Giants 3, masterpieces 1

Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Giants" program promises big things. Only Balanchine's "Serenade" fully delivers.

What makes a ballet a masterpiece?

George Balanchine’s Serenade, the first work on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s  “Giants” program, which I saw at the Keller auditorium on Saturday night, set me thinking about that. Because, in my view, it is the only masterpiece on a program that also included William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and the premiere of OBT resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s Giants Before Us.

Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for String Orchestra, premiered in 1935, following a preview on the Warburg estate in 1934, and was the first ballet Balanchine made on American dancers.  It is at once a  tribute  to his own training in pre-revolutionary Russia at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, and the cornerstone  of the new American classicism that Lincoln Kirstein charged him with developing.

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, Jacquelin Straughan in "Serenade." Photo: Yi Yin

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, Jacquelin Straughan in “Serenade.” Photo: Yi Yin

Balanchine liked to use cooking as a metaphor when speaking about his work.  The version of Serenade that OBT’s dancers are performing—and damned well—was slow-cooked for three decades, the fourth movement of the score inserted in 1941, the lovely, flowing costumes replacing unbecoming tunics in 1950, the master chef adding ingredients and correcting the seasoning, if you will, until the mid-’60s. Balanchine changed his ballets all the time, of course, adjusting steps to suit the dancers who performed them over the years, or, more often, to challenge them to jump higher, spin faster, travel farther.


DanceWatch Weekly: Creating community through photography

Jingzi Zhao unites the Portland dance community through photography and the dance season gets going with White Bird's Diavolo and Oregon Ballet's Giants

I am a dancer, and at this stage in my career, I want people to see me as I am, not as they imagine I should be. I am 42, I have a 9 year old son, and I don’t look 22, but I’m amazing. I’m a woman, not a child. That’s life, That’s reality. I dance, and I dance well.

When I saw one of Jingzi Zhao’s beautiful Fuse-Portland Dance Portraits scroll across my FaceBook feed, I decided we had to meet. All of the dancers represented in her photos were talented and beautiful, but young. For the record I consider anyone under 40 to be young. Where were the older, seasoned dancers? There were none. We had to talk.

We met for coffee and hit it off instantly. We are close in age, we both have young children, and we are both artists trying to make it work while in the mix of it all. I wanted her to photograph me as a dancer in the environment that I spend most of my time in, my house.

A week or so later, Zhao came to my house and photographed me lackadaisically washing dishes, throwing suds in the air, and striking a very dancerly pose on my kitchen counter. It was divine ridiculousness to the n-th degree. We did a second shoot in the alley behind my house throwing compost into the recycling bin while wearing pearls, heels, and a flowered, ‘50s, chiffon cocktail dress. Because you know, that’s how I recycle.

That photograph was the winner, and you can see it, along with 24 other Portland dance portraits that are part of Zhao’s collection of 25 Fuse-Portland Dance Portraits that will be on display at the Multnomah Arts Center Gallery starting Friday night. I am proud to say that I am the oldest dancer represented in the 25 dance portraits of Portland dancers.

Zhao who has been photographer since 2005, got her start photographing dancers in Buenos Aires at the Teatro Regio and the Teatro de San Martin and in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre and BodyVox.

The Fuse project was initially inspired by the portrait series Dancers Among Us, which are photographed by Jordan Matter in New York City. Those photos are of ballet dancers in extreme poses against the backdrop of the city. Zhao wanted to riff off of that idea and take the Portland photo series further by photographing different kinds of dancers and actors in different locations around Portland, telling the dancer’s story as well as the city’s. Her focus wasn’t on what the dancers could do, but how they connect with the environment they are in.

In the beginning Zhao knew only one dancer, Alicia Cutaia from BodyVox. She was the first Fuse dancer. From there, Cutaia introduced her to other dancers, they introduced her to others, and so on, and so on, and before she knew it she had 25 photos of 45 dancers from 10 different Portland dance companies posing in locations all over Portland in places like Hopworks Brewery, Oblique Coffee, Salt & Straw and my alley, to name a few.

Zhao says the best part of working with dancers is in the creative process working together to create the photos. She is inspired by dancers work ethic and their dedication to perfection. Often times the dancers were the ones who insisted she take one more photo to get it just right.

Zhao’s hope is that Fuse will live on after the gallery showing to become a photo book showcasing even more photos of the Portland dance community. She would also like to create public art installations with the photos around Portland so that we can see and appreciate them in our daily lives.

You can find out more about Jingzi Zhao’s work at and see her photos beginning on Friday at the Multnomah Arts Center Gallery.


And suddenly it’s October. Among other things – pumpkin patches, Yom Kippur, the World Series, Halloween – that means we’re two days from First Thursday, Portland’s monthly gallery hop of new shows. This week’s visual art calendar is a doozy, from open studios to Warhol with lots between.

A few of the highlights:

James Lavadour Ruby II, 2016 oil on panel 32" x 48"

James Lavadour, “Ruby II,” 2016, oil on panel, 32″ x 48.” PDX Contemporary.

James Lavadour at PDX Contemporary. It’s always a good day when new work by Lavadour, the veteran landscape expressionist from Pendleton, comes to town. This show, called Ledger of Days, furthers his exploration of the land and its mysteries. “A painting is a structure for the extraordinary and informative events of nature that are otherwise invisible,” he writes. “A painting is a model for infinity.” Lavadour is also one of the moving forces behind Pendleton’s innovative and essential Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Watch for what’s coming up.

The new Russo Lee Gallery: 30 years. What you’ve known for years as Laura Russo Gallery is celebrating three decades with a showing of new work by its distinguished stable of artists – and with a new name. The name is a fusion of the gallery’s long tradition and current reality. After founder Laura Russo died in 2010, her longtime employee Martha Lee bought the business and continues to operate it. This show promises to be a statement of sorts, and will have a catalog available.