oregon ballet theatre

‘Impact,’ Take 2: Ballet with a future

Oregon Ballet Theatre's premiere of Moultrie's 'Instinctual Confidence' is a genre-jumping peek at what's current and what's to come

By DAMIEN JACK

There is nothing dry and dusty about Impact, the program topping off Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th season. After last Friday night’s performance I was making my way out of the Newmark when I heard a woman in front of me turn to her friend and say: “I hate ballet, but that was (bleeping) fantastic!” Now, I happen to love ballet. I’m a balletomane. A ballet queen. Yes, I am. I’m somewhat obsessed. I love to write about ballet, to talk about ballet, and most of all to watch ballet. Still, there are moments—sitting through yet another mummified production of Swan Lake or the latest robotic, ice-cold “contemporary” ballet—when I, too, hate ballet and feel like it’s time to tap out a shim-sham on the art form’s dying corpse. What’s exhilarating about the OBT program is that it makes you feel that ballet has a future. More importantly, from start to finish, you see that this program is alive to the present moment.

"Instinctual Confidence," from left: Michael Linsmeier, Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng, Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Makino Hayashi, Chauncey Parsons, Ye Li, Eva Burton. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Instinctual Confidence,” from left: Michael Linsmeier, Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng, Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Makino Hayashi, Chauncey Parsons, Ye Li, Eva Burton. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program–which concludes with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, April 23-25–opens with a world premiere: Instinctual Confidence, the work of a young American choreographer, born and raised in Harlem, named Darrell Grand Moultrie. He quite rightly refers to his style as “genre jumping.” Moultrie’s career has jumped from Broadway to ballet and, yes, even to Beyoncé—he worked on her “Mrs. Carter Tour”—and back again. Instinctual Confidence doesn’t look like any dance I’ve seen before. It’s a hot mess. Moultrie delivers a tasty mix of movement styles, rhythms and steps. The piece is all derring-do. He’s not afraid to risk a move that’s so unexpected and odd that it reads at first as ugly. The way something in a Cunningham dance might look the first time you see it. But the work is so compelling that you can’t for a moment look away. Throughout the piece a dancer will move into a position drawn from the vocabulary of classical ballet, then suddenly shift out of it—moving into an ever-morphing series of movements that flow further and further away from the classical. A great deal of the fun of the piece is in watching that metamorphosis. And it’s a very speedy ride with Kenji Bunch’s propulsive score helping to push the pedal—even the “slow” sections of the dance feel explosive.

That speed makes Instinctual Confidence difficult to read after just one viewing. However, certain images and dancers linger in the mind. Makino Hayashi’s riveting, cat-like entrance and solo is danced to the music of her own breathing and the sound of her feet and body moving across the stage. She creates a mood and atmosphere that all of the dancers will follow—intense, tough, competitive. Martina Chavez is a knockout in another memorable solo—she looks for all the world like a young Martha Graham. The purple dress she wears is quite unlike the sleek black costumes worn by the other dancers (all designed by Christine Joly de Lotbiniere), as is the choreography Moultrie created for her. To my eye that too seems to be, at least in part, a kind of tribute to Graham, complete with signature turns and leg kicks; but the impression might simply be created by the way that the dress combines with the movement.

There’s a later moment in the ballet when the stage is suddenly crowded with dancers and you can’t possibly take in everything that’s going on, but then Brian Simcoe and Chauncey Parsons come tearing onstage at full speed and spinning like tops, and you can’t look at anything else. Simcoe, always a standout, is on fire throughout Impact. His dancing is wonderfully finished; every movement is fully inhabited, given its full weight. He’s unfailingly musical. There’s nobility to all he does, but there’s never anything stuffy or pompous about his dancing.

Parsons plays a key role in the section of Instinctual Confidence that seemed to have everyone in the theater talking during intermission. Moultrie has dressed a trio of men (Parsons, Michael Linsmeier, and Jordan Kindall) in ice blue tutus. Nothing else. Just tutus. In a program note the choreographer insists he “is not making a statement about gender,” but it’s difficult to think of another costume as strongly gendered as the tutu. We can’t help but see the figure of the classical ballerina somewhere in the back of our mind while watching these men perform. At the same time,  there’s nothing campy going on. Several members of the audience guffawed when the guys first appeared, but the laughter quickly died away. The three don’t interact. They are a unit, but separated; and each man is completely absorbed, intense and focused on performing (as if they were defusing a bomb or cracking a safe) a complex series of stretching and reaching movements. The intensity is coupled with a vulnerability that derives in large part from the way the tutu transforms the male body. The dichotomy is surprisingly moving.

Michael Linsmeier in "Instinctual Confidence."  Photo: James McGrew

Michael Linsmeier in “Instinctual Confidence.” Photo: James McGrew

Where Instinctual Confidence is least interesting and most conventional is in its two pas de deux. These are well-made, fierce, and beautifully danced, with Brian Simcoe and Xuan Cheng making an especially fine couple. That said, why is it that contemporary ballet has been so slow to drag the pas de deux out of the 19th century when it comes to gender roles? You’d think feminism had never happened. Queer people don’t seem to exist at all. The form has changed only in that it’s more virtuosic and more openly sexual than ever. A female dancer is often encouraged to play tough in the pas de deux, but generally that toughness is all about affect and not about choreography. What gives? In a piece and a program that otherwise is so connected to the here and now, this is a peculiar but all too familiar slip.

Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, which had its world premiere at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet back in 1979 and was first seen at OBT in 1990, might seem, given its age, an odd fit on this program; but as much as any of the other pieces it is devoted to re-thinking and enlarging our conception of genre. Spaight, whose death in 1993 from AIDS was a terrible loss to the dance world, reinvents the training or teaching ballet, a work designed for young dancers. It’s a form that has inspired fine work from many choreographers, including Balanchine and Robbins.

Crayola dispenses with the usual musical score so that the dancers move to the rhythms and sounds made by their own toe shoes. Spaight also removed the (often tedious) mime associated with classical ballet, replacing it with American Sign Language. In addition to the expected classical steps, Spaight has his dancers perform pedestrian movement: walking, standing, and sitting. Those might appear to be simple things to do in comparison to, say, bourréeing across the stage, but many would argue they are just as hard, perhaps harder, to master. Spaight was teaching his dancers how to hold the stage; how to command attention. The young, apprentice dancers who make up OBT’s new junior company OBT2 dance the piece with style and precision (no easy task without music to hide behind), and their gestures are so eloquent you know just what they are telling you with their silent words even without the aid of an interpreter.

Nicolo Fonte’s Presto is something else entirely. It is a short trip in a very fast machine. As soon as it’s over you want to press replay and see it all over again. Driven by Ezio Bosso’s fun stop-and-start score, the dance is an explosive workout for four dancers: Ansa Deguchi, Avery Reiners, Eva Burton and Colby Parsons. You can’t imagine how they get through the thing, but part of the pleasure of Presto is seeing the dancers take pleasure in testing themselves. You sense, too, that Fonte had fun making the piece—taking the virtuoso showpiece right to its breaking point. Fonte’s choreography is marked by a proud, drawn-up torso and a precise, sharp attack that calls to mind flamenco dance, but it’s flamenco combined with ballet and done on a high wire.

The night comes to a powerful conclusion with Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement. The company dances this one barefoot, but with the very same ease and commitment that characterized the previous works on the program. Here, however, the material grows dark. Set to Toto Bissainthe’s haunting creole songs, Rassemblement is a mix of nightmare and dream. It is, in part, about the oppression suffered by slaves in colonial Haiti. It is also about their resistance to that repression and their hunger for liberation. The dance is at its best during its surging, rhythmically propulsive ensembles. The sections that attempt to represent the traumas faced by an enslaved people, while affecting, are (understandingly perhaps) a little too prettified. Still, this is one of Duato’s most sensitive and lyrical works, and a welcome addition to the OBT repertory. Brett Bauer and Makino Hayashi made a strong impression in their duet, a mix of delicacy, melancholy and eroticism. Martina Chavez was electrifying in a too-brief solo that made you want to follow her right down the road to revolution.

Revolution and evolution are just what ballet needs. OBT is giving it a roll, and it’s already paying off. Best of all, OBT will be repeating the entire Impact program beginning on Thursday April 23 and running through Saturday April 25. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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See Martha Ullman West’s review of Impact here.

OBT dancers: Making an ‘Impact’

From Spaight to Duato, the ballet company's Newmark program revels in variety and the spice of life

“The rhythm of my dancing is the same as the beat of my heart.  I think. I imagine. I hear.  I feel. I do it for you.”

That is a translation of the American Sign Language the dancers “speak” in Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, the second piece on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary season wrap-up, which opened at the Newmark Theatre on Thursday.

"Crayola," from left: Kimberly Nobriga, Samantha Allen, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, Shea McAdoo, Paige Wilkey. Photo: Yi Yin

“Crayola,” from left: Kimberly Nobriga, Samantha Allen, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, Shea McAdoo, Paige Wilkey. Photo: Yi Yin

OBT’s dancers–all of them, not just the apprentices and professional level students who performed Crayola–danced those words in every piece on the Impact program, their commitment to the choreographers’ wildly different points of view driving them as much as the music, or, in the case of Crayola, the sound of their point shoes hitting the floor.

I’ve long thought Crayola a deceptive title for a piece that is not about dancing crayons, cute as that might be, but rather dance as the most human of the arts. In new, soft, costumes designed by New York cinematographer and costume designer Christine Meyers, with the sign language updated by the mother of one of the dancers, this iteration of a dance I’ve seen many, many times charmed me in ways it has not in past performances.  All six dancers–company apprentices Kimberly Nobriga, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, an Paige Wilkey; SOBT students Samantha Allen and Shea McAdoo–executed the intricacies of Spaight’s arrangements of the classical vocabulary with precision and wit.  Wilkey, whatever she did, from holding an unsupported arabesque to whipping out fouettés to  bourréeing rapidly across the stage, showed the promise and personality of a true ballerina, and I hope she sticks around. I would also love to see this company (OBT2, that is) perform Spaight’s Theatre Dances, made originally for the Jefferson Dancers, and about the young dancers for whom he felt such empathy.

fEARnoDANCEFORM might have made a more informative title for Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Instinctual Confidence, a world premiere set to music (mostly) composed by Portland composer Kenji Bunch, artistic director of fEARnoMUSIC, which opened the show.  Choreographer and composer met when they were students at Juilliard and share a highly eclectic vision of music and dance, melding popular culture with high art, as others, such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Rennie Harris, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Virgil Thomson have done before them.

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, and Chauncey Parsons in "Instinctual Confidence."  Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, and Chauncey Parsons in “Instinctual Confidence.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Moultrie incorporates the pedestrian running of postmodern dance, classical ballet, a touch of street dancing, and children’s play into a fast-moving piece in which there is a bewildering number of undeveloped movement ideas, making it difficult for me, at least, to figure out what it’s about.  Program notes informed me that it’s basically about the dancers, these particular dancers, its official title intended to convey the unself-conscious, confident actions of children at play. Some of the movement did just that: the opening’s  runs, floor rolls and a kind of stylized tag, indicating kids playing in the streets of New York as Moultrie himself did as a lad; Martina Chavez–in a lovely turquoise dress designed by Christine Joly de Lotbinière, who also designed the workout clothes look-alikes for the rest of the cast–spinning like a little girl who is delighted with her new party dress; a trio of men playing dress-up in tutus, which Moultrie intended  to give them the experience of having their dancing restricted by tulle. It’s not meant to be funny, and it isn’t. Many audience members loved this trio, and while it was certainly well-danced by Michael Linsmeier, Chauncey Parsons and Jordan Kindell, it somehow didn’t grab me.

For me, the highlights were the two high-energy pas de deux, particularly the first one danced by the technically impeccable Brian Simcoe and the versatile (and how!) Xuan Cheng, and Michael Mazzola’s lights, some of them a stunningly beautiful re-creation of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings. The piece ends with the whole cast on stage, dancing in unison against a brilliant and celebratory red wall, to wonderful jazzy music, which then shifts to a more lyrical sound during which we see a male dancer dragging a female dancer across the stage floor.  This is a male chauvinist movement cliché I damned well don’t ever want to see again.

Martina Chavez in "Presto." Photo: Yi Yin

Martina Chavez in “Presto.” Photo: Yi Yin

What I would like to see again is Nicolo Fonte’s Presto, the penultimate piece on the program.  Danced by Chavez, Simcoe, Cheng and Parsons, who did some partner switching, it’s nine minutes of aggressive, classical dancing that demands a punching thrust of the limbs coupled with extremely sharp attack. Chavez shone in this one, and all four dancers were visibly enjoying themselves.  Presto, which takes its title from Edio Bosso’s score, was originally made for Ballet West, where Fonte is resident choreographer and David Heuvel, who designed the incredibly elegant shorts and tops, is resident costumier.

For Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement, OBT’s dancers shed their shoes and classical decorum to deliver a gut-wrenching performance of a work that made little impact on me when I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet dance it several years ago. Perhaps this is because the cultural context has changed. The 1990 piece, inspired by Haitian Creole songs recorded by Toto Bissainthe, is about 18th century plantation slaves, forbidden to practice their own religious rites and punished for doing so. As I watched the section in which Kindell, who completely owns this role, is brutalized by a couple of cops, I couldn’t help thinking about all the police shootings of African Americans we’ve seen as recently as last week in the land of the free and the brave. Movement taken from Martha Graham’s Lamentation (the dancer completely covered by cloth, body sunk in a wide second position plié,) also made me think of Franco’s Spain, where Duato, born in 1957, grew up under the oppressive eye of the Guarda Civil.

While all the dancers gave this highly emotional work everything they had, their commitment and understanding of the subject informing their dancing, I couldn’t take my eyes off  company artist Sarah Griffin, who gave a performance that was as passionate as it was political, or Kindell, or Cheng.  The closer for repertory shows, traditionally, is lighthearted and cheerful, like Balanchine’s appalling Stars and Stripes or his magnificent Symphony in C. Irving, who staged Rassemblement and as artistic director selected and commissioned the works on the program he titled Impact, ended this show with a work so well-danced that, while less than cheerful, it serves as the most powerful illustration of the program’s theme.

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OBT’s Impact continues through April 25 in the Newmark Theatre, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19; and 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 23-25. Ticket information is here.

A double dash of Dennis Spaight

OBT2 and Northwest Dance Theatre are reviving works by the late, great Portland choreographer

For lighting designer Peter West, a frequent collaborator with Dennis Spaight in the last years of the choreographer’s life,  “the door into [his] work was his musicality: his astonishing ability to compose lines of movement that complemented, expanded and illuminated music. And likewise his choices of music illuminated his movement phrases. His range was exceptional: Gershwin, Ellington, Vivaldi, Schubert, Copland, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Schumann – and even silence.”

West, commenting on a Feb. 7, 2013 ArtsWatch story, Remembering Dennis Spaight, 20 Years Later, had it right.

The young dancers of OBT2 rehearsing Spaight's "Crayola." Photo: Friderike Heuer

Rehearsing Spaight’s “Crayola”: Emma-Anne Bauman (front), Kimberly Nobriga (middle-left) and Paige Wilkey (middle-right); Siri Ell-Lewis (back-left) and Emily Parker. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s founding associate artistic director and resident choreographer died more than two decades ago, but this spring, Spaight’s spirit and his talent are very much alive in the bodies of two groups of young dancers, Northwest Dance Theatre and OBT’s newly formed OBT2.  The ballets they are performing are quite different, but both bear the unmistakable stamp of an artist whose sensitivity to the human condition was just as acute as his ear for music.

NDT performs excerpts from Gloria on a mixed program Saturday and Sunday at Portland Community College Sylvania’s Performing Arts Center. Set to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria Mass,” the ballet pays eloquent tribute to Spaight’s mother’s Catholic faith. Like the music, the dance is both celebratory and sad, the choreographer’s vocabulary a demanding mix of classical technique and modern expressiveness.  “Dance is my religion,” Spaight once told me, and this ballet, last seen in its entirety when OBT danced it in the fall of 1993 on an all-Spaight commemorative program that included Scheherazade and Rhapsody in Blue, is a richly beautiful manifestation of that creed.

When he listed “even silence” as part of Spaight’s musical range, West, who has redone the lighting for NDT’s production of Gloria, was surely referring to Crayola, which OBT’s youngest dancers will perform starting April 16 when the company concludes its 25th anniversary season at the Newmark with a repertory program titled Impact.

It is the impact of the dancers’ point shoes on the floor of the stage that provides the accompaniment for a work that is not about dancing crayons, but about incorporating American Sign Language into the classical vocabulary and turning a social occasion—in this instance young ladies at a teaparty—into a dance.  Crayola, which Spaight made for Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1979, is not, as Gloria is, a major work. But it does show that very early in his sadly curtailed career, he had full command of his craft and a light touch with it. An excellent vehicle for young dancers (it contains some exuberant movement involving chairs), Crayola, I was told by Alison Roper last fall, is fun to dance.  It is certainly fun to watch. Both ballets were staged by Spaight Trust repetiteur Carol Shults with loving care, judicious adjustments, and unimpeachable dedication to the choreographer’s intent.

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Schedule and ticket details for Northwest Dance Theatre’s performances are here.

Schedule and ticket details for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Impact are here.

OBT slips on the slipper

Ben Stevenson's romantic version of "Cinderella" puts a fairy-tale spin on the ballet company's season

“Outside girl, go here! Cabriole girl, here’s what I want you to do! Inside girl, where are you?”

Janie Parker, a lithe woman wearing shiny powder-blue tights with a loose black tee-shirt  over them, and pink ballet slippers on her feet, doesn’t look like the prima ballerina of Houston Ballet, which she was when Trey McIntyre was a member of the corps.  Nor does she look like  an army drill sergeant, but she certainly sounds like one.

Xuan Cheng in rehearsal as Cinderella. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng in rehearsal as Cinderella. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Last Wednesday afternoon, in the main studio at Oregon Ballet Theatre, Parker was in the final stages of setting the Act III ballroom waltz in Ben Stevenson’s version of Cinderella.  They were 10 days away from opening night at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 28.  All six performances (it’s a two-weekend run) will be accompanied by live orchestra, led by Niel DePonte, who elsewhere in the building was watching video, with Sergei Prokofiev’s difficult score in hand.

Small wonder Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother require a dance master before attending the Prince’s ball. In Stevenson’s choreography for the famous waltz – which is introduced at the end of Act I, when Cinderella is en route to the ball, then reprised in the ballroom scene – the steps are as complex and detailed as the music, with seemingly a slightly different step for every note.

This, along with Stevenson’s intensely romantic point of view, leavened in this work by the English music-hall antics of Cinderella’s en travestie stepsisters (think Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire), makes the ballet extremely challenging for the dancers, most of whom are accustomed to a “cooler” approach to the art of the ballet. That, however, is one of the  reasons  company artistic director Kevin Irving chose Stevenson’s rendition of a ballet that has hundreds of different versions. “It challenges the dancers with new skills,” he told me. He also likes “the romantic approach, choreographically and philosophically,” and cited “virtues over looks and goodness rewarded” as themes of the ballet. And he wanted to add a new evening-length ballet to OBT’s repertoire in the company’s 25th anniversary season.

Stevenson, who is British by birth, and British-trained, danced with the London Festival Ballet and The Royal Ballet before coming to this country , where in 1970 he made Cinderella for the National Ballet of Washington. A year later he was co-artistic director with his compatriot, Frederic Franklin, and choreographed a new Sleeping Beauty for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The National Ballet was short-lived (Nancy Matschek, who established the even shorter-lived dance major at Portland State, danced with it.)  Stevenson has spent the bulk of his career in Texas, however, first putting Houston Ballet on the national and international maps and now directing Texas Ballet Theatre, near Dallas. That company built the sets and costumes on loan for the Portland run.

In the three quarters of a century since Prokofiev began composing the score for a Soviet production of this most universal of fairy tales, there have been countless choreographic takes on the rags to riches story, which exists in some form all over the world. I’ve seen Sir Frederick Ashton’s for the then Sadler’s Wells Ballet, in New York when they made their first American tour in 1949, with the stunning Moira Shearer in the title role. Most recently, a couple of years ago, I saw Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan’s version performed by Kansas City Ballet. Kent Stowell’s is in the repertoire of Pacific Northwest Ballet; Eugene Ballet’s artistic director Toni Pimble has one that is quite close to Ashton’s (though she says she’s never seen it); Pimble’s was last seen in Portland in 1988, when OBT forerunner Ballet Oregon had several collaborative seasons with  her company.

There are many, many roles for dancers in Cinderella, but in Stevenson’s version, none for little kids, who in some productions appear gratuitously in Cinderella’s kitchen and elsewhere. However, upper division students from OBT’s School are incorporated into the ballroom scene, and they were definitely learning a lot when I watched rehearsal.  All casting is subject to change, but Xuan Cheng, Ansa Deguchi and Eva Burton are slated to dance Cinderella, with Chauncey Parsons, Brian Simcoe and Colby Parsons as the Prince. Like most of the choreography in this ballet, the partnering is intricate and dramatic.

Brett Bauer, both Parsons brothers, Michael Linsmeier, Ye Li, Adam Hartley and Thomas Baker have been cast in the extremely challenging role of the Step Sisters; they will be cavorting a fine line between slapstick and burlesque, and they will have to do it on the music. Ballet Master Lisa Kipp has been cast as Cinderella’s Stepmother; Baker in the small but important role of the dancing master.

All Cinderellas include a number of bravura turns.  Stevenson’s has a Jester. Li, Avery Reiners and Linsmeier will get a chance to show off their athletic, Soviet-style technique in this role in Act III.  For the women, there are the divertissements for the fairies; Autumn will be danced by Candace Bouchard, who will also exercise her dramatic skills as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother; Summer by the beautiful Martina Chavez.

Cinderella in some respects is a better “first ballet” for children than The Nutcracker. Kids know the story well; it’s a “happily ever after” ballet; and there is a great deal of action: it moves very fast in Stevenson’s version.  Grown-ups will enjoy those qualities, too, as well as the melding of difficult music with demanding choreography, which when I watched rehearsal,  OBT’s dancers were well on the way to perfecting.

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Cinderella runs for six performances, Feb. 28-March 7, at Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W Clay St. Ticket and casting information here.

‘Nut': doin’ what comes naturally

In this beloved and most artificial of holiday perennials, George Balanchine wanted his dancers to seem natural. In OBT's 'Nutcracker," they do.

There’s much to love in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, and in the way it is performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre. OBT opened its annual run at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, with live orchestra under the baton of Niel DePonte, and would that the orchestra were present at all performances. Even when the musicians play Tchaikowsky’s score less than perfectly, both they and the dancers, working together, make me see and hear new things in a ballet I’ve watched more times than I can count.

Kelsie Nobriga as a Snowflake. Photo: James McGraw

Kelsie Nobriga as a Snowflake. Photo: James McGraw

Balanchine wanted the children to look natural (actually he wanted all dancers to look natural, in this highly artificial form) and they definitely do in the party scene that begins the familiar story of Marie’s Christmas Eve dream. Johannes Gikas, as Fritz, Marie’s brother, misbehaved so easily, he made me wonder if he is something of a handful at home.  Zaida Johnson, the afternoon’s Marie, thoroughly convinced me that she loved her basically hideous Nutcracker doll (injured by naughty Fritz) enough to risk that spooky Stahlbaum parlor to check on him after everyone else was in bed. Balanchine’s Marie is an activist, moreover,  brave enough to save the Nutcracker Prince from certain death by flinging her shoe at the Mouse King during their duel, although on opening day she missed him by quite a bit. Possession of a lovely port de bras doesn’t necessarily also mean possession of a good pitching arm.

I love, always, and mostly because of the music, the first act’s  “Grandfather Dance,” which is not dissimilar to a Virginia Reel,  and is a multi-generational affair. Company artist Thomas Baker danced a wonderfully arthritic grandfather, partnering Samantha Baybado as a less convincingly ancient grandmother. Chauncey Parsons as Herr Drosselmeier, avuncular in the party scene when he presented the dancing dolls and the Nutcracker, and deliciously sinister as he sets the stage for Marie’s dream, proved himself as good a character dancer as he is a bravura technician.

En route to the Land of the Sweets, Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, in which the excellent Collin Trummel gives fresh touches to a role he could probably do in his sleep, pass through the Land of the Snow, wherein lies some of the most challenging dancing in the ballet. That’s because of the artificial snow, which can make the stage nearly as slippery as the real thing. I was particularly taken with the centered, expressive dancing of Sarah Griffin, a new company artist this year, but all sixteen dancers, some of whom are advanced students, stayed on their feet and stayed together in sparkling fashion, like real snowflakes, none of them looking precisely alike.

When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in 1954, New York Times critic John Martin complained that there was no real dancing in it, that it was nothing but mime and pageantry and spectacle, the very things that Mr. B. had stripped from classical ballet in such works as Four Temperaments and Symphony in C. The Waltz of the Snowflakes in fact is pure, plotless movement, it struck me on Saturday, and so is the Waltz of the Flowers. In some versions of this ballet it can be a boring repetition of Snow, albeit to different music. What saves it here is the Dewdrop Fairy, an invention of Balanchine’s, and a role he made originally for Tanaquil LeClercq, whose speed and chic and technical finesse were legendary. Candace Bouchard, a very different dancer, has made this role her own in the last couple of years, and on Saturday she really nailed it, dancing it with such musicality and delicate strength she managed to distract me from the garish backdrop and ditto tutus worn by the candied flowers. Lighting designer Michael Mazzola does his magical best each year to spotlight the dancing and obscure the set, but there is just so much that even he can do. I noticed this year that he had changed some of the lighting for the preamble to the party, suggesting, as does the music, the spookiness to come.

Balanchine loved acrobatics and had much enjoyed performing what was called the Hoop dance when he was a student at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, so along with the mime that tells the Sugarplum Fairy how Marie and her Nutcracker Prince made it to the Kingdom of the Sweets, he included it intact in his twentieth-century version of the nineteenth-century classic. Jordan Kindell infused his performance of what’s now called Candy Cane with what I imagine is much the same infectious joy as the young Balanchine.

And when danced well, as it was on Saturday afternoon, by Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier’s Grand Pas de Deux can certainly make the heart beat faster and the tears flow. Balanchine broke up this traditional pas de deux and got some flack for it, but Sugar Plum does her variation at the beginning of the second act, and I thought that, while Cheng plucked at the floor with her pointes with time-honored musicality, she was just a little too “look at me” presentational.  That quality went away by the time she danced with the courtly Simcoe, who pulls off the technical tricks here with insouciance and ease.

A roiling of rats. Photo: James McGrew

A roiling of rats. Photo: James McGrew

What I find it increasingly difficult to love are the “national” divertissements of the second act. Hot Chocolate is OK, and Martina Chavez gave it some actual heat on Saturday afternoon; and the Marzipan Shepherdesses can be charming. But Coffee and Tea are really dated, and not in a good way. In the hootchy-kootchy Coffee, Makino Hayashi undulated on pointe as required, but I think took it sufficiently seriously to omit the satiric edge that Alison Roper used to give it, which for me at least makes it nearly bearable to watch. Tea, with its winsome Orientalist cuteness, usually makes me cringe, and my heart sank when I saw that Ye Li, who actually is Chinese, had been given the assignment.  Li, however, omitted the head-tilting cuteness, jumping high and rapidly, but I couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking.

I was curious, too, to see what Colby Parsons, new to OBT this season, would do with the role of Mother Ginger; if he would camp it up the way others have, or play it relatively straight. He played it quite straight, and mostly got laughs when he brushed his teeth, logical after consuming all those sweets, but a bit of didacticism I hadn’t noticed before. That, since the Balanchine Trust is extremely picky about note-by-note, step-by-step fidelity to the master’s original, or more specifically, the version of the ballet set by the authorized répétiteurs, sent me scurrying through histories of this Nutcracker to see if that was part of the original choreography.  Turns out Mr. B. did allow for some improvisation in this role, so it’s permissible. Why the Trust refuses permission to have the party girls win the tug of war against the party boys every now and then beats hell out of me. Kevin Irving asked, and was turned down flat.

Casting changes throughout the run: there are three new Sugar Plums this year: Bouchard, Eva Burton and Chavez, each of whom will put her own stamp on the role.  That was encouraged by Balanchine, and he often adjusted the choreography for individual dancers. Absent the choreographer, it is the dancers, after all, with the help of their ballet masters (in this instance Lisa Kipp and Jeffrey Stanton), who at the end of the day are responsible for providing this Nutcracker much to love.

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OBT’s “Nutcracker” continues at Keller Auditorium through Dec. 27. Some performances include live music, and others are performed to a recorded score; be sure to check the schedule. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

Creating ‘The Nutcracker': It’s kids’ stuff

Gavin Larsen and a ballet school's worth of students get ready for OBT's annual holiday ballet, opening Saturday

It is 3:45 p.m. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Chattering children in various sizes and shapes, dressed in practice clothes, mill around the lobby outside the main studio in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s current digs on Southeast Sixth Avenue, where Nutcracker rehearsals will soon take place. There isn’t a whole lot of time left before OBT’s annual run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker opens at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday, December 13.

The crowd spills over into the corridor outside the company’s second studio, where children’s ballet master Gavin Larsen is coaching Ruby Mae Lefebvre, one of the Maries, in the first act transition scene between the party’s end and the battle of the mice and toy soldiers.  Two more Maries, Malia McClanahan and Zaida Johnson, sit quietly on the studio floor, backs against the wall, intent on what Lefebre is doing and what Larsen is saying about it.

Eva Burton as the Sugarplum Fairy, rehearsing with ballet school students. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton as the Sugarplum Fairy, rehearsing with ballet school students. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Tchaikovsky’s score is dramatic and scary; Balanchine’s choreography deceptively simple in this part of the story of a young girl’s Christmas Eve dream of warring mice and toy soldiers and a journey to the Land of the Sweets. Marie is alone late at night in the Stahlbaum parlor, having fallen asleep on a settee, holding her injured toy Nutcracker. Her mother has put the Nutcracker into a doll’s bed and tucked a shawl around her exhausted child, but later Marie awakens and rises to look for her new toy. The music swells menacingly, and Marie runs around the stage, terrified at being alone in the dark.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewLefebvre, who is 11 years old, is blessed with an extremely pretty face, which she knows how to use to dramatic effect. (Many older and professional dancers don’t seem to know what to do with their faces, including modern and contemporary practitioners.) The music starts; she runs. Larsen counts for her, and then stops the music to tell her she’s a little behind the beat. Lefebvre tries again; again Larsen stops her to suggest an arm be held lower. Lefebvre tries yet again, her mobile face and speedy feet convincing me of her fear. And then it’s time to move next door to the big studio, so Larsen can work on the second-act entrances before full company rehearsals begin the following week.

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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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