At last, OBT is back onstage

The ballet company, disrupted by Covid and an abrupt change in leadership, opens a new season on Friday.

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How many times over the years have I started a preview of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new season like this? “On a sunny fall day, a little more than two weeks before opening night, OBT’s dancers were hard at work putting the finishing touches on (fill in the blank’s) hard-driving, or eloquent, or jazzy choreography for (fill in the blank), which will start the first show of the season at the Keller Auditorium on Friday night.”

I’ve frequently pointed out that after a summer off, the return to the daily rituals of company class and rehearsals is never exactly routine as the dancers get back in shape to learn new work, polish up choreography they’ve danced before, and perform. But, nevertheless,  they’re clearly glad to be back doing what they were born to do, and they by and large look pretty happy while they work up a sweat at the barre.

Springing into action: OBT dancer Bailey Shaw in rehearsal for the Melancholic section of George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.” Photos: Blaine Truitt Covert

This year, however, is different. Very. At OBT’s waterfront studios on September 23 the sun still streamed in, lighting up the foliage outside with the same skill that Michael Mazzola uses in the theater, and at the tail end of company class the dancers – masked, of course, and roughly a third of them new to the company – were giving every jeté combination their all as they moved across the floor. That’s not new. But their excitement and joy reminded me of kids, young ones, jumping as high and as hard as they could, into raked-up piles of leaves.

Their audience, small and also masked, looked pretty happy too, eyes smiling, hands clapping. Ballet master Jeff Stanton, who was teaching class, was clearly delighted with his charges. Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, down from Seattle, where they had directed Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years, were also observing before Russell started fine-tuning The Four Temperaments, George Balanchine’s 1946 masterpiece, set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith. It’ll be the curtain-raiser for Face to Face, the company’s opening program, which will will take the the stage at the Keller on Friday, Oct. 15 (There’ll also be a matinee and evening show on Saturday, Oct. 16). 

Originally, that curtain raiser would have been a reprise of Nicolo Fonte’s and Thomas Lauderdale’s Rhapsody in Blue, but as Arts Watchers know, the season changed drastically in June when OBT’s board requested Kevin Irving’s resignation, and Fonte, his spouse, resigned from his position as resident choreographer. In addition to Rhapsody, in celebration of Fonte’s fifth anniversary as resident choreographer, Irving had programmed the evening-length Beautiful Decay and Bolero, which I think is one of the best things Fonte’s ever done.

The upshot of all this is that interim artistic director Peter Franc didn’t have much time to replace those ballets and rearrange the season in a cohesive way.  All things considered, I think Franc, a superb and versatile dancer forced into early retirement by a back injury, has done a remarkable job, beginning with his decision to declare just what this company is about by raising the curtain on its thirty-third season with one of the most technically challenging works in the ballet repertoire. The middle ballet – Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, an intensely romantic classical pas de deux that takes place in the rehearsal studio – and Jennifer Archibald’s SculptedClouds, a meditative dance fusing hip hop and break dancing with classical shapes and steps about the relationship between the natural world and the humans who inhabit it, also serve as an announcement that OBT is a 21st century ballet company, with everything that implies. 

Ben Stevenson’s romantic version of “Dracula,” danced in this photo by Tulsa Ballet, will be performed in February 2022 by OBT’s dancers. Photo: Kat Luber

In short, versatility is the name of the game for today’s ballet dancers. From Paris to Peoria, they are required to perform in such radically different work as the Romantic era Giselle and Donald Byrd’s contemporary take on it, Life Situations: Daydreams of Giselle – sometimes in the same evening. Actually, as long ago as the mid-nineties, OBT’s dancers did just that, in the James Canfield era. They also performed brilliantly in Bebe Miller’s A Certain Depth of Heart, also Love, which featured her trademark joint separating movement as well as bravura classical dancing, and I (and many others) can still see Vanessa Thiessen, her sneakered feet telling it like it was, in Trey McIntyre’s break dance solo, Speak.

Those dancers are long gone from OBT, but Franc has every confidence that the current company members are up to every challenge in the season’s repertoire and more. That includes, of course, a shortened run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, with more performances accompanied by live orchestra, and no children under 12 on stage or in the audience, due to you-know-what. Of the new dancers, Franc said in recent interview, “They’re all wonderful. Fresh, all beautiful, honest, and there is a joyful energy to how they work, which will permeate how they dance on stage.” Their background, training and performing experience will also inform how they dance on stage, in the same way those things inform the way Franc has reconfigured OBT’s new season.

Before coming to OBT, where he showed his own technical range as Gennaro in Bournonville’s Napoli, as the Golden Slave in Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, and as a weary pioneer father in McIntyre’s Robust American Love, Franc danced for several years with Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet in works by McIntyre, Jorma Elo, and Jiri Kylian, among others, and for nine years before that with Houston Ballet. There he danced in Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes and the same choreographer’s romanticized version of Dracula, set to music by Liszt, which replaces Fonte’s Bolero on the OBT season, and Ever/After, a “mashup” of wedding pas de deux for those who had to postpone their weddings because of the pandemic, in February.

For the April show, Franc has replaced Beautiful Decay with a show called “Dreamland,” which includes the company premiere of McIntyre’s In Dreams, set to songs by Roy Orbison, and reviewed by Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman as an example of the work of the “crackerjack choreographer of the popular song.” Also on this program is a revival of Matjash Mrowzewski’s The Lost Dance, which I liked quite a bit the first time it was done, and Dreamland, by Canadian choreographer Danielle Rowe, in which she explores the movement possibilities of a nightmare about being trapped and “breaking free.”

OBT dancers Jessica Lind and Gustavo Ribiero in rehearsal for “The Four Temperaments.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The season closes in June with “The Americans—Take Two”, and right after that, the school show.  The programming for “The Americans” is unchanged and includes a new work by Michelle Manzanales, the L.A.-based choreographer who has made audience- and critic-pleasing work for Ballet Hispanico and the Paul Taylor Company, and revivals of  Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Fluidity of Steel, a well-made and politically unnecessary homage to male dancing, and Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland’s Big Shoes, in which the dancers get to romp through memories of their childhood. They had a lot of fun doing that the first time.

That brings me back to the rehearsal studio and watching Russell put the dancers through their paces in two sections of Four Temperaments, “Melancholic” and “Sanguinic.” She began with Bailey Shaw, who had been cast by Rehearsal Director Lisa Kipp and Jeffrey Stanton as the lead soloist in “Melancholic.” Shaw has been with the company since 2019, and was trained by former Balanchine dancers Patricia McBride and Jean Pierre Bonnefoux, so the complexities of Balanchine’s work are not unknown to him. Watching Russell convey to him the subtle differences between melancholy and agony made me see something I’d not seen before in this section of the ballet, namely how much modern movement Balanchine put into every part of a work that Todd Bolender, who originated Phlegmatic, said was about an idea.

I saw new things in “Sanguinic,” too, including a circle dance that reminded me of a Native American tribal dance, which makes perfect sense since Balanchine was married to Maria Tallchief at the time, who performed the eponymous solo, and he would have seen such dancing on the Osage reservation, where her father was chief.  “Sanguinic” contains choreography for the entire cast of Four Temperaments, meaning all 26 of OBT’s dancers, and Russell was seeing them perform it for the first time that afternoon.  When they finished the run-through, she joined in the applause, beaming behind her mask. “You’re a great cast, amazing,” she said, high praise from a woman who has been staging Balanchine’s ballets all over the world for nearly sixty years.

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  • “Face to Face” opens at the Keller Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15, and repeats at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16. Check the OBT website for casting.
  • Proof of vaccination or a negative test for Covid are required, as are masks.
  • For ticket information, call the OBT box office at 503-222-5538 or 1-888-922-5338.

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