OBT: Change partners and dance

ArtsWatch Weekly: The ballet company reshuffles its season, dropping three Nicolo Fonte pieces. As Covid surges, companies scramble. Eye openers and music for the ears.

OREGON BALLET THEATRE SENT A LETTER TO ITS SUBSCRIBERS early this week, and while the news wasn’t surprising, it was emphatic: The company’s 2021/22 season, which had been announced June 10 in a press release, was getting a major overhaul. The letter didn’t emphasize this, but the profound difference was the disappearance from the lineup of three ballets by Nicolo Fonte: Rhapsody in BlueBoléro, and Beautiful Decay.

Former Oregon Ballet Theatre principals Artur Sultanov and Alison Roper dancing in Nicolo Fonte’s “Boléro” in 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Fonte had been the Portland company’s resident choreographer for several years. This presented a problem, because Fonte has also been, for some decades, Kevin Irving’s life partner – and on June 23, in a surprise move, the ballet company’s board cut Irving loose after eight years as OBT’s artistic director. At the time, OBT board chair Allison Lane Lyneham told ArtsWatch’s Jamuna Chiarini that Fonte would remain as resident choreographer. But on June 25, Fonte told Chiarini he had, in fact, resigned.

This created an immediate question, which OBT left hanging for several weeks: What would happen to a season largely built around Fonte’s dances? Could or would the company keep them on the schedule? Assuming that Fonte held the rights, would he refuse to grant them? One way or another, we now know: Portland audiences won’t be seeing them – not, at least, in the coming season. And if the split is permanent, it’ll be a big loss for OBT, because Fonte has contributed some excellent pieces to the company’s repertoire.

Two new pieces on the revised season will be by the veteran choreographer Ben Stevenson, who was once artistic director of Houston Ballet, where the recently retired OBT principal dancer Peter Franc, who has taken over as the Portland company’s interim artistic director, once danced. You can now see the full revised schedule on OBT’s website.

ArtsWatch asked OBT on Tuesday for official comment on the situation, but had no reply by publishing time. What will the “new” OBT look like, once a new permanent leader emerges and puts her or his stamp on the company? It’s an open question. The shakeup comes at a time when all performing-arts companies are already unsettled by long layoffs from coronavirus restrictions and uncertainty over what comes next. OBT also has a history of turmoil, as this ArtsWatch story from February 2013, when Irving’s predecessor Christopher Stowell abruptly resigned, lays out.



Eye-openers: The many ways we look at things

In the studio, the face of  Wataru Sugiyama’s 13-foot-tall owl sculpture “May You Feel Peace Within.” Photo courtesy of the artist.

WATARU SUGIYAMA: BUILDING BEAUTY. Beth Sorensen tells the story of the sculptor Sugiyama’s journey from his native Japan to the college town of Ashland, Oregon, and his transition from civil engineering to building sometimes giant ceramic sculptures in “his unique interpretations of traditional Japanese Haniwa imagery – meditating elephants, beatified boars, violin-playing foxes, and turtle monks.” Working from a small barn studio on the south edge of town, Sugiyama has settled into a rhythm in which art and life seem to fuse: “He will often rise from his work bench and wander down the dirt roads nearby, stopping at a nearby pond teeming with aquatic life, meditating on the rolling hills across the way, or playing his flute to greet the morning sun.” Nature’s forms provide him with a spiritual energy, he tells Sorensen: “I am not only getting the ideas for shapes or colors toward creating my sculptures, but I am recharging myself.”

Novelist, short-story writer, and essayist Vanessa Veselka, winner of the Oregon Book Award and long-listed for the National Book Award for her novel “The Great Offshore Grounds.” Photo: K.B. Dixon

THE ARTISTS SERIES: WRITERS, A CODA. In his continuing series of photographic portraits of Oregon artists, K.B. Dixon returns to the writers with fresh portraits of eleven prominent Oregon writers, from novelists Peter Rock and Whitney Otto to memoirist Robin Romm and poet Don Colburn. Also: novelists Vanessa Veselka, Chelsea Bieker, and Peyton Marshall; memoirist/essayist Justin Hocking; novelist and memoirist Don Waters; novelist and essayist Pauls Toutonghi; essayist, poet and novelist Janice Lee.

Sora O’Doherty creating large-scale calligraphy in front of an audience, accompanied by musician Mitch Limori. Photo: Jon Richardson

JOURNEYS: MORE THAN ONE WAY TO FLY. In a story first published in The Immigrant Story, Juniper Yarnall-Benson tells the tale of Japanese immigrant Sora O’Doherty, a former airline flight attendant, who now makes giant calligraphic paintings in Oregon – sometimes, as in the photo above, as a form of performance art, with an audience. Her transition to art had its roots in family tradition, O’Doherty tells Yarnall-Benson: “Her father was well-known for his beautiful handwriting, and wrote Noshi, a type of origami used to attach thank-you notes to gifts, in sumi ink.” O’Doherty recalls: “I remember the ink smell and the big brush. It was all very interesting to me.”



Onstage, onscreen, in the concert halls

Osvaldo Golijov. Photo by Yonni Golijov.
Osvaldo Golijov, in residence at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Yonni Golijov

“IF THE CENTER IS THE HUMAN SOUL”: AN INTERVIEW WITH OSVALDO GOLIJOV. The Argentine-born composer “is a spare man with a robust repertoire in the contemporary classical-music world,” Angela Allen writes. “He has written an opera, a Mass, movie scores, song cycles, symphonic music, and lots of chamber music.” In a wide-ranging interview, Golijov – who’s hanging around Oregon wine country this week as composer in residence at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival – tells Allen that chamber music is his spiritual home and jazz “is the love of my life. … I can’t stop marveling at that music!”

THE REBUILD: BROADWAY ROSE. Bennett Campbell Ferguson begins a series of stories on how Portland area theaters are transitioning back to in-person performances, talking with Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy, founders and leaders of Broadway Rose, the musical-theater company in Tigard. “People talk about the ‘new normal,’ and I still want the old normal,” Murphy tells Ferguson. “We’re a live theater company. I don’t want to do any more streaming. I want live people experiencing a live performance that will be different the next night and the night after that.” Still, Broadway Rose presented its recent show Analog & Vinyl four ways – one streaming, the other three live, with variations on audience requirements.

LETTER FROM SEATTLE: THEATER, AGAIN. Meanwhile, theater companies in Portland’s neighbor to the north are facing much the same situation: How, when, and even should they reopen to live audiences? Our correspondent Misha Berson scans the theaterscape and discovers, as in Portland, a broad array of answers, from Shakespeare in the Parks to warehouse shows to hopeful scheduling to wait-and-see.

WHERE UTOPIA IS PRESENT. Robert Ham talks with Jan Julius, the Portland-based future-pop/R&B artist, about Julius’s “dynamic new album” Meat Shot Idyllic and its combination of sexual thrill and ponderings on the possibilities of utopia in today’s world.

FILM FABLES AND FAIRYTALES. In a column published originally on her website Your Daily Picture, Friderike Heuer writes about the recurrence and adaptation of fable in a pair of film projects: Morocco’s The Unknown Saint and the South Korean television series It’s Okay to Not Be Okay.

FILMWATCH WEEKLY: ‘EMA,’ ‘NO ORDINARY MAN,’ ‘WHITE AS SNOW.’  Marc Mohan goes to the movies and discovers a lavish portrait of a “hot mess” of a heroine; an empathetic look beyond the tabloids at the life of transmasculine jazz musician Billy Tipton; and a sexy, updated “Snow White.” 

Biting into the apple: Lou de Laage and Isabelle Huppert in “White as Snow.”


To see or not to see: Vax is the question

REMEMBER WHEN GOING OUT TO SEE A SHOW WAS A SIMPLE THING? These days it’s at least as complex as Hamlet’s relationship with his mom. After more than a year of virtual performances (or none at all), things are beginning to open up. But hold on: Here comes Delta, moving up on the inside, faster than a bat from the Underworld. Latest Oregon figures show a fifth straight week of escalating coronavirus cases, a 40 percent leap from the previous week, and the highest rate of positive tests since last August. Here are a few things that are (or aren’t) happening:

  • Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, the complex of five civic theaters in downtown Portland, is reopening after a long shutdown. Coming up swiftly – on Wednesday, Aug. 18, in the Newmark Theatre – is Becky Robinson’s Heavy Pour Tour, featuring the former Portland comedian, writer and actor. But it’s not all fun and games. Following county and state rules, masks will be required at all performances. Robyn Williams, Portland5’s executive director, notes that all of the theaters have been cleaned and disinfected and have had high-quality air filters and air handlers installed: “We can now maximize outdoor fresh air flow as much as possible in accordance with CDC and OSHA guidelines while keeping the buildings at healthy and comfortable temperatures.”
     
  • BodyVox dance center is offering lots of classes – but beginning this week it’s also requiring that anyone who takes class provide proof of vaccination. Bodies get close in dance studios, and the company believes the move is necessary.
     
  • New venues such as The Lot at Zidell Yards and Old Moody Stages at Zidell Yards, which are either outdoors or open-air, have provided all sorts of live shows in recent months. (Profile Theatre’s production of Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession continues through this week at Old Moody Stages.) But audiences are of necessity spread out, and the spaces will be less viable when the weather inevitably turns in the fall, leaving everyone to wonder: Will indoor shows be easy to handle by then?
     
  • Southern Oregon’s behind the game. The Ashland New Plays Festival, which is entering its 29th season, announced this week that this year’s festival will be virtual, not live. Jackson County, like others in the region, has a low vaccination rate and has been chalking up record numbers of infection cases, and although the festival won’t start until mid-October, the board and staff simply didn’t want to risk live shows. Vaccine aversion in the region is dealing a double whammy to tourism-dependent cultural institutions such as Jacksonville’s Britt Music & Arts Festival and Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which already are dealing with climate shifts that are making fires and smoke an every-year threat.


Here, there, and everywhere: Art from all over

The “Reserve Inspiration” show is sponsored by the Audubon Society of Lincoln City, but it is not all about birds. Ernie Rose’s photo of brown pelicans, however, is.
Ernie Rose, brown pelicans, photograph, in the exhibition “Reserve Inspiration” opening Friday, Aug. 13, at the Lincoln City Cultural Center.

MARINE RESERVES INSPIRE COASTAL ARTISTS. “It’s no secret that people love Oregon’s coast — the beaches, the tidepools, the sunsets, the wildlife,” Lori Tobias writes. “Less known is the fact that along those 360-odd miles of coast lie five distinctive areas — ‘living laboratories’ that may hold the answers to the ocean’s health long after we’re gone.” In the new exhibit Reserve Inspiration, the Audubon Society of Lincoln City and the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s PJ Chessman Gallery are presenting the work of seven coast artists inspired by the life in one of those natural laboratories, the Cascade Head Marine Reserve.

Elo Wobig, “Opaline Sunset,” winner of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge Award in the 2021 Pacific Northwest Plein Air Paint-Off. Wobig: “When I’m doing a sunset, I’m painting as fast as I can. It’s a magical headspace to be in because you’re not thinking about anything else and you don’t have time to paint everything because the colors keep evolving moment by moment.”

PAINTING QUICKLY IN THE COLUMBIA GORGE. “En plein air” is a French term meaning “in the open air,” and is used to describe outdoor painting, in the manner of the Impressionists, working usually quickly – the light is fleeting – and directly from what’s in front of you. About 150 artists recently did just that in the Columbia River Gorge, taking part in the 2021 Pacific Northwest Plein Air in the Columbia Gorge Paint-Off. It was the 15th such annual paint-off in an event that’s now a partnership between Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Maryhill Museum of Art, above the Gorge on the Washington side of the river, near Goldendale. The winners have been announced (see them in reproduction at the link above) and are on view through Aug. 28 at Maryhill.

COREY BRUNISH MAKES A RECORD (AND A MUSICAL, TOO). Brunish, the Broadway producer and man-about-the-theater who splits his time between Portland and New York, has a new project in the works: a cast recording for the new musical My Marcello, based on the 1997 movie Roseanna’s Grave, about “a man who tries to keep everyone in town alive until he can afford to buy one of the last two remaining burial plots for his gravely ill wife.” Brunish wrote the book for the musical and is one of its producers. The recording, which features an all-star cast, will be released Aug. 20.

Ralph Pugay (American, born Philippines, 1983), “Ecstatic dancers in landscape,” 2020, series of 10 monoprints, monoprint with lithograph and monotype, 18 x 24 inches, collection of the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts. Showing through Saturday, Aug. 14, at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

CROW’S SHADOW AND CHIHULY AT HALLIE FORD. A couple of intriguing shows are nearing the end of their runs at Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts: Part II, the second part of on overview that began in February, closes on Saturday, Aug. 14. The show features a selection of Native and non-Native contemporary prints from Crow’s Shadow, the innovative arts center on the Umatilla Reservation in Umatilla County. Dale Chihuly: Cylinders, Macchia, and Venetians from the George R. Stroemple Collection continues through Aug. 28. It’s a look at works by the Northwest artist who was instrumental in reviving interest in glass art.



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About the author
Senior Editor

Bob Hicks has been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki OhtsuJames B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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