Mostly polished, partly sophisticated, and slickly crafted, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Celebrate program, which opened at the Newmark Theatre on Thursday night, could have used more depth. Because there is huge depth and intelligence, musicality, wit and dramatic power in the dancing of Alison Roper, whose 18 years of performing with the company is the reason for the celebration. Roper’s final appearance on stage takes place at the end of this run, next Saturday night.
As a ballerina, she’s the real deal, able to sustain the lead role in an evening length ballet, specifically Swan Lake, her favorite, and as a chilling Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Giselle, a role she has developed and reinterpreted over the years.
She has become a Balanchine ballerina without ever darkening the doors of the School of American Ballet, a rare achievement, in a wide range of roles, from the “Russian” solo in Serenade, to the Siren in Prodigal Son.
She has served as muse to former OBT artistic directors James Canfield and Christopher Stowell, and to Nicolo Fonte and Trey McIntyre, and has danced brilliantly in Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush, and Liturgy. In Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird, now in the repertories of Kansas City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, in an expanded version, she originated the title role. Possokhov, like every choreographer who has staged or created dances on this company, loved working with her, and it was he who said she could have danced prominently with any company in the world.
While Roper has performed a number of ballerina roles throughout the season (Titania in Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last fall; the Sugar Plum Fairy and Dewdrop in The Nutcracker; the female lead in Fonte’s Bolero in February) Celebrate actually contains no role that demands the technique and talent of a dancer of her caliber.
The meatiest is in Nacho Duato’s Cor Perdut, which, for me was the highlight of the evening. While formally constructed like a classical pas de deux, it isn’t really a ballet, but Roper, partnered by Jordan Kindell, gave it a stellar, fully committed performance. Kindell, seemingly overnight, has developed into a sensitive partner with the stage presence of a far more experienced dancer, and Duato’s lushly expressive vocabulary, a fusion of Graham-like torso-curving modern technique and ballet, suits both him and Roper. Eloquent, passionate, fluid, like the gorgeous Catalan music, their dancing spoke to the heart, as nothing else on this program does.
Helen Pickett’s Petal, an OBT premiere, has served as a curtain-raiser for many companies, including Atlanta Ballet, where she is choreographer in residence. There are reasons for that: it showcases the dancers; and the choreography, heavily influenced by William Forsythe, in whose company Pickett danced for eleven years, challenges them to do his revved-up, fractured movement, in the improvisational way that Pickett insists that they make their own. What make this Pickett’s work, and not Forsythe’s, are its joyous tone and such tender touches as a woman tracing her partner’s face with her fingertips. And the production values, specifically lighting and costumes, are as one critic put it, “sunny,” thus warming up the audience for what’s to come.
Opening night jitters, made worse by a last-minute cast change, with Ansa Deguchi assuming the role of an injured Xuan Cheng, pretty clearly affected the way Petal was performed on Thursday night. It fell short of the go-for-broke feeling of Forsythe’s The Second Detail, to which many of these dancers gave their considerable all a couple of seasons ago, or for that matter, Smuin Ballet’s performance of Petal as seen on YouTube. But it certainly had its moments: a humorous little challenge dance between Roper and Haiyan Wu, whose innate elegance in anything she dances shone forth here. Deguchi, who is in full flower as a dancer this season, was terrific at a moment’s notice, and a couple of bravura solos by Chauncey Parsons gave it a considerable lift. As a showcase for Roper, this ballet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s a given that she danced well. She always dances well, whether she thinks so or not. Delicate and flowery, however she’s not, which doesn’t mean she can’t look vulnerable: as Odette in Swan Lake, the way she made her powerful body look fragile brought me to the brink of tears.
Throughout the run, there will be complete cast changes in Petal and Matjashi Mrozewski’s The Lost Dance, which closes the show. Roper danced with chic and snap in Mrozewski’s ballet when it premiered in 2012, but she didn’t appear in it opening night. It’s an excellent showcase for the company’s men. I missed Javier Ubell’s explosive performance from two years ago, as well as Lucas Threefoot’s, but having said that, Kindell, Michael Linsmeier and the up-and-coming Avery Reiners were swell in the trio. And Martina Chavez, who bears a startling resemblance to Ava Gardner, laced her dancing with the the late film star’s signature sultriness. While apprentice Katherine Monogue, filling in for Cheng, doesn’t have her finesse, that will clearly come in time. Choreographically, the pelvic tilts for the men lack subtlety, to say the least, and the port de bras remain fussy and a distraction from some very good dancing by Candace Bouchard and Makino Hayashi. The Lost Dance is Mrozewski’s fifth collaboration with electronic composer Owen Belton, music that has grown on me since the premiere. And the costumes, designed by Adam Arnold, are still to die for.
Following the first intermission, a mixed media tribute to Roper put together by artistic director Kevin Irving was presented by him in a style worthy of Mad Men’s Don Draper unveiling an advertising campaign for Lucky Strikes. It was redeemed by the honesty and directness of Roper’s narration of the jagged trajectory of her career, and live performance by Roper herself as Myrtha, and students from the School of OBT School, silhouetted the way the dancers are in Stowell’s Adin and McIntyre’s Like a Samba.
Curtain calls began after The Lost Dance, and Roper, as is traditional, was pelted with single flowers coming from the boxes closest to the stage. The lady is a class act: while still being pelted, she picked one up and carried it over to fellow dancer Candace Bouchard. The cheering audience started to reach for umbrellas and handbags, but were stopped in their tracks as the curtain went up again on Roper, Brian Simcoe, and Brett Bauer, costumed for Like a Samba. As an encore, Roper reprised her own first featured role as “The Girl from Ipanema.” My seatmate loathes this ballet, always has, but Roper loves doing it, and it showed as she once again danced it with easy fluidity, humor and charm.
There are six more chances to say good-bye to Roper, and see a company that is dancing very well in the city’s most elegant theater. Go to www.obt.org for schedule and ticket information.