Review: At last, Oregon Ballet Theatre goes ‘Face to Face’ with its audience

Back in the theater for the first time since February 2020, the company shows fine form in a program highlighted by Balanchine's classic "Four Temperaments."

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“People might not always remember the words you said, but they will always remember the way you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou

Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its thirty-third season Friday night at the Keller Auditorium with a short run of three choreographically diverse ballets in a program titled “Face to Face.” Only one of them, Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, carries an obvious narrative. George Balanchine’s incontrovertible masterpiece The Four Temperaments includes many if you know where to look, and Jennifer Archibald’s SculptedClouds taps into the cultural consciousness of humankind’s relationship to nature.  

“Don’t worry if you don’t ‘get’ these ballets,” Peter Franc, OBT’s Interim Artistic Director, said in a mercifully succinct pre-curtain speech opening night.  “What’s important is the way they make you feel.”

OBT’s Eva Burton and company in the “Choleric” section of George Balanchine’s classic “The Four Temperaments.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

While it’s part of the critic’s job at least to try to understand, to get, a choreographer’s work, how we feel about it–we are human, after all–does come into play.  So I’m going to follow Franc’s instructions, based on the above quotation from the poet who recited at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and make an attempt to describe how it felt to be back in the theater (this was OBT’s first program inside a theater since The Sleeping Beauty in February 2020, before Covid shutdowns) watching these dancers, many of them young and new to the company, put heart and soul, talent and technique into a program that began with a ballet that is a killer even for those who have performed it many times.

Which these particular dancers have not. None, I think, danced in the company premiere on October 12, 2006, the night that Todd Bolender, who originated Phlegmatic, made his exit from the planet. Brian Simcoe did perform in the 2010 revival, as did Makino Hayashi. In any case, I love this ballet and I’m fussy about it, and I will not analyze it here except to say that Bolender thought Balanchine had been influenced by the Freudian psychoanalysis that seemingly everyone in New York was undergoing, including himself, when it premiered in 1946.  On Friday night, when the curtain went down on it, I was on a champagne high minus the alcohol, clapping like mad; my only disappointment was Simcoe’s slightly too speedy entrance at the beginning of Phlegmatic.

And I felt particularly delighted by the corps, the young, young corps—the rhythmic precision of their devilishly difficult pointework in Sanguinic, their unity throughout the ballet;  the subtlety of Bailey Shaw’s Melancholic solo— in rehearsal he had learned well the difference between melancholy and despair–Jessica Lind and Gustavo Rubeiro’s mastery of the intricacies of Sanguinic pas de deux. All of that set me running  after stager Francia Russell at intermission to thank her for this gift. 

“I did very little,” she told me.  “It was Lisa Kipp who did it all, really.” So here I will thank rehearsal director Kipp, who I first saw dance in a wide variety of roles with Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre, both  precursors of OBT, and who, along with ballet master Jeffrey Stanton, knows exactly what she’s doing and how to mount a wide variety of ballets, hone the company style, and help the dancers to dance their gifted best.   

Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng, and pianist Monica Ohuchi in Ben Stevenson’s “Three Preludes.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

In Three Preludes, set to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s score for piano of the same name, and the only music played live—and beautifully–by company pianist Monica Ohuchi, Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe did just that, converting a rather pedestrian, somewhat dated piece into a duet about their dancing partnership, rather than romantic love. The photo of the two of them in the third movement illustrates that perfectly.  I will add that I was charmed by the pleasure the two principals took in executing Stevenson’s classical shapes and steps, even when negotiating the barrier created by the barre in the first movement. In practical terms, making this the middle piece on the program gave the rest of the company a significant break to catch their breath, so they could tackle SculptedClouds with renewed energy.

SculptedClouds reminds me of some of James Canfield’s early work, and some of Wayne McGregor’s, rather a lot of Gerald Arpino’s (for the use of popular music, in this case composed by Lisa Gerrard, Brendan Perry and Roger Goula, performed by the Dead Can Dance), and several other contemporary choreographers as well. “Generic” is the first descriptor that comes to mind, although Michael Mazzola’s projections made it a lot more interesting to watch than when I saw it last June, minus the production bells and whistles, on the outdoor Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summer Stage.

From left: Hannah Davis, Alexandre Gomes Barbosa, Xuan Cheng, Michael Linsmeier, Charlotte Nash, and Bailey Shaw in Jennifer Archibald’s “SculptedClouds.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

As did the dancers, who were charged with dancing about a very broad idea, namely that we as humans need to live with the natural world rather than on top of it. Jennifer Archibald, who was commissioned by OBT to make this piece, is not a novice choreographer by any means—she’s been resident choreographer at Cincinnati Ballet for some time, appointed by Victoria Morgan. Archibald has both a ballet and a hip hop background, and a strong interest in blending the two forms. I spotted very little hip hop in this piece, but a considerable amount of good dancing, in particular by Hannah Davis, Christopher Kaiser, Michael Linsmeier, Coco Alvarez-Mena, and Makino Hayashi.

So, how did “Face to Face,” or more accurately in these times of pandemic caution, “Face to Mask,” make me feel?  Happy, very, with the quality of the dancing, ditto to see The Four Temperaments again, impressed by Franc’s presentation to the audience of the work, the company, and himself, and not particularly eager to revisit either Three Preludes or SculptedClouds any time soon. That feeling does not apply to the rest of the season, and that includes The Nutcracker, with its bravura roles.

About the author
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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2 Responses

  1. Great review! How lucky we are to have a critic as knowledgeable as Martha!
    Obt truly looked amazing!

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