Oregon ballet

A Danish pastry, via Napoli

Preview: Oregon Ballet Theatre premieres a lavish version of a 19th century Danish story ballet set in Italy, with a heroine made for today.

Teresina, the heroine of Napoli, is a woman for our time. Don’t believe me? Go see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s sparkling new production of August Bournonville’s signature ballet, which opens the company’s 29th season at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday night. With a libretto by Bournonville, and a score by E. Helsted, Gade and Paulli, with whom the choreographer collaborated in the same way as Petipa with Tchaikowsky, and Balanchine with Stravinsky, this is a 19th century story ballet with which 21st century audiences can relate –– and particularly with fiery, independent Teresina.

In all three acts of the great Danish choreographer’s lighthearted ballet about common Neapolitan people (there isn’t an aristocrat in sight) she is a take-charge kind of gal, in control of her life and her future: “I’ll decide whom I’ll marry,” she declares without words in Act I, choosing Gennaro, the fisherman, over Giacomo the macaroni seller and Peppo the lemonade seller. Her widowed mother would prefer greater economic stability for her daughter, and incidentally for herself. But Teresina prevails and despite a looming storm, she and Gennaro go off for an evening boat ride and some alone time. He, the hapless hero—a convention of 19th century story ballets –– manages to lose her in the stormy seas, and returns to land without her.

Makino Hildestad in OBT’s 2015 production of the third act of “Napoli.” The company premieres its full-length production of the 1842 Bournonville story ballet on Saturday. Photo: James McGrew.

“Give me that medal, I’ll do this myself,” she asserts, equally wordlessly, in Act II when her fiancé finds her in Capri’s famed Blue Grotto, and fails to act quickly enough to save her from the unwanted attentions of Golfo, a sea demon who dwells there, happily turning maidens into Naiads whenever he gets the chance. And thrusting the medal depicting Mary, Mother of God (another strong woman) straight at her would-be seducer, she stops him cold.

Continues…

‘Snow Queen’ part 7: Taking the stage

Eugene Ballet's original production premieres this weekend

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen on his Eugene Art Talk blog. This is the concluding installment.

Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen is just about ready to freeze our hearts. The costumes are sewn. The set has been constructed. Lighting is being devised. And Toni Pimble, the ballet’s long-time artistic director, has completed her original choreography for the show, which makes its world premiere in two performances Saturday and Sunday (April 8 and 9) at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is a big deal arts event for a town like Eugene. Starting perhaps three years ago, the ballet pulled together more than a quarter million dollars in grants to create an all-new version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (which, much simplified, forms the basis of Frozen). In the story, the evil Snow Queen kidnaps the young boy Kay, who is later rescued, after much adventure, by the girl Gerda, his friend.

Company dancer Victoria Harvey at a Snow Queen rehearsal

The grant money assembled by the ballet has gone for everything from the new sets and costumes, being designed and created here by Nadya Geras-Carson and Jonna Hayden, to the luscious score, by which is composed by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and is to be performed by Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter.

At 90 minutes in length, the score, the ballet reports, is the largest piece of orchestral music ever composed in Oregon.

We checked in with Pimble last week as she rehearsed her dancers and finished off the last bits of Snow Queen choreography with them. A co-founder with Riley Grannan of Eugene Ballet 39 years ago, Pimble has been working with her dancers as often as six days a week the last few months. She was determined to get the choreography nailed down, she said, by a full week before opening night.

“The dancers need a chance to grow into their roles,” Pimble explained. “So for the last week we can be refining it.”

Choreographing a new ballet to the original score the ballet commissioned from Bunch has been hard work — and that was on purpose, Pimble said. She didn’t want to create her new ballet to easy music.

Artistic director and choreographer Toni Pimble.

“The music has been pretty challenging, which is what we wanted,” she said. “At the same time it has to be accessible to the audience. The dancers are used to working with difficult music. Rite of Spring (which the ballet performed in 2012) is a great example of difficult music, and they are used to working with that.”

Pimble’s first step with her choreography was working with the dancers to create a crow scene (friendly crows are the allies of Gerda in her search for Kay). Pimble said she picked that one to start with because Bunch’s music for it was so complex.

She played me a bit of the music for that scene from the recording of the score by Orchestra Next. To be honest, I never could figure out where the beat was. Bunch, she said, had done research on crows while writing the music; he discovered they make two different calls at the same time. Bunch’s music is layered in complex ways, she said.

“I started with that scene because I was so worried about that music. I mean, I told him to make it hard. But oh, god.…”

But the dancers quickly got it. “It doesn’t sound random to us anymore,” Pimble said.

Untypically for classical ballet, which tends to open softly and quietly, Pimble’s Snow Queen starts with a bit of a bang — a big production number with lots of dancers filling the stage.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie practices her Snow Queen moves in the studio.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie, who has the icy role of the Snow Queen herself, said that first scene involves a great deal of sheer physical work as the dancers race around the stage. “It’s like the chase at the beginning of a James Bond movie,” she said. “That first scene is going to be very tiring. But to get to act evil is a fun experience.”

This is Tolmie’s ninth season dancing with the ballet. She started as an apprentice dancer, then put in four seasons in the corps before becoming a principal last season.

Dark, evil characters, the dancer said, are seldom portrayed in the ballet world by women. So Tolmie’s very happy to dance the Snow Queen, who steals and freezes the little boy Kay in this dark tale of love conquering evil.

“Most of the evil characters always go to men,” she said. “For a woman to get one is fun!”

This is the seventh and final story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch,  Part Four, on costume designer Jonna Hayden, Part Five on dancers Isaac Jones and Sara Stockwell, and Part Six on recording the score, which is now available on CD from the company.

Eugene Ballet premieres The Snow Queen at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

Bob Keefer is an arts writer and exhibiting photographer in Eugene, and arts editor of Eugene Weekly. You can see his work at EugeneArtTalk.com and at BobKeeferPhoto.com.

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Everyday Ballerina 12: The Time I Taught Someone Something

In the final chapter of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen pulls the curtain on a long career onstage and begins to pass the torch along

Editors’ note: What goes into the making of a professional ballet dancer? In this twelve-part series of reminiscences and turning points excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. The final episode of “Everyday Ballerina”: The Time I Taught Someone Something.

 

By GAVIN LARSEN

I have just spent an hour and a half leading thirteen women and two men in a classical ballet class, working them through a series of dance exercises that have been practiced all over the world for centuries. As “elitist” as the art of ballet may be considered, this particular class (which I teach bright and early every Monday) is what’s called a “drop-in”, which means that anyone on earth who has the urge to dance and $15 can walk in off the street and take a place at the barre. It’s billed as “Ballet 1,” but all that means is you’re on your own if you don’t know the five basic positions and some other fundamentals, but also that I won’t be asking anyone to do triple fouettes.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

Naturally, then, there’s a wide range of ages, abilities, body types, and personal motivations for “dropping in” on a Monday morning. Some of those who come to class have dance experience from childhood and some only started dancing as adults, but for everyone, wading into ballet technique in middle age takes guts, healthy senses of humor and realism, and a willingness to set pride aside. Physical limitations like stiffness and cartilage-thin joints are prevalent, but the natural coordination and instincts of childhood— the compulsion to spin around, jump, and be fearless— have also gone away. Coaxing adult students past inhibitions built up over the years is fun for me because of their attitude: no one comes to these classes unless they want to work, think, be brave and get ready to fly.

Gavin Larsen bowing at her final performance for Oregon Ballet Theatre, May 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Gavin Larsen bowing at her final performance for Oregon Ballet Theatre, May 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Douglas, in his fifties, is tall, lean and proud. He trained in jazz and theater dance as a kid and even had a job dancing in cruise ship shows for a few years. He’s in every class, standing front and center and attacking every exercise with confidence. He prides himself on being a sort of ringleader of the adult dancer community, welcoming all newcomers warmly, generally playing the role of alpha male in the room.

One of my favorites is Josh, a forty-ish, small, wiry and muscle-bound guy with an impish grin. He thinks about ballet just as hard as he works at it (although his body is so tight it’ll never make balletic shapes). He likes to analyze why steps are done a certain way. His questions force me to find ways to verbally explain concepts that I have always understood intuitively. Why do you press down into the floor in order to pull up out of it? If you truly stretch your arm or leg, as I’m always cueing the students to do, how do you keep it from looking stiff? I love teaching him because he’s so chipper—laughing off his own wobbles and tumbles—but he doesn’t trivialize the magnitude of ballet training. He understands it as a high art form to be appreciated and respected, and has a kind of fascinated awe for people who’ve devoted their lives to it. After all, this may be the equivalent of a recreational cooking class for non-chefs, but he and the other students are still working with sharp knives and real ingredients that shouldn’t be wasted.

Today, Genevieve was in class as usual. She’s a lovely woman and, like Josh, tightly muscled. She quivers with effort to mold herself into the positions of ballet, straining and taking short puffs of breath although we’re only five minutes into barre and just doing simple tendus. I always pass by Genevieve and give her arm a gentle shake to help her try to relax her elbows while still holding on tight to her center. She resists me, as if she’s gripping a handrail for dear life. I am on an endless quest to get students to avoid over-tensing their muscles, except for that ever-necessary “tush squeeze”, of course. She understands what I’m asking for, but letting go is scary. I remind her that we’re just doing ballet, not brain surgery, and laughter throughout the studio brings an immediate release.

... and with her bouquet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

… and with her bouquet. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Most weeks in class, several small goals are achieved only to be washed away moments later like waves lapping up on the beach, receding, and then reaching a few inches further to achieve more with each new surge of water. This process happens quietly inside each individual. Everyone’s pace is different, as is their starting point. It feels like a beautiful miracle to see fifteen people’s faces light up with understanding, and then, best of all, translate that realization to their bodies. Today, as usual, we were doing a pirouette exercise. “Reach your right arm, leading with the pinky finger, resist slightly in your shoulder like you’re pushing through water, and keep your elbows lifted like you can’t touch the tabletop in front of you. Make your arms perfectly round and methodical like a metronome.” The room got hushed—that’s when I know I’ve said something that might be sinking in— “Let’s all try it together.” We practice each element separately: just the arms, then just the feet, then arms and legs without a turn, and then we add it all together. I had been doing the step with the class, standing in front of the group with my back to them, but now I stopped and turned around to watch. I saw a mismatched assortment of people of all shapes and sizes and in outfits of every type, all reaching with their pinky fingers to the right and sailing around with the smoothness of soft butter.

*

CURTAIN DOWN. THE ENTIRE SERIES, EPISODES 1 THROUGH 12:

Everyday Ballerina 1: Curtain Speech

Everyday Ballerina 2: The 8-Year-Old

Everyday Ballerina 3: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2

Everyday Ballerina 4: Cracking the Door

Everyday Ballerina 5: Summer of 1992

Everyday Ballerina 6: Into the Night

Everyday Ballerina 7: Orange

Everyday Ballerina 8: The Human Monolith

Everyday Ballerina 9: Places

Everyday Ballerina 10: The Drive Home

Everyday Ballerina 11: Quivering

Everyday Ballerina 12: The Time I Taught Someone Something.

After the show is over. And life begins anew. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

After the show is over. And life begins anew. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

*

Born and raised in New York City, Gavin Larsen has been immersed in ballet’s “bizarrely intuitive system” since she was 8 years old and began to study in the same studios where George Balanchine had created some of his finest ballets. She moved on to the School of American Ballet, and a long career performing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Alberta Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and as a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Since retiring from the stage in 2010, she has taught and written extensively for Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Pointe, Oregon ArtsWatch, The Threepenny Review, the literary journal KYSO Flash, and elsewhere.