Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

At OBT’s ‘Dreamland,’ a joyous return to the stage

Oregon Ballet Theatre's dancers cut loose spectacularly, and the audience cheers to see live performance once again.

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Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in Danielle Rowe’s “Dreamland.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

There is nothing, nothing, like live performance, which Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers made abundantly clear when the company’s spring show, Dreamland, opened at the Newmark Theater last Friday night.

The people in the audience made it clear, too. Their joy at being back in the theater was palpable, well before the curtain went up on a program that was thematically on the grim side. The delight, the excitement, the sense that life is worth living in good times and bad, was a gift, and a huge one, from the dancers. Moreover, it didn’t much  matter what they were dancing about, or how often they shifted from sexy social dancing to classical bourrées to square-dance skips to Ailey modern hands to soundless tap-dancing to classical spinal placement to backs that looked like commas. There were no fouettés to count, no pirouettes a la seconde to applaud–that’s not what contemporary ballet is about, although all three choreographers are thoroughly grounded in classical technique.  Nevertheless, audience members cheered whenever a dancer or group of dancers pleased them. And they pleased them a hell of a lot.

In a succinct pre-curtain speech, interim artistic director Peter Franc encouraged them to do just that, pointing out that any reaction to contemporary ballet is valid. “The most important thing to remember,” he said on stage and in his program note, is that “contemporary dance is completely open to interpretation. … Any feeling you get from a color, a movement, or music, that inspires a question, memory or new idea is the whole point of being here.”

Michael Linsmeier in Matjash Mrozewski’s “The Lost Dance.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

From my perspective every piece on the Dreamland program (which includes one piece with the same name) tells at least one story, starting with the curtain-raising The Lost Dance, which was commissioned from Canadian choreographer Matjash Mrozewski by Christopher Stowell in 2012, toward the end of Stowell’s tenure as OBT’s artistic director.  It struck me then, and again last Friday, as an extremely chic-looking piece, with sophisticated choreography performed to a not terribly interesting soundscape by Owen Belton. If the piece looks quite a lot like a work by Paul Taylor or Twyla Tharp, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and its stylish appearance Mrozewski owes in part to Portland couturier Adam Arnold, who designed the costumes, and knows well how to dress dancers in clothes that free them to move. This is not true of all couturiers, by any means.

On opening night Makino Hayashi, who was part of the original cast, entered clad in lipstick red, clearly relishing the sexy, seductive solo that took her rapidly across the Newmark stage, and certainly elevating my spirits. It’s a work that is about the ghosts of dancers haunting a ballroom where they lost their lives in a fire. They want to dance again. And they do. Relate this to the effects of climate change on Oregon’s forests, and the ten-year-old Lost Dance becomes what in the 1970s we used to call relevant – a dance about renewal, rather than tragedy. 

Jessica Lind’s voguing; Xuan Cheng’s sharp, witty precision; Michael Linsmeier, Brian Simcoe and Ben Youngstone’s Broadway show dancing (Mrozewski is a highly experienced director of many forms of theatrical dance, including opera and musical theater); and the bits in which a solo dancer performing stage right is balanced by a mini-chorus line stage left certainly gave me, and the audience, a drug-free high.  

Christopher Kaiser and Eva Burton in Trey McIntyre’s “In Dreams.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton danced vividly in that chorus line on opening night, and stunningly as the star of Trey McIntyre’s In Dreams, set to the music of Roy Orbison. McIntyre’s work is not new to the Portland audience—he was OBT’s resident choreographer for several years when James Canfield was directing the company, and White Bird frequently presented the Boise-based Trey McIntyre Project throughout its existence. Most recently, the company revived his Robust American Love, in which Burton nailed – and how! – the role of the pioneer mother, originated by Alison Roper the year she retired.

I loved In Dreams when I saw the McIntyre Project dance it in Boise, and  I still do. (I’ve been covering McIntyre for various publications for about thirty years, and was doing a cover story for Dance Magazine that took me to Idaho to see In Dreams in, I think, 2008.) Technically, because of McIntyre’s blending of classical steps, square-dance skips, traditional modern movement, postmodern contact improvisation with a balletic twist, all performed to Orbison’s country-inflected rock music, In Dreams is damnably difficult to pull off. Burton and Hannah Davis, Coco Alvarez-Mena, Christopher Kaiser, and Linsmeier (who seems to be able to dance anything thrown at him these days) told a dark tale of romantic and social rejection, infusing those steps with the same anger, sadness and heartbreak contained in Orbison’s songs. Like Orbison, McIntyre understands heartbreak, and in their duet performed to The Crow and Crying, Burton and Kaiser’s dancing was so expressive of deep sorrow and profound loss that, while there was no resolution, there was a kind of closure. In Dreams ends as it began, with Burton still not part of the group and not accepting  her exclusion, either. 

The fight for inclusion is relevant to our times, and certainly to what’s going on in the world of the ballet, where choreographers who identify as female (with some noteworthy exceptions, such as Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble and Suzanne Haag) are only beginning to come into their own. Franc programmed Danielle Rowe’s Dreamland, he told Gavin Larsen for her program interview with the choreographer, not primarily for her gender, but because of his observations of her as a dancer when he and the Australian native were on Houston Ballet’s roster at the same time. “[She] always brought meaningful nuance and detail to all her movement, no matter the style,” he said.    

OBT dancers in Danielle Rowe’s “Dreamland.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Dreamland, made for Ballet Idaho in 2018, when Rowe had been choreographing for only a year, contains many styles and several references to dance history, and was inspired, she told Larsen, by anxiety dreams about coming up with ideas in time to meet the approaching rehearsal period. (This happens to writers, too!) In one dream she “was trying to claw my way out of a dirt hole and just couldn’t get out.  Essentially I was digging my own grave.” And dreaming of monsters chasing her into it.

While Rowe wanted the audience to think about nothing but what she had put on the stage and the accompanying music by Valgeir Sigurdsson, Ezio Bosso, and Zoe Keating, once the very dark scrim was lifted I was immediately struck by the set’s resemblance to a basement – the one in which Poe’s black cat is walled up alive – or an air raid shelter, to which civilians have fled.

As the dancing began, I spotted  some references to dance history: the non-gender-specific monsters (costumed in brown tights, the men bare-chested, the women in flesh-colored leotards) rhythmically opening and closing their fingers and splaying them in Alvin Ailey’s signature movement in Revelations;   Xuan Cheng, as the Sleeping Woman, carried onstage by Christopher Kaiser as The Nightmare, at once making me think of George Balanchine’s La Sonnambula, the work that made the great ballerina Allegra Kent want to dance.

There was nothing, nada, zip, wrong with the dancing in Dreamland, any of it, and Rowe showed considerable skill in the group choreography—arguably, for beginners, the most difficult part of making a ballet. Cheng shifted from deep sleep to some pretty lively stepping in her signature style. As a character called Halcyon in Red, Lind stood out, as did Simcoe as her partner, and the corps performed cohesively if not particularly monstrously.

Lighting designer Matt Miller could not have been a better collaborator in creating the claustrophobic atmosphere: Visually, Dreamland comes across as a nightmare I would not want to have. The score for me created a nightmare of a different kind, one in which I am bored. The audience, however,  appeared to love every bit of Dreamland, the show, and Rowe’s eponymous piece, validation and approval well-earned by the dancers and Franc.

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Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

One caveat: since many dancers have left the Bolshoi Ballet in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a number of Ukrainian dancers, male and female, have traded their tights or tutus for cammo and taken up arms in defense of their country, I am surprised that there was no moment of silence to honor their courage.  Other Oregon performing arts organizations are doing this; why not OBT?

Dance

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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