara in OBT’s tour there in ’89. My daughter was a student at OBT when she danced, at the age of 14, the “Irish Suite” pas de deux, at “The French Affaire, shortly after Dennis’s passing.After the performance, some one came up and congratulated me!?!And they stated “Ahh, you can tell she has been in love!” I’ve always said “That is a tribute to the choreographer not to the non-experiance of a 14 yr old”. There was a grand group of dancers at the School Of PBT prior to JC taking complete control. They danced many of Dennis’s pieces for the end of year performance in 1993, they did Crayola,Schubert Songs, Domine Deus from Gloria and Irsh Suite. She is now the artistic directer with the SW Wa Dance Centre,where she intends to, w/ the gracious approval of the

  3. Ray Castro says:

    continued– With the gracious approval of the Dennis Spaight Trust,to stage some of Dennis’s pieces for the end of the year performance. I intend to help in this endeavor. After all I have moved up from father of a dancer to father of an artistic director, one who has chosen to share her inspiration w/ young dancers and new audiences and with out a doubt keep Dennis’s works alive

  4. Peter West says:

    As Daniel says, it’s difficult to realize how long Dennis has been gone. Seeing my younger self in that picture of Dennis in the studio makes me realize and regret how much we could have hoped for in the next twenty years – had he lived. For me, the door into Dennis’ work was his musicality: his astonishing ability to compose lines of movement that complemented, expanded and illuminated music. And likewise his choices of music illuminated his movement phrases. His range was exceptional: Gershwin, Ellington, Vivaldi, Schubert, Copland, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Schumann – and even silence. Every work was a leap ahead of the last. Where would he have gone next? He was an extraordinary inspiration and collaborator to whom I owe a lasting debt. Thanks for this eloquent reminder.

  5. Carol (Barman) Dethlefs says:

    It’s been so many, many years since I saw my cousin Dennis. My dad always talked about how proud the family was of his dancing. I remember his passing but I cannot believe ir’s been 20 years.

    Had I known he was on the west coast I would have found the time to go see him. Coulda Woulda Shoulda

  6. Candy Barman says:

    I like my sister,Carol, remembering our dad talking about Dennis. When I was little dad took me to see him perform in Detroit,MI. It was early in his career,but I do remember how much I enjoyed seeing him dance and how proud dad was of him!

  7. Carol says:

    And I was blessed enough to know Dennis from grade school on, he was much loved by all his “girls”. Dennis was always creative, whether it was showing the cheerleaders how to do cartwheels, designing the high school floats, or his roles in the school plays, he will never, never be forgotten by those who knew him when…

  8. Cheri says:

    Thank you for a beautiful article about our childhood friend. We always knew we were lucky to have grown up with him, but knowing what an influence he had on ballet, is really remarkable.

  9. Judi Papp says:

    I had lost contact with Dennis after graduation.To see what great acheivements he made in his life with dancing I am so impressed.May his bright star shine down on all of us who knew him when.

  10. Rita Maraj says:

    I am so pleased to know Dennis made something out of his life he had a passion for. My daughter is a dancer, pointe is her specialty, and she is now having a difficult time getting into a school to major in dance. Wish I knew Dennis was so successful. I would have asked for his advice. Dennis, be happy, watch over all of the dancers that have a genuine passion for the art.

  11. Martha Ullman West says:

    Rita, your daughter might want to try Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Like many many universities these days, they have no dance major, but do have a minor in through the theatre department. And what about the Universities of Indiana and Utah, both of which have strong ballet programs and a dance major. I send you these suggestions in Dennis’s memory and I’m grateful for all the comments from his family.

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