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.

OIBA, founded by the couple in 2015, is a toddler in the world of Portland’s ballet schools. Nevertheless, Li and Cheng, who dances full-time with OBT and teaches at OIBA on weekends, have created a fully produced Nutcracker, with charming sets and costumes (the oversized tutus for the Mirlitons are an exception) that engaged my jaded attention from the first excited jumps in the party scene to the elaborate wrapup of the action that concludes the ballet.

Moreover, it was danced to live music, played by members of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, many of whose members aspire to play their instruments professionally. They’re not quite there yet, but Tchaikovsky’s textured, nuanced score is far from easy to play, and it requires, I think, far more rehearsal time with the dancers than was available to the young players. But the conductor, Raul Gomez-Rojas, was a terrifically unbenevolent Drosselmeyer in the first act, and the orchestra played with more assurance in the second, when he resumed the podium.

Jada Lee and guest Brian Simcoe in “The Nutcracker.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

That first act can be problematic no matter who’s dancing it. Cheng and Li shortened the party scene and eliminated the tug-of-war between the little boys and the little girls, and also compressed such lovely set pieces as the Grandfather Dance (my favorite part of the party scene, always) and the mechanical-doll dances. Clearly the party children – all 22 of them, not counting Clara and her friends, and naughty brother Fritz – were having a tremendously good time, from the smallest to the tallest, and that, too, made the party livelier than it often is. Fritz, danced by Jasimine Liu, was convincingly naughty. Li, as Dr. Stahlbaum, was visibly irritated by his son’s shenanigans, and later in the second scene danced the Nutcracker come to life with a mechanical creakiness that I’ve not seen anyone else do.

There is no growing Christmas tree in this production, but the toy soldiers still come to life and fight an army of mice, who look more adorable than dangerous, and Clara still saves the life of the Nutcracker Prince by throwing her slipper (in this instance, a very large replica of a ballet slipper) at the Mouse King’s back. All of a sudden, magically indeed, OBT principal dancer Brian Simcoe appears as the Nutcracker Prince and partners young Clara, danced by Sophia Alicata, with the same tender courtliness and skill as with Cheng or any other OBT ballerina, lifting her to his shoulder, supporting her as she pirouettes on pointe.

A stage filled with candy canes. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Then off they go through a storm of dancing snowflakes, whose fearless enthusiasm makes up for some faltering technique, to the Land of the Sweets. There, Simcoe, after miming their story, again transforms, this time into the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier, and the “sweets” dance for Clara in interestingly modified choreography. Tea, for example, is danced by 15 young students in Chinese costume who come pouring delightedly onstage. There is no Mother Ginger, but her music is played, and Clara leads an adorable group of little ones clad as baby rabbits in something resembling a classical bunny hop. The choreography for Coffee (aka Arabian) is traditional, but rather than a solo, five girls dance it, with a gratifying absence of hootchy-kootchiness. As for the Grand Pas de Deux, it was beautifully performed by Simcoe (who got his start in a ballet school in Grants Pass, Oregon) and Jada Lee as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She is a technically fine dancer, elegant and musical, and I suspect destined for a professional career.

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Seth Parker and Elliana Kirk as Theseus and Hippolyta in The Portland Ballet’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

MANY PROFESSIONAL CAREERS, not a few of them stellar, began with Nutcracker roles. John Clifford, whose charming, family-friendly—no warring couples here – A Midsummer Night’s Dream received six performances by The Portland Ballet on Thanksgiving weekend, was a young ballet student and child actor in Los Angeles when he auditioned one summer for a role in Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and landed the role of the Nutcracker Prince. A few years later he joined New York City Ballet, where he rose to principal dancer and performed both Puck and Oberon in Balanchine’s evening-length version of Midsummer. It was also at City Ballet that Clifford became a choreographer, under the tutelage of Mr. Balanchine himself.

That influence (not a bad thing at all) certainly shows in his Midsummer, which he created for The Portland Ballet in 2011, and which the company was performing again for the first time in six years. Nancy Davis and Jim Lane, who founded TPB in 2001, once were principal dancers with Clifford’s Los Angeles Ballet – hence the connection between them. As in Balanchine’s evening-length version, Clifford’s includes a gazillion roles for children. It begins with phalanxes, regiments, flocks and swarms of ladybugs, purple beetles, fireflies, assassin bugs, butterflies (two kinds: lacewing and purple emperor), bumblebees and moths, running in patterns onstage, some of the dancers very small – and in the case of the moths, professional-track students who perform their steps on pointe. It seemed to me at both performances I saw (the first on November 24, the second on the 25th, so I could see two casts) that the choreography for these little ones had been simplified from the original, particularly the port de bras, but there were considerably more little ones, and as a knowledgeable friend pointed out, those floor patterns are far from simple.

Josh Murry-Hawkins and Poppy Coleman as Bottom and Titania in TPB’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

On the whole, the casts this year appeared to be quite a bit younger than at the ballet’s 2011 premiere – particularly the two Oberons, danced on the 24th by Andrew Davis, who at 14 is possessed of a most excellent pas de chat (one of Balanchine’s favorite steps), and on the 25th by Finn Olson, who reasonably, at 18, is technically more secure and therefore able to inhabit the ridiculously imperious role more fully. I loved both Titanias, for different reasons. Small-boned Poppy Coleman, who danced on Saturday, looks like the fairy queen, physically, and while not as technically accomplished as the more regal Melanie Labs, whom I saw the next day, appeared to be completely besotted in her pas de deux with the rude “mechanical” Bottom, who had been transformed into an ass by Tyler Stanley as a mischievous (what else?) Puck. Josh Murry-Hawkins originated this production’s Bottom seven years ago when he was in BodyVox II, and was magnificently coarse and confused and even slightly endearing in both performances.

Act II brings much classical dancing, and two different guest artists to perform the role of Theseus. On Saturday, Seth Parker, who danced for some years with Ballet San Jose under the directorship of Dennis Nahat, partnered TPB’s gorgeous Elliana Kirk, described by Clifford as “a real ballerina at age 15.” On Sunday, OBT’s Skye Stouber, who received his early training at TPB, then went on to Houston Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, danced an ardent, good-humored Theseus, partnering an engaging Sarah Rinderknecht.

The PSU orchestra, with which TPB has been collaborating now for a decade on these Thanksgiving-weekend productions, played Mendelssohn’s lush, Romantic score very well under the baton of Ken Selden, particularly the second-act wedding march; and the singing by PSU’s opera students was downright gorgeous. As are the set and costumes, which in the second act make the production look like a pre-Raphaelite painting.

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An OBT School student as an angel in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2017 production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” Photo: Yi Yin

AS FOR THE BALANCHINE INFLUENCE, that is far-reaching in many ways. The Russian-American choreographer and self-described ballet master was always looking for ways to give performing experience to the students at New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet—that was part of the motivation for mounting his Midsummer in 1962, as well as his 1954 Nutcracker, which was expanded a decade later to the revised standard version, and with which Oregon Ballet Theatre opens on Saturday afternoon for a 19-performance run, 12 of them accompanied by live orchestra.

Let the dreams continue, and the dancing go on.

 

 

 

 

 

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