Jim Lane

DanceWatch Weekly: Nancy Davis and Portland Ballet

The artistic director of The Portland Ballet talks about the winding road that led to this weekend's concert

I’ve been trying to write DanceWatch for about five days now without much success, until now of course. I seem to function best under great pressure, kind of like how a diamond is made. Take Jamuna, apply an intense amount of heat, and pressure, and voilà DanceWatch is written! A kind of stressful and undesirable scenario to create under but sometimes unavoidable. You see, I am mostly a full-time, stay-at-home mom, but, also a dancer, choreographer, and dance writer, and sometimes everyone’s else’s needs take over and I can’t quite find the time to sit down and write.

This week’s disastrous attempt to write (I’m exaggerating a bit for theatrical effect) was partly due to post-performance fatigue (I performed with Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre this past weekend, which Elizabeth Whelan reviewed for ArtsWatch), a traveling husband situation that turns me into a single parent for a few days, and a myriad of other crazy events that included an emergency trip to the vet, calls from my son’s principal, the cats, the stuff, the whatever. Right now, as I write this, my 55-pound boxer/lab puppy is standing on my chest panting in my face demanding to be scratched and walked. It’s a circus, and I love it. It’s because THIS is my life that I’m always curious as to how other dancer/teacher/choreographer parents “do it” and stay artistically focused.

I recently became friends with Portland Ballet’s artistic director Nancy Davis on Facebook, and suddenly I was seeing gorgeous photos and videos of Davis as a young dancer in my news feed. Then I saw a photo of her beautiful daughter Lauren Lane on a poster for St. Louis Ballet, and I realized that I didn’t know Nancy Davis at all, and I definitely didn’t know she had a daughter who had also grown up to become a professional dancer.

I only know Davis as I see her now, as the artistic director and founder of The Portland Ballet academy. But how did she get here, what influenced her artistically, and how did she manage to raise a child in the midst of it all, I wanted to know. So, in between her rehearsals for Portland Ballet’s upcoming show Current/Classic, which opens May 4-5 at Lincoln Hall, and my performances, we got a chance to speak on the phone.

The Portland Ballet studio dress rehearsal of Us by Josie Moseley. Photo courtesy of The Portland Ballet.

Davis, who is from California, began her ballet training with one of Los Angeles’s most flamboyant characters, Madame Etienne. Madame Etienne was born in Greece but raised in Paris. Kathryn Charisse was her given name, and she ran a studio called the Hollywood Dance Studio that catered to movie stars. She was the one time sister-in-law of dancer-actress Cyd Charisse, toured the vaudeville circuit with her parents and her ten siblings as a child, and always dressed in a flamboyant outfits. She frequently wore a tiara and full makeup, according to accounts on a blog called lastcappuccino.com.


Young, gifted, and ready for more

The dancers in the rising professional training company The Portland Ballet show off their considerable skills

“I dance, therefore I am.”

That’s the message sent by many of the young dancers in The Portland Ballet’s ambitious spring show at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall last Friday night.

Where this was most apparent was in the two pieces, both of them premieres, made precisely for them, and, in one way or another, about them.  In Josie Moseley’s Us, set to songs by Fiona Apple, the whole cast put heart, soul and body into Moseley’s modern, grounded vocabulary, performed barefoot, although it did seem slightly more balletic than in previous choreographies.

The company in Josie Moseley's "Us." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The company in Josie Moseley’s “Us.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Thematically, Us signals a new direction as well: unlike much of Moseley’s previous work, it has no politics, no deep drama: it’s simply about these dancers and life as a teenager. I’m by no means, incidentally, knocking the earlier repertoire. Moseley has tackled some huge issues in her work, from school desegregation to the Holocaust, and done it with considerable artistic success.

Us opens with a trio, performed by Amelia Carroll, Delphine Chang, and Annie Garcia. Dancing to Every Single Night, whose lyrics include lines like “I just wanna feel everything,” they fully inhabit their roles as yearning, hungry for experience adolescent girls. For the second part, they are joined by Puneet Bhandal, Nick Jurica, Evan Lindsay, Charlotte Logeais, Ophelia Martin-Weber and a number of chairs. Jurica, Carroll and Longeais in particular bring to life the “dancing bird of paradise” of  the accompanying Hot Knife lyrics, though not, except by implication, “If I’m butter, then he’s a hot knife.” Moseley knows when to make use of abstraction in her choreography; the dancers added the eloquence.

Songs also accompany Anne Mueller’s Carioca, in this instance either written or performed or both by Lord Burgess, Edward Eliscu, Gilberto Gil, Talking Heads, Gus Kahn, Richard Rodgers, and Caetano Veloso. The costumes, which are sleek and black, were inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s garb for her quirky dance in a smoke-filled “existentialist” or beatnik club in Paris in that marvelous pre-The Devil Wore Prada film, Funny Face. The ballet’s title and Latin American atmosphere came from two sources – Flying Down to Rio, like Funny Face a Fred Astaire film, and Trey McIntyre’s Like a Samba, which Mueller knows well.

From left: Evan Lindsay, Puneet Bhandal, Charlotte Logeais in "Jamaica Farewell" from Anne Mueller's "Carioca." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

From left: Evan Lindsay, Puneet Bhandal, Charlotte Logeais in “Jamaica Farewell” from Anne Mueller’s “Carioca.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

None of which matters much: What Mueller has made is a closing ballet that showcases who the  young dancers in this professional ballet school are as dancers, and what they have achieved in their training to date. And, moreover, it shows them having fun.  There is an exuberant solo for Jurica; in Jamaica Farewell,  Logeais’ endless legs remind us of Hepburn’s; and, dancing with Bhandal, Lindsay, Hanan Margoles and Ethan Myers, she’s relaxed and at ease and enjoying herself. She begins her professional career at Grand Rapids Ballet in the fall, under the artistic directorship of Patricia Barker, who as a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet had a much-acclaimed international career.

In George Balanchine’s Tchaikowsky Pas de Deux, Medea Cullumbine-Robertson, partnered by Jurica, announced with every grand jeté and pas de chat that on stage, dancing, is where and how these young performers live.  Tchai Pas, as it is fondly called, contains just about every step in the classical lexicon, revved up to maximum speed, and the two young dancers pretty much nailed it.

Many, many dancers have performed this quintessential Petipa-style pas de deux. Balanchine made the duet 55 years ago, originally for Diana Adams, who was indisposed shortly before the premiere, so Violette Verdy ended up originating the role, partnered by Conrad Ludlow.

For Jim Lane and Nancy Davis, directors of The Portland Ballet, it was a signature work when they were principal dancers with John Clifford’s original Los Angeles Ballet. Here in River City, Zachary Carroll and Elizabeth Guerin  performed it in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s second season. I have a vivid memory of watching Clifford set it on Carroll and Guerin, as well as on Diane Fisher and the late Michael Rios.

“Faster, faster,” he kept yelling at them, and faster and faster they danced. Clifford, who in many ways is The Portland Ballet’s good angel, taught the pas de deux to Cullumbine-Robertson, Jurica, Logeais, and Henry Cotton last fall. Since then, they’ve been coached to a fare-thee-well by Davis, Lane, and Carroll, who now directs Body Vox 2 and also teaches at the Portland Ballet Academy.  Sadly, Cotton, who had become an apprentice at Oregon Ballet Theatre, was injured in OBT’s last show; Longeais lost her partner and therefore the opportunity to test her technical mettle in the bravura dance.

Verdy, who is I believe still conveying her technique and joie de la danse to students in the ballet program at the University of Indiana, was famous for launching herself at top speed into Ludlow’s arms in a fish dive. That was a near-miss for Cullumbine-Robertson and Jurica on opening night, but only a near one, and from their triumphant smiles in Blaine Truitt Covert’s photograph, you’d never know they had faltered at all.

Medea Cullumbine-Robertson and Nick Jurica in Balanchine's "Tchaikowski Pas de Deux." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Medea Cullumbine-Robertson and Nick Jurica in Balanchine’s “Tchaikowski Pas de Deux.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program opened with excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty, the de rigeur classical story ballet for professional ballet schools, which Portland Ballet Academy certainly is.  Lincoln Hall’s small stage and its slippery floor made these excerpts even more challenging than usual: two dancers fell, but made highly professional recoveries. Nevertheless, as the calm, wise Lilac Fairy (she’s the one who puts Aurora into a century long sleep instead of allowing Carabosse to kill her off) Lauren Kness, who is all of 16, danced her variation with a mature warmth and amplitude that bodes well for her future. And in the Bluebird variation (a role Nijinsky danced!), 13-year-old Myers injected his performance with the same wit and exuberance as his Pinocchio last winter in The Magic Toyshop.

Lane and Davis have worked long and hard to get the PDA established, and they now will be joined in this enterprise by Mueller, who will take up full-time duties as Co-Artistic Director of the performing arm and the new Career Track Program. In a pre-curtain speech, Mueller talked about how much she was looking forward to passing on what she has learned in her years as a dancer, most of them with Oregon Ballet Theatre, and as a teacher in the company’s school. What Carioca signals is Mueller’s ability to transfer her own intelligence and wit as a performer to pre-professional students – no small thing. And, yes, there is room for two professional ballet schools in Portland. I’m hoping for more cooperation and less competition than exists at present.