Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its post-Nutcracker season at the Keller Auditorium last weekend with four 21st century story ballets, and despite the absence of live orchestra, the dancers tell the stories very well. No surprise there. With the exception of Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy, a pas de deux made originally on New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, all were created on these particular dancers, most of them anyway, and that shows.
Two of the dances on the program–which is called Reveal, and which repeats Thursday-Saturday, February 27-March 1–are overtly political. Christopher Stowell’s curtain-raising world premiere A Second Front deals with Joseph Stalin’s persecution of Dimitri Shostakovich. The whispering soundtrack that alternates with excerpts from two of the composer’s suites for dance is also highly suggestive of the eavesdropping by today’s intelligence agencies, and not just ours.
Like Ekho, the last piece that Stowell made for the company he directed for close to a decade, A Second Front, is for seven couples. Packed with classical steps, often executed at top speed in intricately designed floor patterns reminiscent of Balanchine’s, it takes place in a ballroom that the skeletal metal chandeliers suggest has seen better days. The women dance in identical silky gray evening gowns, with pleated skirts slit to the waist to reveal their beautiful legs in attitude or arabesque. The men are costumed in dreary gray suits reminiscent of those worn by members of the politburo. Mark Zappone designed the costumes, and they, with Michael Mazzola’s lights, help to set the oppressive atmosphere of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Shostakovich’s music, filled with dissonance as well as eminently danceable folk tunes, propels the ensemble across the stage. But Stowell’s explosive choreography for the men—high jumps with legs extended into the stratosphere, pirouettes bordering on the frantic—reveal that this isn’t Cinderella’s ball. A heavily weighted solo by Ye Li and a group of men tossing Ansa de Guchi into the air exemplify the piece’s menacing environment. On Saturday the entire cast performed the non-stop 22-minute ballet with an unusual opening-night authority, taking risks, alternating light-hearted bourrees and jumps with movement suggestive of fearful escape, as the music dictated. Brian Simcoe and Xuan Cheng have developed a seamless partnership, and Haiyan Wu, dancing with Michael Linsmeier on opening night, infused her performance with understated drama.
Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero, the other overtly political work, closed the show on a joyous note. With its gratuitous electronic overture to Ravel’s eponymous score, this version can be interpreted as the choreographer’s take on what Karl Marx called the alienation of the worker. Its buoyant conclusion confirms nevertheless that dancing, particularly with someone you love–in this case Alison Roper, partnered by Artur Sultanov, who originated their roles in 2008 when Bolero premiered–can be a beautiful antidote to the dehumanizing effects of factory work, or any repetitive tasks, from exercises at the barre to doing the laundry.
This Bolero (there are hundreds of them) begins with Roper standing quietly on stage in fifth position, seemingly overwhelmed by Mazzola’s corrugated cardboard set pieces. Sultanov, who appears in Bolero as a guest artist with his former company, enters the space, and he and Roper begin a highly acrobatic dance accompanied by white noise. It’s no mean trick to dance psychological distance without looking mechanical, but these two possess such grandly expressive bodies, they couldn’t look robotic if they tried. They are also physically incredibly well-matched: at one moment in their pas de deux, only the pointe shoe at the end of Roper’s extended leg differentiated it from Sultanov’s arm, extended precisely parallel.
The music starts, and the rest of the dancers enter, everyone costumed in red, again by Zappone. The movable set pieces seem as much a part of the choreography as the dancers are. As the music builds, the movement speeds up and the dancers become more alert and more human. Candace Bouchard, dancing with Brian Simcoe (who gets a workout in this program), makes this transition from machine to human being very well, but no one does this better than Roper, whose joy as she jumps into a crimson velvet curtain and is lifted offstage is palpable and infectious.
A Second Front and Bolero bracketed James Kudelka’s Almost Mozart and Wheeldon’s Liturgy. The former was commissioned by Stowell and received its world premiere at the Keller in 2006. It was most recently danced last June at the Kennedy Center in the company’s second appearance at the Ballet Across America Festival.
Choreography, like architecture, is a problem-solving art form, and in Almost Mozart, the highly experienced Kudelka wanted to see if he could make dances that would be musical without musical accompaniment, for dancers who cannot get loose from each other, at least until the end of the piece. With the exception of the pas de deux, which was danced on Saturday night by Roper and Brett Bauer to Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, the piece is danced in silence: a duet performed by Jordan Kindell and Linsmeier, and three pas de trois danced by the two men with a deceptively delicate-looking Cheng. In her concluding solo, having freed herself from two much bigger male dancers (the audience cheered), Cheng finally cuts loose with some bravura classical dancing. Repeated viewings of Almost Mozart make me think that aside from the intensely emotional pas de deux, it almost works. The rest, impeccably danced as it was, is a bit too speculative and clinical for me.
Liturgy, Wheeldon’s ritualistic mating dance to music by Arvo Pärt, was first performed by OBT in 2012, eloquently danced by Haiyan Wu and Brian Simcoe. Famous for his innovative pas de deux, Wheeldon here creates highly stylized, angular port de bras, reminiscent of Hindu sculpture and classical Indian dance. Simcoe partnered Wu on opening night with quiet, silky strength, which a number of the quirky lifts demand.
When Irving assumed the company directorship last August, the season’s programming had already been set by acting artistic director Anne Mueller. While he made several changes in the opening and closing repertory shows, this one he left alone, except to give it the one word title, Reveal. He and Mueller, whose presence in the audience and curatorial contributions were acknowledged on opening night, are very different people, with equally different biographies. But they have a shared sensibility about ballet in the 21st century, and that’s what this program reveals.
All four pieces contain the trappings of 19th and 20th century ballet: costumes, lights, and with the exception of Wheeldon’s Liturgy, sets, and are danced to classical music, manipulated in various ways. But they are not about aristocrats or peasants, big vicious birds who are really princesses, and they are decidedly not about being pretty. Rooted in our time, performed in the moment, they reveal a traditional art form stretched and kept alive to tell our stories. Live orchestra, where appropriate, would have made a good evening excellent; if the Eugene Ballet can provide it, I really don’t see why Portland can’t.
Reveal repeats Thursday through Saturday, February 27-March 1. Consult www.obt.org for cast changes and ticket information.