oregon ballet theatre

DanceWatch: Xuan Cheng and Ye Li’s ballet academy.

This week a performance by the students of a new Beaverton ballet school and a busy schedule of concerts

Did you know that Xuan Cheng (a Principal Dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre) and her husband Ye Li (a soloist with OBT from 2011-2015) co-direct their own ballet school in Beaverton? They do! It’s called Oregon International Ballet Academy (OIBA) and they are performing this weekend, one classical work and one brand new contemporary ballet choreographed by Li.

Jamuna Chiarini

I just discovered their school this week in a last-minute search online before writing this week’s DanceWatch. It’s one thing to be a performer, but it’s a whole other ball of wax when performing artists, who have spend the majority of their careers bringing other people’s artistic vision to life, venture out on their own, creating work in their own voices. Watching a rehearsal video of Li’s new work sparked my curiosity, and I had to learn more. Cheng, Li, and I met briefly for coffee during Xuan’s lunch break from OBT, and we talked about their dance life, their history together, the new school, and the new work.

The OIBA students will be performing the Second Act of Swan Lake, staged by Cheng and adapted from Lev Ivanov’s choreography, and a world premiere by Li called Black and White at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall this Saturday night. They will be joined by 18 student musicians from the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, directed by Raúl Gómez, with costumes designed by Annika Schindler, a costume fabricator for LAIKA. Cheng and OBT Principal Dancer Brian Simcoe will be guest performing as well, courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre. The set design for Black and White includes a series of different-sized black and white boxes that the dancers engage with rhythmically, and the costumes have been created to evoke a sense of time, which is the constant, and the elegance of Victorian times.

Artistic Director Xuan Cheng working with her students at Oregon International Ballet Academy. Photo by Yi Yin.

Cheng and Li joined OBT in 2011 when they were hired by Christopher Stowell after one audition. They loved Portland right away and were very happy to call it home. Prior to OBT, they both danced for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and Cheng danced for La La La Human Steps. They both danced for GuangZhou Ballet in China straight out of ballet school—she became a principal dancer with the company and he a soloist.

Between the two of them there is a lifetime of experience of training and dancing ballet’s classics, as well as the works of many well-known contemporary choreographers, including William Forsythe, Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin, Jirí Kylián, Mats Ek, Mauro Bigonzetti, Christian Spuck, Christopher Stowell, and Nicolo Fonte.

When they first came to Portland, the Chinese community was very excited and proud to see Chinese dancers performing with Oregon Ballet Theatre and asked if they would teach their children. At that point they were still focused on their performing careers with OBT and weren’t able to devote the time they would like to teaching. But as time passed, Cheng started volunteering and creating small pieces for different community shows. She found that there was a big need for them and was drawn to teaching. She and Li both felt strongly that it was important to pass on their experience to the next generation and decided to open a school.

They opened Oregon International Ballet Academy in 2015, and it now has approximately 50 students. Cheng is still performing full time with OBT and teaches ballet classes in the evening, and Li retired from performing in 2015 to run the school full time.

Young dancers at the Oregon International Ballet Academy. Photo by Yi Yin.

When we met, Cheng said that teaching and running a school was satisfying. “It’s different than dancing,” she said “I feel like my life is actually very balanced. Before, I only knew ballet, ballet, ballet. Ballet is everything in my whole life. And as a dancer it’s always me, me, me, me. So during teaching it’s actually made me a better dancer. I’m also learning from the kids, too.”

She says she is treasuring her time dancing in the studio much more these days now that she has a thousand other things to focus on when she leaves at the end of the day. “It’s made my life more full and not so one sided,” she said.

When I asked about how the two of them work together, Cheng said, “It’s very challenging but we help each other. Our whole life since we met, we’re dancing together, we are always helping each other. We help each other grow and become a better person, we’re honest with each other. Sometimes we have to really say it, touch the pain. In Chinese we have a saying, it’s like the good medicine is the bitterest.” They have known each other since 1998, were each other’s first love, and married two years ago.

Ballet students at the Oregon International Ballet Academy. Photo by Yi Yin.

They want to teach their students the connections between the ballet steps and the stage, and teach the why of it all. They want to teach them curiosity and to become active participants in the process. They want more for their students than just performing and smiling and looking pretty on stage. They want to involve the students in the creative process.

The new work by Li, Black and White, is based on an idea that came from his mother. “My mom always said when a baby is born, we are like a white paper, white colors, you put a color on there. Black is a bad thing you did. You punched the cat. You did a bad thing, You put the black color on your paper. You hug somebody, you make somebody happy, then you add another color. So basically that’s your life. So the idea is at the end, we’re going to have a lot of colorful stuff, a lot of painting on the white paper. No matter what kind of stuff you do, when you look back, those colors are what you did, or your memories.”

Li’s new work features live music with compositions by David Long, ERA, Samuel Barber, Ezio Bosso, Raul Gomez-Rojas, and Li himself, who originally wanted to be a violinist. His mother wanted him to be a dancer.

The performance also holds a few surprises, especially in reference to Li’s mother’s metaphor.

Performances this week

Diva Practice (Solo) at the Risk/Reward Festival 2017.  Photo by Chelsea Petrakis.

Diva Practice (Solo)
Pepper Pepper
November 2-November 5
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St.
November 2 Post-Show Q+A talk back with Pepper Pepper
November 2-3 performances have ASL Interpretation

Diva Practice (Solo), is the last leg in a three-part cycle created by multidisciplinary artist Pepper Pepper who works in performance, drag, theatre, and dance.

“Diva Practice is a research project about drag and contemporary performance as a solo, duet, and ensemble,” Pepper says. “Diva Practice is a performance about queens dancing in the face of uncertainty, because being fabulous takes practice.”

I asked Pepper in an email interview what uncertainty queens have to face. Pepper said that “uncertainty is a political, choreographic, and emotional narrative throughout the show.” Using “improvisation and video interactivity” it places the character in uncertain situations where choice, impulse, and intention combine to illustrate her “practice.”

The making of Diva Practice (Solo), happened through a series of residencies, performances, and a tour through Oregon, Louisiana, Maine, Texas, and Georgia that “make accomplices of the audience and initiate conversation around gender, power, and vulnerability.”

“The diva practice research tour allowed me to experiment and practice with live audiences across the US,” Pepper said. “In a way, the practice became performing the show as a live rehearsal. This informs the ethos of the show, which is radical acceptance and discernment. The tour was also a way for me to see drag and diva worship in many different states which influenced my choreography and frame of mind.”

I interviewed Pepper back in 2016 close to the debut of D.I.V.A. Practice in Pepper Pepper explains D.I.V.A. Practice.

Polaris Dance Theatre dancers in Avalanche. Photo courtesy of Polaris Dance Theatre.

Avalanche
Polaris Dance Theatre, artistic director Robert Guitron
November 2-10
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave.

Creating an arch between Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in this dance/music tribute, Polaris artistic director Robert Guitron plays with themes that were central to these artists—gender identity, diversity, sexuality, racism, spirituality, and fashion—in an evening work for thirteen dancers.

PDX Contemporary Ballet dancers attempting to read while dancing in Converge. Don’t try this at home. Photo courtesy of Briley Neugebauer.

Converge
PDX Contemporary Ballet, directed by Briley Neugebauer
November 3-5
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St.

In this collaborative project, PDX Contemporary Ballet, which thrives on experimentation in ballet, has combined spoken word and contemporary ballet choreography to expand the storytelling power of both by pairing Portland choreographers with Portland writers.

The pairings are: BodyVox dancer/choreographer Alicia Cutaia and Fox and Beggar Theater Director Nat Allister; ballet dancer/choreographer Micah Chermak and poet Milly Wallace; Briley Neugebauer (artistic director of PDX Contemporary Ballet) and playwright Claire Willett; and Neugebauer and poet Lorelei O’Connor.

Due to a generous donation, PDX Contemporary Ballet is offering $5 and $10 tickets on opening night.

A moment from Linda Austin’s solo Big Real from 2004. Photo courtesy of Performance Works NW.

ICONIC
A fundraiser performance presented by Performance Works NW
7:30 pm and 9:30 pm November 4
Performance Works NW/Linda Austin Dance, 4625 SE 67th Ave.

Celebrating 17 years of engaging artists and audiences in “the process of experimentation, creation and dialog around the presentation of contemporary performance,” Performance Works NW directed by dance artist Linda Austin and lighting designer Jeff Forbes present Iconic, a fundraiser performance of 18 short works by community of artists inspired by photographic prompts highlighting memorable PWNW performance from 2000-2017.

The evening promises revelry and refreshments, and all proceeds go to supporting the awesome PWNW programming.

EARLY SHOW: 7:30pm
Linda Austin and the Boris & Natasha Dancers (Michael Chambers, Tom DeBeauchamp, Ben Martens), Gregg Bielemeier, Catherine Egan, Allie Hankins, Linda K. Johnson, Meg McHutchison, Kelly Rauer & claire barrera, edward sharp, and Lu Yim & keyon gaskin

LATE SHOW: 9:30pm
Tracy Broyles, Jeff Donaldson-Forbes, Maggie Heath, Seth Nehil, John Niekrasz, Stephanie Lavon Trotter, Leah Wilmoth with Alanna Hoyman-Browe & Simone Wood, Takahiro Yamamoto & Roland Dahwen Wu, and James Yeary.

Dancers Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe. Photo by Yi Yin.

Swan Lake Act 2 and Black and White (world premiere)
Oregon International Ballet Academy, directed by Xuan Cheng and Ye Li
Swan Lake Act II, Stage by Xuan Cheng after Lev Ivanov, World Premiere: Black and White, Contemporary Ballet Choreography by Ye Li
Featuring Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe, guest dancers from Oregon Ballet Theater,
OIBA students, and live music by members of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Music Director Raúl Gómez
7:30 pm November 4
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.

See above.

Performances Next Week

November 9-12, When We, Allie Hankins & Rachael Dichter, a PWNW Alembic Co-Production
November 11, A-WOL Dance Collective 15th Anniversary Celebration
November 15, The Hip Hop Nutcracker Featuring MC Kurtis Blow, Decadancetheatre
November 15, Horizon3 in collaboration with RAW PORTLAND, Brynn Hofer, Gerard Regot, and Melanie Verna

Upcoming Performances

November
November 16-18, L-E-V, presented by White Bird
November 18, Mood Factory, Hosted by Dan Reed Miller and Ben Martens
November 24-26, The Enchanted Toyshop by John Clifford, Tourbillon by Anne Mueller, performed by the PSU Orchestra and The Portland Ballet
November 26, The Taming Of The Shrew, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
November 30-December 9, Lexicon (world premiere), BodyVox

December
December 7-9, Bolero + Billie, Ihsan Rustem, NW Dance Project
December 8-9, The Nutcracker with Chamber Ballet of Corvallis, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
December 9-24, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, Oregon Ballet Theatre
December 13-17, a world, a world (work-in-progress), Linda Austin Dance, PWNW
December 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance, Crystal Jiko, Tere Mathern, Madison Page, Wolfbird Dance
December 17, The Nutcracker, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
December 22-24, The Nutcracker with Orchestra Next, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene

January

January 12, Love Heals All Wounds, Lil’ Buck and Jon Boogz, Presented by Portland’5 Center for the Arts
January 18-28, Fertile Ground Festival of New Work/Groovin’ Greenhouse
January 25-27, Rennie Harris Puremovement, presented by White Bird
January 28, Garden of Earthly Delights with Salem Concert Band (World premiere), Rainbow Dance Theatre, Independence

February
February 1-10, The skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, presented by BodyVox
February 4, The Lady Of The Camellias, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
February 17-18, Pink Martini, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
February 21, Mark Morris Dance Group, presented by White Bird
February 23-25, Configure, PDX Contemporary Ballet
February 24-March 4, Alice (in wonderland), choreography by Septime Webre, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre

March
March 1-3, Urban Bush Women, presented by White Bird
March 4, The Flames Of Paris, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
March 8-10, Jessica Lang Dance, presented by White Bird
March 14, Compañia Jesús Carmona, presented by White Bird
March 15-17, World Premiere’s by Sarah Slipper and Cayetano Soto, NW Dance Project
March 22-24, To Have It All, choreography by Katie Scherman, presented by BodyVox

April
April 4, iLumiDance, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5, Earth Angel and other repertory works, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5-7, Stephen Petronio Company, presented by White Bird
April 8, Giselle, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
April 12-14, Contact Dance Film Festival, presented by BodyVox and Northwest Film Center
Apr 14-25, Peer Gynt with Orchestra Next, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
April 12-21, Man/Woman, choreography by Mikhail Fokine, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Nicolo Fonte, James Canfield, Jiří Kylián, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 19-28, Early, push/FOLD, choreographed and directed by Samuel Hobbs
April 20-29, X-Posed, Polaris Dance Theatre, Robert Guitron
April 24-25, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, presented by White Bird
April 24-25, The Wind and the Wild, BodyVox and Chamber Music Northwest

May
May 4-5, Current/Classic, The Portland Ballet
May 10-12, New work premiere, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Western Oregon University, Monmouth
May 10-19, Rain & Roses (world premiere), BodyVox
May 11-13, Compose, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 16, Ballet Hispȧnico, presented by White Bird
May 23-June 3, Closer, original works by the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre

June
June 8-10, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 10, Coppelia, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
June 14-16, World Premiere – Ihsan Rustem, MemoryHouse – Sarah Slipper, NW Dance Project
June 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance
June 24, Salem World Beat, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Salem

 

Oregon Ballet Theatre review: cheerful resistance

Choreographer Nicolo Fonte, Pink Martini, and pianists Thomas Lauderdale and Hunter Noack team up to create a gay old time for everyone

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Oregon Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Kevin Irving was addressing me personally when he took the stage and asked how many of us weren’t expecting to be there, which of us are the not-the-usual-ballet-audience people? Well, perhaps he was speaking to me and to many of the younger Pink Martini fans all around me. Like OSO & PCSO in recent years, OBT has been making a serious attempt to reach out to non-traditional classical audiences, people who maybe still want to see Balanchine’s Nutcracker for the zillionth time (hell, I’m going this year, aren’t you?) but who otherwise don’t have much feeling for the idiom. In Irving’s words: “OBT has never been afraid to put its own twist on ballet—it’s in our DNA.” Hey, that sounds like a song!

OBT with Pink Martini last night was possibly the gayest show I’ve seen all year. In a round 100 minutes that felt a lot shorter, OBT’s new resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte paired Thomas Lauderdale and Hunter Noack’s two-piano expansion of Gershwin’s immortal Rhapsody in Blue with the return of his popular Pink Martini revue Never Stop Falling (in Love).

Now let’s get this out of the way right at the start: if you’re still using “gay” as a pejorative, it’s time to join the 21st century and show your fellow humans some respect.

The formerly more common meaning of “gay” was something like “happy and free-spirited,” as in The Gay Nineties or “Gay Paree”. The mighty Nietzsche translator and defender Walter Kaufmann, in the introduction to his 1974 translation of The Gay Science, discusses the troubadour origins of the word (Nietzsche’s original subtitle was “La Gaya Scienza”) and identifies this spirit of “light-hearted defiance of convention” as a bridge between the word’s older meaning and the new coloring it was acquiring at that time.

To be defiantly cheerful in an era of uncertainty and de-/re-/op-pression (1890s, 1970s, 2017) is an act of fruitful resistance, an insistence on loving whom and how we will. Even those of us who identify as some other variety of queer (bi, myself) are quite happy to look for inspiration and support to the culture of gay men, especially this world of artists and musicians which has shown us all so much joy and courage and taught us how to embrace the struggle of life and how to be jubilant whenever we can.

Which brings us to OBT and its collaboration with Thomas Lauderdale and Pink Martini. I personally haven’t spent a whole lot of time at the ballet: the last time for me was probably OBT’s Stravinsky Project (featuring Stowell’s Rite of Spring) almost a decade ago. What’s worse, I was (until last night) a complete Pink Martini Virgin. I’m happy to say I’m now a believer in both.

Continues…

DanceWatch Weekly: White Bird turns 20, OBT season opens

A big week in dance starts with White Bird and Oregon Ballet Theatre and then moves to Indian dance and "Moving Through Darkness"

Twenty years ago Paul King and Walter Jaffe moved to Portland from New York City and launched White Bird, Portland’s biggest dance presenter and the sole, dance-only presenter West of the Rockies.

Their 20-year contribution to Portland’s dance scene and to the dance community at large is huge. Over the 20 years they have presented 250 dance companies from around the world, commissioned and co-commissioned 36 new works in a range of styles and choreographers from Portland and beyond, and have developed some of the most enthusiastic, dedicated, and educated dance audiences I have ever seen. White Bird’s 20th season is dedicated to those audiences.

Jamuna Chiarini

Complexions Contemporary Ballet from New York, co-directed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, opens that season. Rhoden was a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Richardson was the first Black American Principal dancer at American Ballet Theater.

The company is 23 years old itself, and has been called “America’s original multicultural dance company.” They pride themselves on being based in ballet but not limited to it, expanding their movement vocabulary into any and every genre, proposing an alternate view of classical ballet.

The company will perform three pieces, all choreographed by Rhoden: Ballad Unto…. for 14 dancers, performed to Bach, that explores love’s many facets; IMPRINT/MAYA, a solo performed by Richardson,
danced to a pre-recorded track featuring Melanie Nyema on Vocals, Ron Pedley on piano and Mat Fieldes on bass and the words of Maya Angelou; and STAR DUST, a tribute to David Bowie.

Journalist Joe Lynch, for Billboard magazine online, stated in his impassioned review of STAR DUST after it premiered at The Joyce Theatre in New York in January, that STAR DUST “isn’t a cheap attempt to capitalize on Bowie’s fame, but a thoughtful exploration by choreographer Dwight Rhoden of the way movement reveals additional layers in Bowie’s music (something Bowie himself did onstage, mimicking gifted movers from Pierrot the Clown to kabuki actors over the course of his career).” Lynch says if you’re a Bowie fan, “Star Dust is a must—whether you think you enjoy the ballet or not.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre kicks off its season this weekend with the world premiere of Rhapsody In Blue, a collaboration between Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte and Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale. With permission from the Gershwin Foundation, Lauderdale created a new arrangement of George Gershwin’s jazz classic that lengthens the score, draws out nuances in the music, and allows for more movement possibilities.

The score, originally created for a solo piano and jazz band, will instead be performed live on two grand pianos by Lauderdale and Hunter Noack. The program also includes Never Stop Falling (in Love), Fonte’s 2014 piece created for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary. It features Pink Martini singer China Forbes and a medley of Pink Martini songs.

Rhapsody In Blue the dance, softly weaves together abstract contemporary ballet choreography with a narrative describing the mood of the blue hour or “L’heure bleue.” A French phrase with no exact English translations, it describes the magical hours between daylight and night that lovers might meet before returning home to their spouses. A kind of magical time of day when things become less linear and boundaries become more fluid.

Last week I sat in on a rehearsal for Rhapsody In Blue as the costume designer was trying out different costume possibilities on the dancers. The room was abuzz with activity, full of company dancers, stage managers, costume designers, lighting designers, and other artistic personal. I am always amazed at what a massive production ballets are and how many people it takes to put a production together, compared to many smaller productions I regularly see where the choreographer does almost everything.

The costumes for Rhapsody are a gorgeous, textural mix of electric blues in satins, laces, brocades, and matte cottons, with swirling skirts, and tailored suits, evoking decadent sumptuousness and ease. The movement, like the chosen color, is also electric and explosive, shooting out from the dancer’s centers like arrows, creating dramatic, stretched lines with arms and legs. The movement sweeps and falls, rebounds and flies, describing the music and the space around the notes perfectly. Sometimes the dancing is large and uses the whole cast and sometimes it is quiet and uses a singular gesture. It’s a beautiful, dynamic work that might make you see/hear Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue in a whole new light.

Performances this week

Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Sachyn Mital Photography

Ballad Unto…., IMPRINT/MAYA, and STAR DUST
Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Choreography by Dwight Rhoden
Presented by White Bird
October 5-7
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
See above.

Eugene Ballet Company’s Mowgli. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet.

Mowgli – The Jungle Book Ballet-Eugene
Eugene Ballet Company directed by Toni Pimble
October 6-8
Hult Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Eugene Center, Eugene
Toni Pimble, the artistic director of Eugene Ballet, retells Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” through ornate costumes, masks, sets, and world music, in the story of orphaned Mowgli, his friend Baloo the Bear, the terrifying Tiger Shere Khan and the snake Kaa.

Dance artist Oluyinka Akinjiola performing at Ten Tiny Dances in Beaverton.

Moving through Darkness
This is a Black Spatial Imaginary
Featuring Intisar Abioto, Akela Auer, and Oluyinka Akinjiola
5 pm October 7
Paragon Arts Gallery, 815 N Killingsworth St.
Moving through Darkness, is a movement and dance performance featuring writer, dancer, photographer, and the author/photographer/curator of The Black Portlanders Intisar Abioto; writer, poet, dancer, and choreographer Akela Auer; and dancer, choreographer, teacher, scholar and artistic director of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre, Oluyinka Akinjiola.

“This Is A Black Spatial Imaginary’ considers the movement and fixity of Black communities, by activating past, present and future spaces for Black life. This is a Black Spatial Imaginary brings together installation, video, print media, performance, and public intervention, exploring new forms of practice at the intersection of art, collaboration, historical record, urban planning, collaboration and creative exchange.”

Bharatanatyam dancer Jayanthi Raman. Photo courtesy of Jayanthi Raman.

Dance Of The Hummingbirds
Jayanthi Raman and dancers
7 pm October 7
Dolores Winningstad Theater, 1111 SW Broadway
Combining live music, poetry by Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen, artwork by Shashank Rao, and guest dancers from Chennai, India, Portland Bharatanatyam choreographer/teacher Jayanthi Raman reflects on finding inner strength to overcome life’s obstacles in her new work Dance Of The Hummingbirds.

Rhapsody in Blue by Nicolo Fonte. Photo courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Rhapsody In Blue (World Premiere) and Never Stop Falling (in Love)
Choreography by Nicolo Fonte
Performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre directed by Kevin Irving
October 7-14
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
See above.

Upcoming Performances

Continues…

Choreography XX: Gioconda Barbuto and Kevin Irving bring individuality to ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Kevin Irving seeks to bring contemporary dance's individuality to the ballet form and so does choreographer Gioconda Barbuto

Since seeing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake in February, I have been mulling over what exactly classical ballet is and how it fits into our thinking about both the arts and the society in which they are situated.

In ballet, in general, I am struck by the lack of diversity (specifically the lack of African-American dancers in US ballet companies), the obvious racism and stereotyping within ballet storylines (think Chinese and Arabian dances in the Nutcracker—cultural appropriation at its max), and the general patriarchal point of view of almost every classical ballet. These days we do not think that women need to saved by princes, and we don’t think they should be commodities to be traded for money and power. Moreover, within the ballet world there is a serious lack of female choreographers.

I am not alone in my line of inquiry. Last Friday I sat down and spoke with Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving who is also bothered by ballet’s incongruence with modern day culture. In fact, he altered the storyline of his Swan Lake in February to draw the audience’s attention to some of those aspects. Even more directly, he created Choreography XX, a choreography competition to discover new women ballet choreographers. The two-night concert runs at 7:30 pm Thursday and Friday at the Washington Park Amphitheatre, and admission is free.

“It’s been important to me in a lot of aspects of our programming, to represent ideas and people that are in our community, and so it [Choreography XX] was a mechanism for me to fund more diversity and more female representation,” Irving said. The competition, funded by a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Initiative, was launched last January and received over 90 applicants from across North America. The winning choreographers were Gioconda Barbuto, Helen Simoneau, and Nicole Haskins.

Interestingly Irving’s dance background is mostly in contemporary dance, which seems to afford him a broader vision to work through these discrepancies and create a new normal for classical ballet within Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Irving also pointed out that “classical ballet is a product of a very strictly organized social hierarchy in which the czar is at the top, and everybody filters down until you have the serfs.” When he looks at classical ballets, he see’s “rows and rows of women who have no individuality, no purpose other than to be background to more important people. And that reflects the society that supported the creation of this art form, and was unquestioned for over 100 years.” Although he loves the beauty in uniformity, Irving is also interested in drawing out individuality in his ballet company.

OBT dancers Jacqueline Straughan and Martina Chavez in rehearsals for Gioconda Barbuto¹s new work for OBT¹s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

Choreographer Gioconda Barbuto, one of the three Choreography XX choreographers, is also interested in bringing the individuality and personality of each artist into the center of her work. “Because my work is so collaborative, it cannot be made without them. So this work represents who they are individually, as individuals, but also as a group.” Barbuto said in our conversation last week under the trees outside Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dance studios overlooking the Willamette River.

Barbuto has had an impressive career. Originally from Canada, she danced with the Minnesota Dance Theatre before becoming a soloist with Les Grand Ballets Canadiens de Montréal where she danced for 16 years. After she thought she was finished performing and was starting to build momentum on a choreography career, she was invited by Jiri Kylian to join Nederlands Dans Theater III in The Hague, Holland, a group of high-caliber dancers, all over the age of 40. She toured internationally with the company for eight years until the company folded, and worked two more years after that with Kylian Productions. Gioconda is featured in two of Jiri Kylian’s award winning films, Birth-Day and Car-Men.

In 1996 she was nominated for a Kennedy Center Fellowship and was the recipient of the Clifford E. Lee choreography award. She is a recipient of several grants from the Canada Council and in 2015 received the McKnight International Choreographer Fellowship.

Gioconda’s choreography has been presented at Ballet BC, Ballet Jorgen, Banff Festival Ballet, Danse Cite, Tangente, L’Agora de la danse, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, BJM Danse Montreal, Alberta Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theater, McKnight Fellowship SOLO Commission (for Abdo Sayegh Rodriguez), Bravo FACT, CBC Canada/Films Piche Ferrari, Ballet Kelowna, The Juilliard School, Arts Umbrella Dance Company, You Dance/National Ballet of Canada, Dutch National Ballet Academy, Nederlands Dans Theater Choreographic Workshop, the National Circus School, and Portland’s Northwest Dance Project, and she has created many solos and group projects for many renowned dance artists.

OBT dancers Jacqueline Straughan and Martina Chavez in rehearsals for Gioconda Barbuto¹s new work for OBT¹s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

When I watch her choreograph, she is electric, on fire, always moving, always showing, always describing what she wants, over and over again. She is inexhaustible. I also observed how deeply involved and invested in the process the dancers were. Trying and trying again, not afraid to make mistakes. Just going for it and going all out.

“I like to have fun in the room,” she said when I asked how she set the mood in the studio to enable the dancers to feel comfortable enough to open up and let go. “If I’m having fun, then I think the dancers are having fun. And I want to have fun, especially now, as you get older, and I want to keep learning right? So I’m not going to do that unless I allow the energy to move forward to create an environment where we’re having fun, and were exploring, and we’re allowed to make mistakes, and there’s no right way to do it.”

Watching from the outside, I can see her process unfolding and how she builds layers of movement, images, and action. “I think of it like painting or sculpting” she says. “You’re building a score, … we’re always throwing down a sketch, a layer, the first notes, the first splash of paint, and then you start the first carve. Your intention was that you were carving this way, but the wood cracks, the clay doesn’t come out the way you wanted, it cracked but you’re thinking, ‘No I’m going to stick with this, look where it took me, let me follow that.’ And then you go with that. This is what I’m hoping I give them: Go with the cracks and see where that takes you, because life’s like that.”

Barbuto’s creative process begins with her own movement vocabulary (built from her incredibly varied performing career), different improvisational tools, object drawing (a verbal technique Barbuto uses to describe the space around the dancers and give meaning and texture to their movement), and a long list of different kinds of songs on iTunes. She uses the music as a way “to magnetize, to emphasize, to get them into a beat or a groove, or a feeling.”

 

OBT dancer Emily Parker in rehearsals for Gioconda Barbuto’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

Referring to the dancers she says, “I want them to work from the experiences and exploration and the push and pull that happens between them, from the process. Everyone is activated by each other because they’re all connected or affected by what happens.“

Inspired by Kylian’s dance company of older dancers, I asked her how she felt about being an “older” dancer,“ which happens to be my own situation. “All of a sudden you find out there’s another level, that it’s really exciting to be an older dancer,” she says. “It’s like everything comes together and then more, and then more. You just can open up, and you can hear things, and you can feel. You understand that mistakes aren’t mistakes. You understand that the way you move has so much history in it, it’s on a cellular level. You understand that your whole body’s moving like everything’s attached, affected, connected.”

Choreography XX: Nicole Haskins stands on the merits

Nicole Haskins has made a sweeping ballet to music by Benjamin Britten for her part of Choreography XX

Choreographer Nicole Haskins may have the solution to the “where are all the women choreographers in ballet?” problem. The dance world has been discussing this question quietly over the past ten years, but the problem has gained momentum in the more mainstream media as of late.

“I think it’s great that people are asking the question, ‘Where are the women?’” Haskins said when we talked over coffee recently, “but I think that falls short of actually addressing the root problem, not even a problem, but the root reasons why there are fewer women. They’re out there. It’s not like there aren’t women out there who are choreographing, but you have to maybe look a little farther.”

That’s right! They’re out there. And three of them have been in Portland for the last four weeks creating new ballets on the amazing dancers at Oregon Ballet Theatre as part of Choreography XX, a choreography competition created by OBT artistic director Kevin Irving, to discover new women ballet choreographers. The free concert is outdoors in Washington Park, Thursday and Friday, June 29-30.

Haskins is one of the three, chosen with Helen Simoneau and Gioconda Barbuto from a pool of 91 applicants from across North America. (I interviewed Simoneau last week, and Barbuto and Irving this week.) So, yes, we may need more women choreographers, but maybe it would help if our companies employed the ones who are already doing the work.

Haskins is a ballet dancer and choreographer originally from Venice Beach, California. Her professional performing career began with Sacramento Ballet, where she danced for seven years, before going on to dance with Washington Ballet and then returning to California to dance with Smuin Ballet in San Francisco. She has been dancing with Smuin for the past four seasons.

OBT dancers Thomas Baker, Kelsie Nobriga, and Colby Parsons in rehearsals for Nicole Haskins’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

Haskins credits her success in choreography to the low-pressure workshops in making new work that both Sacramento Ballet and Smuin Ballet provided to the company dancers. They were free of cost and allowed her time to experiment with her craft. “It’s this idea that to be a choreographer you have to practice choreographing, and you need dancers, time and space. This is especially difficult for dancers who want to become choreographers, because, generally speaking, they cannot afford dancers, time and space .”

After choreographing 20 or so ballets through Sacramento Ballet, Haskins was accepted at the New York Choreographic Institute in 2010, where she created a new work on the advanced students at The School of American Ballet. The following year she received the institute’s Fellowship Grant to create a new work for Sacramento Ballet, and she received another fellowship grant this year to make a new ballet for Richmond Ballet. This past year Haskins was also a chosen as a choreographer at the National Choreographers Initiative in Irvine, California, a program that promotes experimentation in choreography. Choreographer Tom Gold, whom I interviewed a couple of weeks ago while he was in Portland setting a work on Portland Ballet, was there at the same time as Haskins, and Suzanne Haag, who dances with Eugene Ballet, is there this summer.

“These institutes and workshops and things where you are surrounded by other people going through the same thing as you and doing the same thing as you, are really empowering,” Haskins says. “I always try to seek them out—you can never know too many people or have to many connections.”

I asked her about how she felt about the lack of women choreographers in ballet. “A lot of women in ballet don’t work with women choreographers, so they don’t really necessarily think that they could do that, or know that there would be opportunities for them,” she said. An obvious solution to the problem right there.

“I want to believe that the lack of women choreographers in ballet especially, has a lot to do with the fact that ballet is a sexist sport.” Haskins said. “There are fewer men available, they get away with more, they’re usually the only boy in their school, they usually get scholarships to summer intensives. They are treated differently because we need them.” It’s a culture that women in ballet have accepted, even though they don’t like it.

For women in ballet she says it’s not a lack of confidence. “They have to work really hard to get that promotion. There’s a 100 other dancers waiting in the wings. They’re also in rehearsal more. If you look at classical ballets—Giselle, Act Two, say—there’s two men on stage. The rest of the men are off the whole time, and they have more free time to start choreographing.”

OBT dancers Thomas Baker, Kelsie Nobriga, and Colby Parsons in rehearsals for Nicole Haskins’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

For Haskins she hopes that she “can just be a choreographer, and not have to be a female choreographer. Cause I’m happy to stand there, but at some point it’s like, ‘well is it just because I was a woman and there were ten other men you liked better than me? But because you needed a women, you…’ I would like to be on my own merits as a choreographer.”

As a choreographer Haskins has created ballets to a variety of music, but she is mostly drawn to orchestral music. For her, the choreographic process begins there. “I feel like I’m drawn to music that has it’s own life and personality,” she says. “I feel like it makes my job easier, because it already has its own story, it’s its own emotional arc. I can choose to contrast that, I can chose to go with it. But in my mind, it does so much of my work for me, because it already has its own soul, and I just enhance that with movement.”

Her new ballet is set to the music of Benjamin Britten’s The Illuminations, a song cycle based on prose poems by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. “The orchestration that Benjamin Britten creates is so complex and intense, and goes through so many levels, Haskins explains. “I liked the challenge of this being nine really different tracks of music, and some of them aren’t the smoothest from one to the next, because it’s a song cycle I liked all of those elements combined.” And she pointed out that the variety within the music would be a nice adventure for the audience.

The objective that Haskins is working with is about stretching the dancers abilities, and helping them change the air around them. She is finding that she is interested in atypical aspects of ballet movement. “I tend to find that going into something and coming out of something can be just as interesting if not more interesting. I have not trained in contemporary dance very much, but I think it’s odd that those principles seem to be split in two a lot—that it’s either you’re a contemporary mover and it’s about the movement and where it’s coming from, or you’re a ballet dancer and it’s about the positions. I think that they both can help each other.”

OBT dancers Kelsie Nobriga and Colby Parsons in rehearsals for Nicole Haskins’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

Haskins biggest artistic influences are George Balanchine and Helen Pickett. “I really liked working with Helen Pickett because she is someone who, as a [former] dancer, is so committed to getting in the trenches with each dancer, and I feel like that’s helped inspire me, that I could give that much back to the other dancers.” Haskins worked with Pickett once at Sacramento Ballet and twice at Smuin Ballet, performing in Petal which Oregon Ballet Theatre performed this season. “She is vivacious and energetic,” Haskins says.

One of the most important things Haskins has learned over time is to be flexible and try not “to control every moment” in the choreographic process, she says. Her hours in the studio have given her confidence, tools, and experience to be able to walk into a professional ballet company like Oregon Ballet Theatre and make a new ballet in just four weeks—a pretty impressive feat.

Haskins’ ballet, which will be performed this weekend, is sweeping, grand, and architectural. It encompasses the attributes of classical ballet like the pointe shoe and the use of line, but goes beyond positions, allowing the limbs and energy to extend, limitless, into the space, creating a larger-than-life effect. But you can see for yourself this weekend at Washington Park—and see why the problem of getting more women choreographers onto our stages is an important one to resolve.

DanceWatch Weekly: Choreography XX in the park

Oregon Ballet Theatre makes for Washington Park, the last Spectacle Garden, the Improvisation Summit, more!

Over the last couple of weeks I have been a lucky, lucky fly on the wall at Oregon Ballet Theatre, watching the making of three new ballets by three, extremely talented women choreographers—Nicole Haskins, Helen Simoneau, and Gioconda Barbuto, the winners of the company’s Choreography XX competition. An initiative created by OBT artistic director Kevin Irving to discover new female ballet choreographers, Choreography XX attracted 91 applicants from across North America, and three were selected to create new ballets for the company.

Because I am curious about the direction that classical ballet is headed and how it relates to the the changing world at large, and the differences in how women lead/direct/choreograph verses men, I asked if I could sit in on the rehearsals and watch and write about it. It was an awesome experience.

Over the first three weeks I spoke with the choreographers about their artistic processes and what they thought about the dearth of women choreographers in ballet. I also sat down with OBT artistic director Kevin Irving to hear about his future vision for the company. You can read Simoneau’s interview here, Haskins interview here, and Irving and Barbuto’s interview here.

In watching rehearsals I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of limitations in what was being created and the borrowing of movement concepts from the modern dance world. I was also surprised at the amount of experimentation that was being asked of the dancers—and how open and comfortable they were with that process. I think being a part of the making process of a dance creates a different relationship between the dancer and the choreography, one that the dancers are much more invested in.

I felt that each choreographer’s way of speaking and the energy each emitted, created a different environment in the studio. That in turn created the environment within the dance. The choices around language, music, the steps, the attack, the imagery, the energy, the focus, and the costumes, are all aspects of who the choreographer is, and it is all reflected in the dance.

I noticed that each choreographer emphasized relationships within their choreography, and that the partnering models moved away from the typical male-female ballet partnering to include same-sex partnerships for both men and women. Also the expectations of what women could do physically within the partnering was altered because of the introduction of contemporary dance partnering principles, which see men and women as equals in physical ability. Seeing women lifting and supporting other women in ballet is new for me.

I also noticed a shared theme of group connection and how the whole group is affected when one person moves. At some point in each piece, the dancers gather and connect in a circular, amoeba-like group, try and move across the room together, and are affected by each other.

Watching these three pieces unfold over the last four weeks has been a completely enlivening experience and has reiterated that the road to successful choreography is about getting into the studio often, getting out of your own way, and letting “mistakes” happen.

Performances this week

OBT dancers Jacqueline Straughan and Martina Chavez in rehearsals for Gioconda Barbuto’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX, presented June 29 ­ 30th, 2017 at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater. Photo by Yi Yin.

Choreography XX
World premiers by Gioconda Barbuto, Nicole Haskins, and Helen Simoneau
Oregon Ballet Theatre
June 29-30
FREE
Washington Park Amphitheater, 410 SW Kingston Ave.
See above.
Because parking at the Washington Park Amphitheater is severely limited, TriMet is encouraging folks to take public transportation to OBT’s Choreography XX performance with this fun video featuring OBT2 dancers Erika Crawford and Daniel Salinas. Don’t forget to get there early to get a good seat.

Spectacle Garden 13: The End, hosted by Ben Martens , 7:30 pm June 30 at The Headwater Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St. Image by Cullen Siewert.

Spectacle Garden 13: The End
Hosted by Ben Martens
7:30 pm June 30
The Headwater Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St.

Sadly the spectacle is coming to an end. Ben Martens, who has been curating monthly performances at the Headwaters theatre for over a year now, is calling it quits. This monthly showcase has provided a free platform to experimental performers of all kinds to “work-it-out in real time, in front of a real live audience.” As far as I know, there isn’t another regular showcase of its kind in Portland, so Spectacle Garden will be greatly missed.

Spectacle Garden 13: The End, will be your last chance to catch some of Portland’s finest experimental artists under one roof. The program includes Natasha Kotey, Benja Farber, Elzza Doll, Katherine Rose, Simeon Jacobs, Ben Martens, Patrick McCulley, Laura Blake, Draven, Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company, and a sci-fi/music video By Port City’s Project Grow.

As always the evening will continue into the wee hours of the morning with the musical stylings of Amenta Abioto, Phil Stevens, Tig Bitty, and Angel 11.

Martens is a poet, electronic music producer, emcee, mover, organizer and performance artist with an interest in revolution, existentialism, comedy, mindfulness and environmentalism. He studied music and performance at Naropa University and has been studying Butoh with Mizu Desierto since his arrival in Portland in January 2015.

We look forward to future manifestations of Martens combined talents. Until then…dance on.

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks performing for a dress rehearsal at the Joyce Theater in Brian Brooks’ Some of a Thousand Words. Photo courtesy of Getty Images. Photo by Timothy A. Clary.

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan-a film
A film starring former New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan
June 30-July 6 daily 4:30, 8:20
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave.

This film, directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger, is an intimate, emotional portrayal of prima ballerina Wendy Whelan as she prepares to leave New York City Ballet after dancing with the company for 30 years. In an interview with Vulture magazine online, Whelan spoke with former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Mia Leimkuhler, about retirement, sexism, and ageism in the ballet world, and about making the choice to shoot the film: “{…} I’m at a crossroads in the company, I don’t know where I’m going to end up.” {…} I didn’t feel in control of my emotions at the time, because so many emotions were coming and going. It was scary to say how I really felt. Sadness, anger, fear, shame. Those were the big words at the time, and I was feeling those for a couple of years. To expose these feelings in front of a camera felt so foreign. Ballerinas don’t show those things. Ever. That’s just not what we’re taught to do.”

Improvisation Summit of Portland 2017. Photo of Intisar Abioto, courtesy of Danielle Ross.

Improvisation Summit of Portland 2017
Curated by Danielle Ross
Hosted by The Creative Music Guild and Disjecta
June 30-July 1
Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate Ave.

Dance/Performance Lineup
Friday, June 30th
7 pm Andrea Kleine and Linda Austin
8:15 pm Danielle Ross, Lisa Schonberg and Heather Treadway

Saturday, July 1st
7:15 pm Carla Mann and Brandon Conway
8:15 pm Andrea Kleine’s Ships w/ Linda Austin, Catherine Egan, Taylor Eggan, Kaj Anne Pepper, Danielle Ross and Noelle Stiles
9:30 pm Amenta Abioto and Intisar Abioto

Opening Friday night, the Improvisation Summit of Portland 2017 will features select members of the Portland dance community in improvised pairings, curated by Portland dance artist Danielle Ross. Since its inception in 2012, the Improvisation Summit, a subset of the Creative Music Guild, has brought together dancers, musicians, filmmakers and other experimental artists to create improvised, one-of-a-kind performances. Ross is interested in shaking up the audience’s relationship with the performance space by introducing movement and by showing how different choreographers play with, and relate to sound. Check out Creative Music Guild’s website for the full list of artist bios and clicking on the artist name.

Jon Peterson as the Emcee and the national touring cast of Cabaret, at Keller Auditorium. Photo: Joan Marcus

Cabaret
Roundabout Theatre Company
Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
June 27-July 2
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
In pre-war Germany, as the Nazis gain power, drama unfold between a young writer and Sally Bowles, a singer at the seedy Berlin nightclub called the Kit Kat Club. Nightlife is alluring, but dangerous, and times are uncertain. The Emcee, a ghoulish persona, tantalizes the crowd with his raucous, debauched performers, helping them to forget. In the musical’s final scene, as the Emcee is giving his Auf Wiedersehens, Sally Bowles says, “It’ll all work out, it’s only politics, what’s it got to do with us?”

Upcoming Performances

July
July 5, ARCOS studio showing, ARCOS Dance
July 6, Éowyn Emerald & Dancers
July 8, Ten Tiny Dances, Beaverton Farmers Market, Directed by Mike Barber
July 14-15, Rantum Skoot, Linda Austin, Gregg Bielemeier, Bob Eisen (NYC), and Sada Naegelin & Leah Wilmoth
July 14-16, Apparatus, by Danielle Ross
July 15, Rush Hour, Heidi Duckler Dance Theater Northwest
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
July 26, Movement and Flow: Portland Dance Films, Hosted by NW Film Center featuring films by Conrad Kazcor, Fuchsia Lin, Dylan Wilbur Media, Gabriel Shalom, Jackie Davis, and Amy Yang Chiao
July 29, Hafla, Portland Bellydance Guild
August
August 3-5, Galaxy Dance Festival, Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 11-13, JamBallah Northwest ’17, Hosted by JamBallah NW
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans
August 24-October 8, Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities, Cirque Du Soleil

ArtsWatch Weekly: making it work

You can help us keep the engine running; summer music festivals, "Cabaret" and "The Addams Family," "Baskerville" and more

We have a lot on our minds here at ArtsWatch this week, from the kickoff of the Chamber Music Northwest season to free ballet in the park to a chorus line of Broadway musicals. We’ll get to all of that, and more.

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Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Xuan Cheng in rehearsal for Giaconda Barbuto’s new work in “Choreography XX” at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater Thursday and Friday. Photo: Yi Yin

 

WHAT’S COMING UP THIS WEEK:

Continues…