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Dance Review: Oregon Ballet Theatre’s ‘Wooden Dimes’ is a fun and lighthearted romp

The premiere of Dani Rowe's chorus girl love story joins works by choreographers Ben Stevenson and Yue Yin for a diverse night of classical ballet and modern and theatrical dance.

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Carly Wheaton, center, with the OBT dancers in Dani Rowe's "Wooden Dimes." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Carly Wheaton, center, with the OBT dancers in Dani Rowe’s “Wooden Dimes.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

On Friday, April 5, Oregon Ballet Theatre premiered a one-act ballet by Artistic Director Dani Rowe alongside works from legendary choreographer Ben Stevenson, OBE, and New York-based choreographer Yue Yin at Portland’s Newmark Theatre. Together, the performances feature a mix of classical ballet with modern and theatrical ballet pieces.

The night began with Stevenson’s Three Preludes, which originally premiered in 1969 with the Harkness Youth Ballet and had its OBT premiere in 2021 at the Keller Auditorium. A three-part duet danced on opening night by Eva Burton and Isaac Lee, the piece is set to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, which was played in live accompaniment by pianist Monica Ohuchi. The stage featured a stand-alone ballet barre where the performers began on each side, Burton in pink tights and a white leotard with skirt and Lee in a collared white shirt and gray-purple tights. The work, described as a tryst or flirtation between two dancers in the studio, exhibited simple, sophisticated, and linear choreography — beginning with exercise-like téndues and progressing toward complicated partnering.

Jessica Lind and Brian Simcoe pictured in Ben Stevenson's 'Three Preludes.' Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert
Jessica Lind and Brian Simcoe in the first duet in Ben Stevenson’s “Three Preludes.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Stevenson’s piece shed technical transparency on the dancers, and they exhibited the best of what they had to offer. Burton’s long limbs and strong back shone during technically sound arabesques and developés, maintaining her composure as she eventually stood on the barre assisted by Lee. Her expansive epaulement countered the minimal movements of the neck, adding a uniqueness to the dance. Despite a slip and fall from Lee while running during the top of the work and a bump of the barre base with Burton’s foot, they recovered admirably and continued with eyes on each other. Parts two and three saw the dancers coming together without the barre on stage, where Lee seemed to struggle with strength and stability during lifts. The dancers appeared tentative on opening night, detracting from the spark of passion or excitement expected from a flirting couple, yet reminding the audience of the simple beauty of classical ballet and Stevenson’s work.

Jessica Lind strikes an arabesque in Ben Stevenson's "Three Preludes." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Jessica Lind strikes an arabesque in Ben Stevenson’s “Three Preludes.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Following a pause, New York-based choreographer Yue Yin’s Just Above the Surface, which premiered in 2021, took the stage beginning with a spotlight on dancers rotating in a closely clumped circle. The eight performers wore muted taupe-gray long-sleeved shirts and athletic pants in quintessential Yin style, designed by Mondo Morales. They moved to pumping music by Eirk “Clyde Dimension” Debono, Machinefabriek & Freiband, Arvo Pärt, and Michel Banabila.

OBT dancers in Yue Yin's "Just Above the Surface." Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
OBT dancers in Yue Yin’s “Just Above the Surface.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Known for originating and refining the FoCo technique, a fusion inspired by the Chinese dance, folk, ballet, and contemporary dance movement, Yin works to incorporate these elements into her choreography and live performances. The modern-contemporary choreography made use of space, demanding grounded pliés and extensive traveling sequences from the ballet dancers, who performed the rooted work with restraint. They ran gracefully, but without the urgency of conviction. They danced quickly, but did not display a deliciousness of effort often found in this interpretive style of contemporary work. They made contact with each other dutifully, but the energetic exchange in response to the physical connection between their forms upon touch did not translate. Similarly, they looked at each other, but lacked the perception of seeing each other during the dance. Overall, the dancers utilized their technique, flexibility, and endurance to complete a consistently moving work, with Kangmi Kim standing out as she pulled focus to her expressive interpretation and beautifully satisfying embodiment of the choreography.

Benjamin Simoens and Kangmi Kim in "Just Above the Surface." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Benjamin Simoens and Kangmi Kim in “Just Above the Surface.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Through group sections, dominoed canons, duets, and trios, Yin presented a cardiovascular dance that embraced the commercial, while possessing a reminiscence of works stemming from movement language practices. Gaga Movement Language methodology, the most prolific and influential in this realm, was created by world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company’s Ohad Naharin. His distinct choreography incorporates the deconstruction of pedestrian movement, repetition to exhaustion, experimentation with exertion and limit, a dissection of classical and modern techniques, the dancers’ utilization of personal movement narrative, and Gaga — a practice that deepens awareness of physical sensations, therefore expands the palette of movement availability to allow for the explosivity of a variety of textures — to create spellbinding works for Gaga-trained dancers that reflect the culture of their geographic origin. Moments of Yin’s Just Above the Surface such as the dancers running through seated bodies and walking on in a chain led hand-in-hand, brought to mind moments of Naharin’s 2009 Hora and 2015 Last Work.

Benjamin Simoens, right, with OBT dancers in Yue Yin's "Just Above the Surface." Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
Benjamin Simoens, right, with OBT dancers in Yue Yin’s “Just Above the Surface.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Wooden Dimes, the night’s feature event, began with a bang, telling the story of a 1920s chorus girl named Betty Fine and her husband, Robert, as they become torn apart by a world of glamour, fame, opportunity, and jazz. Choreographed by OBT Artistic Director and former Royal Australian Ballet and Nederlands Dance Theatre dancer, Dani Rowe, this is the world premiere of Wooden Dimes as a live performance. It was originally produced as a film during the pandemic when the San Francisco Ballet’s 2021 season was presented digitally.

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For the new OBT production, the dazzling set design is by Alexander V. Nichols with additional set design and adorably exquisite costuming by Emma Kingsbury. Original music is provided by the OBT Orchestra with guest composer and conductor James M. Stephenson. From a glamorous backstage dressing room complete with lightbulb-illuminated vanity on wheels to a Wall Street office setting and subtly designed park, the audience follows Betty down a winding road of temptation, misunderstanding, desire, and consequence.

Chorus girl dancers primp before their dressing room mirrors in Dani Rowe's "Wooden Dimes." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Chorus girl dancers primp before their dressing room mirrors in Dani Rowe’s “Wooden Dimes.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Rowe’s Wooden Dimes was a fun romp from start to finish. The first duet, performed by Carly Wheaton as Betty and Brian Simcoe as Robert, was full of young love and cheekiness; the narrative aided perfectly by assisted turns and light partnering. As the work progressed, saut de chats, bourres, unison, and jazz walks en pointe during the crowd-pleasing chorus girl scene added a lightness to the theatrical choreography until the midpoint of the work, where an unfortunate encounter left Simcoe’s character heartbroken. He then enters into a trio with the ‘Dark Angels’, an interwoven partnering piece danced with precision by Hannah Davis and Nicholas Sakai.

Hannah Davis and Nicholas Sakai as the 'Dark Angels' in "Wooden Dimes." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
Hannah Davis and Nicholas Sakai as the Dark Angels’ in “Wooden Dimes.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Simcoe’s Robert later heads back to the dressing room of Wheaton’s character Betty, where they embark on a scene of reconciliation. Wheaton, an exemplary casting choice for the diminutive, rambunctious, and coquettish lead, captured the audience’s imagination and continued to shine through the light and entertaining Wooden Dimes. She and the rest of the OBT dancers were featured at their strengths and maintained high spirits until the finish.

The OBT dancers in Dani Rowe's "Wooden Dimes," a joyful journey to the world of 1920's chorus lines and glitzy show business.  Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
The OBT dancers in Dani Rowe’s “Wooden Dimes,” a joyful journey to the world of 1920’s chorus lines and glitzy show business. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

For fans of Chicago, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, and other era classics, Wooden Dimes is likely to be a delight. Find out whether Robert and Betty reconcile and if she finds what she’s looking for in a world of ’20s showbiz excess as Wooden Dimes continues Thursday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 12 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, April 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland. Tickets are available through the Oregon Ballet Theatre website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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