As it is all over the country this fall, story is the operative word at Oregon Ballet Theatre. The company opens its 2022-23 season at Keller Auditorium this weekend and next, Oct. 8-16, with a collection of three short ones: Christopher Bruce’s “Hush,” a 30-minute distillation of a family saga; George Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” about a dancing relationship; and Christopher Stowell’s hour-long, thoroughly modern “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which features one of the best marital rows in ballet. Felix Mendelssohn’s lush romantic score will be performed live by the OBT orchestra, led by company music director Niel De Ponte, at all performances, which is in itself cause for rejoicing.
And who doesn’t love stories? Watching them, hearing them, reading them, seeing them, telling them? Don’t answer that please: I know who you are, in the modern and contemporary dance world, but do not deceive yourself, you tell a story every time you flex a foot or sweep an arm, or twitch a muscle in your face. Just as in this opening program and throughout the season, OBT’s dancers, including the children cast as fairies and bugs and butterflies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” tell their own stories as dancers and humans, as does Interim Artistic Director Peter Franc, who put together the company’s 34th season and is justifiably proud of it.
Let’s start with the curtain-raising “Hush,” which Bruce, who is British, made for Houston Ballet. In the photo at top you see Franc, who performed in it during his eight-year career with the Texas company, passing on to new OBT dancer Nicholas Sakai what he learned about how to dance the story of this traveling circus family, using a vocabulary that mixes acrobatics, modern movement and classical steps.
“Hush” also tells some of Franc’s personal story, as the father of two very young children. In a recent interview he spoke of the character of the exhausted mother, too tired to sleep, picking up the living room in much the same way Frau Stahlbaum tidies up the parlor after the Christmas Eve party in “George Balanchine’s® The Nutcracker,” the next story OBT will dance and, like “Midsummer,” accompanied by live orchestra for all performances.
Balanchine, master of the plotless ballet, nevertheless once said that when a man and a woman are dancing together onstage there is always a story. “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” made in 1960 specifically for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, tells a very short one—it’s ten minutes long—of two people at ease with each other, confident in their ability to fly together and apart, and come together again, all the while challenging each other technically. “Tchai Pas” also calls for the kind of bravura technique that makes audiences cheer and dancers relive their classical training, as they make it their own. This, like “Hush,” is new to the OBT repertory, or close to it – the company hasn’t performed it since one of its precursors, Pacific Ballet Theatre, did it in the 1980s – and I wish I could see every cast. Opening night, new soloist Carly Wheaton and company artist Bailey Shaw, whose dancing last season as Melancholic in Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments” taught me some new things about a ballet I’ve seen more times than I can count.
Sakai and Hannah Davis perform at the Sunday matinee. She’s a precise, sparkling presence onstage, and this should be an interesting partnership. I watched her in an early rehearsal for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” portraying Hermia as a coquette, playing off Michael Linsmeier’s Lysander, making every gesture, every stab of her pointes, count. Linsmeier owns the role he originated so thoroughly that he dances it in every performance, partnering a variety of Hermias.
That brings me to Christopher Stowell’s version of this repertory staple, which happens to be my favorite one. And no, I haven’t seen them all, by any means—there are dozens! Stowell, who was OBT artistic director from 2003 to 2012, made it on the company in 2007, with Alison Roper originating Titania and Simcoe performing Oberon. Simcoe dances the king of the fairies again on opening night, with Jessica Lind as Titania. In rehearsal, I was moved nearly to tears as she, with maternal tenderness, escorted the changeling boy offstage (the cause of that marital row), danced dramatically (and how!) by a child from OBT’s School.
Stowell, who comes from that dancing family north of us – his parents, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, ran Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet from 1977 to 2005 – had a long career with San Francisco Ballet, where he danced Oberon in Balanchine’s evening-length “Midsummer,” in which the story is told with a lot of mime. Stowell uses quite a bit in his version, too and at the same rehearsal spent some time fine-tuning it, at one point making everyone in the studio burst into laughter. He has a mobile face, and working under Helgi Tomasson, who retires at the end of this season as artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, he learned from a master. Tomasson started his professional career in the Pantomime Theatre in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, in his early teens, then trained at the School of American Ballet, as did Stowell.
In 1997, when his parents mounted a new production of Balanchine’s “Midsummer” at PNB, with permission from the Balanchine Trust to create sets and costumes that would relate to the Pacific Northwest, Stowell, as a guest artist, replaced an injured Paul Gibson as Oberon. This may have given him the idea to commission San Francisco designer Sandra Woodhall, who designed many of his ballets, including the sophisticated “Eyes on You,” to do likewise for his modernized version. Woodhall took him seriously and spent some time sketching in the Opal Creek area (which was severely damaged i. the 2020 Beachie Creek wildfire) and the result is sets and costumes we can relate to as easily as we do to the flirting, warring, foolish, charming, funny, irritating cast of characters and their very human stories. Stowell was pleased with the way Principal Rehearsal Director Lisa Kipp had staged some extremely intricate choreography, and also with what he called “a nice spectrum” of dancers.
These included the children from OBT’s School, now being trained by former OBT dancer Katarina Svetlova Thompson, who are dancing butterflies, fireflies, and the aforementioned changeling, and in addition to “George Balanchine’s® “The Nutcracker” will dance important roles in February’s “La Sylphide,” choreographed by August Bournonville, and April’s “The Firebird,” a revival of Yuri Possokhov’s deliciously updated iteration of the Fokine classic. The last was commissioned by Stowell with specific instructions to include children’s roles (they’re action-figure monsters). Franc, too, is committed to giving the OBT School students opportunities to perform, and expressed considerable pride that the students have roles in every story ballet this season.
Also on the April program are a new ballet by Lauren Lovette, former City Ballet principal, who is now resident choreographer with the Paul Taylor Company, and Australian choreographer Stanton Welch’s “Indigo,” which is another component of Franc’s story. He danced in it at Houston Ballet, when Welch was directing the company.
The season ends as it begins with a program of short stories – brand new ones told by a diverse group of choreographers who have been asked to make ballets about Portland. The dancemakers include Rena Butler, Helen Simoneau, push/FOLD Founder and Director Samuel Hobbs, and OBT’s Makino Hayashi, who dances Helena in “Midsummer” this Sunday.
- OBT’s season-opening “Midsummer Night’s Dream” program opens Saturday, Oct. 8, and continues through Oct. 16. For ticket and schedule information, Covid protocols (masks are required), performance times, up-to-date casting, and details on the full season, check the company website OBT.org. You can also call the box office at 503-222-5538 to reserve tickets.