All-American at the ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre "dances like real people" in a vibrant program of works by Alvin Ailey, Trey McIntyre, and BodyVox's Roland & Hampton

“Dance like you’re real people,” Trey McIntyre told the original cast members of his Robust American Love when he made it on Oregon Ballet Theatre for the 2013-14 season.  McIntyre’s take on the real people, particularly the women, who settled the American heartland is the centerpiece of OBT’s The Americans, the concluding repertory show of the 2018-19 season.  It opened Friday night at Portland’s Newmark Theatre and repeats Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, June 13-15.

Actually, Alvin Ailey’s Night Creature, which opens the show, and Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland’s Big Shoes, which closes it, are also about real people, arguably one of the overriding characteristics of American ballet that distinguishes it from the European tradition.  That characteristic dates back to 1936, when  Lincoln Kirstein founded Ballet Caravan, a small touring company with a repertoire of ballets about gas jockeys, outlaws (Billy the Kid), sailors on a whaling ship, and the urban poor.  Most of their scores were commissioned from American composers.

The OBT company in Alvin Ailey and Duke Ellington’s Night Creature. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

At Friday’s opening night performance, not only did OBT’s dancers “dance like real people” (and very different people, at that), they danced with the technical versatility, risk-taking speed, athleticism, and heart that are the hallmarks of American dancers.

Night Creature, the first work by Ailey to enter OBT’s repertoire, was made collaboratively with Duke Ellington and premiered in 1974 as part of a television special titled Ailey Celebrates Ellington. It’s been meticulously staged for OBT by Ronni Favors, who was rehearsal director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for eleven years. “Night creatures, unlike stars,” Ellington wrote, “do not come out at night—they come on, each thinking that before the night is out he or she will be a star.”  In literal terms, the real people in this dance are out on the town, having fun, dancing in the moonlight, in Ailey’s characteristic fusion of spine-bending, pelvis-thrusting modern movement with ballet lifts, high second position jumps, and a bit of  social dancing thrown into the mix.

It is, in the words of Sarita Allen, who was in the original cast and cherishes the memory of dancing with Ailey himself in that television special, a “light and frothy piece, but everything doesn’t have to be profound and deep.”  What is in fact profound and deep about this piece, Allen told me, is Ailey’s obsession with Ellington’s music.

This particular score is phenomenal—rich, textured, elegant, down and dirty, too—and OBT’s classically trained dancers gave the music everything they had, the men more successfully on the whole than the women. Specifically, I begin to think that Peter Franc, who danced the opening solo, can do anything—I can think of no technique more antithetical to Bournonville’s than Ailey’s, unless it’s Martha Graham’s, and Franc is as compelling a “night creature” as he is a Neapolitan fisherman or an American pioneer. Theodore Watler, who has danced with Hubbard Street, a modern company, danced like a shooting star, and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair, Thomas Baker and Michael Linsmeier also inhabited choreography made on bodies very different from theirs. Among the women, Jessica Lind threw both caution and spinal placement to the evening breeze, and Katherine Monogue’s sensuous, spine-bending performance was as richly detailed as Ellington’s music.  Monogue, who has been dancing at her peak the past two seasons and has worked incredibly hard to get there, in a wide range of roles—including a Spanish peasant, bent to the ground she is working, in Nacho Duato’s Jardi Tancat, and the technically demanding Dew Drop Fairy in The Nutcracker—is second cast as the pioneer mother in Robust American Love; I regret that I won’t be able to see that performance.

I have no regrets, however, about seeing Eva Burton’s opening night interpretation in Robust American Love of the role Alison Roper originated in what I think, after several viewings, is a small American masterpiece, set to the folk/rock music of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes. Burton’s fiercely realistic approach to the role is very different than Roper’s, and just as good. It is staggering in its dynamics as she dances her way through the piece, which takes its title from a poem by Walt Whitman. What McIntyre’s choreography is all about is the determination, the frustration, the weariness, the laughter and the sorrow of this country’s pioneer women.

Eva Burton and Peter Franc in Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

With no point shoes in evidence, and in costumes that suggest the 19th century daily dress of both women and men, but which free the dancers’ legs for McIntyre’s expansive modern-accented classical vocabulary, the piece has a fast opening that introduces the characters and sets the scene. Michael Linsmeier an Xuan Cheng, reprising their roles in the premiere; Brian Simcoe and Franc, who like Burton are dancing this ballet for the first time; were clearly having a very good time with this part on Friday night. In a pas de deux with Franc, Burton dances aggressively, using her long cutaway skirt like a toreador’s cape. In her pas de deux with Simcoe, her passion is palpable, as is his; and in her solo, weariness is conveyed with the slump of her shoulders, determination with the squaring of those shoulders, and frustration with the tension in her dancing.

Macintyre’s pas de deux for Cheng and Linsmeier is laced with wit and charm, and that’s exactly how they danced it, playfully and skillfully: They’ve danced it before and they have it down pat, and it shows. And Franc, it goes without saying, performed his solo with the same conviction and artistry and technical skill he applies to all his dancing.

The Americans closes with Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland’s Big Shoes, set to a compiled score of music by Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Alphonse Mouzon, DJ Spooky, Stan Kenton Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, and an excellent closer it is. 

Like the real people in Night Creature, these real people are having a fabulous time partying down, not in the moonlight, but seemingly at a cross between a pajama party and a rave.  At least that’s what Roland’s wildly patterned costumes suggested to me. What the piece is about, according to program notes, is children playing dress-up with grownups’ clothes, and the moment when they imagine traveling the road into their future. The piece, and I quote, concludes with the “day those big shoes fit, and the path ahead revealed itself.  History relived and born anew, with passion, humor, delight and grace.”

All dressed up with somewhere to go: Jamie Hampton and Ashley Roland’s Big Shoes. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

 Alexos Carabas, Henry Roth, Arwyn Stech and Poppy Yue, children from OBT’s School, open the piece stomping around awkwardly in very big shoes, indeed, and having considerable fun doing it. A long (too long) lyrical section follows, initiated by the men—Baker; Christopher Kaiser, who is spectacularly good in this piece; Linsmeier; Colby Parsons, who absolutely parties down throughout; and Simcoe.  Monogue, Cheng, Davis, Lind, and Emily Parker completed the Friday cast.  

In the second half of this skillfully crafted piece, Hampton and Roland do what they do best—namely the splicing of live dancing with film of the same dancers performing. This is, in fact, a BodyVox piece, and in it there are many elements of their repertoire, including risky dancing on a steep ramp, lots of highly energetic jumping, and extremely stylized use of the hands, reminiscent of Momix, of which Hampton and Roland were founding members.  Big Shoes (and none of them were point shoes, incidentally) was performed with considerable zest and pleasure by the cast, winning the adoration of the audience, which laughed and applauded throughout and left the theater smiling broadly.

In his pre-curtain speech, OBT artistic director Kevin Irving rightly expressed his gratitude to the dancers for their contribution to this concluding program of the company’s 29th season. I would like to take the opportunity to express my own gratitude to Irving for reviving, under a new name, OBT founding artistic director James Canfield’s American Choreographers Showcase, which if memory serves me, he started in the early nineties.   McIntyre made Like a Samba, his first ballet for OBT, for the 1997 program, which included Bebe Miller’s Roses in a Righteous Garden and Paul Vasterling’s The Seasons.

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