Spinning Spaight’s tales in Eugene

Eugene Ballet recaptures the magic of "Scheherazade," and premieres a bright and clever "Bolero"

EUGENE – You could have heard a program flutter to the floor, the audience was so absorbed. The Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center was nearly full last Saturday night for Eugene Ballet’s performance of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, and it’s a big house, making that  a pretty compelling tribute to the dancers, the choreographer, and OrchestraNEXT.  Under the baton of founder Brian McWhorter, the orchestra accompanied the entire program with  acute sensitivity to both the music and what was happening on stage.

Spaight's "Scheherazade" spins its tales again at Eugene Ballet. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Spaight’s “Scheherazade” spins its tales again. Eugene Ballet Photo

And that was a lot, even before Scheherazade closed a program of one premiere (artistic director Toni Pimble’s light-hearted visualization of  Ravel’s Bolero) and three revivals. That’s revivals, not reprisals, as much contemporary repertory tends to be: the dancers treated like drones, robots or machines, and much too often, earplugs handed out (or worse, not handed out) with the programs to muffle a soundscape that assaults the ears and drowns out the dancing.

Spaight’s re-casting of Fokine’s 1910 Scheherazade premiered in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre in the fall of 1990, two and a half years before the choreographer’s death in February of 1993. The original was more a spectacle than a dance. This one is still a spectacle, thanks to Henk Pander, who created the sets; Ric Young, who designed the lavish, outré costumes; and Peter West, who designed the lights. But it is also definitely a dance, and how.

In this ballet, Spaight, who was dying and knew it, packed much of his autobiography as a dancer. It has the dramatic punch and stylistic eclecticism of Maurice Béjart, in whose Ballet of the 20th Century Spaight performed when he was young. If you look closely, you can spot steps from the classical canon, such as the battu, the fluttering beat of one bent leg against the other that symbolizes captivity in Swan Lake, to which, as a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, he had received thorough exposure. The Sultan’s costume, with its aggressive symbolism, and the green makeup that Young created for all the bad guys flesh out the story. But it is the dancers who tell a tale in which unarmed women triumph over warriors and Scheherazade sacrifices her life for love of the Golden Slave. When Spaight’s seductive, sensuous choreography is performed with wholehearted commitment, as Eugene Ballet’s dancers do, the ballet doesn’t have a static moment, and the audience suspends its disbelief.

Yoshie Oshima in the title role, Preston Swovelin as her lover, and Mark Tucker as the Sultan inhabited those characters last Saturday night as if they were dancing about themselves. Oshima, physically tiny with enormous authority and stage presence, draws the eye like a moth to a flame. She’s onstage for the length of the ballet, using that body to tell a story to the harem girls, perform a tender pas de deux  with the Golden Slave, jeté into his arms to be tossed in the air in a way that made the audience gasp,  plead with the Sultan for mercy, convulsively thrust a dagger into her chest when mercy is not forthcoming, and follow her funeral cortege in a ghostly walk.

As the Golden Slave, Snovelin did a little too much mugging in the second scene, when he and Scheherazade declare their love. Ardor is easily expressed with the body, and he was much better in the moonlit garden scene, where the couple are joined by Odalisques Suzanne Haag and Beth Maslinoff, partnered by Takeru Anzai and Jeff Wolfe. What this gorgeous, elegiac Pas de Six tells us is that Scheherazade and the Golden Slave are not alone: the Odalisques and their lovers are equally doomed. Spaight shows this by not giving the lead couple center stage to perform.

They all get caught, of course, by Tucker as a Sultan who relished being evil, just enough (his performance, he told me after the show, was informed by the live music) and the Warriors, overcoming costumes based on Japanese armor that are almost impossible to move in. With its skillfully controlled chaos, the resulting battle scene, which is won by the harem girls (this is a political ballet, informed by late 20th century feminism), made me wish Spaight had had a chance to choreograph The Nutcracker‘s unconvincing fight between mice and toy soldiers.

The program opened with former company member Melissa Bobick’s pleasant Idyll for Eight, to a Janacek score, a pointe piece that showcased  the dancers’ talents and technique as curtain raisers are supposed to do. Janacek’s Idyll for String Orchestra contains five movements, and was eloquently played by the orchestra. But Bobick, who is a beginning choreographer,  ran out of ideas before she ran out of music, making the piece seem too long.  Tucker and principal dancer Heather Wallace were the standouts in this piece, along with Anzai, whose buoyancy added a little excitement to a rather monochromatic work.

Pimble's "Bolero" in Eugene. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Pimble’s “Bolero” in Eugene. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Like Spaight’s Scheherazade, Pimble’s Two’s Company – made in 1992, to music by Dvorak, for New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project – holds up well. Oshima, Swovelin, and Jeff Wolfe, like Swovelin a guest artist, seamlessly danced this dramatic vignette about abandoning one lover for another. As in Scheherazade, there is passion and grief in the music, but here it is the woman who is merciless and the man who is sacrificed, expressed in Pimble’s direct movement style.   

Bolero closed the first half, and Pimble’s take on this too-familiar music is clever, humorous, and visually exciting. It begins with a single female dancer on stage: Wallace again, clad in black briefs and a red top. As the music builds, she is joined by a male dancer, bare-chested in knee-length red tights.  As it continues to build, more and more dancers pour onto the stage, and the principals do a striptease in reverse until the women are clad in swirling red skirts, the men in abstractions of bullfighters’ “suits of light.”  There are no point shoes. The dancers deploy their legs in big developpés (unfolding of the working leg from the standing one), and the initial hard-edged angular movement becomes undulating and sinuous, reminiscent of Spanish dancing and bullfighting. Again, Anzai is given a virtuoso solo, and there is a terrifically energetic male quartet.  While the music is the same, this Bolero, which is a lot of fun, could not be more different from Nicolo Fonte’s sleekly contemporary and beautiful version for OBT, which is being revived beginning Saturday on OBT’s Reveal program.  How I wish that program, also a mixed bill, were being performed to live music, as well.

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Eugene Ballet’s Scheherazade and Bolero program doesn’t repeat. Next up for the company’s home season, after a guest performance by Ailey II on February 26, is Zoot Suit Riot, with live accompaniment by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, April 12-13.

 

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