Chauncey Parsons

Chauncey Parsons’ final bow

As Oregon Ballet Theatre swings into its spring concerts, its principal dancer prepares to take the final steps in his storied career

Chauncey Parsons, long dark cloak whipped behind him by the speed of his movement, makes an anguished, running entrance onto the Keller Auditorium stage, which is set as a medieval German graveyard, and flings the cloak aside as he kneels before Giselle’s grave.

That was in 2012, in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s incredibly elegant and expensive production of Giselle. A year later, as Florimund in Christopher Stowell’s staging of The Sleeping Beauty (which will be revived next season), Parsons made every entrance with the presence and panache of the great Russian dancers – but, as I wrote for The Oregonian, minus the bombast.

Chauncey Parsons in Nicolo Fonte’s “Giants Before Us.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2016

Last fall, Parsons—a fantasy cape hanging from his shoulders, back as straight as a coral spine—made his first entrance as Golfo, ruler of his undersea territory, in the second act of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s evening-length production of Bournonville’s Napoli, inhabiting the arrogant sea monster’s role with chilling authority.

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Fresh, vibrant, still the ‘Nutcracker’

Oregon Ballet Theatre brings a sparkling musical vitality to its newest run of "The Nutcracker." Now, let's talk about Tea and Coffee.

Oregon Ballet Theatre has opened its current run of George Balanchine’s ®The Nutcracker at the Keller Auditorium with a meticulously detailed, swiftly paced, high-energy performance of a ballet that can be a chore for people like me to watch. And I say that as a critic, but also as a grandmother, dedicated to instilling in my grandchildren the notion that live performance is much more exciting than anything they might see on their ubiquitous screens. Which means I’ve seen more Nutcrackers than I can count, never mind remember, in forty years of watching dance professionally; this particular production at least a dozen times.

Much of the energy of Saturday afternoon’s unofficial opening of this 19-performance run—the official opening was Saturday night, with a different, and I daresay equally good, cast—can be attributed to the orchestra. Under the experienced baton of OBT Music Director Niel De Ponte it played Tchaikovsky’s complex if familiar score with new freshness, and an accelerated tempo for the ballet’s Christmas Eve festivities that made them as effervescent as a glass of Veuve Clicquot.

Chauncey Parsons as Cavalier and Xuan Cheng as Sugarplum Fairy in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2017 “Nutcracker.” Cheng will dance Sugar Plum to Brian Simcoe’s Cavalier in performances this year. Parsons is dancing his final Cavalier with Ansa Capizzi as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Photo: James McGrew

This is far from always the case: When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in a slightly different version in 1954, an unnamed poet commented that the party scene was “so deliciously boring [I] could see it again and again.”

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A Danish pastry, via Napoli

Preview: Oregon Ballet Theatre premieres a lavish version of a 19th century Danish story ballet set in Italy, with a heroine made for today.

Teresina, the heroine of Napoli, is a woman for our time. Don’t believe me? Go see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s sparkling new production of August Bournonville’s signature ballet, which opens the company’s 29th season at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday night. With a libretto by Bournonville, and a score by E. Helsted, Gade and Paulli, with whom the choreographer collaborated in the same way as Petipa with Tchaikowsky, and Balanchine with Stravinsky, this is a 19th century story ballet with which 21st century audiences can relate –– and particularly with fiery, independent Teresina.

In all three acts of the great Danish choreographer’s lighthearted ballet about common Neapolitan people (there isn’t an aristocrat in sight) she is a take-charge kind of gal, in control of her life and her future: “I’ll decide whom I’ll marry,” she declares without words in Act I, choosing Gennaro, the fisherman, over Giacomo the macaroni seller and Peppo the lemonade seller. Her widowed mother would prefer greater economic stability for her daughter, and incidentally for herself. But Teresina prevails and despite a looming storm, she and Gennaro go off for an evening boat ride and some alone time. He, the hapless hero—a convention of 19th century story ballets –– manages to lose her in the stormy seas, and returns to land without her.

Makino Hildestad in OBT’s 2015 production of the third act of “Napoli.” The company premieres its full-length production of the 1842 Bournonville story ballet on Saturday. Photo: James McGrew.

“Give me that medal, I’ll do this myself,” she asserts, equally wordlessly, in Act II when her fiancé finds her in Capri’s famed Blue Grotto, and fails to act quickly enough to save her from the unwanted attentions of Golfo, a sea demon who dwells there, happily turning maidens into Naiads whenever he gets the chance. And thrusting the medal depicting Mary, Mother of God (another strong woman) straight at her would-be seducer, she stops him cold.

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Age before (and beside) beauty

Nicolo Fonte's "Beautiful Decay" for Oregon Ballet Theatre eloquently reflects on youth and age

“Crabbèd age and youth cannot live together,” a poem attributed to William Shakespeare tells us.

That may be, but they sure as hell can dance together, and damned well, as sixtysomething guest artists Gregg Bielemeier, Susan Banyas and the energetic, fleet members of Oregon Ballet Theatre showed us Thursday night in the company premiere of  Nicolo Fonte’s  lovely ballet Beautiful Decay.

The evening-length work, originally made for Philadelphia’s BalletX, concludes the company’s twenty-sixth season with an eight-performance run at the Newmark Theatre, this weekend and next.

Guest artist Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier in "Beautiful Decay." Photo: Yi Yin

Guest artist Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier in “Beautiful Decay.” Photo: Yi Yin

From Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli, which was the second half of OBT’s fall opener,  to Balanchine’s Nutcracker and James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, this has been a season of story ballets, and Beautiful Decay not only carries a narrative thread tied to the life cycle and the (expletive deleted) aging process, it also includes some of the conventions to be found in what ballet historians often refer to as the big three: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty, all with music by Tchaikovsky. Beautiful Decay is set to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, contemporary composer Max Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed, and a few pop songs composed by Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds.

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‘Impact,’ Take 2: Ballet with a future

Oregon Ballet Theatre's premiere of Moultrie's 'Instinctual Confidence' is a genre-jumping peek at what's current and what's to come

By DAMIEN JACK

There is nothing dry and dusty about Impact, the program topping off Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th season. After last Friday night’s performance I was making my way out of the Newmark when I heard a woman in front of me turn to her friend and say: “I hate ballet, but that was (bleeping) fantastic!” Now, I happen to love ballet. I’m a balletomane. A ballet queen. Yes, I am. I’m somewhat obsessed. I love to write about ballet, to talk about ballet, and most of all to watch ballet. Still, there are moments—sitting through yet another mummified production of Swan Lake or the latest robotic, ice-cold “contemporary” ballet—when I, too, hate ballet and feel like it’s time to tap out a shim-sham on the art form’s dying corpse. What’s exhilarating about the OBT program is that it makes you feel that ballet has a future. More importantly, from start to finish, you see that this program is alive to the present moment.

"Instinctual Confidence," from left: Michael Linsmeier, Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng, Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Makino Hayashi, Chauncey Parsons, Ye Li, Eva Burton. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Instinctual Confidence,” from left: Michael Linsmeier, Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng, Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Makino Hayashi, Chauncey Parsons, Ye Li, Eva Burton. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program–which concludes with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, April 23-25–opens with a world premiere: Instinctual Confidence, the work of a young American choreographer, born and raised in Harlem, named Darrell Grand Moultrie. He quite rightly refers to his style as “genre jumping.” Moultrie’s career has jumped from Broadway to ballet and, yes, even to Beyoncé—he worked on her “Mrs. Carter Tour”—and back again. Instinctual Confidence doesn’t look like any dance I’ve seen before. It’s a hot mess. Moultrie delivers a tasty mix of movement styles, rhythms and steps. The piece is all derring-do. He’s not afraid to risk a move that’s so unexpected and odd that it reads at first as ugly. The way something in a Cunningham dance might look the first time you see it. But the work is so compelling that you can’t for a moment look away. Throughout the piece a dancer will move into a position drawn from the vocabulary of classical ballet, then suddenly shift out of it—moving into an ever-morphing series of movements that flow further and further away from the classical. A great deal of the fun of the piece is in watching that metamorphosis. And it’s a very speedy ride with Kenji Bunch’s propulsive score helping to push the pedal—even the “slow” sections of the dance feel explosive.

That speed makes Instinctual Confidence difficult to read after just one viewing. However, certain images and dancers linger in the mind. Makino Hayashi’s riveting, cat-like entrance and solo is danced to the music of her own breathing and the sound of her feet and body moving across the stage. She creates a mood and atmosphere that all of the dancers will follow—intense, tough, competitive. Martina Chavez is a knockout in another memorable solo—she looks for all the world like a young Martha Graham. The purple dress she wears is quite unlike the sleek black costumes worn by the other dancers (all designed by Christine Joly de Lotbiniere), as is the choreography Moultrie created for her. To my eye that too seems to be, at least in part, a kind of tribute to Graham, complete with signature turns and leg kicks; but the impression might simply be created by the way that the dress combines with the movement.

There’s a later moment in the ballet when the stage is suddenly crowded with dancers and you can’t possibly take in everything that’s going on, but then Brian Simcoe and Chauncey Parsons come tearing onstage at full speed and spinning like tops, and you can’t look at anything else. Simcoe, always a standout, is on fire throughout Impact. His dancing is wonderfully finished; every movement is fully inhabited, given its full weight. He’s unfailingly musical. There’s nobility to all he does, but there’s never anything stuffy or pompous about his dancing.

Parsons plays a key role in the section of Instinctual Confidence that seemed to have everyone in the theater talking during intermission. Moultrie has dressed a trio of men (Parsons, Michael Linsmeier, and Jordan Kindall) in ice blue tutus. Nothing else. Just tutus. In a program note the choreographer insists he “is not making a statement about gender,” but it’s difficult to think of another costume as strongly gendered as the tutu. We can’t help but see the figure of the classical ballerina somewhere in the back of our mind while watching these men perform. At the same time,  there’s nothing campy going on. Several members of the audience guffawed when the guys first appeared, but the laughter quickly died away. The three don’t interact. They are a unit, but separated; and each man is completely absorbed, intense and focused on performing (as if they were defusing a bomb or cracking a safe) a complex series of stretching and reaching movements. The intensity is coupled with a vulnerability that derives in large part from the way the tutu transforms the male body. The dichotomy is surprisingly moving.

Michael Linsmeier in "Instinctual Confidence."  Photo: James McGrew

Michael Linsmeier in “Instinctual Confidence.” Photo: James McGrew

Where Instinctual Confidence is least interesting and most conventional is in its two pas de deux. These are well-made, fierce, and beautifully danced, with Brian Simcoe and Xuan Cheng making an especially fine couple. That said, why is it that contemporary ballet has been so slow to drag the pas de deux out of the 19th century when it comes to gender roles? You’d think feminism had never happened. Queer people don’t seem to exist at all. The form has changed only in that it’s more virtuosic and more openly sexual than ever. A female dancer is often encouraged to play tough in the pas de deux, but generally that toughness is all about affect and not about choreography. What gives? In a piece and a program that otherwise is so connected to the here and now, this is a peculiar but all too familiar slip.

Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, which had its world premiere at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet back in 1979 and was first seen at OBT in 1990, might seem, given its age, an odd fit on this program; but as much as any of the other pieces it is devoted to re-thinking and enlarging our conception of genre. Spaight, whose death in 1993 from AIDS was a terrible loss to the dance world, reinvents the training or teaching ballet, a work designed for young dancers. It’s a form that has inspired fine work from many choreographers, including Balanchine and Robbins.

Crayola dispenses with the usual musical score so that the dancers move to the rhythms and sounds made by their own toe shoes. Spaight also removed the (often tedious) mime associated with classical ballet, replacing it with American Sign Language. In addition to the expected classical steps, Spaight has his dancers perform pedestrian movement: walking, standing, and sitting. Those might appear to be simple things to do in comparison to, say, bourréeing across the stage, but many would argue they are just as hard, perhaps harder, to master. Spaight was teaching his dancers how to hold the stage; how to command attention. The young, apprentice dancers who make up OBT’s new junior company OBT2 dance the piece with style and precision (no easy task without music to hide behind), and their gestures are so eloquent you know just what they are telling you with their silent words even without the aid of an interpreter.

Nicolo Fonte’s Presto is something else entirely. It is a short trip in a very fast machine. As soon as it’s over you want to press replay and see it all over again. Driven by Ezio Bosso’s fun stop-and-start score, the dance is an explosive workout for four dancers: Ansa Deguchi, Avery Reiners, Eva Burton and Colby Parsons. You can’t imagine how they get through the thing, but part of the pleasure of Presto is seeing the dancers take pleasure in testing themselves. You sense, too, that Fonte had fun making the piece—taking the virtuoso showpiece right to its breaking point. Fonte’s choreography is marked by a proud, drawn-up torso and a precise, sharp attack that calls to mind flamenco dance, but it’s flamenco combined with ballet and done on a high wire.

The night comes to a powerful conclusion with Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement. The company dances this one barefoot, but with the very same ease and commitment that characterized the previous works on the program. Here, however, the material grows dark. Set to Toto Bissainthe’s haunting creole songs, Rassemblement is a mix of nightmare and dream. It is, in part, about the oppression suffered by slaves in colonial Haiti. It is also about their resistance to that repression and their hunger for liberation. The dance is at its best during its surging, rhythmically propulsive ensembles. The sections that attempt to represent the traumas faced by an enslaved people, while affecting, are (understandingly perhaps) a little too prettified. Still, this is one of Duato’s most sensitive and lyrical works, and a welcome addition to the OBT repertory. Brett Bauer and Makino Hayashi made a strong impression in their duet, a mix of delicacy, melancholy and eroticism. Martina Chavez was electrifying in a too-brief solo that made you want to follow her right down the road to revolution.

Revolution and evolution are just what ballet needs. OBT is giving it a roll, and it’s already paying off. Best of all, OBT will be repeating the entire Impact program beginning on Thursday April 23 and running through Saturday April 25. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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See Martha Ullman West’s review of Impact here.