William Forsythe

Wit, speed, a blast from the past

Oregon Ballet Theatre lights the fireworks with Forsythe, Balanchine, and the dazzling return of Dennis Spaight's 1990 "Scheherazade"

From the sharp angles of William Forsythe’s  In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated to the lavish curves of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, Oregon Ballet Theatre celebrated the company’s 30th anniversary on Saturday night  with technical fireworks, wit, drama, and the speed, energy, and adaptability that are the hallmarks of American dancers.   

George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which contains much of the source material for Forsythe’s once-radical ballet, was the equally elevated middle piece on this highly charged sampler of works exemplifying three of the creative forces that made ballet American. The third force is Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the ways in which choreographers such as Spaight and OBT’s current resident choreographer, Nicolo Fonte (e.g. his Petrouchka),  reacted to that tradition.

It’s brilliant programming, and OBT Artistic Director Kevin Irving is to be commended for it. Each ballet is a gift to the audience, and a gift to the dancers as well, offering them opportunities to stretch and grow, hone their technique, and refine their artistry, starting with the curtain-raising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. This was Irving’s calling card, as a German critic once put it, referring to another artistic director’s vision for a different ballet company.  In this instance, Forsythe’s 1987 ballet, replete with revved-up classical shapes and steps mixed with insouciant, natural walking and standing, represents perfectly Irving’s vision of a contemporary ballet company supported at the box office by evening-length story ballets.   

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Brian Simcoe in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME when I saw the company premiere of Forsythe’s work two years ago that Middle’s  relentless, high-tension propulsion of dancers across the stage, with only the walking and standing  giving dancers and audience a chance to breathe,  provides the same opportunities for bravura turns as the second act of, gulp, The Nutcracker, which will return for its annual run at OBT in December, or The Sleeping Beauty, to be seen in February.  The difference, of course, is musical: Thom Willems’s score for In the Middle ain’t pretty and it tells no stories. But as several critics have pointed out, the pounding rhythms demand as much precision from the dancers as the arias in Violin Concerto or the melodies in Scheherazade

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Giants 3, masterpieces 1

Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Giants" program promises big things. Only Balanchine's "Serenade" fully delivers.

What makes a ballet a masterpiece?

George Balanchine’s Serenade, the first work on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s  “Giants” program, which I saw at the Keller auditorium on Saturday night, set me thinking about that. Because, in my view, it is the only masterpiece on a program that also included William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and the premiere of OBT resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s Giants Before Us.

Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for String Orchestra, premiered in 1935, following a preview on the Warburg estate in 1934, and was the first ballet Balanchine made on American dancers.  It is at once a  tribute  to his own training in pre-revolutionary Russia at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, and the cornerstone  of the new American classicism that Lincoln Kirstein charged him with developing.

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, Jacquelin Straughan in "Serenade." Photo: Yi Yin

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, Jacquelin Straughan in “Serenade.” Photo: Yi Yin

Balanchine liked to use cooking as a metaphor when speaking about his work.  The version of Serenade that OBT’s dancers are performing—and damned well—was slow-cooked for three decades, the fourth movement of the score inserted in 1941, the lovely, flowing costumes replacing unbecoming tunics in 1950, the master chef adding ingredients and correcting the seasoning, if you will, until the mid-’60s. Balanchine changed his ballets all the time, of course, adjusting steps to suit the dancers who performed them over the years, or, more often, to challenge them to jump higher, spin faster, travel farther.

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And suddenly it’s October. Among other things – pumpkin patches, Yom Kippur, the World Series, Halloween – that means we’re two days from First Thursday, Portland’s monthly gallery hop of new shows. This week’s visual art calendar is a doozy, from open studios to Warhol with lots between.

A few of the highlights:

James Lavadour Ruby II, 2016 oil on panel 32" x 48"

James Lavadour, “Ruby II,” 2016, oil on panel, 32″ x 48.” PDX Contemporary.

James Lavadour at PDX Contemporary. It’s always a good day when new work by Lavadour, the veteran landscape expressionist from Pendleton, comes to town. This show, called Ledger of Days, furthers his exploration of the land and its mysteries. “A painting is a structure for the extraordinary and informative events of nature that are otherwise invisible,” he writes. “A painting is a model for infinity.” Lavadour is also one of the moving forces behind Pendleton’s innovative and essential Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Watch for what’s coming up.

The new Russo Lee Gallery: 30 years. What you’ve known for years as Laura Russo Gallery is celebrating three decades with a showing of new work by its distinguished stable of artists – and with a new name. The name is a fusion of the gallery’s long tradition and current reality. After founder Laura Russo died in 2010, her longtime employee Martha Lee bought the business and continues to operate it. This show promises to be a statement of sorts, and will have a catalog available.

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Everyday Ballerina 7: Orange

In part seven of a twelve-part series, Gavin Larsen joins a mob of dancers dressed in Creamsicle colors onstage. Freedom overcomes mortification.

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. Part 7 of “Everyday Ballerina”: Orange.

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By GAVIN LARSEN

I am clad entirely in orange. From my neck to my ankles and out to my wrists, I am orange. On my feet are little white anklet socks with sticky non-slip pads on the bottoms. I am about to go onstage to perform in a ballet by the great choreographer William Forsythe, and I am mortified.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

I hide. For as long as possible, I stay alone in my dressing room. When the stage manager’s “PLACES, PLEASE!” bellows through the loudspeaker, I scurry down a flight of slippery concrete stairs and take cover in the darkness of backstage, where, in the last seconds before the curtain goes up, the work lights have been killed.

I have company, though they are not all are as bashful as I am, or they cover it with bravado. Twenty-some-odd orange people have assembled onstage, where the jokesters flaunt their Creamsicle costumes as if to prove their superiority over this indignity. We’re an asexual bunch, a classless mob, and— almost— lawless. Men and women are exactly the same. The braggarts, the machos, the petite ladies, the newbies and the seniors, we’re all glommed together for effect. The sight of the coolest, most unflappable guys in the company swaggering around in pumpkin orange suits and little white socks is hilarious— ridiculous!— enough to shake me out of my funk, but I still want to cover my behind. The snarkiest fellow of all stands right in front of me in our opening formation, a huge V shape that takes up the entire stage. He keeps sarcastic comments and rude jokes coming, under his breath, every time I’m in earshot.

Gavin Larsen warming up, dressed in whatever color she wants. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Gavin Larsen warming up, dressed in whatever color she wants. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

This ballet is controlled anarchy. We appear, to the audience, to be moving in preordained choreographic patterns, but much of what we do is a sort of structured improvisation. We have a leader. She is the woman, very small, standing with her back to the audience, smack on center, as far downstage as possible without falling backwards into the orchestra pit. She is not one of us— she is not in orange, but instead is as fully contrasted as can be. Muddy gray paint covers every inch of her body, including her face and hair and fingernails. A leotard, also covered in the drabbest dark grayish brown paint, is all she wears. She is barefoot.

This Muddy Woman is, discreetly, giving us cues, and clues. She signals us with sharp, semaphore-like arm movements, and we have to immediately mimic her with no discernible delay. She continues in whatever pattern she wants, as long as she wants, until her “end” cue sends us— the orange mob— running as fast and un-balletically as we can to a new formation. We’re not dancers. We are, literally, human scenery, and at certain times, percussion. We’ve been instructed to run without a care for grace or lightness, to pound our feet into the floor and hurtle ourselves through space (thus the non-slip pads on our socks). The wings have been lifted up to the flies of the theater, out of the audience’s view, so the stage appears endless, an infinity pool. There is no back, no sides, no ceiling. As we race from edge to edge of the vast space making diagonals, Xs, Vs, going from shapeless clumps to sardine-tight lines, flopping on our stomachs and then jumping up into Marine formation, the principals are dancing amongst us. Their choreography is the antithesis of ours. It’s en pointe, tightly wound and even more tightly stretched, stressful and wiry and taut, highly technical. The principals disappear from time to time, melting into our mass as we swallow them up in a swarm. The lighting is dark and shadowy, ominous, and our orange-ness pops out startlingly.

In the lights, colors shift. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

In the lights, colors shift. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The Muddy Woman moves with us, or ahead of us, running from spot to spot, but she must always be visible to every orange person on stage. When we form a gigantic box rimming the stage, no one may turn their head to see her. Noses straight ahead, eyes peeking to the side, we copy the movements as seen from a 90-degree angle, mentally translating them to our own bodies with insane speed. Those facing her have the easy job of being her mirror image. The Muddy Woman begins to move faster— though in rehearsals, we pleaded with her not to. Furiously trying to keep up, groans of frustration and nervous giggles start to be heard all around, but the recorded music is so loud it more than covers our eruptions. Just as we become frantic and hover on the edge of falling too far behind, revealing our individuality, the Muddy Woman signals us to halt and regroup. At one point, she steps out of the way for the “Sprint-Race”: at a razor-straight starting line, we’re crammed, shoulders overlapping shoulders, along one side of the stage, from front to back, too many of us to comfortably fit. As the violin solo reaches a specific high note, each of us silently begins chanting a rhythmic recitation of the months of the year. January…February…March…April… When the month of your birthday is reached, you’re off— tearing as fast as you can to the finish line on the opposite side of the stage, where the earlier birthdays with their headstart advantage have already won.

There’s more shape-shifting, then, including a spell of lying flat on our backs staring straight up into the flies. We lie in two staggered rows, bodies roughly aligned chessboard style, our heads pointing downstage so the audience sees only the tops of our heads. Our arms become visible, too, because now we get to pick and choose our own favorite gestures from the Muddy Woman’s vocabulary, doing as many or as few as we like, fast or slow or not at all (a few mavericks lie motionless, adding empty space to the collage we’re making). Arms that are in motion must stay perpendicular to our bodies, and to the floor, so the effect is of random, spiky spears jabbing the air. Every move has to be staccato and angular; our hands must stay perfectly flat, with fingers glued together like spatulas. Or knives. I’m beginning to enjoy the freedom of being one in a herd, and the bravery of being anonymous.

An orange dance of a different stripe: Paul Klee, "Senecio," 1922, oil on canvas, 15.9 x 15 inches, Kunstsmuseum Basel, Switzerland

An orange dance of a different stripe: Paul Klee, “Senecio,” 1922, oil on canvas, 15.9 x 15 inches, Kunstsmuseum Basel, Switzerland

By the end, our volume overwhelms everything. We’re released from the Muddy Woman’s spontaneous commands and take over control of the stage. There are no traffic patterns anymore as each of us carves our own road around and around, zig-zagging or not, any which way and at any speed we choose. Nearly fifty pairs of arms manically chop and slice as we stride about; there are near-misses and some full-on collisions. Each orange person is their own master now. We rule together, but alone, isolated without words— and invisible in front of 2,000 people.

My timidity returns the moment the curtain falls. I am just another body, clad all in orange.

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TOMORROW: The Human Monolith. “Some people sweat a lot more than others, and even those who are not heavy sweaters begin to pour and drip as soon as extreme exertion is finished and they are slowly, stealthily, creeping and crawling and oozing their way across the stage to become part of a huge, undulating, slimy mass of dancers twister-ing themselves into the towering pile of limbs we called the Human Monolith.”

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PREVIOUSLY:

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

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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.

A fresh ‘R&J,’ a fling with the giants

Oregon Ballet Theatre announces a new season of big projects, and finishes a "Romeo and Juliet" with a revelatory performance by Ansa Deguchi

Oregon Ballet Theatre unveiled a highly ambitious 2016-2017 season on the stage of the Keller Auditorium last Thursday, with the umbrella title of Giants. The audience of (mostly) board members, funders and supporters was seated on folding chairs that had been set up in front of the sets for Romeo and Juliet. During executive director Dennis Buehler’s state of the company introduction (debt retired, new building up and running, school expanded, last year’s Nutcracker and current run of Romeo and Juliet sold out) artistic director Kevin Irving sat perched on the base of Juliet’s balcony.

After giving some ballet history Cliff Notes, Irving announced an October surprise. Two of them, actually. The fall opener includes George Balanchine’s Serenade, which makes me very happy, since I hadn’t expected to see Balanchine’s work done here again, except for The Nutcracker. The company has done Balanchine’s first ballet made in America (for students, in 1934) in 1999 and 2001 under the directorship of Canfield, and again in 2004; the students in OBT’s School danced it in 2013, when Damara Bennett was school director. Current company members Jordan Kindell and Kelsie Nobriga danced it as students.

OBT dancers perform an excerpt from Balanchine's "Serenade" at the season unveiling: from left Kimberly Nobriga, Katherine Monogue, Candace Bouchard, Jessica Lind, Paige Wilke. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

OBT dancers perform an excerpt from Balanchine’s “Serenade” at the season unveiling: from left Kimberly Nobriga, Katherine Monogue, Candace Bouchard, Jessica Lind, Paige Wilke. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The second surprise, and it was a big one, was William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a real killer in technical terms—warp speed doesn’t even begin to describe the pace—to an electronic score by Thom Willems. Not that OBT hasn’t done Forsythe before: Christopher Stowell introduced this choreographer, sometimes labeled as post-neo-classical, to Portland audiences by programming The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and The Second Detail during his tenure as artistic director. The latter is an extremely challenging work in which Xuan Cheng was a knockout, but In the Middle is going to need massive amounts of rehearsal time for the company to pull it off.

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