Jiri Kylian

By HEATHER WISNER

Questioning gender politics in the tradition-minded and competitive world of ballet “can feel particularly risky—both emotionally and career wise,” former New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan told The New York Times in January. She was speaking after longtime NYCB artistic director Peter Martins retired from the company following accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse [https://nyti.ms/2lBqZno] by several NYCB dancers.

But as in other fields, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, dancers are beginning to take the risk. Last fall, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky sparked a firestorm with a Facebook post reading: “There is no such thing as equality in ballet: women dance on point[e], men lift and support women. women receive flowers, men escort women off stage. not the other way around (I know there are couple of exceptions). and I am very comfortable with that.” Several high-profile dancers shot back, among them NYCB principal dancer Ashley Bouder, in an April 9 Dance Magazine op-ed titled “It’s Time for Ballet to Embrace Feminism.”

Meanwhile, Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens drew so much ire for its spring show Femmes, touted as a tribute to women but choreographed exclusively by men, that one choreographer quit, and the company wound up changing the program’s name and theme entirely.

Emily Parker and Christopher Kaiser performing Nicolo Fonte’s “Left Unsaid,” one of five ballets presented in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s MAN/WOMAN, April 12 – 24, 2018 at the Newmark Theatre. /Photo by James McGrew

Which brings us to Oregon Ballet Theatre’s spring program Man/Woman, running through April 21 at the Newmark Theatre. The show, as OBT artistic director Kevin Irving explained in his program note, is a collection of work that allows gender to “speak” through dance, which it does, although what’s missing may be as telling as what’s there.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Kevin Irving on Man/Woman

As the ballet world's treatment of women receives overdue scrutiny, Oregon Ballet Theatre's new program highlights gender stereotypes

Man/Woman, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s program of five ballets that juxtapose all-female ballets and all-male ballets to explore gender stereotypes, opens tonight.

The program includes The Dying Swan, a solo for a female dancer by Michel Fokine; a new commissioned work called Fluidity Of Steel by Brooklyn-based Darrell Grand Moultrie for all men; Left Unsaid by Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte for both men and women; Drifted in a Deeper Land for all men by former Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director James Canfield; and Falling Angels for all women by Jiří Kylián.

OBT dancer Kelsie Nobriga rehearsing Jiří-Kylián’s Falling Angels for MAN/WOMAN April 12-24. Photo by Yi-Yin.

I have been wondering out loud in previous DanceWatch columns about whether or not classical ballet can catch up with contemporary values and be something that future generations will want to support. Classical ballet is historically a racist, hierarchical, patriarchal system, that has narrowly defined dancers by their skin color, body types, gender, age, perpetuates stereotypical narratives, and, ironically, the majority of ballet choreographers and artistic directors are men, even though women make up the majority of the artists in the industry.

Ballet culture has improved considerably since its early days, but it still has a bit of a ways to go. When Oregon Ballet Theatre announced on Facebook last season that it was presenting a program of five dances choreographed by five men that would explore gender stereotypes, I was stunned and wondered out loud in the comments section how it was possible for men to choreograph dances about a woman’s experience. And, where were the women choreographers in this conversation to boot? Well, it turns out that they are gathered in OBT’s next program in May.

When I spoke with OBT artistic director Kevin Irving this past week at OBT’s studios, he said that it was important to him to address the problematic issues within classical ballet narratives that perpetuate stereotypes, but also to find a way to maintain the heritage of classical ballet.

OBT dancers rehearsing Darrell Grand Moultrie’s world premiere, Fluidity Of Steel, one of five ballets presented in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s MAN/WOMAN, April 12 – 24, 2018 at the Newmark Theatre. Photo by Yi Yin.

“The base of classical ballet includes a lot of beauty, a lot of fine, wonderful, enjoyable work but some are really problematic works that can be seen as perpetuating stereotypes that are not so applicable to the world we live in,” Irving said. “I’m conscious of our responsibility to not ignore it.”

Irving began thinking about putting this program together two years ago in response to the Bathroom Bill legislation being considered in North Carolina that dictated bathroom usage based on a person’s assigned gender at birth.

Since then, the conversation about the treatment of women in the society as a whole, in the arts, and in ballet has exploded, embracing many more issues and points of view than Irving could address in one program. “We’re not the entire conversation,” he said. “We can only be a contribution to the conversation, incomplete, but hopefully insightful and maybe even revelatory in some ways.”

“I think an argument can be made that gender roles in classical ballet can be as restrictive for men as they are for women,” he continued. “Even if the experience of being a dancer, in my opinion, is typically harder for a woman than it is for a man…I wanted the audience to have an experience of what was it like to see these representations unchallenged and then challenged.”

OBT dancers rehearsing Nicolo Fonte’s Left Unsaid for MAN/WOMAN April 12-24. Photo by Yi-Yin.

Man/Woman begins with The Dying Swan, a solo made famous by ballerina Anna Pavlova that depicts the last moments of a swan’s life. Instead of seeing the ballerina (performed by OBT dancers Jacqueline Straughan, Ansa Capizzi, Jessica Lind, and Eva Burton) as a weak, frail, dying figure, Irving wants to shine light on the “the amount of strength, determination, triumph against the odds, and sheer force of will that it takes to be that dying swan.” “I think that’s an interesting story, that duality of the dying swan, which on the surface seems pitiable but yet it’s anything but for the people who have to perform it.”

Offering a contrasting view of the female dancer, Falling Angels choreographed in 1989 for Nederlands Dans Theater by Jiří Kylián, explores the human obsession with perfection and closes the program. This contemporary work for eight women is a driving, rhythmic piece to a Steve Reich score that was inspired by the percussion rituals of Ghana.

Next is a world premier by Moultrie for seven male dancers that explores an alternative view of maledom questioning the ways society allows men to express emotions and show physical affection. This work developed from a trio of men in tutus from his previous work for the company, Instinctual Confidence, back in 2015.

Continuing the male perspective, Drifted in a Deeper Land, choreographed by OBT founding artistic director James Canfield in 1990, highlights the feelings of helplessness, loss, and frustration felt during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Irving felt that it was important to embed a connection to the company’s history within the program.

OBT’s Emily Parker and Avery Reiner. Photo by Christopher Peddecord.

Left Unsaid by Nicolo Fonte, one of Fonte’s most popular works was inspired by Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and is the only piece in the program for both men and women. The ballet focuses on the dualities present in all of us, that pull us in opposing directions. The work originally premiered on Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2009.

Man/Woman looks to be a strong program with fantastic dancing and some poignant messages. But, if you’re still hankering for women choreographers you won’t have to wait long. Closer, OBT’s final program of the season, brings back Helen Simoneau’s Departures from last summer’s Choreography XX program and presents new works by company dancers Katherine Monogue, Makino Hayashi, and Peter Franc from May 23-June 3.

Performances this week

Contact Dance Film Festival
Presented by BodyVox and Northwest Film Center
7:00 pm April 12, NY Export: Opus Jazz and Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow, Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave
9:00 pm April 14, NY Export: Opus Jazz & Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow, Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave
7:30 pm April 12 and 14, Dancing Over Borders, BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave.
7:30 pm April 13, Dance@30fps, Bodyvox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave.
4 pm, April 14, Dance@30fps, Bodyvox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave.

Teaming up with the Northwest Film Center, BodyVox artistic director Jamey Hampton and long-time collaborator Mitchell Rose have curated a festival of dance films that cover the gamut in voices, topics, and disciplines from around the world.

The festival includes three programs. The first is a double bill featuring NY Export: Opus Jazz, a remake of a 1958 Jerome Robbins’ ballet to the jazz score of Robert Prince, and Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow, a documentary about the history of Jacob’s Pillow narrated by choreographer Bill T. Jones. The program screens at Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium.

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White Bird opener: It was a dark and moody night

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet kicks off White Bird's season with an oddly monochromatic program

Photo: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Photo: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Dark, very dark. That’s what the oddly monochromatic programming was when Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a company of smart, young, very talented dancers, opened White Bird’s 2013-2014 season at the Schnitz with a single show on Wednesday night.

Each of the three pieces began on a darkened stage, starting with Cayetano Soto’s “Beautiful Mistake,” which opened with a slow walk by a single dancer that was almost the only traveling through space in the piece. Soto, a Spaniard who lives in Munich and has been commissioned in the past by Portland’s Northwest Dance Project, manipulates the dancers’ beautiful, muscular bodies like a chiropractor, or a child playing with one of those rubbery dolls.

There is a lot of heavy lifting, giving the incredibly buff men plenty of opportunities to flex their muscles and the women many chances to extend their shapely arms and legs. Sculptural posing is also a major part of the choreography, all done to an appropriately monotonous score by Olafur Arnalds and Charles Wilson. “Beautiful Mistake” does not have the dehumanizing, relentless pace of the work of some of Soto’s contemporaries (Jorma Elo comes immediately to mind), but his experiments with physicality and physique offer little if any room for individual expression. Ultimately, the piece is about as interesting as a body-building contest.

“Where does all this focus on lifts come from?” Damien Jack, my seatmate, asked me as the curtain rang down on Soto’s final pose. One answer became readily apparent shortly after the dancers began Jiri Kylian’s elegiac “Return to a Strange Land,” made the year Soto was born. But Kylian isn’t obsessed by the lifts. They are an integral part of what the ballet is about: an homage to John Cranko, director of the Stuttgart Ballet, where Kylian’s career as a dancer and choreographer began, and who died in a plane crash in 1973.

The ballet — and it is a ballet: the women wear point shoes — is a skillfully crafted series of trios and duets, eloquently danced by Katherine Bolaños, Craig Black, Samantha Klanac Campanile, Peter Franc, Nolan DeMarco McGahan and Joseph Watson, to a score by Kylian’s Czech compatriot Leos Janacek. I found myself moved by the second pas de deux, which began somewhat combatively and contained a series of backward bourrées combined with a yearning port de bras that was an entirely believable expression of anger and grief. The piece ends with a tangle of three bodies, twisted like pretzels, not at all on a happy note.

Kylian was under thirty when he made “Return to a Strange Land,” but he knew his craft. The ballet has a beginning, a middle and an end, Janacek’s music providing what Trey McIntyre (who has also been commissioned by this company) has referred to as a “road map” for the choreography. Would that Norbert de la Cruz III, who like a quarter of Aspen/Santa Fe’s dancers is a graduate of Juilliard, class of 2010, had chosen one piece of music instead of a collage of dissonant electronic sound and glorious arias by George Frederic Handel to accompany “Square None,” his first commission. It, too, began on a darkened stage, spliced with shafts of gray light – hardly brightening the viewer’s mood, as closers are supposed to do. De la Cruz was born in the Philippines and grew up in Los Angeles, and some of his movement has the spiky edge of big-city living. It is also a less muscular piece than Soto’s, although there is a fair amount of sculptural posing. Some hand-wringing at the beginning of the piece gave it some interest, but why it was included remains as mysterious as the score.

When the Handel begins, the movement gets jauntier, livelier, and a little too close to being balletically cute, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Morris’s more lighthearted dances to baroque music, although Morris never makes fun of the music he loves. Nor does he treat the dancers, as de la Cruz does at the end of this piece, like the mechanical dolls that perch on top of music boxes. Using (and I mean using) dancers purely as instruments for choreography is, alas, part of a 21st century trend, particularly in ballet. Aspen/Santa Fe’s dancers deserve better, as their performance in Kylian’s work clearly showed.

This was, in fact, surprisingly bad programming. Company artistic director Tom Mossbrucker was a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet for many years — I saw him give a spectacularly evil performance in the title role of “Billy the Kid,” when the Joffrey toured here decades ago — and should know better than to put three moody pieces on the same program. Having said that, the audience doesn’t seem to have minded, delivering the traditional standing ovation and leaving the theater in a cheerful mood.

The evening began traditionally as well, with Paul King and Walter Jaffe giving a pre-curtain speech to welcome the audience to White Bird’s 16th anniversary season and let the audience know, in their words, that October will be dance month in Portland. Coming up next in their season is Compagnie Maguy Marin, for three performances starting October 10. It’s not likely to be light entertainment, but according to the brochure, she will “lead the audience through a journey of darkness and light,” and I happen to find her work fascinating. PSU’s Contemporary Dance Season was the first to present her here; White Bird brought her company several years ago. The Australians also arrive on our shores next month. Lucy Guerin’s company, which has performed in Portland a number of times, will be at Lincoln Hall October 17 to 19, and Sydney Dance returns October 23 to the Schnitz. Both companies do extremely interesting work.

Also in October, Oregon Ballet Theater opens October 12 for two weekends at the Keller, and Jaffe and King announced that Kevin Irving, OBT’s new artistic director, was in the Aspen/Santa Fe audience. Irving is likely to program Kylian’s work for OBT in the future, and I hope he does. Northwest Dance Project also opens its season in October, the 24th-26th, at Lincoln Performance Hall; and BodyVox reprises its Body Opera Files (to live rock music) October 10-26, in a new space for the spooky occasion (I had fun when I saw the premiere), the Northwest Industrial Warehouse. And that’s just for openers. More to come later in the season.