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OBT: Dancing ‘Firebird’ and other stories

Yuri Possokhov's "Firebird" and two other story-dances open the page on Oregon Ballet Theatre's newest show. Plus: First look at OBT's 2023-24 season.

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Isaac Lee as Prince Ivan and Zuzu Metler as the Princess in “Firebird” rehearsal. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Oregon Ballet Theatre continues its “Season of Stories” at the Newmark Theater starting Friday, April 7, with a program of short tales that concludes with Yuri Possokhov’s retelling of Fokine’s Firebird. There are four performances this weekend and three next. 

While the show hasn’t been publicized as a collection of stories per se, it was clear when I observed rehearsals at the OBT studios a couple of weeks ago that every ballet in it contains several. 

Take Indigo, which opens the show. Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch’s signature ballet has the dancers moving faster than the hounds of hell, energized–and how!–by two Vivaldi cello concertos.  Welch tells a sexy “couples” story (there are four pairs dancing their hearts out) that one Houston critic seems to have found shocking when it was performed there several years ago.

Charlotte Nash rehearsing Stanton Welch’s “Indigo” with Christopher Kaiser and Michael Linsmeier. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I watched rehearsal sitting outside the main studio, in the company of OBT’s new artistic director, Dani Rowe, and board member Dean Richardson, and none of us found this mixture of classical, modern, and belly-dance-accented movement particularly scandalous. Instead, I was gobsmacked by the dancers’ energy and heat, palpable in the drafty corridor. At the break, dancer Eva Burton, dripping with perspiration, came out to greet me and apologized for the sweaty embrace, which prompted Rowe to quip that there should be a perfume titled Eau de Ballet. I’ll take it!

In Eco, New York choreographer Lauren Lovette’s ballet that was commissioned by OBT artistic consultant Peter Franc when he was interim artistic director, the dancers tell their own stories and ours as inhabitants of the natural world, or so it seemed to me when I watched their rehearsal later in the day.  They are nomads—like dancers, they are always on the move. But not on point: They wear soft slippers, and the women were rehearsing in full, floaty ruffled skirts, designed by Mark Zappone, who also designed the costumes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seen last fall. Lighting designer Michael Mazzola was also watching this rehearsal, intently as he always does, setting the cues. Eco will be beautifully produced.

Choreographer Lauren Lovette, foreground, working with dancers Isaac Lee and Leigh Goldberger in rehearsal for Lovette’s new ballet “Eco.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Don’t worry about getting tangled up in the skirt,” Lovette called out, as one dancer did just that.  “That’s okay.” It was obvious from the open expression on Lovette’s face that she expected to be pleased by what the dancers were doing with her eclectic vocabulary—balletic fingers, hunched shoulders, snaking necks, with some clowning and bravura jumping in the mix. And that clear expectation that she would like what the dancers would show her, her delight in the process, warmed my heart—I don’t see that very often in a rehearsal, especially that close to opening night.

Lovette, a former principal dancer at New York City Ballet and now resident choreographer at the Paul Taylor Company, has a problem-solving approach to making dances, and an architectural one: She builds movement, and has as much fun doing it as a kid with a set of Legos. 

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That being said, Eco is grounded in music, five tracks from an album titled Silta written and performed by classical cellist Hilary Hahn and German pianist and composer Hauschka. These musicians work together improvisationally, and while Lovette is definite about how and when she wants the dancers to move, some of what I observed that day had the appearance of spontaneity. I counted a dozen dancers rehearsing, Ben Whitestone, Bailey Shaw, Hannah Davis, Juliette Ochoa, and Nicholas Sakai among them.

Alexandre Gomes-Barbosa and Bailey Shaw rehearsing “Eco.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Indigo and Eco are contemporary stories, and the dance vocabulary Welch and Lovette use to tell them, while respectively quite different, is contemporary as well.  Firebird, which premiered more than a century ago, in Paris in 1910, was certainly radical for its time—Michel Fokine’s choreography was heavily influenced by modern dancer Isadora Duncan, and Igor Stravinsky’s first score for ballet is full of dramatic dissonance. Nevertheless, the tale of a magical bird, a young prince, and a village of people held in thrall by the evil magician Kaschei is an old one,  and San Francisco Ballet resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s current staging is Russian to the core. 

What OBT is calling the updated version no longer includes children as comic-book-character monsters, an amusing solution to former OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell’s request that there be roles for School of Oregon Ballet Theatre students when he commissioned the work in 2004. But the flexed-foot Russian folk dances have stayed, and except for some costumes for the grownup monsters on loan from SFB, we’ll be seeing the same charming Russian storybook production, designed by Yuri Zhukov and built by OBT’s set and wardrobe staff.

Magic still overcomes evil, as Prince Ivan deploys the white feather the Firebird gives him to eliminate Kaschei, who does far more bravura dancing here than in other productions. On opening night Carly Wheaton dances the title role, with Brian Simcoe as Prince Ivan; Zuzu Metzler as the hoydenish princess-in-chief, leading a pack of unruly adolescent girls; and Sakai as Kaschei.

Nicholas Sakai, as Kaschai, rehearsing Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

This is the third revival of this Firebird since its premiere. The second one was in 2011 when Stowell programmed “The Stravinsky Project,” which included contemporary choreographer Rachel Tess’s chic piece set to Stravinsky’s piano music and BodyVox directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland’s maniacal takeoff on classical “bird” ballets. There were no children in those performances of Firebird, either and they were accompanied by recorded music. They will be this time around, too, and that’s a crying shame. When played live, this score– the 1945 Ballet Suite used by Balanchine for his 1949 production showcasing Maria Tallchief, which I saw–energizes and inspires the dancers and takes the audience on an emotional roller coast ride in ways that few others do.

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There was no Firebird rehearsal the afternoon I was in the OBT studios, but I was thinking about those first performances and OBT dancer Alison Roper’s glorious interpretation of that magical creature as I walked down to the board room to speak with Dani Rowe about her life as a choreographer, artistic director, wife, and the mother of two young children. And, no small thing, her plans for OBT.

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Dani Rowe, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new artistic director. Photo: Alexander Reneff-Olson

“I want to be very open-minded,” Rowe told me, “flexible, challenged. And to expose the audience to many forms of ballet and to educate it.” She’s already thinking about the 2024-25 season, and spoke of curating it “holistically” and to reflect the company’s history.  In line with that, she had already met with Carol Shults about the possibility of performing some of the late Dennis Spaight’s ballets. Spaight was OBT’s associate artistic director and resident choreographer from 1989 to 1993, and to his infinite credit, former artistic director Kevin Irving revived Spaight’s Scheherazade in 2019. 

I asked about programming Balanchine’s work. Other than his Nutcracker, we’ve seen little of his work since the Stowell years, although Irving did give us Agon and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and Franc’s first program was anchored by Four Temperaments.

“There’s really not much Balanchine in my background,” said Rowe, a native Australian who danced with the Royal Australian Ballet, where she met her husband, Luke Ingham, now a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. She danced briefly with the Houston Ballet, for several years with the Nederlands Dance Theatre, and retired from dancing in 2017. Since then, Rowe has been based in San Francisco, making dances for companies all over the country, raising a family, and gaining administrative experience as the associate director of SF DanceWorks, a contemporary company.

It was, however, in 2009, during a brief stint as a dancer with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s touring company Morphoses that Rowe first heard about OBT, and from a working mother at that. 

Enter Alison Roper and her infant son, with whom Rowe shared a dressing room. “When this job was announced,” she told me, blue eyes sparkling, “I applied for it immediately.” Roper had shown her that the company, then under Stowell’s directorship, was accommodating to dancers with families, a rarity twelve years ago, and today, too. 

That’s changing, now that more women are heading ballet companies, and Rowe cited Tamara Roja, who assumed the leadership of San Francisco Ballet in January. “I couldn’t uproot my children in the middle of the school year to come here, and she is very understanding of my husband’s need to have a performing schedule that accommodates his need to be a parent.”

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Christopher Stowell’s “Swan Lake,” shown here in its 2013 production t Oregon Ballet Theatre, will open OBT’s 2023-24 season in October.

Rowe was headed to San Francisco later that afternoon; she hadn’t seen her daughters in three weeks, a long time to be parted from a pre-teen and a four-year-old. We talked a bit about next year’s season, which the company has just announced, and which was designed by Franc: It also features stories (the season is called Finding Your Story).

The 2023-24 season opens (hooray!) with Christopher Stowell’s Swan Lake in October, and tells the Balanchine version of the story of The Nutcracker in December.

February 2024’s story is Peter Pan, as told by onetime OBT resident choreographer Trey McIntyre, which premiered at Houston Ballet in 2002. Peter Pan has a couple of other Oregon connections—Niel de Ponte, OBT’s former music director, collaborated with McIntyre on the score, which is an arrangement of rarely heard music by British composer Edward Elgar; and Michael Curry created some puppets for the production. 

April’s stories are again short ones, and include the live premiere of Rowe’s ballet Wooden Dimes, made for SFB as a film during the pandemic; a revival of Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes; and New York-based choreographer Yin Yue’s Just Above the Surface. In 2013 Yue was a winner of Northwest Dance Project’s annual choreography competition, which helped to launch her career as a highly innovative dancemaker, who, like many modern choreographers, has developed her own hard-driving technique.  She calls hers  FoCo.

The season ends in June 2024 with the second installment of Made in Portland, which will feature no fewer than four women invited to choreograph their impressions of our city: OBT dancer Charlotte Nash; former OBT dancer Makino Hayashi, who also has a piece on this year’s program; and out-of-towners Andrea Schermoly and Rebecca Margolick. The Jefferson Dancers are included on this mixed bill, telling stories of Portland’s youth. In addition, the company’s Annual School Performance will be April 13-14, 2024.

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  • OBT’s Firebird program plays April 7-9 and 13-15 at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland. Find production details and ticket information here.

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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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