Martha Ullman West

 

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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Minh Tran’s journey to rebirth

In his first new piece in eight years, the choreographer/dancer creates a luminous evocation of a soul's passage to the next life

When does the personal become the universal? That is one of several questions raised by Minh Tran’s Anicca (Impermanence), the Vietnamese-born choreographer’s first new piece in eight years, which premiered on Thursday night in Reed College’s Massee Performance Lab.

Two years in the making, Anicca is in fact deeply personal: It is Tran’s superbly crafted response to the loss of his parents, particularly his mother, its organizing principle the time (49 days) that practitioners of Theravada Buddhism believe it takes for the soul to journey from death to rebirth. “These souls are called wandering ghosts,” Tran said in an interview for Reed Magazine. “They’re living in a world we call the bardo, a (neverland) that doesn’t belong to any place at all. During this time, these souls need a lot of attention and prayers [so] they will be shepherded by the bodhisatta or the Goddess of Mercy until they reach the gate … so they can be reincarnated for the next life.”

Company members circle Carla Mann, who represents the “death soul” of Minh Tran’s mother in “Anicca: Impermanence.” Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

In the course of the 49-minute piece (give or take) the seven dancers in Anicca perform the same number of sections, each of them representing a different stage of the soul’s journey, as well as that of those who grieve and finally find some form of acceptance.

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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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