Magic Toyshop

Mother Goose in pointe shoes

The Portland Ballet's annual holiday show finds the charm in John Clifford's fairy-tale choreography

Gentle, calm, basically peaceful (except when danger is present in Maurice Ravel’s gorgeous music and the narrative), John Clifford’s choreographic rendering of Mother Goose contains many charms. As performed by the young dancers of The Portland Ballet at the Sunday matinee in the company’s annual Thanksgiving weekend showcase at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall, it delivers a subtle, reassuring message at a time when we are otherwise bombarded by marketers in celebration of the miracle of the Hannukah lights and the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Photo courtesy The Portland Ballet

Photo courtesy The Portland Ballet

Ravel’s best-known scores for ballet are Bolero and La Valse. But the first one he did, in 1912, was Ma Mère l’oye (Mother Goose), originally for piano, then orchestrated for a production at the Theȃtre des Arts in Paris. The stories told in this ballet, in broad, brief choreographic strokes  are Jules Perrault’s versions of Sleeping Beauty,  Beauty and the Beast,  Tom Thumb (aka Hop ‘o My Thumb), and The Princess of the Pagodas. The action is framed as a young girl’s dream, and transitions are made with Mother Goose, toy goose tucked under her arm, summoning the characters.

The curtain rises on one of the loveliest sets I’ve ever seen, designed by Portland artist Liliya Drubetskaya. The young dreamer, danced on Sunday afternoon by Sophia Dahlstrom, is seated in an armchair, reading a large book. The armchair faces a large window overlooking a lush garden—this is not a winter’s tale. The child falls asleep, the chair is pulled offstage, and Sleeping Beauty begins with a group of coltish courtiers playing badminton and the extremely gifted Medea Cullumbine-Robertson deploying her pointes as Aurora.  The music darkens, the lights (designed by Michael Mazzola) do as well, Aurora has a close encounter with the wicked fairy’s spindle, and is deposited on an elaborate bed.

Next up is a different Beauty, the dark-haired Kerridwyn Schanck, dancing an eloquent pas de deux with guest artist Josh Murry, a member of BodyVox, who also reprised the role of Gerard, the desperate shopkeeper in The Fantastic Toyshop, which closed the program. Ravel’s music for Beauty and the Beast is particularly lovely, emotionally and rhythmically complex; and the playing throughout Mother Goose of the PSU Orchestra, under the baton of Ken Selden, was as heartfelt and skillful as the dancing.

Lights and slide projections then take our dreamer and the audience to a dense forest, with a corps de ballet of cleverly costumed trees. Generally speaking it’s the wind that choreographs trees, but the kids in this training company did their charming best. Emily Rapp, swooping down in a canary-yellow wig and pointe shoes on the bread crumbs that little Thumb had dropped in order to find his way home again, thoroughly inhabited the greedy bird’s character and displayed fine technique.

Given my dislike of the artificial cuteness of the Chinese divertissement in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, I dreaded the concluding Princess of the Pagodas. But Clifford is to be commended for at no time in this ballet descending into what the British call twee. The corps of red-clad Chinese servants does some acrobatics; and Nick Jurica, as the snake, did lose his balance finishing his pirouettes à la seconde. But more experienced dancers than he have done that. And Charlotte Logeais, who has beautiful legs and feet and increasingly fine-tuned technique, made a regal princess–and a fiercely kind Blue Fairy in Toyshop.

Mother Goose ends with the dreamer reunited with her parents, costumed ’50s style (no jeans for Mom in this ballet; she’s wearing a dress, and Dad is in slacks and shirt). In a reassuring show of togetherness, the curtain goes down on them reading Mother Goose, the book.  The gifted Mary Muhlbach was responsible for these costumes, and with Jane Staugas Bray, for Toyshop‘s as well.

The Portland Ballet has been performing Clifford’s Toyshop for about a decade, and the tale of an impoverished shopkeeper and his longsuffering wife, the accidentally locked-in children and the toys that come to life, contains many roles that offer opportunities for ballet students at all levels to display their dancing and acting skills. On Sunday, it was 10-year-old Andrew Davis–son of The Portland Ballet’s Jason Davis, ballet master and school principal, and the youngest Pinocchio I’ve seen–who stole the show. His joy in being on stage was palpable, his comic timing impeccable. I missed Alexandrous Ballard doing the Cossack dance, and the Giselle doll’s over-the-top makeup distracted the viewer from Delphine Chang’s perfectly good display of Romantic technique, but Lauren Grover as the Soldier Girl danced with considerable flair and polish. And the PSU Orchestra played well the Rossini-Respighi score that accompanies this Ballet Russes chestnut.

Dancing toys, flaming bird: ballet in embryo

The young dancers of The Portland Ballet give a glimpse of dance's future through its past

The dancing dolls, preceded by a magical firebird, returned to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on Friday night when The Portland Ballet Youth Company opened its annual Thanksgiving weekend concerts accompanied by the PSU Symphony Orchestra.

“The Firebird,” whose haunting 1910 score was Igor Stravinsky’s first for ballet (Michel Fokine did the choreography), opened the ambitious program with Marina DiCorcia in the title role and Devin Packard as the hapless Prince Ivan.

Prince Igor (David Packard) and the Firebird (Marina DiCorcia). Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Prince Igor (David Packard) and the Firebird (Marina DiCorcia). Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Wandering around in the moonlight, in classic-ballet hero fashion, clutching a bow and arrow, Ivan finds himself in an enchanted garden where he spots a bright red bird. Clad, needless to say, in a tutu. Their actual meeting seems to take forever, not because of Clifford’s choreography, or the promising young dancers’ execution of it, but because of the orchestra’s funereal tempo. For any of these dancers going on to professional careers, this did provide a learning experience in coping with conductors, and for the young musicians, a lesson in the difference between playing for dancers and performing for an audience of listeners only. More balletically experienced conductors than Ken Seldon, who heads the PSU orchestral program, don’t always grasp that difference.

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Ivan captures but does not kill the Firebird, and she is so grateful for her release that she gives him a red feather with which he can summon her help if he needs it, which he will. Clifford has provided some pretty difficult steps on point for the Firebird, and Di Corcia, who has been studying ballet since she was 3 (she’s now 17), the past five years at the Portland Ballet Academy, performed them with precision and style, particularly in the solo that celebrates her freedom. That solo is packed with a daunting series of unsupported turns and jetés, and while Di Corcia doesn’t yet have the finish or finesse of a professional dancer, she performed with considerable presence and aplomb.

Enter a group of enchanted princesses, nine of them, in flowing costumes, led by Emma-Anne Bauman as Princess Elena, also 17.  Ivan falls in love with the willowy princess at first sight, and emerges from his hiding place to let her know it. Packard, who has been dancing for only three years, injects his role with the appropriate adolescent gawkiness and rough edges, and everyone dances a happy, if musically  too slow, little dance.  For a while.  Music and stage darken (Michael Mazzola designed the lights), Ivan is attacked by a little monster, followed by a second, a third and a fourth, and the wicked evil sorcerer Kaschei appears in skeleton costume and a wig of long scraggly hair, accompanied by a group of bigger monsters. A chaotic dance takes place with seemingly a cast of thousands (Clifford is extremely good at ensemble choreography, which is no surprise since he learned it from a master named George Balanchine), Ivan fumbles for the feather, the Firebird appears and counter-enchants Kaschei and his monsters with a series of tours en ménage. The monsters turn back into villagers (and a backdrop appears with three onion domes), Ivan and Elena wed (minus anyone officiating) and all but the Firebird, who has possibly been so unwise as to fall in love with Ivan, live happily ever after.

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“The Magic Toyshop” does end unambiguously happily for everyone concerned. For 10 years now, the Portland Ballet has been performing Clifford’s staging of Leonid Massine’s originally titled “La Boutique Fantasque,” which features an exhausted shopkeeper (Gerard, performed by guest artist Josh Murry) and his wife, Amélie (who does all the work and gets all the blame), more dancing dolls than the main floor of F.A.O. Schwarz can hold, and a charming score by Giacomo Rossini which the PSU orchestra played far better than “Firebird.”

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I’m told Sir Frederick Ashton thought this ballet was Massine’s best, and it struck me, as I watched students of all ages and experience performing the dolls’ divertissements that take place after the shop closes, that it provides an education not only for the young dancers, but for the audience as well. There is, for example, a takeoff on Romantic ballet by the Giselle doll, danced on Friday night by Dori Pollard with considerable wit and skill while pursued by Ethan Myers as a very annoying Pinocchio. We get a Russian variation (Matrushka dolls, lots of them) complete with a Cossack dance that Zach Lyski, who made a good recovery from a stumble Friday night, infused with almost the panache of Alexandrous Ballard, who used to dance it.

A tarantella was danced with eye-popping precision and joy by 14-year-old Medea Cullumbine-Robertson and Nick Jurica, and I thought the Can-Can girls (Julia Bullard, Cleo Forman, Emily Rapp, Ruby King and Willa Clare Truby) were best at staying in doll-like character.  The audience always adores the French poodles, who were perfectly decently danced by Azelle Chang and Sarah Jurica on Friday night, on point at that. I confess that the poodles’ charm eludes me, but then, I don’t much care for the real thing.

As the naughty American children (of course they are!) who get left behind when the shop closes and are the viewers of these and many other dolly divertissements, Safia Barmada and Alexa Campbell, who appear to be very young indeed, were clearly enjoying themselves with the natural ease of born performers. Eventually, the kids’ parents realize they’re missing, and return to collect them, blaming the shopkeeper for locking them in. He in turn blames Amélie, his wife, who was danced on opening night by Ann Bauman, transformed at intermission from a radiant Princess Elena to a plain and weary woman. But, this is a story ballet after all, and there is a fairy godmother of sorts, in the person of the Blue Fairy, who transforms Amélie into the young beauty she once was, and the couple makes up, dancing a stately pas de deux. As the Blue Fairy, Charlotte Logeais carried herself with warmth and majesty; she’s an experienced dancer, and it showed.

A grand finale wraps it all up and ties it with a festive ribbon. I’m sure every child in the school was not on that stage, but it certainly looked like it. Giving every student a role is no mean feat, and artistic director Nancy Davis exercises considerable skill at doing just that.

As usual, Mary Muhlbach, assisted by Jane Staugas Bray, did a phenomenal job with the costumes for both ballets, I’m sure on less than a shoestring.

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There are two more performances on Sunday, at 1 and 4 pm, for which the casting will be different and I imagine the orchestra much improved. This annual institutional collaboration is to be commended, glitches and all. Ticket link here.

 

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