Martha Ullman West

 

The Year of Living Cautiously, Pt. 2

Dance on screen: It's not the same as sitting with an audience for a live performance in a theater, but when theaters are shut down, it's a balm

Before Covid, I watched dancing on screen for several reasons, none of them related to recreating the experience of watching live performance, or as a substitute for it.

One was for reference, or what the French call an aide memoire, something to jog my memory of a performance I’d seen in the flesh, three-dimensionally, on the stage or in the studio or on a specific site, before I wrote about it. An example of that is watching the six-minute video of Linda K. Johnson’s Polka Dot Square piece, a viewing that verified that one of the dancers performing last October on artist Bill Will’s socially distanced giant polka dots in Pioneer Courthouse Square had been wearing red. Yet it in no way reproduced the joy I had derived from seeing birds doing a flyover, or feeling the chill in the air, or being part of an equally elated audience at the actual event. 

My rotten handwriting has also driven me to look at performances I’ve already watched in the dark—I often can’t read it. God forbid I misidentify a dancer in a review, or invent choreography that wasn’t performed.  (I am guilty of doing both of those things, for which I am still apologizing.) When Oregon Ballet Theatre performed Bournonville’s Napoli, I used a DVD of a different production—which had been staged by the same people—to remind myself of specific choreography, and while that recorded performance was extremely good, seeing it on my television screen with only my cat as my audience companion flattened it considerably. 

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in the United States full-production premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli,” October 6-13, 2018, at the Keller Auditorium. Photo: James McGrew.

The second reason is connected to research, to see what dances and dancers looked like that I have had no opportunity to see live. A few that come to mind are Janet Reed as Swanhilda in Coppélia (I was only three);  Loie Fuller’s nature-inspired dances (performed well before I was born, though I have seen one reconstruction at the Maryhill Museum of Art, which also has film clips in her archive there); and James Canfield and Mark Goldweber in the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of Petrouchka (which was not performed in Portland on tour). 

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The Year of Living Cautiously

Veteran dance critic Martha Ullman West looks back on a year of Covid isolation and moments of movement that vividly broke the spell

My year of living cautiously began the end of February last year, and while I had hoped it would conclude close to the same day this year, I think it’s more likely to stretch into a second year of the same.   

 In the past year I have seen two, count them, live dance performances, and one dance film in a theater, Alla  Kovgan’s stunning 3D documentary Cunningham. (I think all dance films should be shot in 3D, based on this one and Pina, Wim Wenders’ 2011  film about Pina Bausch, both shown at Portland’s Cinema 21.) 

 I have watched as many streamed performances as I could bear; written one obituary tribute;  read a dozen or so dance and dance-related books, some of which I was dipping into for a second and third time; and, in the name of shameless self-promotion, finished writing a book I started thinking about at the turn of the millennium.  Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making of American Ballet, the gods and Covid willing, will be published in May.  

Jacqueline Schumacher, in her teaching studio in downtown Portland’s Odd Fellows Building, ca. 1975. Photographer unknown.

Dance watchers will know that Reed was a native Oregonian, who was trained in Portland by Willam Christensen, as was her close friend Jacqueline Martin Schumacher. Schumacher, who died in September, 2019, would have been 100 on November 30, 2020, and a centenary celebration was under discussion when Covid hit; needless to say it did not take place. 

Both women were founding members of the San Francisco Opera Ballet (now the San Francisco Ballet) and danced, respectively, the roles of Odette and Odile in the first American evening-length production of Swan Lake.  Reed went on to a stellar career with Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.  Schumacher brought her star power back to her  home town, returning to Portland in 1942, when San Francisco Ballet went on hiatus right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  

Here she established a ballet school with rigorous standards (ask any former pupil!) where she taught generations of Portland students, many of whom became professional dancers. Equally important, as the founder of the Portland Ballet, a successor to Christensen’s company and a precursor of Oregon Ballet Theatre, she was pivotal to the establishment of the city’s resident ballet company.

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Mary Oslund: A Personal Tribute

Martha Ullman West remembers the Oregon dance legend, who has died at 72, and whose influence remains strong among dancemakers

Mary Oslund, who as artist and administrator, choreographer and teacher, collaborator, mother, and mentor was central to the flowering of the arts in Portland for more than three decades, died on November 17 at her home in Southeast Portland, at age 72. The cause of death was MSA (Multi-System Atrophy), a rare neurological disease that attacks seemingly every part of the body most needed for moving and breathing and thinking, never mind the practice of the art of the dance.  

One of the last times I saw her, almost exactly a year ago, was at a performance by CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston at the Newmark Theatre. She had trouble lifting that beautiful, 19th century poet’s face to greet me, and I thought at the time what an effort it must have been for her to watch those dancers perform Merce Cunningham’s Biped and Beach Birds, brilliantly using the technique that she carried in her own lovely bones. That said, there is little doubt that Mary’s passion for dance – doing it, creating  it, teaching it, watching it – did not stop her from making the effort, and if she thought about it at all, made it absolutely worth it.   

Mary Oslund, with her daughter Liv leaning against the mirror: in the studio and in her element. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Mary was diagnosed with MSA a little more than a decade ago.  She told me about it, in confidence, at Gregg Bielemeier’s 60th birthday party, in August 2010, while we sat on our hosts’ hard cement back steps, observing the revelry and getting caught up. I asked her how she was, and in a calm, level voice, she described her symptoms – loss of balance, muscle weakness, dizziness. For the first time in nearly three decades of free-wheeling conversations about a wide range of professional and personal subjects, I did not know what to say. 

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Wit, speed, a blast from the past

Oregon Ballet Theatre lights the fireworks with Forsythe, Balanchine, and the dazzling return of Dennis Spaight's 1990 "Scheherazade"

From the sharp angles of William Forsythe’s  In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated to the lavish curves of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, Oregon Ballet Theatre celebrated the company’s 30th anniversary on Saturday night  with technical fireworks, wit, drama, and the speed, energy, and adaptability that are the hallmarks of American dancers.   

George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which contains much of the source material for Forsythe’s once-radical ballet, was the equally elevated middle piece on this highly charged sampler of works exemplifying three of the creative forces that made ballet American. The third force is Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the ways in which choreographers such as Spaight and OBT’s current resident choreographer, Nicolo Fonte (e.g. his Petrouchka),  reacted to that tradition.

It’s brilliant programming, and OBT Artistic Director Kevin Irving is to be commended for it. Each ballet is a gift to the audience, and a gift to the dancers as well, offering them opportunities to stretch and grow, hone their technique, and refine their artistry, starting with the curtain-raising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. This was Irving’s calling card, as a German critic once put it, referring to another artistic director’s vision for a different ballet company.  In this instance, Forsythe’s 1987 ballet, replete with revved-up classical shapes and steps mixed with insouciant, natural walking and standing, represents perfectly Irving’s vision of a contemporary ballet company supported at the box office by evening-length story ballets.   

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Brian Simcoe in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME when I saw the company premiere of Forsythe’s work two years ago that Middle’s  relentless, high-tension propulsion of dancers across the stage, with only the walking and standing  giving dancers and audience a chance to breathe,  provides the same opportunities for bravura turns as the second act of, gulp, The Nutcracker, which will return for its annual run at OBT in December, or The Sleeping Beauty, to be seen in February.  The difference, of course, is musical: Thom Willems’s score for In the Middle ain’t pretty and it tells no stories. But as several critics have pointed out, the pounding rhythms demand as much precision from the dancers as the arias in Violin Concerto or the melodies in Scheherazade

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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

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Chauncey Parsons’ final bow

As Oregon Ballet Theatre swings into its spring concerts, its principal dancer prepares to take the final steps in his storied career

Chauncey Parsons, long dark cloak whipped behind him by the speed of his movement, makes an anguished, running entrance onto the Keller Auditorium stage, which is set as a medieval German graveyard, and flings the cloak aside as he kneels before Giselle’s grave.

That was in 2012, in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s incredibly elegant and expensive production of Giselle. A year later, as Florimund in Christopher Stowell’s staging of The Sleeping Beauty (which will be revived next season), Parsons made every entrance with the presence and panache of the great Russian dancers – but, as I wrote for The Oregonian, minus the bombast.

Chauncey Parsons in Nicolo Fonte’s “Giants Before Us.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2016

Last fall, Parsons—a fantasy cape hanging from his shoulders, back as straight as a coral spine—made his first entrance as Golfo, ruler of his undersea territory, in the second act of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s evening-length production of Bournonville’s Napoli, inhabiting the arrogant sea monster’s role with chilling authority.

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Stepping lively: Parsons Dance

In its three-night stand in the White Bird series, David Parsons' company reveals a style steeped in energetic American exuberance

On Thursday night I made my way down seven flights of cement steps in my building, plus God alone knows how many ditto steps leading from the Park blocks down to the Newmark Theatre, to see Parsons Dance, White Bird’s tenth show of the current season.

I’m glad I did. The energy and exuberance of these dancers, their commitment to what they are dancing and what they are dancing about (love, death, the battle of the genders, music, dancing itself), lifted my spirits and made me for the first time since Election Day 2016, at least briefly, unashamed to be an American.

Because, while there are two foreign-born dancers in the company – Henry Steele of Australia and Joan Rodriguez of Cuba (whom we last saw here as a member of the Malpaso Dance Company) – this is the quintessential American dance company, and the founder, David Parsons, is biographically and aesthetically the quintessential American choreographer.

Parsons’ “Whirlaway” – “a hoedown, a dance party, infused with all kinds of American social dance.” Photo: Lois Greenfield

He’s been at it a while, as a dancer (with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and New York City Ballet, where he was a guest artist) and a choreographer for his own company (founded in 1984) and many many others, of both the ballet and modern persuasions, plus musicals, film, and the Millennium festival in Times Square. Portland State University’s Contemporary Dance Season presented him first in Portland, and I saw him perform Caught, a virtuosic solo for dancer and strobe light: Paraphrasing my review in Willamette Week at the time, he looked like a cross between an angel and an Iowa farm boy. He never was an Iowa farm boy. But he does come from the Heartland, and he retains the frank, casual warmth that at least used to be associated with American character, and moreover, that provides something of a through line in his choreographic style.

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