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Ballet review: OBT’s ‘Midsummer’ & more

Oregon Ballet Theatre opens its season with sparkling versions of Christopher Stowell's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," and Christopher Bruce's "Hush."

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Christopher Kaiser as Oberon and Jessica Lind as Titania in Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

A family of six bursting into a hoedown in Christopher Bruce’s “Hush” …

A princess whipping through multiple fouetté turns in George Balanchine’s
“Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” …

Bottom dancing a tango with Titania in Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s
Dream” …

These were three of many highlights in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s sparkling first program of the 2022-23 season, which opened at the Keller Auditorium last Saturday night. There are three more performances this weekend – Friday through Sunday, Oct. 14-16. Call the OBT Box Office immediately: You don’t want to miss it. I left the theater on a Champagne high, happily distracted from the daily bombardment of the world’s woes. I think you will, too.

Typically, artistic directors announce who they are and where they came from with the first ballet on a mixed bill at the start of a new season, usually with a work that showcases most of the company’s dancers. OBT Interim Artistic Director Peter Franc has done exactly that with “Hush,” although in it he’s presenting less than a third of the professional company, in a technically eclectic ballet that contains classical elements: duets, trios, port de bras, and lots of second-position pliés to tell a story of the joys and sorrows of family life.

Eva Burton and Brian Simcoe in Christopher Bruce’s “Hush.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

This is all danced to music from the Yo-Yo Ma/ Bobby McFerrin album “Hush: Grace Music,” a melding of popular and classical tunes that includes the Gounod “Ave Maria,” the perfect, if ironic, accompaniment to the section in which the exhausted mother scrubs the floor.

“Hush,” new to this company and to the Pacific Northwest, is performed in slippers rather than pointe shoes, and the dancers are costumed in street clothes. It showcases the technical versatility of OBT’s dancers, from the wearily eloquent waltzing of Brian Simcoe and Eva Burton, the parents of this obstreperous circus family, to the rambunctious acrobatics of Nicholas Sakai, Ben Youngstone, Jessica Lind, and Hannah Davis as their children.

Sponsor

Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

Sakai, new to the company this year, appears to have a wide range, dancing with childlike petulance in “Hush” and explosively and amusingly as Puck in “Midsummer.” I’ll be interested in seeing him put through his classical paces in “The Nutcracker”—the Candy Cane solo comes to mind, and also the first act’s Toy Soldier. Davis, who’s been with OBT since 2015, produced a truly annoying tantrum (Bruce’s title has more than one meaning—he’s a Brit, so he might be uttering a polite “shut the hell up” here) and, as Hermia in “Midsummer,” a more amusingly stylized one.

From left: Ben Youngstone, Nicholas Sakai, and Jessica Lind in “Hush.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

As for the hoedown, which seemed to come out of nowhere, that’s the title of one of the songs on the album, and it’s an extremely jazzy one. Does it belong there? I’m not sure, but the ballet concludes handsomely with the family coming together, turning their backs on the audience, and walking upstage as a unit. The very nice lights were designed by Christina R. Giannelli.

Fouettés are only one of the many bravura challenges in what is fondly known in the ballet world as “Tchai Pas,” a piece d’occasion that Mr. B. whipped up in 1960 for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, taking little time to do it. New OBT soloist Carly Wheaton danced opening night, partnered by Bailey Shaw, to a recording of music originally composed for a third-act pas de deux for the 1877 production of “Swan Lake.” Tchaikovsky was late with it, so it didn’t get choreographed until Balanchine got his hands on it almost a century later.

Bailey Shaw and Carly Wheaton in George Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Wheaton and Shaw are technically fine dancers, and both take the risks that artistry requires. Wheaton danced both precisely and lyrically; and Shaw’s brisés, pirouettes a la seconde, and – no small thing – his bounding elevation elicited cheers from the audience, as did the rapidity of the fouettés. I wish fervently that the music had been performed live, and I’m betting the dancers are wishing the same. I know, there were budgetary considerations. But it’s a short piece, eight minutes long, and Maestro Niel de Ponte conducts Tchaikovsky’s music very well, indeed.

Mendelssohn’s too, and he’s had plenty of practice with this version of “Midsummer”: This is the third time OBT has revived Stowell’s version since it premiered in 2007. Moreover, de Ponte collaborated with both the choreographer and, if you will, Mendelssohn’s ghost, orchestrating several piano pieces written for children to play, and arranging the score to suit this 21st century, ecologically influenced ballet.

Hannah Davis as Hermia and Michael Linsmeier as Lysander in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Bottom and Titania’s tango is the result of one of those orchestrations, and Kevin Poe, whom we also saw as Mother Ginger in those years, originated the role of the besotted donkey, ears waggling, rose clenched in his teeth, partnering the bewitched and bewitching Alison Roper.

On this season’s opening night Lind, debuting as Titania, and Youngstone, also dancing the comic role for the first time, burlesqued the testosterone-laden dance with the comic skill of Groucho Marx and Marie Dressler in I forget which Marx Brothers movie.

Sponsor

Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

This “Midsummer” is packed with opportunities for dancers of every age to develop characters and tell their stories, and the opening-night cast did Shakespeare, Mendelssohn, and Stowell proud with their detailed, textured performance. I was particularly engaged by Lind and Simcoe’s reconciliatory pas de deux, in which Lind projected the radiance of a woman in love and Simcoe a generosity of spirit not typical of the autocratic Oberon.

Nevertheless, choreographic echoes of their spectacular quarrel over the changeling boy tell us that contention is a component of most marriages. Maybe it’s a component of human relationships, period. Christopher Kaiser as Demetrius, in love with Hermia, and Hannah Davis as Hermia, in love with Lysander, certainly danced angrily with each other, and comically. And Wheaton, dancing Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, became so irritated by Hamlet-like brooding preoccupation with Yorick’s skull that she aimed a grand jeté at it, sending it straight into the wings. Michael Linsmeier as a goopy-faced, sentimental Lysander has been fine-tuning this role since he originated it in 2007, and I’d be happy to go back and watch him dance it again. That’s easy—he’s doing it in every performance.

Nicholas Sakai as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

I couldn’t take my eyes off opening night’s Cupid, danced by seven-year-old Dorian Carabas, who has, I kid you not, the stage presence of a Baryshnikov; and all the little bugs and butterflies from OBT’s School performed with unhesitating charm, only occasionally and temporarily losing control of their wings.

Those wings, part of the ecologically aware costumes and sets designed by Sandra Woodall – who has designed a number of Stowell’s ballets, including “Eyes on You,” to Cole Porter – are replicas of the wings of lepidoptera and insects that are native to Oregon, as are the trees of the forest. I confess that I got a bit tired of seeing them moved around, like Birnam Wood transporting itself to Dunsinane, but that’s the only quibble I have with a ballet I that gives me some new detail to see every time I watch it.

***

  • For ticket and schedule information, Covid protocols (masks are required), performance times, up-to-date casting, and details on the full season, check the OBT website. You can also call the box office at 503-222-5538 to reserve tickets.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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