OBT: The shape of things to come

New leader offers a swan season for Alison Roper, and an American focus with European highlights

Alison Roper, front and center in "Midsummer." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2010

Alison Roper, front and center in “Midsummer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2010

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

One of the first things Kevin Irving did when he assumed the artistic directorship of Oregon Ballet Theatre a few weeks ago was extremely smart.  He made Alison Roper the face of OBT in his first season, and her last: Roper, known for her artistry, athleticism, musicality and versatility in choreography that ranges from the classicism of Christopher Stowell’s staging of “Swan Lake” to the idiosyncratic blend of ballet and modern technique in Trey McIntyre’s “Robust American Love” retires next spring.

In her eighteen years with the company, Roper has helped put it on the national map.  She and Artur Sultanov were on the cover of the program for the Kennedy Center’s first Ballet Across America Festival in 2008, where the company performed Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush.”  (Sultanov returns as a guest artist to partner Roper in Nicolo Fonte’s “Bolero” in February.) Choreographer Yuri Possokhov, who created his “Firebird” on OBT, told me nearly a decade ago that she could have danced anywhere in the world. Irving more recently said she could have been an international star.

Roper’s pending retirement from the stage plays a part in some changes Irving has made in this season’s programming, set originally by interim artistic director Anne Mueller, following Christopher Stowell’s resignation last year. It’s still a “tribute” season, with two works by Stowell, one of them a world premiere, but the focus has shifted to Roper, who will be featured in every program. Irving’s tinkering reflects, as all ballet programming does, the experience, taste, interests, connections and, one hopes, the vision of the artistic directors who set them. Budgetary constraints can compromise that vision, which is one of the reasons Stowell resigned when he did.

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Irving’s adjustments provide some clues to his background and sensibility, as well as his desire, he told me last week in a free-wheeling conversation in his upstairs office, to build on the foundation laid by his predecessors – including  James Canfield, who invented OBT Exposed, the week of free open-air rehearsals that officially opened the  2013-2014 season on Monday in downtown’s Director Park.

Stowell’s charming, sophisticated “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” remains on the October program, but Mueller’s scheduled world premiere and “Le Corsaire Pas de Deux” have been replaced with Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero,” and – on the April program, Roper’s last hurrah –  the same choreographer’s “Cor Perdut” and Helen Pickett’s “Petal” replacing Stowell’s “Adin.”

Kevin Irving/OBT

Kevin Irving/OBT

Irving has strong connections with Duato, whose ballet master and artistic assistant he was for seven years, as well as with leading European choreographer Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe, who has worked in Germany for so long he is no longer considered American. But the new OBT leader said he wants to focus on American choreographers, hence the addition of Pickett’s “Petal” to the April program. Moreover, Irving has a commendable stake in supporting women choreographers: Portland-born, School of OBT-trained Rachel Tess has worked with him in his South American outreach program. Having watched a Smuin Ballet performance of “Petal” on YouTube, which is a lousy way to watch ballet, but better than nothing, I look forward to seeing OBT’s dancers doing it live: it’s fast, it’s clean, it’s clearly well-crafted.

Asked why he chose those particular works of Duato’s, Irving said he chose “Cor Perdut” especially for Roper, whom he feels possesses some of the same qualities as Caterina Allard,  Duato’s longtime muse, who originated the female half of the passion-infused pas de deux.  Irving described Roper, accurately, as a “woman of substance, length and articulation.”

Duato’s “Por Vos Muero” has a special meaning for him. He considers it a breakthrough piece for the choreographer for its “combination of fluid style and the baroque.” White Bird subscribers saw that fusion when the Compania Nacional de Danza performed Duato’s evening-length “Bach” at the Keller Auditorium in 2002.  I thought it was a knockout, in part because Duato somehow managed to make Bach sound like a Spanish composer. While Irving didn’t say so, “Por Vos Muero” also informs the Portland audience at the starting gate of where the new artistic director is coming from. Like Duato, like Fonte, like Jerome Robbins, and like George Balanchine, Irving, who is not a choreographer but a highly experienced stager, has a thoroughly theatrical sensibility. To that end, Balanchine’s work will remain in OBT’s repertory, though with 21 dancers it will be a while before that company watershed piece, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” can be performed again. (Six apprentices and six Professional Division students from OBT’s School, for which a new director will be announced shortly, make it possible to perform Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” the first ballet Irving saw as a kid growing up on Long Island. He saw it in a much more aesthetically pleasing production than OBT’s, I would add.)

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Press releases about the upcoming ballet season have been coming across my screen in recent days. One is from Grand Rapids Ballet, which has been directed by Patricia Barker, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s former, and stellar, prima ballerina, for the past couple of years. One is from Ballet San Jose, now headed by José Manuel Carreño, another dancing star (most recently of  the English National Ballet, before that the Royal Ballet, before that American Ballet Theatre, where he was part of the Cuban contingent). Carreno and Barker, like Irving, are not choreographers but curators, calling in their cards with various choreographers and dancers they have worked with in the past, just as Stowell did when he first came to town. Barker is presenting a world-premiere “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by former PNB dancer Olivier Wevers, now well-launched on a choreographic career with his own company, Whim W’Him.  Carreno isn’t pinching pennies: in March, the company dances Paul Taylor’s “ Piazzolla Caldera”; in May, Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” Irving danced in the televised version of that hard-driving and relentless work.

Irving is already planning the company’s 25th anniversary season, and chances are there will be a new-to-Portland work of Tharp’s on it. Meanwhile, he’ll be setting “Por Vos Muero” in open rehearsals at Director Park this week, at the same time offering the public a look at the new dancers (there are four new company artists, six new apprentices).  He is committed to an open process in the service of audience education and outreach, as well as establishing financial and administrative stability.  This will be a challenge, but it’s work he performed successfully for Goteborg Ballet in Sweden, and a challenge is what he enjoys.

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PREVIOUSLY:

New guy in town: Kevin Irving jumps in feet first.

OBT at the crossroads: after Stowell quits, a company in flux.

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