christopher stowell

OBT25: a gala, a reunion, a celebration of ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre's 25th anniversary show brings back the company's past and looks toward its future

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurated its twenty-fifth anniversary season on Saturday night with OBT25, a program that was part gala performance and part family reunion – and, if you will, a serious celebration of a performing art that historically has had a hard time getting established in Portland.

Wearing his opening-night purple tie for his pre-curtain speech delivered from the floor of the orchestra, artistic director Kevin Irving dedicated the performance to three OBT artists who are no longer on the planet: Dennis Spaight, the company’s first resident choreographer and associate artistic direct; Mark Goldweber, who as ballet master was instrumental in instilling the company’s strong work ethic; and Michael Rios, an impeccable and mischievous classical dancer.  And Irving set the audience thinking by quoting French film theorist André Bazin, who said: “Art emerged from the human desire to counter the passage of time and the inevitable decay it brings.”

Artslandia-ORAWreviewI didn’t see much decay, inevitable or otherwise, in dancers, musicians or choreography, although the Keller’s ever-decaying sound system nearly wrecked the pas de deux from Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love. The Fleet Foxes music was ear-splittingly loud. Come to think of it, most of the music, whether live or recorded – with the exceptions of the piano and violin accompaniment to Christopher Stowell’s Seguidilla Pas de Deux, played by Carol Rich and Nelly Kovalev, respectively; and  Thomas Lauderdale’s heartfelt playing of the Chopin Berceuse and China Forbes’ singing for Nicolo Fonte’s Never Stop Falling (In Love) – was almost unbearably over-amplified.

There’s been considerable passage of time since George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky made Agon, which opened the show, and yet there’s definitely no sign of wear in this work that expresses the jittery, cocky, competitive atmosphere of post -World War II New York – and when danced well, which it was here, is equally reflective of our own increasingly terrifying times.

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OBT25: the Agon and the ecstasy

Oregon Ballet Theatre leaps into its 25th season with a Balanchine masterpiece, salutes to its past, and a creative new venture with Pink Martini

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurates its 25th anniversary season on Saturday at the Keller Auditorium with a bold, demanding program that  pays homage to the company’s past and celebrates its continuing, if often financially fragile, presence as the city’s resident ballet company.

The program starts with Agon, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine’s mid-twentieth century jazz-inflected masterpiece, and ends with the world premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s  Never Stop Falling (In Love), made and performed in collaboration with Pink Martini. These two pieces bookend excerpts from longer works by choreographers who have played significant roles in shaping OBT’s eclectic style.  They include founding artistic director James Canfield’s “bedroom pas de deux” from his staging of Romeo and Juliet, former artistic director Christopher Stowell’s “jail house” pas de deux from Carmen, and a duet from former resident choreographer Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love, which premiered in the spring of 2013, originally commissioned by Stowell.

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing "Never Stop Falling (In Love)" at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing “Never Stop Falling (In Love)” at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Rehearsals for OBT 25, as this opening show is called, began in late August, when the public open rehearsals called OBT Exposed were in residence for the first time at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was hotter than hell’s hinges, which didn’t stop the dancers from giving Fonte their all as he started making, and demonstrating, the high-energy movement for Never Stop Falling (In Love). Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini’s leader, came to see what was going on the first time I was there, and returned the next day, which was just as hot as the previous one, with lead singer China Forbes, and a violinist. A piano was found for Lauderdale, and they joined the rehearsal, energizing the dancers as only live music can.

During a joint interview with Fonte and Lauderdale the following week, both emphasized that this is a true collaboration of musician and choreographer, with both artists working together on the selection of songs for what Fonte called “a soundscape,” and the tempos at which they are played.  “This has been a fantastic learning experience for me,” Lauderdale said. “When we selected some of this material, I realized that some songs we recently recorded, the tempos were just really too fast for dance, and [need] much more space to breathe and jump.”

At the time of the interview, they were still changing the playlist, in part because, Lauderdale said, “I don’t want this just to be Pink Martini with dance, I want for us to write something that feels new, not just a rehash.”

Lauderdale characterizes his music as “old-fashioned global symphonic pop,” making it a good match for Fonte’s contemporary take on neoclassical ballet.  Nevertheless, as OBT’s audience knows, Fonte usually makes dances to classical scores. Left Unsaid is accompanied by Bach; Petrouchka and Bolero, which Stowell commissioned Fonte to make for OBT during his tenure as artistic director, are performed to Stravinsky and Ravel, respectively.

Kevin Irving, who took over the company last year, and is Fonte’s partner in private life, gives him a lot of well-earned credit for “finding his way into music he doesn’t usually respond to,” and creating “very physical movement for the whole company.”

Never Stop Falling was looking good in a run-through at OBT’s studios earlier this week that included the Pink Martini musicians, with Lauderdale at the piano and Forbes at one point moving among the dancers holding a water bottle in lieu of a microphone.  The dancers were still in practice clothes rather than Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak’s costumes, which I’ve not seen. Watching were Dennis Buehler, the first company executive director I’ve seen set foot in the studio since Johann Jacobs, and OBT School director Tony Jones, whose soft-voiced, relaxed style of teaching company class several dancers have told me they love.

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in "Never Stop Falling (In Love)." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in “Never Stop Falling (In Love).” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

It is indeed a high-energy piece, although it begins quietly, with Martina Chavez alone on stage, unfolding one of her beautiful legs to the side in an endless développé, then closing it into a tight fifth position just before Chauncey Parsons makes a rapidly pirouetting entrance. This beginning proclaims clearly that this is a classical ballet, made to be performed by 21st century classically trained dancers. It’s a celebration of the art form as well as of OBT’s anniversary.

The rest of the cast enters one at a time, extending their limbs with Balanchinean space-devouring reach.  As the piece  and the music build, the rhythms become infectious, and I realize I’m tapping my foot on the floor, at the same time that I spot Lauderdale, seated at the piano, pounding out the beat with his left foot, dancing along with the dancers.

Much of the 40-minute piece involves a substantial number of high-flying jumps and some extremely risky lifts (especially for Xuan Cheng, who gets sent flying through the air by Brian Simcoe and Avery Reiner). It ends, as is customary for program closers, with everyone on stage dancing joyously – and in this case, some dancers playing drums, including Michael Linsmeier, who has rock band experience, and Brett Bauer.  There is respite for the audience if not the dancers in a section danced by Parsons and his brother Colby, new to the company this year, to Chopin’s Berceuse, played by Lauderdale.  With Fonte’s assistance, the brothers were still polishing movement that demanded both impeccable musicality and control.

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing "Agon" at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing “Agon” at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

There is no part of Agon, a rather different collaboration of composer and choreographer, that does not demand those qualities, with the added challenge of music that is almost impossible to count. Balanchine, according to Todd Bolender, who originated the Sarabande and first pas de trois, which Chauncey Parsons will dance opening weekend, never did counts for any of his ballets, leaving it up to the dancers to make up their own.  Fortunately, for OBT’s dancers, Balanchine Trust répétiteur Bart Cook, who during his career with New York City Ballet danced all four of Agon’s male roles, was rapping out counts like mad when I watched a rehearsal late last week. OBT ballet master Jeffrey Stanton, who danced the central pas de deux countless times with Pacific Northwest Ballet, was taking notes. Irving, who danced it during his eight-year stint with Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, was also in the studio. Each learned the ballet from different people: Cook from Balanchine himself, who changed a bit of the choreography for him; Stanton from Francia Russell, who was present at the creation; Irving from Sara Leland, to whom he says he owes his career. When OBT performed Agon the first time, in 1999, it was staged by Patricia Neary. Which is all by way of saying that no version of Agon is set in stone.

“With purpose,” Cook instructs the dancers, as the run-through begins with Parsons, Kindell, Adam Hartley and Brian Simcoe standing, facing upstage. They turn and break into a pelvic-thrusting dance that briefly tosses classical spinal placement out the window.  Parsons dances the first pas de trois with Sarah Griffin, who joined OBT this season and is clearly an extremely talented addition, and company artist Eva Burton, who is equally gifted.

As the rehearsal proceeds, Cook makes gentle suggestions and sardonic comments: “this is much ado about nothing,” he says, and at one point, “this is a weird, uncomfortable step.”  To Kindell, who dances the second pas de trois with Hartley and Candace Bouchard (who gets a terrific Spanish tinged solo), he says, “Don’t rush it.  The timing is more important than the size of the jump.” Chavez, whose long-limbed body seems made for the Agon pas de deux, and Brian Simcoe, one of the few native Oregonians in the company, move smoothly through the body-bending duet, and Bart tells the dancers they “are mechanically correct, [but they] need to be less academic.”

A great deal has been written about Agon, its intellectuality, Balanchine’s radical casting of Caucasian Diana Adams and African-American Arthur Mitchell in 1957, the year the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown vs the Board of Education that at least attempted to end the segregation of public schools. Historians put the moment into the context of the Russians’ launch of Sputnik into outer space; Balanchine himself called Agon a “computer that smiles”; critics for the past half-century have written about it in the same reverent tones as Christ’s apostles used to describe the Epiphany.

Forget it.  Jittery, sophisticated, urban and urbane, at the end of the day, when danced with the “verve, aplomb, dynamic power and artistic expression” that Irving wants from OBT’s dancers no matter what they’re performing, Agon provides a hell of a good time for the audience. I came out of New York City Center, the year it premiered, a 19-year-old college student, feeling as high as I got in those days on two glasses of champagne. And, while the music, which will not be performed live, is not exactly easy-listening, it’s not a chore, either. If you watch the dancers closely, their combative, courtly movement clarifies the clashing rhythms of the score (“agon” means “contest” in Greek) as well as the Renaissance court dances Stravinsky used to structure it.

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield's "Romeo & Juliet." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I’ve been watching OBT all of its life, and before that, Pacific Ballet Theatre (for which Canfield originally made Romeo and Juliet, his first evening-length ballet) and Ballet Oregon, founded by V. Keith Martin, which after much negotiation merged in 1989 to form the present company. Over the years, most of which have been bumpy financially, there have been a great many changes in company personnel, in the size of the company (it was down to fifteen dancers in 2000 when Lauderdale and Canfield started to collaborate on an evening-length ballet based on Felix Salten’s Bambi, don’t ask) the repertoire, and  the funding.

There has also been an astonishing amount of continuity.  Lisa Kipp, who is now OBT’s rehearsal director, danced with Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre (she understudied Juliet in R and J) and then briefly with OBT.  She returned as ballet mistress when Christopher Stowell assumed the artistic directorship in 2003.  Tracey Sartorio, now Irving’s assistant, was one of OBT’s 25 company members its first season, partnered frequently by the late Michael Rios. BodyVox’s Jamey Hampton, who was on the search committees that found both Irving and Buehler, choreographed Wild Man for OBT, commissioned by Canfield.

In April, OBT will celebrate the future with the inauguration of OBT II, a second company of apprentices and advanced professional students from OBT’s School, with a bow to the company’s past. Carol Shults, former company historian and teacher, and with Sandra Baldwin, a director of the Dennis Spaight Trust, has already staged Spaight’s Crayola, which is performed without music, to the sound that pointe shoes make as they hit the floor.

Meanwhile, OBT starts a five performance celebration of its Silver Anniversary Saturday night at the Keller, in a program that enlightens, amuses, and proclaims loudly that this company is still here, dancing its collective feet off.

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OBT25 opens Saturday, Oct. 11, at Keller Auditorium, and continues through Oct. 18. Ticket and schedule information here.

Stowell heads south as Oregon Ballet Theatre nabs a new ED

Christopher Stowell has a promising new job at the San Francisco Ballet, and his old company has a new executive director

Christopher Stowell, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director from July of 2003 to December 2012, is returning to San Francisco Ballet as ballet master and assistant to Helgi Tomasson, company artistic director and principal choreographer, effective August 25.

“I’m so happy to officially announce that I’m returning to SFB! I’ll be working alongside Helgi both in the studio and as his liaison to the administrative staff,” Stowell said on his Facebook page on Friday, adding that he “can’t wait to get back to the city and company I love.”

Christopher Stowell rehearses "Rite of Spring" at OBT/Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover

Christopher Stowell rehearses “The Rite of Spring” at OBT/Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover

In his role as ballet master, Stowell will teach SFB Company class and rehearse ballets for the repertory season, as ballet masters do in every company, working once again with former OBT dancers Julia Rowe and Grace Shibley, However, as assistant to Tomasson, to whom he will report directly, Stowell will have his fingers in just about every aspect of the company pie on both the artistic and administrative (read financial) sides.

“Many may remember Christopher from his long and successful career in the Company,” Tomasson said in a company press release. “[He] joined San francisco Ballet in 1985 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1990. I look forward to working closely with both him and our current Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director in these complementary roles,” he said.

Since leaving OBT at the end of 2012, Stowell has been exceedingly busy teaching internationally, choreographing, and staging work by other choreographers, most recently Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush” (which is in OBT’s repertoire) at the Beijing Dance Academy in China and Balanchine’s “Liebesleider Waltzes” (with Francia Russell) for SFB.

In an interview I had with Stowell last month,slated down the road for publication in Ballet Review, I asked him what his ideal company would be. His answer? “One in a city which has a history of supporting ballet,” citing San Francisco as one which gives just as much support to the arts as it does its sports teams. San Francisco Ballet is well established; it is the oldest professional ballet company in the United States and one of the largest. Looks like Stowell has struck gold.

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While Stowell was heading south, Oregon Ballet Theatre was making some news itself, today announcing that its current artistic director, Kevin Irving, has signed a three-year contract to lead the company’s artistic side. At the same time, OBT announced that after an 18-month search, it had chosen a new executive director, too. He’s Dennis Buehler, and comes to Portland after leaving as executive director of the Milwaukee Ballet in February of this year.

Petrouchka sees himself and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte's "Petrouchka"/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Petrouchka sees himself and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte’s “Petrouchka”/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“I quickly felt a strong connection with Oregon Ballet Theatre and could not be more delighted to be joining Kevin and the entire OBT team at this time,” Buehler said in the press release announcing his appointment. “They have positioned themselves very well and I am confident we can continue to develop this company into one of this country’s premier dance organizations. Portland is a region that makes access to the arts a high priority and Oregon Ballet Theatre is building a foundation to sustain that for generations to come.”

The budget of the Milwaukee Ballet is very close to that of Oregon Ballet Theatre (around $5 million according to its most recent 990 report), its programming is similar, and it also has a ballet school, which received national accreditation during Buehler’s tenure.

Buehler will start at OBT in September. The company begins its 25th season October 11-18 in Keller Auditorium with a world premiere by Nicolo Fonte, three duets by James Canfield, Stowell, and Trey McIntyre, respectively, and Balanchine’s “Agon.”

Past, present, future: Alison Roper and OBT

Portland's illustrious ballet star, retiring after 18 years, looks back on her career and forward to fundraising

Extending her long, long legs like the rays of the sun in Apollo, dropping a disembodied hand into a piano in The Concert, wringing our hearts with every ripple of Odette’s arms as she returns to swanhood in Swan Lake: these moments and many others flash through my mind as I think about Alison Roper’s long career with Oregon Ballet Theatre.

For nearly two decades, Portland audiences have seen these qualities in Roper’s performances: joy in the dancing, commitment to the music, or the movement, or the character, or the story.  Last Saturday, she danced with the company for the last time, ending her life on stage with The Girl from Ipanema from Trey McIntyre’s Like a Samba, her first featured role.

Alison Roper: one more round of applause. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Alison Roper: one more round of applause. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2014

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Up-to-date: What’s kickin’ at OBT

New ballet boss Kevin Irving talks about money, a second company, Alison Roper, real estate, and the 25th season

George Balanchine’s Agon.  Three pas de deux by Trey McIntyre, Christopher Stowell and James Canfield. Ben Stevenson’s  Cinderella. Additional performances of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, to be performed by a newly formed youth company, OBT 2.

Alison Roper, around whom OBT's current season is built, with Artiur Sultanov in Nicol Fonte's "Bolero," 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Alison Roper, around whom OBT’s current season is built, with Artur Sultanov in Nicolo Fonte’s “Bolero,” 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

You could have knocked me over with a firebird’s feather when Kevin Irving, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, announced next year’s season, the company’s twenty-fifth. To celebrate that landmark, the season includes works by Stowell and Canfield, Irving’s predecessors as artistic director, and by Spaight and McIntyre, important onetime resident choreographers. And it’s not the slimmed-down, contemporary season that some bystanders had expected. At $5.4 million, the 2014-15 season budget is about $400,000 higher than this season’s – for many onlookers a big surprise, considering the financial troubles the company’s been through in recent years. What’s more, Irving said, the company is looking to develop its East Side property to help stabilize finances long-term.

A new work by Nicolo Fonte on the fall program didn’t surprise me: Fonte, Irving’s partner, has several pieces in OBT’s repertory already, including the recently performed Bolero, which, as it has since its premiere in 2008, brought Portland audiences, cheering, to their feet.

A  world premiere by the hot young New York-based choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie for next April’s show at the Newmark didn’t surprise me either: Irving said last fall he wanted to focus on new American choreographers.  Moultrie, a graduate of Juilliard and a recipient of a 2007 Princess Grace choreography award, defies stylistic pigeonholing, having made work on such ballet companies as Cincinnati Ballet and Milwaukee Ballet, as well as for Beyonce’s Mrs. Carter world tour.  He has also collaborated with the phenomenal tap dancer Savion Glover.

Because of the diminished size of the company and the reduced budget that led to Christopher Stowell’s resignation as artistic director at the end of 2012, rumors had abounded over what Irving would do with OBT’s silver anniversary, the first season he would plan. His experience as ballet master and artistic assistant to Nacho Duato at the Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, and as artistic director of Sweden’s contemporary Goteborg Ballet from 2002 to 2007 – a failing company whose fortunes he reversed – contributed to an impression that he might remake OBT into a chamber-sized, contemporary ballet company on the order of the Northwest Dance Project, and therefore not this community’s most pressing need. The worst of the rumors from my point of view was that there would be no Balanchine, other than The Nutcracker, on the season. Balanchine is to American ballet as Sir Frederick Ashton is to British.

In fact, we are seeing no Balanchine this season, save his Nutcracker, and that did not bode well. Admittedly, the current season’s programming had already been set by acting artistic director Anne Mueller when Irving arrived in town in July. But he did make some adjustments, scrapping a new work by Mueller, stabling Petipa’s war horse Le Corsaire pas de deux, and  replacing them on the fall opener with Duato’s Por Vos Muerto.  For the upcoming April concerts, he added Helen Pickett’s swift neoclassical Petal and substituted Duato’s Cor Perdut for Stowell’s Adin.

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The most important change he made, however, was in the season’s focus. It was originally called Tribute, in honor of  Stowell’s nearly ten years of directorship. Irving shifted the homage to Alison Roper, whose performances in the April show will be her last after eighteen years with the company.  The Duato works, especially Cor Perdut, a pas de deux redolent of Spanish fatalistic passion, were programmed to showcase aspects of Roper’s dancing that Irving feels have not yet been brought to the fore. This season, she is the official face of OBT; her image is on every poster, and she is featured in at least one ballet in every show.  As a marketing strategy, it has certainly worked well in selling single tickets at a time when subscription sales are down.  For February’s repertory show Reveal, Irving told me in a recent interview, “single-ticket sales were the best for a non-full-length ballet evening we’ve ever had.  Dream [the season opener] was fourth or fifth on the list for single tickets, so we must be doing something right.” Irving’s catchy one-word titles for programs no doubt are another thing he’s been doing right. April’s is now titled Celebrate, in honor of Roper, and the run will end, as is customary, with a retrospective tribute to her dancing.

All that being said, Roper – whose roles have called on her to portray pioneer women and princesses, Carmen  and the Girl from Ipanema – is an extremely hard act to follow. I asked Irving what the ramifications of her absence next season from OBT’s roster would be.

Roper in Balanchine's "Seranade," 2004. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Roper in Balanchine’s “Serenade,” 2004. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Promoting the last chance to see her as a recurring theme this season does create an absence,” he said.  “But it also creates an opportunity to begin filling it.” “There are lovely, talented women in the company at this time,” he added, citing Martina Chavez’s “quiet glamour” in the pas de deux in Almost Mozart, and Candace Bouchard’s performance in the same ballet. Haiyan Wu and Xuan Cheng are very different,” he said, “and each brings a lot of charisma to the stage.” Next season’s company will remain the same size as this year’s, with 21 professional dancers (of whom four will be new) on 30-week contracts, and six apprentices augmented by the same number of professional-division students from OBT’s School. They will be performing what is clearly a classically based repertory, representing Irving’s vision for an American ballet company in the second decade of the 21st century.

OBT 25 opens the season with a modern masterpiece. Balanchine’s Agon, a note-by-note, step-by-step collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, was radical in 1957 when it premiered at New York’s City Center, and it still is. This is partly because of Stravinsky’s jazzy, atonal score, music, which original cast member Todd Bolender told me is nearly impossible for the dancers to count in any conventional, useful way. The ballet has no plot or narrative, and the title provides only a partial clue. “Agon” means” contest” in ancient Greek, and the ballet is considered to be about competition of various kinds. It demands the free-wheeling, fearless athleticism that made Balanchine want to work with American dancers in the first place, but it also requires the facility and finesse of classical technique at its best.  Moreover, several sections of the ballet are named for traditional court dances. Bolender danced a solo titled Sarabande; Roper, a Bransle Gay in 1999, the only previous time OBT has performed the ballet. It will be interesting to see how Bart Cook, who is slated to set Agon, will cast it. He did a superb job of staging Stravinsky Violin Concerto a couple of years ago.

Irving, who danced the central pas de deux when he was performing in Canada as a young man, chose Agon to represent the company’s Balanchine heritage for a number of reasons. His personal connection to the ballet, and much else that he programs, is important to him, but Agon, he said, also “added the necessary astringent quality to the program, as it is bracing, athletic, and somewhat a challenge to the audience.” The astringency will balance Canfield’s highly emotional and very beautiful “bedroom pas de deux” from his Romeo and Juliet, part of the triptych of pas de deux that provides the middle of the program, along with one by Stowell and another by  McIntyre, all of them stylistically different from Agon and each other.

With Stevenson’s Cinderella, Irving reassures the city’s story-ballet aficionados that they won’t have to travel north to Seattle, or south to Eugene or San Francisco, to see one. OBT already has several in the repertory – Giselle, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and of course, The Nutcracker – but Cinderella is new to the company. While many choreographers have used Prokofiev’s 1944 score to tell the familiar tale of child neglect and upward mobility with a happily-ever-after ending for just about everyone, Irving selected the British-born Stevenson’s in part because it is modeled on Ashton’s iconic (and I do not use that word lightly) 1948 rendering. Stevenson, who was commissioned to make this version in 1970 for the National Ballet of Washington, retains the sweetness of the comedy in Ashton’s version, but according to a number of critics, it lacks the Ashton version’s choreographic heft. Yet American audiences from Houston to New York  have loved it for nearly forty-five years, which is partly why Irving is adding it to OBT’s repertory: “I wanted something that was really going to be the full classical experience, that would provide an access point for people to come into the world of ballet.” And while he didn’t put it quite like this, that would also provide some laughter.

Duato’s emotionally intense Rassemblement, about Haitian slaves, begins the last show of the silver anniversary season, which ends with Grand Moultrie’s world premiere.  But with the introduction of OBT 2,  dancing the late  Spaight’s Crayola, the show (titled Impact) is very much about the futureSpaight made this ballet as a very young man, winning an award from Mikhail Baryshnikov for a work performed in silence by women in point shoes, with chairs as an integral part of the choreography.  So is signing for the deaf. The dancers perform in brilliantly colored costumes in a work (inspired by Jerome Robbins’ Moves, also danced without music) that is more about nonverbal, non-aural communication than the dancing crayons suggested by its unfortunate title. After watching a number of Spaight’s ballets on video, Irving selected this one because he “wanted something that wouldn’t be just another good ballet, but would stand out for the distinct approach of its creator and be a challenge for the young dancers.”

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Next season’s budget, at $5.4 million, is only slightly larger than this year’s $4.99 million, making it seem an odd time to expand the organization with a second company, albeit one that is largely unpaid.  “Why,” Irving told me, “is easy.  We need to be more present in the community and OBT2 can perform in venues [schools, community centers] we can’t negotiate with the first company.  We also need to make the professional development program more robust, which will support the School in a concrete way.”

OBT 2 potentially will have six apprentices and six professional division students. This year’s group of professional division students contains six girls, who augmented the cast in last fall’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Nutcracker. They are spending the spring season being mentored and coached, developing audition videos and rehearsing for the School program at the end of April.  This year’s contains all of Swan Lake’s second act in the first half, signaling that the classical direction has not changed under new leadership. Irving’s goal is to develop a repertory just for OBT2, starting with Crayola.

The plan for OBT2 is ambitious, dependent not only on a better financial foundation for the institution as a whole, but also an expansion of what Irving refers to as the infrastructure. OBT owns the entire close-in East Side block on which its current facility stands, giving the company what Irving calls its “one tangible concrete asset.” The goal is to use this asset, which is mortgaged, to get out of debt entirely and build a state-of-the-art facility for the company and the school.  Irving said discussions are under way to find a partner to develop the property, possibly into a large complex of condominiums in which OBT would be the primary occupant. Such a development would certainly provide the stable funding that the company has needed and never really had for the past quarter of a century.

Irving is guardedly optimistic about the company’s future, acknowledging that there is much work to be done in fundraising and season subscription sales. A new search for a much-needed executive director to oversee all that and more is under way.  Irving is, he says, “the leader of a really strong team” primarily on the artistic side, but he’s not functioning as the executive director.  This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his eye firmly on the bottom line.  Asked why he didn’t program Ashton’s Cinderella, he answered succinctly, “There are cost considerations.”  Given those considerations, OBT’s twenty-fifth anniversary season looks pretty good to me.

 

 

Revealed: ballet for the 21st century

OBT's newest program is hampered by a lack of live music, but tells exciting stories of our time

Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its post-Nutcracker season at the Keller Auditorium last weekend with four 21st century story ballets, and despite the absence of live orchestra, the dancers tell the stories very well. No surprise there. With the exception of Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy, a pas de deux made originally on New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, all were created on these particular dancers, most of them anyway, and that shows.

Two of the dances on the program–which is called Reveal, and which repeats Thursday-Saturday, February 27-March 1–are overtly political.  Christopher Stowell’s curtain-raising world premiere A Second Front deals with Joseph Stalin’s persecution of Dimitri Shostakovich. The whispering soundtrack that alternates with excerpts from two of the composer’s suites for dance is also highly suggestive of the eavesdropping by today’s intelligence agencies, and not just ours.

Ye Li in Stowell's "A Second Front." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ye Li in Stowell’s “A Second Front.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Like Ekho, the last piece that Stowell made for the company he directed for close to a decade, A Second Front, is for seven couples.  Packed with classical steps, often executed at top speed in intricately designed floor patterns reminiscent of Balanchine’s, it takes place in a ballroom that the skeletal metal chandeliers suggest has seen better days. The women dance in identical silky gray evening gowns, with pleated skirts slit to the waist to reveal their beautiful legs in attitude or arabesque. The men are costumed in dreary gray suits reminiscent of those worn by members of the politburo.  Mark Zappone designed the costumes, and they, with Michael Mazzola’s lights, help to set the oppressive atmosphere of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

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Dance: something old, something new for OBT

In its first program under a new artistic leader, the ballet troupe revives a 'Dream' and adds a work by European star Nacho Duato

 

Martina Chavez, Makino Hayashi, "Por Vos Muero." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jenna Nelson, Makino Hayashi, “Por Vos Muero.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Toward the end of Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero,” which Oregon Ballet Theatre performed for the first time on Saturday night, six women, dressed in the square-necked bodices and full skirts of Renaissance Europe, executed a series of 20th century backward flutter kicks. It was proof, indeed, that the company, with newly arrived artistic director Kevin Irving at the helm, is still alive and kicking up a storm.

“Por Vos Muero,” which translates as “I would die for thee,” was a watershed piece in Duato’s development as a choreographer when he created it on his own company in Madrid in 1996.  In it, spoken text, spliced with period music to drive the dancing, the blending of American traditional modern movement with classical technique, the use of props, and the changes of costume, all come together to create an integrated and quite beautiful expression of what I would describe as Spanish soul.

The piece, which opened the first program of OBT’s new season, begins with twelve dancers – six men and six women, in flesh-colored body suits – standing with their backs to the Keller Auditorium audience. As lines from the poetry of Garcilaso de la Vega begin, they walk toward the back of the stage, and then start to separate into solos and duets, spiraling  their bodies, extending their legs in space-eating ways, flexing their feet, isolating hips, legs, arms in a clean performance of Duato’s signature movement style.  The standouts in this section, indeed the whole piece, are principals Alison Roper, Brian Simcoe, Brett Bauer, Xuan Cheng; soloists Candace Bouchard, and Ansa Deguchi; and Jordan Kindell, a product of OBT’s School who is now a company artist.  His authority in the Duato as well as in Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as well as his technique and musicality, make him a compelling dancer to watch even in minor roles.

After several minutes of setting the tone and the universality of the dancing body, the dancers in “Pos Vos Muero” exit and return, dressed in costumes for the women that are as lush as the movement, and period tunics over form-fitting shorts for the men. Roper and Simcoe dance a stately, courtly duet, much more spaciously conceived than it could have been performed in the confines of a 16th century palace ballroom. Later they will dance a pas de deux with boneless and heart-stopping fluidity and musicality on Roper’s part, graphically announcing that “I would die for thee.”

A percussive, finger-snapping folk dance comes between these pas de deux. The port de bras and head-shaking movement are rhythmically complex and a bit fussy, yet the dancers visibly enjoy themselves. A playful trio performed by Deguchi with two men garners a round of applause from the audience. Then our sextet of kicking women, who are holding buskers’ masks, are followed by an athletic, swirling ecclesiastical dance by the men (of course), who are dressed in vestment-like capes and are swinging thuribles, or incense burners. Finally the whole cast comes on stage again, looking naked. This part, I’m sorry to say, includes a duet in which the woman is dragged by her ankle by the man across the stage – reflecting Spanish machismo, no doubt, although choreographers from other cultures have committed similar moves as well, and more recently than this.  “Por Vos Muero” ends with a single, clothed dancer, exiting the stage. It could have ended sooner.

OBT’s dancers rose well to Irving’s challenge to learn a new way of moving. New to them, anyway. But while loosening their upper bodies and grounding their bodies instead of elevating them does present some difficulties for classically trained dancers, Duato’s vocabulary doesn’t vary much throughout this piece, or if it comes to that, in the more recent evening-length Bach piece that was seen here in 2002 when White Bird presented Duato’s company.

As for the blending of different techniques, the use of spoken text as well as music, the performance of ballet in slippers rather than point shoes, other choreographers have been doing this since the middle of the last century. Not, of course, to express Spanish soul, but to say something about their own lives, their own cultures. Todd Bolender’s “The Still Point,” comes to mind. It premiered in 1955, two years before Duato was born, with a title taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,”and a score by Claude Debussy, and it can be danced effectively by either a ballet or modern company. Longtime OBT viewers will remember Bebe Miller’s “A Certain Depth of Heart, Also Love,” commissioned by James Canfield, in 1994, which was danced to spoken text, popular and classical music, and included Miller’s personal vocabulary of angular, joint-isolating movement combined with such classical tricks as multiple pirouettes à la seconde. Canfield, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer who was OBT’s founding artistic director, and had performed to both classical and popular music, commissioned that piece to challenge the dancers and give them new ways of moving – and to re-state, no doubt, his own aesthetic roots.

Repertory invariably reflects the artistic director’s experience and point of view, no matter who it is.  This applies in spades to Christopher Stowell’s one-act “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which closed the program with wit and charm, and on the whole clear, precise neoclassical dancing.  It was accompanied by Mendelssohn’s gorgeous music, played live by an underrehearsed orchestra under the baton of Niel DePonte. Stowell, who had performed Oberon as a guest artist in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of Balanchine’s evening-length version in 1997, made this one in 2007, halfway through his tenure as OBT’s artistic director. Roper was in the original cast as Titania, her performance last night in the same role was technically polished and versatile.  Also very funny, particularly  in her besotted tango with Kevin Poe, superbly funny as Bottom, twirling his donkey tail lasciviously, wiggling his ears, clenching a rose in his teeth. In the extended reconciliatory pas de deux with Brian Simcoe’s princely Oberon, Roper’s dancing was as tenderly romantic as Mendelssohn’s score.

As Puck, which calls for both acting and bravura dancing, Ye Li did a fine job, but I missed the departed Javier Ubell’s mischievous explosiveness. Deguchi’s pert, speedy Peaseblossom, coupled with her performance in the Duato, shows her to be a dancer coming into her own, and this also applies to Makino Hayashi as a wounded, rejected Helena, with Brett Bauer doing the rejecting as Demetrius, mooning after Hermia, skull in hand.  Along with Xuan Cheng’s feisty Hermia and Michael Linsmeier’s boyish Lysander, they “read” well in the mayhem created by Puck, Cupid and Oberon. In the thankless role of the Changeling, the bone of contention between Oberon and Titania, young Johannes Gikas performed with presence and aplomb beyond his years, and the children from OBT’s School who were cast as woodland creatures (mostly butterflies) charmed the audience with their cuteness-free grace. For that we owe their coach, Gavin Larsen.

I had forgotten what a lovely production this is—we’re lucky to have it, and it’s because of Stowell’s performing career in San Francisco that we do.  Sets and costumes were designed by Sandra Woodall, and both are gorgeous.  My only quibble is the size of the wings worn by Titania, which momentarily got in the way of the partnering in that extended pas de deux.

“Dream,” the umbrella title for this show (it ought to be Love, it seems to me), repeats next weekend, with some cast changes.  I had a good time. You will, too.

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Find schedule and ticket information here.