oregon ballet theatre

OBT25: a gala, a reunion, a celebration of ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre's 25th anniversary show brings back the company's past and looks toward its future

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurated its twenty-fifth anniversary season on Saturday night with OBT25, a program that was part gala performance and part family reunion – and, if you will, a serious celebration of a performing art that historically has had a hard time getting established in Portland.

Wearing his opening-night purple tie for his pre-curtain speech delivered from the floor of the orchestra, artistic director Kevin Irving dedicated the performance to three OBT artists who are no longer on the planet: Dennis Spaight, the company’s first resident choreographer and associate artistic direct; Mark Goldweber, who as ballet master was instrumental in instilling the company’s strong work ethic; and Michael Rios, an impeccable and mischievous classical dancer.  And Irving set the audience thinking by quoting French film theorist André Bazin, who said: “Art emerged from the human desire to counter the passage of time and the inevitable decay it brings.”

Artslandia-ORAWreviewI didn’t see much decay, inevitable or otherwise, in dancers, musicians or choreography, although the Keller’s ever-decaying sound system nearly wrecked the pas de deux from Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love. The Fleet Foxes music was ear-splittingly loud. Come to think of it, most of the music, whether live or recorded – with the exceptions of the piano and violin accompaniment to Christopher Stowell’s Seguidilla Pas de Deux, played by Carol Rich and Nelly Kovalev, respectively; and  Thomas Lauderdale’s heartfelt playing of the Chopin Berceuse and China Forbes’ singing for Nicolo Fonte’s Never Stop Falling (In Love) – was almost unbearably over-amplified.

There’s been considerable passage of time since George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky made Agon, which opened the show, and yet there’s definitely no sign of wear in this work that expresses the jittery, cocky, competitive atmosphere of post -World War II New York – and when danced well, which it was here, is equally reflective of our own increasingly terrifying times.

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OBT25: the Agon and the ecstasy

Oregon Ballet Theatre leaps into its 25th season with a Balanchine masterpiece, salutes to its past, and a creative new venture with Pink Martini

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurates its 25th anniversary season on Saturday at the Keller Auditorium with a bold, demanding program that  pays homage to the company’s past and celebrates its continuing, if often financially fragile, presence as the city’s resident ballet company.

The program starts with Agon, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine’s mid-twentieth century jazz-inflected masterpiece, and ends with the world premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s  Never Stop Falling (In Love), made and performed in collaboration with Pink Martini. These two pieces bookend excerpts from longer works by choreographers who have played significant roles in shaping OBT’s eclectic style.  They include founding artistic director James Canfield’s “bedroom pas de deux” from his staging of Romeo and Juliet, former artistic director Christopher Stowell’s “jail house” pas de deux from Carmen, and a duet from former resident choreographer Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love, which premiered in the spring of 2013, originally commissioned by Stowell.

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing "Never Stop Falling (In Love)" at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing “Never Stop Falling (In Love)” at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Rehearsals for OBT 25, as this opening show is called, began in late August, when the public open rehearsals called OBT Exposed were in residence for the first time at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was hotter than hell’s hinges, which didn’t stop the dancers from giving Fonte their all as he started making, and demonstrating, the high-energy movement for Never Stop Falling (In Love). Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini’s leader, came to see what was going on the first time I was there, and returned the next day, which was just as hot as the previous one, with lead singer China Forbes, and a violinist. A piano was found for Lauderdale, and they joined the rehearsal, energizing the dancers as only live music can.

During a joint interview with Fonte and Lauderdale the following week, both emphasized that this is a true collaboration of musician and choreographer, with both artists working together on the selection of songs for what Fonte called “a soundscape,” and the tempos at which they are played.  “This has been a fantastic learning experience for me,” Lauderdale said. “When we selected some of this material, I realized that some songs we recently recorded, the tempos were just really too fast for dance, and [need] much more space to breathe and jump.”

At the time of the interview, they were still changing the playlist, in part because, Lauderdale said, “I don’t want this just to be Pink Martini with dance, I want for us to write something that feels new, not just a rehash.”

Lauderdale characterizes his music as “old-fashioned global symphonic pop,” making it a good match for Fonte’s contemporary take on neoclassical ballet.  Nevertheless, as OBT’s audience knows, Fonte usually makes dances to classical scores. Left Unsaid is accompanied by Bach; Petrouchka and Bolero, which Stowell commissioned Fonte to make for OBT during his tenure as artistic director, are performed to Stravinsky and Ravel, respectively.

Kevin Irving, who took over the company last year, and is Fonte’s partner in private life, gives him a lot of well-earned credit for “finding his way into music he doesn’t usually respond to,” and creating “very physical movement for the whole company.”

Never Stop Falling was looking good in a run-through at OBT’s studios earlier this week that included the Pink Martini musicians, with Lauderdale at the piano and Forbes at one point moving among the dancers holding a water bottle in lieu of a microphone.  The dancers were still in practice clothes rather than Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak’s costumes, which I’ve not seen. Watching were Dennis Buehler, the first company executive director I’ve seen set foot in the studio since Johann Jacobs, and OBT School director Tony Jones, whose soft-voiced, relaxed style of teaching company class several dancers have told me they love.

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in "Never Stop Falling (In Love)." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in “Never Stop Falling (In Love).” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

It is indeed a high-energy piece, although it begins quietly, with Martina Chavez alone on stage, unfolding one of her beautiful legs to the side in an endless développé, then closing it into a tight fifth position just before Chauncey Parsons makes a rapidly pirouetting entrance. This beginning proclaims clearly that this is a classical ballet, made to be performed by 21st century classically trained dancers. It’s a celebration of the art form as well as of OBT’s anniversary.

The rest of the cast enters one at a time, extending their limbs with Balanchinean space-devouring reach.  As the piece  and the music build, the rhythms become infectious, and I realize I’m tapping my foot on the floor, at the same time that I spot Lauderdale, seated at the piano, pounding out the beat with his left foot, dancing along with the dancers.

Much of the 40-minute piece involves a substantial number of high-flying jumps and some extremely risky lifts (especially for Xuan Cheng, who gets sent flying through the air by Brian Simcoe and Avery Reiner). It ends, as is customary for program closers, with everyone on stage dancing joyously – and in this case, some dancers playing drums, including Michael Linsmeier, who has rock band experience, and Brett Bauer.  There is respite for the audience if not the dancers in a section danced by Parsons and his brother Colby, new to the company this year, to Chopin’s Berceuse, played by Lauderdale.  With Fonte’s assistance, the brothers were still polishing movement that demanded both impeccable musicality and control.

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing "Agon" at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing “Agon” at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

There is no part of Agon, a rather different collaboration of composer and choreographer, that does not demand those qualities, with the added challenge of music that is almost impossible to count. Balanchine, according to Todd Bolender, who originated the Sarabande and first pas de trois, which Chauncey Parsons will dance opening weekend, never did counts for any of his ballets, leaving it up to the dancers to make up their own.  Fortunately, for OBT’s dancers, Balanchine Trust répétiteur Bart Cook, who during his career with New York City Ballet danced all four of Agon’s male roles, was rapping out counts like mad when I watched a rehearsal late last week. OBT ballet master Jeffrey Stanton, who danced the central pas de deux countless times with Pacific Northwest Ballet, was taking notes. Irving, who danced it during his eight-year stint with Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, was also in the studio. Each learned the ballet from different people: Cook from Balanchine himself, who changed a bit of the choreography for him; Stanton from Francia Russell, who was present at the creation; Irving from Sara Leland, to whom he says he owes his career. When OBT performed Agon the first time, in 1999, it was staged by Patricia Neary. Which is all by way of saying that no version of Agon is set in stone.

“With purpose,” Cook instructs the dancers, as the run-through begins with Parsons, Kindell, Adam Hartley and Brian Simcoe standing, facing upstage. They turn and break into a pelvic-thrusting dance that briefly tosses classical spinal placement out the window.  Parsons dances the first pas de trois with Sarah Griffin, who joined OBT this season and is clearly an extremely talented addition, and company artist Eva Burton, who is equally gifted.

As the rehearsal proceeds, Cook makes gentle suggestions and sardonic comments: “this is much ado about nothing,” he says, and at one point, “this is a weird, uncomfortable step.”  To Kindell, who dances the second pas de trois with Hartley and Candace Bouchard (who gets a terrific Spanish tinged solo), he says, “Don’t rush it.  The timing is more important than the size of the jump.” Chavez, whose long-limbed body seems made for the Agon pas de deux, and Brian Simcoe, one of the few native Oregonians in the company, move smoothly through the body-bending duet, and Bart tells the dancers they “are mechanically correct, [but they] need to be less academic.”

A great deal has been written about Agon, its intellectuality, Balanchine’s radical casting of Caucasian Diana Adams and African-American Arthur Mitchell in 1957, the year the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown vs the Board of Education that at least attempted to end the segregation of public schools. Historians put the moment into the context of the Russians’ launch of Sputnik into outer space; Balanchine himself called Agon a “computer that smiles”; critics for the past half-century have written about it in the same reverent tones as Christ’s apostles used to describe the Epiphany.

Forget it.  Jittery, sophisticated, urban and urbane, at the end of the day, when danced with the “verve, aplomb, dynamic power and artistic expression” that Irving wants from OBT’s dancers no matter what they’re performing, Agon provides a hell of a good time for the audience. I came out of New York City Center, the year it premiered, a 19-year-old college student, feeling as high as I got in those days on two glasses of champagne. And, while the music, which will not be performed live, is not exactly easy-listening, it’s not a chore, either. If you watch the dancers closely, their combative, courtly movement clarifies the clashing rhythms of the score (“agon” means “contest” in Greek) as well as the Renaissance court dances Stravinsky used to structure it.

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield's "Romeo & Juliet." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I’ve been watching OBT all of its life, and before that, Pacific Ballet Theatre (for which Canfield originally made Romeo and Juliet, his first evening-length ballet) and Ballet Oregon, founded by V. Keith Martin, which after much negotiation merged in 1989 to form the present company. Over the years, most of which have been bumpy financially, there have been a great many changes in company personnel, in the size of the company (it was down to fifteen dancers in 2000 when Lauderdale and Canfield started to collaborate on an evening-length ballet based on Felix Salten’s Bambi, don’t ask) the repertoire, and  the funding.

There has also been an astonishing amount of continuity.  Lisa Kipp, who is now OBT’s rehearsal director, danced with Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre (she understudied Juliet in R and J) and then briefly with OBT.  She returned as ballet mistress when Christopher Stowell assumed the artistic directorship in 2003.  Tracey Sartorio, now Irving’s assistant, was one of OBT’s 25 company members its first season, partnered frequently by the late Michael Rios. BodyVox’s Jamey Hampton, who was on the search committees that found both Irving and Buehler, choreographed Wild Man for OBT, commissioned by Canfield.

In April, OBT will celebrate the future with the inauguration of OBT II, a second company of apprentices and advanced professional students from OBT’s School, with a bow to the company’s past. Carol Shults, former company historian and teacher, and with Sandra Baldwin, a director of the Dennis Spaight Trust, has already staged Spaight’s Crayola, which is performed without music, to the sound that pointe shoes make as they hit the floor.

Meanwhile, OBT starts a five performance celebration of its Silver Anniversary Saturday night at the Keller, in a program that enlightens, amuses, and proclaims loudly that this company is still here, dancing its collective feet off.

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OBT25 opens Saturday, Oct. 11, at Keller Auditorium, and continues through Oct. 18. Ticket and schedule information here.

Stowell heads south as Oregon Ballet Theatre nabs a new ED

Christopher Stowell has a promising new job at the San Francisco Ballet, and his old company has a new executive director

Christopher Stowell, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director from July of 2003 to December 2012, is returning to San Francisco Ballet as ballet master and assistant to Helgi Tomasson, company artistic director and principal choreographer, effective August 25.

“I’m so happy to officially announce that I’m returning to SFB! I’ll be working alongside Helgi both in the studio and as his liaison to the administrative staff,” Stowell said on his Facebook page on Friday, adding that he “can’t wait to get back to the city and company I love.”

Christopher Stowell rehearses "Rite of Spring" at OBT/Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover

Christopher Stowell rehearses “The Rite of Spring” at OBT/Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover

In his role as ballet master, Stowell will teach SFB Company class and rehearse ballets for the repertory season, as ballet masters do in every company, working once again with former OBT dancers Julia Rowe and Grace Shibley, However, as assistant to Tomasson, to whom he will report directly, Stowell will have his fingers in just about every aspect of the company pie on both the artistic and administrative (read financial) sides.

“Many may remember Christopher from his long and successful career in the Company,” Tomasson said in a company press release. “[He] joined San francisco Ballet in 1985 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1990. I look forward to working closely with both him and our current Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director in these complementary roles,” he said.

Since leaving OBT at the end of 2012, Stowell has been exceedingly busy teaching internationally, choreographing, and staging work by other choreographers, most recently Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush” (which is in OBT’s repertoire) at the Beijing Dance Academy in China and Balanchine’s “Liebesleider Waltzes” (with Francia Russell) for SFB.

In an interview I had with Stowell last month,slated down the road for publication in Ballet Review, I asked him what his ideal company would be. His answer? “One in a city which has a history of supporting ballet,” citing San Francisco as one which gives just as much support to the arts as it does its sports teams. San Francisco Ballet is well established; it is the oldest professional ballet company in the United States and one of the largest. Looks like Stowell has struck gold.

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While Stowell was heading south, Oregon Ballet Theatre was making some news itself, today announcing that its current artistic director, Kevin Irving, has signed a three-year contract to lead the company’s artistic side. At the same time, OBT announced that after an 18-month search, it had chosen a new executive director, too. He’s Dennis Buehler, and comes to Portland after leaving as executive director of the Milwaukee Ballet in February of this year.

Petrouchka sees himself and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte's "Petrouchka"/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Petrouchka sees himself and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte’s “Petrouchka”/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“I quickly felt a strong connection with Oregon Ballet Theatre and could not be more delighted to be joining Kevin and the entire OBT team at this time,” Buehler said in the press release announcing his appointment. “They have positioned themselves very well and I am confident we can continue to develop this company into one of this country’s premier dance organizations. Portland is a region that makes access to the arts a high priority and Oregon Ballet Theatre is building a foundation to sustain that for generations to come.”

The budget of the Milwaukee Ballet is very close to that of Oregon Ballet Theatre (around $5 million according to its most recent 990 report), its programming is similar, and it also has a ballet school, which received national accreditation during Buehler’s tenure.

Buehler will start at OBT in September. The company begins its 25th season October 11-18 in Keller Auditorium with a world premiere by Nicolo Fonte, three duets by James Canfield, Stowell, and Trey McIntyre, respectively, and Balanchine’s “Agon.”

OBT serves a little dessert

The ballet company's intimate new show at BodyVox puts a capper on the season and hints at things to come

And now, for a little light dessert.

The last time we saw Oregon Ballet Theatre, in April at the Newmark Theatre, it was the end of an era – an ambitious program paying tribute to the retiring principal dancer Alison Roper, who had spent her entire distinguished ballet career at OBT. The program was fraught with meaning: a farewell to a beloved performer, and also an emphatic stamp on Kevin Irving’s first season as artistic director. The whole affair had the feel of a celebratory gala banquet.

Avery Reiners with Ansa Deguchi and Katherine Menogue in Michael Linsmeier's "Found You." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Avery Reiners with Ansa Deguchi and Katherine Menogue in Michael Linsmeier’s “Found You.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

On Wednesday night, OBT played progressive dinner, moving on for its seasonal dessert to the intimate and casual BodyVox Dance Center, where it opened CREATE, an evening of short works choreographed by company dancers. The setting is ideal for the program, which continues through Sunday, June 1: professional but close and conversational, almost like a studio except it has more seating and more sophisticated technical systems. It’s an energizing space that creates an instant connection between audiences and performers.

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Past, present, future: Alison Roper and OBT

Portland's illustrious ballet star, retiring after 18 years, looks back on her career and forward to fundraising

Extending her long, long legs like the rays of the sun in Apollo, dropping a disembodied hand into a piano in The Concert, wringing our hearts with every ripple of Odette’s arms as she returns to swanhood in Swan Lake: these moments and many others flash through my mind as I think about Alison Roper’s long career with Oregon Ballet Theatre.

For nearly two decades, Portland audiences have seen these qualities in Roper’s performances: joy in the dancing, commitment to the music, or the movement, or the character, or the story.  Last Saturday, she danced with the company for the last time, ending her life on stage with The Girl from Ipanema from Trey McIntyre’s Like a Samba, her first featured role.

Alison Roper: one more round of applause. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Alison Roper: one more round of applause. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2014

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Review: OBT’s farewell to Alison

The ballet's slick and polished "Celebrate" is a tribute to its premiere dancer, Alison Roper, who is retiring after 18 years

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.

Jordan Kindell and Alison Roper in Nacho Duato's "Cor Perdut." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jordan Kindell and Alison Roper in Nacho Duato’s “Cor Perdut.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

Roper in "Cor Perdut." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Roper in “Cor Perdut.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

Jordan Kindell, Avery Reiners, and Michael Linsmeier (l-r) in Matjash Mrozewski's "The Lost Dance." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jordan Kindell, Avery Reiners, and Michael Linsmeier (l-r) in Matjash Mrozewski’s “The Lost Dance.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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.

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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.

Roper in Helen Pickett's "Petal." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Roper in Helen Pickett’s “Petal.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

 

 

Up-to-date: What’s kickin’ at OBT

New ballet boss Kevin Irving talks about money, a second company, Alison Roper, real estate, and the 25th season

George Balanchine’s Agon.  Three pas de deux by Trey McIntyre, Christopher Stowell and James Canfield. Ben Stevenson’s  Cinderella. Additional performances of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, to be performed by a newly formed youth company, OBT 2.

Alison Roper, around whom OBT's current season is built, with Artiur Sultanov in Nicol Fonte's "Bolero," 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Alison Roper, around whom OBT’s current season is built, with Artur Sultanov in Nicolo Fonte’s “Bolero,” 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

You could have knocked me over with a firebird’s feather when Kevin Irving, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, announced next year’s season, the company’s twenty-fifth. To celebrate that landmark, the season includes works by Stowell and Canfield, Irving’s predecessors as artistic director, and by Spaight and McIntyre, important onetime resident choreographers. And it’s not the slimmed-down, contemporary season that some bystanders had expected. At $5.4 million, the 2014-15 season budget is about $400,000 higher than this season’s – for many onlookers a big surprise, considering the financial troubles the company’s been through in recent years. What’s more, Irving said, the company is looking to develop its East Side property to help stabilize finances long-term.

A new work by Nicolo Fonte on the fall program didn’t surprise me: Fonte, Irving’s partner, has several pieces in OBT’s repertory already, including the recently performed Bolero, which, as it has since its premiere in 2008, brought Portland audiences, cheering, to their feet.

A  world premiere by the hot young New York-based choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie for next April’s show at the Newmark didn’t surprise me either: Irving said last fall he wanted to focus on new American choreographers.  Moultrie, a graduate of Juilliard and a recipient of a 2007 Princess Grace choreography award, defies stylistic pigeonholing, having made work on such ballet companies as Cincinnati Ballet and Milwaukee Ballet, as well as for Beyonce’s Mrs. Carter world tour.  He has also collaborated with the phenomenal tap dancer Savion Glover.

Because of the diminished size of the company and the reduced budget that led to Christopher Stowell’s resignation as artistic director at the end of 2012, rumors had abounded over what Irving would do with OBT’s silver anniversary, the first season he would plan. His experience as ballet master and artistic assistant to Nacho Duato at the Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, and as artistic director of Sweden’s contemporary Goteborg Ballet from 2002 to 2007 – a failing company whose fortunes he reversed – contributed to an impression that he might remake OBT into a chamber-sized, contemporary ballet company on the order of the Northwest Dance Project, and therefore not this community’s most pressing need. The worst of the rumors from my point of view was that there would be no Balanchine, other than The Nutcracker, on the season. Balanchine is to American ballet as Sir Frederick Ashton is to British.

In fact, we are seeing no Balanchine this season, save his Nutcracker, and that did not bode well. Admittedly, the current season’s programming had already been set by acting artistic director Anne Mueller when Irving arrived in town in July. But he did make some adjustments, scrapping a new work by Mueller, stabling Petipa’s war horse Le Corsaire pas de deux, and  replacing them on the fall opener with Duato’s Por Vos Muerto.  For the upcoming April concerts, he added Helen Pickett’s swift neoclassical Petal and substituted Duato’s Cor Perdut for Stowell’s Adin.

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The most important change he made, however, was in the season’s focus. It was originally called Tribute, in honor of  Stowell’s nearly ten years of directorship. Irving shifted the homage to Alison Roper, whose performances in the April show will be her last after eighteen years with the company.  The Duato works, especially Cor Perdut, a pas de deux redolent of Spanish fatalistic passion, were programmed to showcase aspects of Roper’s dancing that Irving feels have not yet been brought to the fore. This season, she is the official face of OBT; her image is on every poster, and she is featured in at least one ballet in every show.  As a marketing strategy, it has certainly worked well in selling single tickets at a time when subscription sales are down.  For February’s repertory show Reveal, Irving told me in a recent interview, “single-ticket sales were the best for a non-full-length ballet evening we’ve ever had.  Dream [the season opener] was fourth or fifth on the list for single tickets, so we must be doing something right.” Irving’s catchy one-word titles for programs no doubt are another thing he’s been doing right. April’s is now titled Celebrate, in honor of Roper, and the run will end, as is customary, with a retrospective tribute to her dancing.

All that being said, Roper – whose roles have called on her to portray pioneer women and princesses, Carmen  and the Girl from Ipanema – is an extremely hard act to follow. I asked Irving what the ramifications of her absence next season from OBT’s roster would be.

Roper in Balanchine's "Seranade," 2004. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Roper in Balanchine’s “Serenade,” 2004. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Promoting the last chance to see her as a recurring theme this season does create an absence,” he said.  “But it also creates an opportunity to begin filling it.” “There are lovely, talented women in the company at this time,” he added, citing Martina Chavez’s “quiet glamour” in the pas de deux in Almost Mozart, and Candace Bouchard’s performance in the same ballet. Haiyan Wu and Xuan Cheng are very different,” he said, “and each brings a lot of charisma to the stage.” Next season’s company will remain the same size as this year’s, with 21 professional dancers (of whom four will be new) on 30-week contracts, and six apprentices augmented by the same number of professional-division students from OBT’s School. They will be performing what is clearly a classically based repertory, representing Irving’s vision for an American ballet company in the second decade of the 21st century.

OBT 25 opens the season with a modern masterpiece. Balanchine’s Agon, a note-by-note, step-by-step collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, was radical in 1957 when it premiered at New York’s City Center, and it still is. This is partly because of Stravinsky’s jazzy, atonal score, music, which original cast member Todd Bolender told me is nearly impossible for the dancers to count in any conventional, useful way. The ballet has no plot or narrative, and the title provides only a partial clue. “Agon” means” contest” in ancient Greek, and the ballet is considered to be about competition of various kinds. It demands the free-wheeling, fearless athleticism that made Balanchine want to work with American dancers in the first place, but it also requires the facility and finesse of classical technique at its best.  Moreover, several sections of the ballet are named for traditional court dances. Bolender danced a solo titled Sarabande; Roper, a Bransle Gay in 1999, the only previous time OBT has performed the ballet. It will be interesting to see how Bart Cook, who is slated to set Agon, will cast it. He did a superb job of staging Stravinsky Violin Concerto a couple of years ago.

Irving, who danced the central pas de deux when he was performing in Canada as a young man, chose Agon to represent the company’s Balanchine heritage for a number of reasons. His personal connection to the ballet, and much else that he programs, is important to him, but Agon, he said, also “added the necessary astringent quality to the program, as it is bracing, athletic, and somewhat a challenge to the audience.” The astringency will balance Canfield’s highly emotional and very beautiful “bedroom pas de deux” from his Romeo and Juliet, part of the triptych of pas de deux that provides the middle of the program, along with one by Stowell and another by  McIntyre, all of them stylistically different from Agon and each other.

With Stevenson’s Cinderella, Irving reassures the city’s story-ballet aficionados that they won’t have to travel north to Seattle, or south to Eugene or San Francisco, to see one. OBT already has several in the repertory – Giselle, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and of course, The Nutcracker – but Cinderella is new to the company. While many choreographers have used Prokofiev’s 1944 score to tell the familiar tale of child neglect and upward mobility with a happily-ever-after ending for just about everyone, Irving selected the British-born Stevenson’s in part because it is modeled on Ashton’s iconic (and I do not use that word lightly) 1948 rendering. Stevenson, who was commissioned to make this version in 1970 for the National Ballet of Washington, retains the sweetness of the comedy in Ashton’s version, but according to a number of critics, it lacks the Ashton version’s choreographic heft. Yet American audiences from Houston to New York  have loved it for nearly forty-five years, which is partly why Irving is adding it to OBT’s repertory: “I wanted something that was really going to be the full classical experience, that would provide an access point for people to come into the world of ballet.” And while he didn’t put it quite like this, that would also provide some laughter.

Duato’s emotionally intense Rassemblement, about Haitian slaves, begins the last show of the silver anniversary season, which ends with Grand Moultrie’s world premiere.  But with the introduction of OBT 2,  dancing the late  Spaight’s Crayola, the show (titled Impact) is very much about the futureSpaight made this ballet as a very young man, winning an award from Mikhail Baryshnikov for a work performed in silence by women in point shoes, with chairs as an integral part of the choreography.  So is signing for the deaf. The dancers perform in brilliantly colored costumes in a work (inspired by Jerome Robbins’ Moves, also danced without music) that is more about nonverbal, non-aural communication than the dancing crayons suggested by its unfortunate title. After watching a number of Spaight’s ballets on video, Irving selected this one because he “wanted something that wouldn’t be just another good ballet, but would stand out for the distinct approach of its creator and be a challenge for the young dancers.”

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Next season’s budget, at $5.4 million, is only slightly larger than this year’s $4.99 million, making it seem an odd time to expand the organization with a second company, albeit one that is largely unpaid.  “Why,” Irving told me, “is easy.  We need to be more present in the community and OBT2 can perform in venues [schools, community centers] we can’t negotiate with the first company.  We also need to make the professional development program more robust, which will support the School in a concrete way.”

OBT 2 potentially will have six apprentices and six professional division students. This year’s group of professional division students contains six girls, who augmented the cast in last fall’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Nutcracker. They are spending the spring season being mentored and coached, developing audition videos and rehearsing for the School program at the end of April.  This year’s contains all of Swan Lake’s second act in the first half, signaling that the classical direction has not changed under new leadership. Irving’s goal is to develop a repertory just for OBT2, starting with Crayola.

The plan for OBT2 is ambitious, dependent not only on a better financial foundation for the institution as a whole, but also an expansion of what Irving refers to as the infrastructure. OBT owns the entire close-in East Side block on which its current facility stands, giving the company what Irving calls its “one tangible concrete asset.” The goal is to use this asset, which is mortgaged, to get out of debt entirely and build a state-of-the-art facility for the company and the school.  Irving said discussions are under way to find a partner to develop the property, possibly into a large complex of condominiums in which OBT would be the primary occupant. Such a development would certainly provide the stable funding that the company has needed and never really had for the past quarter of a century.

Irving is guardedly optimistic about the company’s future, acknowledging that there is much work to be done in fundraising and season subscription sales. A new search for a much-needed executive director to oversee all that and more is under way.  Irving is, he says, “the leader of a really strong team” primarily on the artistic side, but he’s not functioning as the executive director.  This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his eye firmly on the bottom line.  Asked why he didn’t program Ashton’s Cinderella, he answered succinctly, “There are cost considerations.”  Given those considerations, OBT’s twenty-fifth anniversary season looks pretty good to me.

 

 

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