James Kudelka

OBT in Napoli: a hit and a miss

The ballet troupe opens its season with a bright and joyous Bournonville, and an overwrought Kudelka premiere

Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its 2015-16 season at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday night with excellent dancing and a bill that was mixed, to say the least.

Violinist Aaron Meyer and his five-piece band set the Italian tone, sort of, with an over-miked selection of music from the land of Chianti and pasta. This musical antipasto concluded with a slice of Vivaldi’s Seasons and a small (too small!) segment of Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay, an evening-length ballet about the life cycle, which will end OBT’s season of story ballets in April.

James Kudelka’s Sub Rosa, danced to excerpts from Carlo Gesualdo’s complicated, ground-breaking madrigals, purports to tell the sordid tale of the Renaissance composer’s murder of his wife and her lover. The choreographer, charged with making a ballet that would fit the evening’s theme of love, Italian style, wanted to make a ballet that would contrast with the second, and in the end, more successful, work on the program, August Bournonville’s joyous, life-affirming third act of Napoli.

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Guest Artist Amy Watson (left) and Candace Bouchard (right) in the company premiere of August Bournonville's "Napoli." Photo: James McGrew

Guest Artist Amy Watson (left) and Candace Bouchard (right) in the company premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli.” Photo: James McGrew

Napoli, which comes after intermission, is the clear highlight of the evening, carrying OBT into territory it hasn’t traveled before. “Move! Move! Move!” Frank Andersen urgently, and loudly, called out to the dancers in rehearsals, and after Saturday night’s intermission, on the stage of the Keller Auditorium, move they did: quickly, precisely, musically, reveling in the detailed intricacies of Bournonville technique, their sheer joy transmitted to the audience even before they took a step, when the curtain rose on Gene Dent’s charming version of the traditional set of the Naples harbor.  Act III is the last chapter of the Danish choreographer’s masterpiece, a story of ordinary people, Teresina, (Cheng) a beautiful young girl in love with Gennaro, a fisherman (Reiners), who in Act I is being pestered by a macaroni-seller and a lemonade seller, while she waits for Gennaro to return from fishing.  When Gennaro shows up with an engagement ring, the two merchants continue to refuse to take no for an answer, so the happy couple escape in Gennaro’s boat, even though storm clouds are gathering.  At the end of the act, a desperate Gennaro returns to shore minus Teresina, who’s been swept off the boat by the violent storm.  Everyone’s mad at him, especially Teresina’s mother. He prays, is given a sacred medal by a passing friar, and returns to the sea, where in Act II he and the medal save Teresina from being changed into a naiad by an evil sea sprite.

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Love and death in Naples: OBT’s Mediterranean adventure

The ballet season opens Saturday with Bournonville's 19th century "Napoli" and the premiere of James Kudelka's Naples-set "Sub Rosa"

Oregon Ballet Theatre opens its twenty-sixth season on Saturday with a Manichean program of narrative ballets titled Amore Italiano. The Manichean idea of dualism, you might recall, views the world as conveniently divided between good and evil, light and dark, or love and hate.

And that’s the great divide of Amore Italiano. Both ballets on the program at Keller Auditorium, as it happens, take place in Naples – James Kudelka’s Sub Rosa in the 16th century palace ballroom of composer Carlo Gesualdo, who was also Prince of Venosa (part of the Neapolitan kingdom); August Bournonville’s Napoli, Act III,  in the city’s sunny harbor.

(From left) Paige Wilkey, Emily Parker, and Sarah Griffin in rehearsal for August Bournonville's "Napoli." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

(From left) Paige Wilkey, Emily Parker, and Sarah Griffin in rehearsal for August Bournonville’s “Napoli.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Sub Rosa, set to Gesualdo’s complex, innovative madrigals, is, in today’s pop-culture parlance, a bio-ballet. It tells the tale of the composer’s brutal murder of his wife and her lover, that dramatically expressive action taking place on a platform, while the members of the court move obliviously through Kudelka’s contemporary take on the patterns of the social dances of the time.

The third act of Napoli, on the other hand, is a celebration of life itself, as well as the triumph of good over evil, and love over avarice.  Here’s the back story: Bournonville, the great 19th century Danish choreographer, served as director of the Royal Danish Ballet at the king’s pleasure. In 1842, Bournonville displeased his boss and was exiled for a year. Urged by his friend Hans Christian Andersen, he traveled in Italy, where observation of street life in Naples fed his creative soul. The result was a masterpiece called Napoli, which is not, repeat not, about peasants, happy or otherwise, but rather about fishermen, merchants, religious faith and dancing itself: light as air, intricate, fiendishly difficult, glorious dancing.

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OBT: after 25, a leap into the future

The ballet's vigorous school shows and season-ending company performances balance new and old directions

“And how do we keep our balance?  I can tell you in one word, it’s tradition.”

I thought of those lines as I watched 14 would-be ballerinas – backs straight, heads held high, some in yellow tutus, some in red – make their imperial entrance onto the stage of the Newmark Theatre to take their places late last month in Paquita,  the opening piece of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary showcase. The show, which had two matinee performances, was, as it should have been, very much a part of the company’s silver anniversary celebrations. Those celebrations conclude May 28 with a fundraiser at the Left Bank Annex on North Weidler Street, near the east end of the Broadway Bridge. And they could well include an unofficial bonus: As it enters into its second quarter-century, OBT is expected to announce very soon its long-awaited plans to move into a new office, studio, and rehearsal center.

Sarah Griffin leaps high in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Sarah Griffin in Nacho Duato’s “Rassemblement.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof address Jewish survival in the pogrom-driven Russia in 1905, a matter of human and cultural life and death.  The cultural part of that can also be applied to the survival of classical ballet in the United States in 2015, where Oregon Ballet Theatre, which was born in 1989, is scarcely the only company finding it difficult to stay afloat. If Ballet San Jose, for example, doesn’t raise $3.5 million by October, the 29-year-old company is likely to close its doors forever, and where have we heard that before?

Paquita, Marius Petipa’s 1881 arrangement of the pas de deux and divertissements from the 1846 French story ballet about an officer in Napoleon’s army whose life is saved by a gypsy girl (she’s not Carmen!), fairly oozes the traditional set pieces we associate with the same choreographer’s trinity of ballets set to Tchaikowsky.  These are The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake, for which Petipa choreographed Acts I and III, and Lev Ivanov Acts II and IV.  OBT has danced all three ballets in various versions in the past 25 years, and currently has George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in the repertoire. Throughout that time, SOBT students have been integral to fleshing out the corps de ballet, and the performance of children’s roles.

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Every SOBT director has been responsible for passing on the torch of tradition, schooling his or her charges in the tour jetés, pas de chats, pirouettes, bourrées, fouettés and port de bras of l’École de la Danse, whose language is French, but can be, and is, “spoken” in a variety of accents, from the finish and flourish of Russian style, to the speed and directness of Balanchine’s neoclassicism. The Danes dance these steps with the ease and buoyancy of Bournonville; the British with controlled theatricality; the French with arrogant chic; and today’s Americans in whatever accent the repertoire requires. Each school director (the principal ones have been Haydee Gutierrez, brought in by James Canfield, and Damara Bennett, who came and went with Christopher Stowell) has worked closely with OBT’s artistic directors to prepare students to dance in whatever repertoire reflects  their particular vision. Now, Anthony Jones, who staged Paquita, leads SOBT in tandem with Kevin Irving, OBT’s third artistic director.

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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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