Martina Chavez

‘Terra’ firma: OBT’s dancers shine

A ballet program of Nacho Duato and Helen Pickett, including the premiere of her "Terra" belongs to the company's performers

Xuan Cheng, Thomas Baker, Peter Franc, Michael Linsmeier, Avery Reiners, and Brian Simcoe, gazing upward, their mouths held open in a butoh-like silent scream, in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s Terra.

Jacqueline Straughan wrapping her long, beautiful legs around Franc’s bare torso in Nacho Duato’s El Naranjo.

Martina Chavez, bent double, skittering across the stage barefoot in Duato’s Jardi Tancat.

Emily Parker, metaphorically taking down Linsmeier and Franc with a flick of her pointe shoe aimed at the back of their knees in Pickett’s Petal.

The OBT company in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s “Terra.” Photo: James McGrew

For better or worse, these are some of the images – all of them of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers ( this show belongs to them) – I’ve been mulling over since Thursday night when the company opened its annual mixed repertory program at the Newmark Theater.

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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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‘Impact,’ Take 2: Ballet with a future

Oregon Ballet Theatre's premiere of Moultrie's 'Instinctual Confidence' is a genre-jumping peek at what's current and what's to come

By DAMIEN JACK

There is nothing dry and dusty about Impact, the program topping off Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th season. After last Friday night’s performance I was making my way out of the Newmark when I heard a woman in front of me turn to her friend and say: “I hate ballet, but that was (bleeping) fantastic!” Now, I happen to love ballet. I’m a balletomane. A ballet queen. Yes, I am. I’m somewhat obsessed. I love to write about ballet, to talk about ballet, and most of all to watch ballet. Still, there are moments—sitting through yet another mummified production of Swan Lake or the latest robotic, ice-cold “contemporary” ballet—when I, too, hate ballet and feel like it’s time to tap out a shim-sham on the art form’s dying corpse. What’s exhilarating about the OBT program is that it makes you feel that ballet has a future. More importantly, from start to finish, you see that this program is alive to the present moment.

"Instinctual Confidence," from left: Michael Linsmeier, Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng, Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Makino Hayashi, Chauncey Parsons, Ye Li, Eva Burton. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Instinctual Confidence,” from left: Michael Linsmeier, Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng, Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Makino Hayashi, Chauncey Parsons, Ye Li, Eva Burton. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program–which concludes with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, April 23-25–opens with a world premiere: Instinctual Confidence, the work of a young American choreographer, born and raised in Harlem, named Darrell Grand Moultrie. He quite rightly refers to his style as “genre jumping.” Moultrie’s career has jumped from Broadway to ballet and, yes, even to Beyoncé—he worked on her “Mrs. Carter Tour”—and back again. Instinctual Confidence doesn’t look like any dance I’ve seen before. It’s a hot mess. Moultrie delivers a tasty mix of movement styles, rhythms and steps. The piece is all derring-do. He’s not afraid to risk a move that’s so unexpected and odd that it reads at first as ugly. The way something in a Cunningham dance might look the first time you see it. But the work is so compelling that you can’t for a moment look away. Throughout the piece a dancer will move into a position drawn from the vocabulary of classical ballet, then suddenly shift out of it—moving into an ever-morphing series of movements that flow further and further away from the classical. A great deal of the fun of the piece is in watching that metamorphosis. And it’s a very speedy ride with Kenji Bunch’s propulsive score helping to push the pedal—even the “slow” sections of the dance feel explosive.

That speed makes Instinctual Confidence difficult to read after just one viewing. However, certain images and dancers linger in the mind. Makino Hayashi’s riveting, cat-like entrance and solo is danced to the music of her own breathing and the sound of her feet and body moving across the stage. She creates a mood and atmosphere that all of the dancers will follow—intense, tough, competitive. Martina Chavez is a knockout in another memorable solo—she looks for all the world like a young Martha Graham. The purple dress she wears is quite unlike the sleek black costumes worn by the other dancers (all designed by Christine Joly de Lotbiniere), as is the choreography Moultrie created for her. To my eye that too seems to be, at least in part, a kind of tribute to Graham, complete with signature turns and leg kicks; but the impression might simply be created by the way that the dress combines with the movement.

There’s a later moment in the ballet when the stage is suddenly crowded with dancers and you can’t possibly take in everything that’s going on, but then Brian Simcoe and Chauncey Parsons come tearing onstage at full speed and spinning like tops, and you can’t look at anything else. Simcoe, always a standout, is on fire throughout Impact. His dancing is wonderfully finished; every movement is fully inhabited, given its full weight. He’s unfailingly musical. There’s nobility to all he does, but there’s never anything stuffy or pompous about his dancing.

Parsons plays a key role in the section of Instinctual Confidence that seemed to have everyone in the theater talking during intermission. Moultrie has dressed a trio of men (Parsons, Michael Linsmeier, and Jordan Kindall) in ice blue tutus. Nothing else. Just tutus. In a program note the choreographer insists he “is not making a statement about gender,” but it’s difficult to think of another costume as strongly gendered as the tutu. We can’t help but see the figure of the classical ballerina somewhere in the back of our mind while watching these men perform. At the same time,  there’s nothing campy going on. Several members of the audience guffawed when the guys first appeared, but the laughter quickly died away. The three don’t interact. They are a unit, but separated; and each man is completely absorbed, intense and focused on performing (as if they were defusing a bomb or cracking a safe) a complex series of stretching and reaching movements. The intensity is coupled with a vulnerability that derives in large part from the way the tutu transforms the male body. The dichotomy is surprisingly moving.

Michael Linsmeier in "Instinctual Confidence."  Photo: James McGrew

Michael Linsmeier in “Instinctual Confidence.” Photo: James McGrew

Where Instinctual Confidence is least interesting and most conventional is in its two pas de deux. These are well-made, fierce, and beautifully danced, with Brian Simcoe and Xuan Cheng making an especially fine couple. That said, why is it that contemporary ballet has been so slow to drag the pas de deux out of the 19th century when it comes to gender roles? You’d think feminism had never happened. Queer people don’t seem to exist at all. The form has changed only in that it’s more virtuosic and more openly sexual than ever. A female dancer is often encouraged to play tough in the pas de deux, but generally that toughness is all about affect and not about choreography. What gives? In a piece and a program that otherwise is so connected to the here and now, this is a peculiar but all too familiar slip.

Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, which had its world premiere at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet back in 1979 and was first seen at OBT in 1990, might seem, given its age, an odd fit on this program; but as much as any of the other pieces it is devoted to re-thinking and enlarging our conception of genre. Spaight, whose death in 1993 from AIDS was a terrible loss to the dance world, reinvents the training or teaching ballet, a work designed for young dancers. It’s a form that has inspired fine work from many choreographers, including Balanchine and Robbins.

Crayola dispenses with the usual musical score so that the dancers move to the rhythms and sounds made by their own toe shoes. Spaight also removed the (often tedious) mime associated with classical ballet, replacing it with American Sign Language. In addition to the expected classical steps, Spaight has his dancers perform pedestrian movement: walking, standing, and sitting. Those might appear to be simple things to do in comparison to, say, bourréeing across the stage, but many would argue they are just as hard, perhaps harder, to master. Spaight was teaching his dancers how to hold the stage; how to command attention. The young, apprentice dancers who make up OBT’s new junior company OBT2 dance the piece with style and precision (no easy task without music to hide behind), and their gestures are so eloquent you know just what they are telling you with their silent words even without the aid of an interpreter.

Nicolo Fonte’s Presto is something else entirely. It is a short trip in a very fast machine. As soon as it’s over you want to press replay and see it all over again. Driven by Ezio Bosso’s fun stop-and-start score, the dance is an explosive workout for four dancers: Ansa Deguchi, Avery Reiners, Eva Burton and Colby Parsons. You can’t imagine how they get through the thing, but part of the pleasure of Presto is seeing the dancers take pleasure in testing themselves. You sense, too, that Fonte had fun making the piece—taking the virtuoso showpiece right to its breaking point. Fonte’s choreography is marked by a proud, drawn-up torso and a precise, sharp attack that calls to mind flamenco dance, but it’s flamenco combined with ballet and done on a high wire.

The night comes to a powerful conclusion with Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement. The company dances this one barefoot, but with the very same ease and commitment that characterized the previous works on the program. Here, however, the material grows dark. Set to Toto Bissainthe’s haunting creole songs, Rassemblement is a mix of nightmare and dream. It is, in part, about the oppression suffered by slaves in colonial Haiti. It is also about their resistance to that repression and their hunger for liberation. The dance is at its best during its surging, rhythmically propulsive ensembles. The sections that attempt to represent the traumas faced by an enslaved people, while affecting, are (understandingly perhaps) a little too prettified. Still, this is one of Duato’s most sensitive and lyrical works, and a welcome addition to the OBT repertory. Brett Bauer and Makino Hayashi made a strong impression in their duet, a mix of delicacy, melancholy and eroticism. Martina Chavez was electrifying in a too-brief solo that made you want to follow her right down the road to revolution.

Revolution and evolution are just what ballet needs. OBT is giving it a roll, and it’s already paying off. Best of all, OBT will be repeating the entire Impact program beginning on Thursday April 23 and running through Saturday April 25. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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See Martha Ullman West’s review of Impact here.

OBT dancers: Making an ‘Impact’

From Spaight to Duato, the ballet company's Newmark program revels in variety and the spice of life

“The rhythm of my dancing is the same as the beat of my heart.  I think. I imagine. I hear.  I feel. I do it for you.”

That is a translation of the American Sign Language the dancers “speak” in Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, the second piece on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary season wrap-up, which opened at the Newmark Theatre on Thursday.

"Crayola," from left: Kimberly Nobriga, Samantha Allen, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, Shea McAdoo, Paige Wilkey. Photo: Yi Yin

“Crayola,” from left: Kimberly Nobriga, Samantha Allen, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, Shea McAdoo, Paige Wilkey. Photo: Yi Yin

OBT’s dancers–all of them, not just the apprentices and professional level students who performed Crayola–danced those words in every piece on the Impact program, their commitment to the choreographers’ wildly different points of view driving them as much as the music, or, in the case of Crayola, the sound of their point shoes hitting the floor.

I’ve long thought Crayola a deceptive title for a piece that is not about dancing crayons, cute as that might be, but rather dance as the most human of the arts. In new, soft, costumes designed by New York cinematographer and costume designer Christine Meyers, with the sign language updated by the mother of one of the dancers, this iteration of a dance I’ve seen many, many times charmed me in ways it has not in past performances.  All six dancers–company apprentices Kimberly Nobriga, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, an Paige Wilkey; SOBT students Samantha Allen and Shea McAdoo–executed the intricacies of Spaight’s arrangements of the classical vocabulary with precision and wit.  Wilkey, whatever she did, from holding an unsupported arabesque to whipping out fouettés to  bourréeing rapidly across the stage, showed the promise and personality of a true ballerina, and I hope she sticks around. I would also love to see this company (OBT2, that is) perform Spaight’s Theatre Dances, made originally for the Jefferson Dancers, and about the young dancers for whom he felt such empathy.

fEARnoDANCEFORM might have made a more informative title for Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Instinctual Confidence, a world premiere set to music (mostly) composed by Portland composer Kenji Bunch, artistic director of fEARnoMUSIC, which opened the show.  Choreographer and composer met when they were students at Juilliard and share a highly eclectic vision of music and dance, melding popular culture with high art, as others, such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Rennie Harris, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Virgil Thomson have done before them.

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, and Chauncey Parsons in "Instinctual Confidence."  Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, and Chauncey Parsons in “Instinctual Confidence.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Moultrie incorporates the pedestrian running of postmodern dance, classical ballet, a touch of street dancing, and children’s play into a fast-moving piece in which there is a bewildering number of undeveloped movement ideas, making it difficult for me, at least, to figure out what it’s about.  Program notes informed me that it’s basically about the dancers, these particular dancers, its official title intended to convey the unself-conscious, confident actions of children at play. Some of the movement did just that: the opening’s  runs, floor rolls and a kind of stylized tag, indicating kids playing in the streets of New York as Moultrie himself did as a lad; Martina Chavez–in a lovely turquoise dress designed by Christine Joly de Lotbinière, who also designed the workout clothes look-alikes for the rest of the cast–spinning like a little girl who is delighted with her new party dress; a trio of men playing dress-up in tutus, which Moultrie intended  to give them the experience of having their dancing restricted by tulle. It’s not meant to be funny, and it isn’t. Many audience members loved this trio, and while it was certainly well-danced by Michael Linsmeier, Chauncey Parsons and Jordan Kindell, it somehow didn’t grab me.

For me, the highlights were the two high-energy pas de deux, particularly the first one danced by the technically impeccable Brian Simcoe and the versatile (and how!) Xuan Cheng, and Michael Mazzola’s lights, some of them a stunningly beautiful re-creation of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings. The piece ends with the whole cast on stage, dancing in unison against a brilliant and celebratory red wall, to wonderful jazzy music, which then shifts to a more lyrical sound during which we see a male dancer dragging a female dancer across the stage floor.  This is a male chauvinist movement cliché I damned well don’t ever want to see again.

Martina Chavez in "Presto." Photo: Yi Yin

Martina Chavez in “Presto.” Photo: Yi Yin

What I would like to see again is Nicolo Fonte’s Presto, the penultimate piece on the program.  Danced by Chavez, Simcoe, Cheng and Parsons, who did some partner switching, it’s nine minutes of aggressive, classical dancing that demands a punching thrust of the limbs coupled with extremely sharp attack. Chavez shone in this one, and all four dancers were visibly enjoying themselves.  Presto, which takes its title from Edio Bosso’s score, was originally made for Ballet West, where Fonte is resident choreographer and David Heuvel, who designed the incredibly elegant shorts and tops, is resident costumier.

For Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement, OBT’s dancers shed their shoes and classical decorum to deliver a gut-wrenching performance of a work that made little impact on me when I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet dance it several years ago. Perhaps this is because the cultural context has changed. The 1990 piece, inspired by Haitian Creole songs recorded by Toto Bissainthe, is about 18th century plantation slaves, forbidden to practice their own religious rites and punished for doing so. As I watched the section in which Kindell, who completely owns this role, is brutalized by a couple of cops, I couldn’t help thinking about all the police shootings of African Americans we’ve seen as recently as last week in the land of the free and the brave. Movement taken from Martha Graham’s Lamentation (the dancer completely covered by cloth, body sunk in a wide second position plié,) also made me think of Franco’s Spain, where Duato, born in 1957, grew up under the oppressive eye of the Guarda Civil.

While all the dancers gave this highly emotional work everything they had, their commitment and understanding of the subject informing their dancing, I couldn’t take my eyes off  company artist Sarah Griffin, who gave a performance that was as passionate as it was political, or Kindell, or Cheng.  The closer for repertory shows, traditionally, is lighthearted and cheerful, like Balanchine’s appalling Stars and Stripes or his magnificent Symphony in C. Irving, who staged Rassemblement and as artistic director selected and commissioned the works on the program he titled Impact, ended this show with a work so well-danced that, while less than cheerful, it serves as the most powerful illustration of the program’s theme.

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OBT’s Impact continues through April 25 in the Newmark Theatre, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19; and 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 23-25. Ticket information is here.