American song, American violence: OBT’s dance for troubled times

Two world premieres and a company premiere reveal the dancers' range

From left: Michael Linsmeier, Xuan Cheng, Javier Ubell, Lucas Threefoot in Trey McIntyre's "Robust American Love." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

From left: Michael Linsmeier, Xuan Cheng, Javier Ubell, Lucas Threefoot in Trey McIntyre’s “Robust American Love.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Pontus Lidberg’s “Stream,” Trey McIntyre’s “Robust American Love,” and Matthew Neenan’s “At the border” were made well before the horrific events of recent months: the Newtown school shootings, the Boston bombings, and the weak-kneed failure a few days ago of the United States Senate to pass minimal gun control legislation.

Yet each piece, as unveiled Thursday night at the Newmark Theatre in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s American Music Festival, spoke in subtle and not so subtle ways to the country’s current emotional climate – for many of us a roller coaster of grief and fear, hope and helplessness, resignation and resilience. All are quite different, stylistically, musically, and in point of view, but each speaks to the human condition, in this time and in this place.

Lidberg’s “Stream,” an unusually low-energy curtain raiser set to a commissioned score by Portland-born composer Ryan Francis, and a world premiere, showcases the legato talents of Alison Roper and Lucas Threefoot. They are the linchpins of a piece its Swedish maker proclaimed is “cyclical, but non-linear,” without a beginning and an end.

This is a little disingenuous, since the piece begins and ends with Roper and Threefoot performing an elegiac pas de deux, alone on stage. In between, the ten cast members, including technical virtuosos Julia Rowe and Chauncey Parsons, perform an extremely limited vocabulary of runs and lifts and sculptural groupings, more dependent on the billowing skirts that are a feature of Reid Bartelme’s unisex monochromatic costumes for movement fluidity than they are on Francis’s unstructured score. Having said that, very occasionally there is a pulse to the music that energizes the proceedings on stage, but not often enough; this stream has few ripples, and seemingly no rocks.

If “Stream” is laced with fatalism and resignation, McIntyre’s “Robust American Love” expresses the can-do, optimistic attitude of the pre-Civil War pioneers who settled the American heartland. Its choreography is firmly rooted in his own idiosyncratic melding of classical ballet and modern movement, with the seamless addition of a stylized square dance, all performed to the eclectic music of Seattle indie band the Fleet Foxes.

The women, Roper and Xuan Cheng, appropriately are not on point; this does not mean that Roper doesn’t deploy her long, space-eating legs like the true ballerina she is, every extension and developpé symbolizing the steadfast resolve of the women who built this country. McIntyre shows us a new side of Cheng, moreover, a gritty girlishness that is very appealing. For the men – Threefoot, Michael Linsmeier and Javier Ubell, who is an exuberant, quick-footed knockout in this piece – the movement is equally expansive. At one point Ubell is paired with Roper, pretty clearly the mother of this adventurous family, who lifts him, perhaps to calm him down, possibly to keep him from going off on his own, which unaccountably made the audience laugh.

Costumes are always an integral part of a McIntyre piece. These, denim tailcoats for everyone except Roper, who wears a cutaway dress worn over flesh-colored tights, are intended to symbolize the discarding of Victorian corseted clothing that was beginning to take place at this time. They worked well for the women; for the men, not so much: they looked like they’d been “pantsed.” Nevertheless, this short narrative ballet about one aspect of the American spirit left the audience smiling and feeling uplifted. And unlike “Billy the Kid,” its Americana genre predecessor created in 1938 by Eugene Loring and Aaron Copland, in “Robust American Love” nobody gets shot, symbolically or otherwise.

Neenan’s “At the border,” choreographed in 2009 to John Adams’ richly textured, eminently danceable “Hallelujah Junction,” begins with the dancers running across the stage as if pursued by demons, or, I couldn’t help thinking, shrapnel caused by pressure-cooker bombs. It’s a highly athletic, musically acute piece, the movement inflected with Balanchinean jazzy angularity, reminiscent of “Agon” and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” (The latter to be seen in June on OBT’s season-closing program.) It’s tempting to look for influences in a young choreographer’s work, and “Border,” with its relentless speed and athleticism, did make me think of Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” although Neenan gives both the dancers and the audience far more chance to breathe.

What was wonderful to see was impeccable classicists like Parsons, Haiyan Wu and Yang Zou inhabiting this contemporary movement, replete as it was with such classical steps as bourrées and pirouettes, but also somersaults and skidding stops. And Ubell’s classical virtuosity, executed at top speed in this aerobic work, along with his performance in “Robust” made the evening very much his. In both the opening “Stream” and “Border,” Olga Krochik also stood out, joined in the last piece by Martina Chavez, the increasingly lovely Grace Shibley and Julia Rowe. Costuming was pretty basic for this piece, lycra shorts and tops for everyone, for the principal women in brilliant colors. The lights, designed by John Hoey and executed by Michael Mazzola, are as spectacular as the music and the dancing.

The show repeats next weekend; I hope to see it again.


  • “American Music Festival” continues Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, April 24, 26 and 27. Ticket information is here.
  • Catherine Thomas’s review for The Oregonian is here.

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I went back last night, in part to see Brett Bauer perorm in the Neenan (the only cast change in the show)and because I wanted to see if I found the Lidberg more interesting–I didn’t, although it was extremely well danced. Roper was extraordinary in “Robust American Love,” and Mazzola’s lights in the beginning provided a visual echo of Isamu Noguchi’s first set design for Martha Graham, a 1935 solo called “Frontier,” two long ropes hung on the diagonal from the flies on each side of the stage, defining the endless space of the prairie.

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