Niel de Ponte

The Year of Living Cautiously

Veteran dance critic Martha Ullman West looks back on a year of Covid isolation and moments of movement that vividly broke the spell

My year of living cautiously began the end of February last year, and while I had hoped it would conclude close to the same day this year, I think it’s more likely to stretch into a second year of the same.   

 In the past year I have seen two, count them, live dance performances, and one dance film in a theater, Alla  Kovgan’s stunning 3D documentary Cunningham. (I think all dance films should be shot in 3D, based on this one and Pina, Wim Wenders’ 2011  film about Pina Bausch, both shown at Portland’s Cinema 21.) 

 I have watched as many streamed performances as I could bear; written one obituary tribute;  read a dozen or so dance and dance-related books, some of which I was dipping into for a second and third time; and, in the name of shameless self-promotion, finished writing a book I started thinking about at the turn of the millennium.  Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making of American Ballet, the gods and Covid willing, will be published in May.  

Jacqueline Schumacher, in her teaching studio in downtown Portland’s Odd Fellows Building, ca. 1975. Photographer unknown.

Dance watchers will know that Reed was a native Oregonian, who was trained in Portland by Willam Christensen, as was her close friend Jacqueline Martin Schumacher. Schumacher, who died in September, 2019, would have been 100 on November 30, 2020, and a centenary celebration was under discussion when Covid hit; needless to say it did not take place. 

Both women were founding members of the San Francisco Opera Ballet (now the San Francisco Ballet) and danced, respectively, the roles of Odette and Odile in the first American evening-length production of Swan Lake.  Reed went on to a stellar career with Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.  Schumacher brought her star power back to her  home town, returning to Portland in 1942, when San Francisco Ballet went on hiatus right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  

Here she established a ballet school with rigorous standards (ask any former pupil!) where she taught generations of Portland students, many of whom became professional dancers. Equally important, as the founder of the Portland Ballet, a successor to Christensen’s company and a precursor of Oregon Ballet Theatre, she was pivotal to the establishment of the city’s resident ballet company.

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Fresh, vibrant, still the ‘Nutcracker’

Oregon Ballet Theatre brings a sparkling musical vitality to its newest run of "The Nutcracker." Now, let's talk about Tea and Coffee.

Oregon Ballet Theatre has opened its current run of George Balanchine’s ®The Nutcracker at the Keller Auditorium with a meticulously detailed, swiftly paced, high-energy performance of a ballet that can be a chore for people like me to watch. And I say that as a critic, but also as a grandmother, dedicated to instilling in my grandchildren the notion that live performance is much more exciting than anything they might see on their ubiquitous screens. Which means I’ve seen more Nutcrackers than I can count, never mind remember, in forty years of watching dance professionally; this particular production at least a dozen times.

Much of the energy of Saturday afternoon’s unofficial opening of this 19-performance run—the official opening was Saturday night, with a different, and I daresay equally good, cast—can be attributed to the orchestra. Under the experienced baton of OBT Music Director Niel De Ponte it played Tchaikovsky’s complex if familiar score with new freshness, and an accelerated tempo for the ballet’s Christmas Eve festivities that made them as effervescent as a glass of Veuve Clicquot.

Chauncey Parsons as Cavalier and Xuan Cheng as Sugarplum Fairy in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2017 “Nutcracker.” Cheng will dance Sugar Plum to Brian Simcoe’s Cavalier in performances this year. Parsons is dancing his final Cavalier with Ansa Capizzi as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Photo: James McGrew

This is far from always the case: When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in a slightly different version in 1954, an unnamed poet commented that the party scene was “so deliciously boring [I] could see it again and again.”

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