Martha Ullman West

 

Fresh, vibrant, still the ‘Nutcracker’

Oregon Ballet Theatre brings a sparkling musical vitality to its newest run of "The Nutcracker." Now, let's talk about Tea and Coffee.

Oregon Ballet Theatre has opened its current run of George Balanchine’s ®The Nutcracker at the Keller Auditorium with a meticulously detailed, swiftly paced, high-energy performance of a ballet that can be a chore for people like me to watch. And I say that as a critic, but also as a grandmother, dedicated to instilling in my grandchildren the notion that live performance is much more exciting than anything they might see on their ubiquitous screens. Which means I’ve seen more Nutcrackers than I can count, never mind remember, in forty years of watching dance professionally; this particular production at least a dozen times.

Much of the energy of Saturday afternoon’s unofficial opening of this 19-performance run—the official opening was Saturday night, with a different, and I daresay equally good, cast—can be attributed to the orchestra. Under the experienced baton of OBT Music Director Niel De Ponte it played Tchaikovsky’s complex if familiar score with new freshness, and an accelerated tempo for the ballet’s Christmas Eve festivities that made them as effervescent as a glass of Veuve Clicquot.

Chauncey Parsons as Cavalier and Xuan Cheng as Sugarplum Fairy in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2017 “Nutcracker.” Cheng will dance Sugar Plum to Brian Simcoe’s Cavalier in performances this year. Parsons is dancing his final Cavalier with Ansa Capizzi as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Photo: James McGrew

This is far from always the case: When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in a slightly different version in 1954, an unnamed poet commented that the party scene was “so deliciously boring [I] could see it again and again.”

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Ballet dreams: stage for students

Young stars shine at Oregon International Ballet Academy and The Portland Ballet. Look for more in Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Nutcracker."

This is the season of visions and dreams and hope, whether symbolized by Hanukkah candles, Kwanzaa feasts, Christmas trees, fairies in snowy or summery forests, or budding dancers who stand at the barre in their various schools, doing their pliés and tendus and frappés over and over and over again as they dream of performing grand jetés and multiple fouettés while the audience gasps and cheers.

The young dancers get their first crack at this in ballet school shows: the littlest in roles made just for them, the most advanced in the same principal roles that, if they succeed in becoming professional dancers, they will one day perform in New York, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, you name it.

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Bunnies in OIBA’s “Nutcracker,” hopping to the tune of Mother Ginger. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

I THOUGHT ABOUT ALL THIS as I watched three school show performances last month, all three at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall. The first was the Oregon International Ballet Academy’s The Nutcracker, staged after Petipa by Ye Li, former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer, and his wife, Xuan Cheng, currently OBT’s prima ballerina, on Saturday, November 17.

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A Danish pastry, via Napoli

Preview: Oregon Ballet Theatre premieres a lavish version of a 19th century Danish story ballet set in Italy, with a heroine made for today.

Teresina, the heroine of Napoli, is a woman for our time. Don’t believe me? Go see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s sparkling new production of August Bournonville’s signature ballet, which opens the company’s 29th season at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday night. With a libretto by Bournonville, and a score by E. Helsted, Gade and Paulli, with whom the choreographer collaborated in the same way as Petipa with Tchaikowsky, and Balanchine with Stravinsky, this is a 19th century story ballet with which 21st century audiences can relate –– and particularly with fiery, independent Teresina.

In all three acts of the great Danish choreographer’s lighthearted ballet about common Neapolitan people (there isn’t an aristocrat in sight) she is a take-charge kind of gal, in control of her life and her future: “I’ll decide whom I’ll marry,” she declares without words in Act I, choosing Gennaro, the fisherman, over Giacomo the macaroni seller and Peppo the lemonade seller. Her widowed mother would prefer greater economic stability for her daughter, and incidentally for herself. But Teresina prevails and despite a looming storm, she and Gennaro go off for an evening boat ride and some alone time. He, the hapless hero—a convention of 19th century story ballets –– manages to lose her in the stormy seas, and returns to land without her.

Makino Hildestad in OBT’s 2015 production of the third act of “Napoli.” The company premieres its full-length production of the 1842 Bournonville story ballet on Saturday. Photo: James McGrew.

“Give me that medal, I’ll do this myself,” she asserts, equally wordlessly, in Act II when her fiancé finds her in Capri’s famed Blue Grotto, and fails to act quickly enough to save her from the unwanted attentions of Golfo, a sea demon who dwells there, happily turning maidens into Naiads whenever he gets the chance. And thrusting the medal depicting Mary, Mother of God (another strong woman) straight at her would-be seducer, she stops him cold.

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Warm hug from (and for) a giant

"If it's good, they will like it": The late, great Arthur Mitchell left a lasting imprint on dance, and a Portland writer recalls the man.

“Thank you, thank you. Now go home and do your homework,” Arthur Mitchell told 1,500 or so cheering children in the Keller Auditorium, his voice descending from the first balcony, sounding like the voice of God.

Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company he founded in 1968, was here on tour, probably sometime in the mid-1980s, and had just performed Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries, a plotless ballet set to music by Poulenc that is definitely not the usual school-show fare. DTH did have more conventional school show ballets in its repertoire at that time—John Taras’s Firebird, set in a tropical jungle rather than a Russian forest, comes readily to mind, as well as a Giselle re-cast in a Louisiana bayou. In Voluntaries, moreover, the dancers were costumed in skin-tight, dappled unitards, which could well have elicited some snickers. They didn’t. The kids were so enthralled you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Arthur Mitchell shortly after joining New York City Ballet, 1955. Photo: Carl Van Vechten. Columbia University Libraries Online Exhibitions: Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer

I was astonished by their response, and said so to Mr. Mitchell (as people often addressed him), who had insisted I sit next to him for the performance. “If it’s good, they will like it,” he told me firmly, and indeed, the dancers had torn through Tetley’s blend of classical and modern movement with so much athletic energy and technical finesse, it’s doubtful the kids even noticed what they were wearing.

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Tripping on Memory Lane

Turning points in a life of dance: Eric Skinner moves on, Balanchine's grave, Paul Taylor's passing, Pacific Ballet Theatre days, 'Napoli'

A visit to Balanchine’s grave (and my mother’s).

The departure of Eric Skinner for a new life in Chicago.

A reunion of Pacific Ballet Theatre’s dancers.

The death of Paul Taylor.

These are the happenings of the past five weeks that have sent me tripping on Memory Lane, making me realize that the personal and the professional are, in my case as in many, inextricable from each other.

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George Balanchine, who died on April 30, 1983, is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, Long Island, one of this country’s oldest whaling ports, and now, for better but more often worse, one of the Hamptons. He made no stipulation in his will about his final resting place, and some, according to Bernard Taper, his first biographer, thought he should have been buried in Venice, with Stravinsky and Diaghilev, or in Monte Carlo. But Balanchine detested Venice, was charmed by Sag Harbor on his visits there when he was in residence at his Southampton condominium (he reportedly told someone it reminded him of the South of France). And while he remained firmly rooted in Russian culture, he was without question the principal creator of American ballet style – an American citizen, and proud of it.

George Balanchine, right, with New York City Ballet dancers, in Amsterdam, August 26, 1965. Dutch National Archives, The Hague / Wikimedia Commons

Which made it entirely appropriate to bury him in this historic American cemetery, which contains a monument to whalers lost at sea, a marker for a soldier of the Revolutionary War who, and I quote, “Did not run away,” and the graves of novelists Nelson Algren and William Gaddis, playwright Lanford Wilson, writer and actor Spalding Gray, pioneering site-specific artist Gordon Matta-Clark, and, across the path from Balanchine, dual pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, who were longtime friends of his. Close by as well lies Alexandra Danilova, his muse and common law wife, whose impact as ballerina and teacher on American dancers was nearly as powerful as his.

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Dancing in the Underworld

The movement's uninspired, but Portland Opera's production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" is musically magnificent. By all means go.

With its glorious melodies , menacing harmonies, and inclusion of music for dances that actually drive the plot rather than functioning as interludes giving singers a chance to catch their breath, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Eurydice has inspired some extremely distinguished   20th and 21st century choreographers.   George Balanchine did a radical version for the Metropolitan Opera in 1936, in a conceptual collaboration with painter Pavel Tchelitchew, that put the singers in the pit and the dancers in the air. Forty years later, having choreographed to Gluck’s music several times in between, Balanchine made the beautiful Chaconne as a vehicle for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. In 1953 Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed it for Covent Garden. Mark Morris staged it first in 1986 for the Handel and Haydn Society, and in 2007 directed and choreographed a modern-dress production for the Met, with the chorus dressed as characters from history placed on a platform above the stage, commenting, so to speak, on the action taking place below them.

A dance scene in Portland Opera’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Because of this history, and my own longtime affection for Gluck’s score (I’ve been listening to this gorgeous music since I was fifteen), I was delighted to learn that the Portland Opera was performing this version of the Orpheus story for the first time (they did Philip Glass’s in 2009), and at the Newmark Theater at that, vastly preferable to the all too spacious Keller Auditorium. The knowledge that Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Peter Franc and OBT soloist Katherine Monogue, lovely dancers both of them, would perform added to the attraction.

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Backstage at the Big Stage

New York City Journal: From ballet to theater to taxis to an open book of biographers, ArtsWatch's Martha Ullman West takes the city's pulse

NEW YORK – All New York’s a stage, and there is nothing “merely” about its citizens as players. I witnessed the following players make their exits and entrances in a packed visit to my hometown last month, in no particular order:

  • Taxi drivers muttering imprecations against the President for snarling up traffic with a brief visit to midtown Manhattan;
  • Writers and academics performing at a biography conference;
  • An anthropologist and an innovative (very) executive coach holding a public dialogue about using improvisation to cope with change;
  • Actors of varying ages in a production of Dan Cody’s Yacht at the Manhattan Theatre Club;
  • American Ballet Theatre’s dancers giving their all to fine choreography and not-so-fine in an all-Stravinsky program at the Metropolitan Opera House;
  • And New York City Ballet’s dancers, fleet of foot, airborne, and miming like mad in Balanchine and Danilova’s Coppélia.

I arrived in the city close to midnight on Friday, May 18, and at 8:30 the following morning, bleary-eyed and not exactly bushy-tailed, scampered into a building I will always think of as Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street (it is now the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). I had paid big bucks to attend the second day of the Biographers International Organization’s ninth annual conference on the writing of, and – it almost goes without saying in these Mammonite times — the marketing of biography. I was headed to four sessions, the first on Writing Multiple Lives, the second on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures, the third on Biography and the Arts, the fourth on What to Leave Out. Each panel bore some relevance, I hoped, to the dual biography I’ve been working on for more years than I wish to admit to, Dancing American Character: Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Flowering of American Ballet.

Iceberg Slim, a.k.a. Robert Beck, subject of two biographies by Justin Gifford. Photo: Phase4 Films, for the documentary “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp,” produced by Ice-T.

And yes, there were performers on each panel, the most interesting of whom was Justin Gifford, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was on the one on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures. A lanky figure in full hipster costume, jeans, stubble, and long hair, he was bare-headed for the conference yet unabashedly wearing two hats: writer of a trade book and author of a scholarly one, both about the same subject, Iceberg Slim, who wrote and was the publisher of black pulp fiction. The self-styled Marxist (an ideology not perceptible from the language he used in his presentation) summed up succinctly and well the difference between writing for the academy and the marketplace: for the first you are argumentative, the second narrative. Nobody throughout the conference mentioned the word readable, at least in my presence.

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