Xuan Cheng

MusicWatch Weekly: A song and a dance

Irish songs, Latinx bienestar, Balkan Brass, Viking musicians, and the return of Federale

As the great Pacific singer, dancer, composer, percussionist, instrument builder, and calligraphist Lou Harrison loved reminding us, “music is basically a song and a dance.” This week’s selections might be all over the genre map–cumbia psicodélica; twisty Balkan brass; rowdy cinematic rock and other local uncategorizables; clarinets and percussion and laptops; songs from Ireland and World War I; a siege catapult’s worth of jazz–but all of it hews to this basic formula. Sing. Dance. Repeat.

You’re probably going to get snowed in with the cats and the chessboard next week, so now’s your chance to clear your throat, lace up your red shoes, and get into some music.

Tonight, tonight, tonight

We already talked about Blue Cranes and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in November’s monthly column, so hopefully you’ve already bought tickets and hired a babysitter. In case you haven’t, this is your reminder that their Siege of Cranes concert, featuring the tight-knit BC quintet and PJCE’s eight-piece horn section, is happening tonight at Holocene. Get on it, Portland.

You could go up to T.C. O’Leary’s on Northeast Alberta to hear Irish folk songs–and even sing along if the mood strikes you–every month. But the special guests on tonight’s Oíche na namhrán (“night of song”) deserve a mention: Uilleann piper Preston Howard Wilde and harpist Elizabeth Nicholson will join regular host Michael Steen-Orr for tonight’s shindig. No doubt the harp in question is the lovely diatonic variety used by Taliesen and Dolphin Midwives, and that’ll be sweet–but it’s those pipes we’re curious about. You’re probably picturing the noisy bagpipes of countless cheap jokes, but these are different; sweeter, gentler, more Irish. Have a listen to Wilde right now and tell me you don’t want to go order up a Jameson’s and sing along.

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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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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.

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DanceWatch: Xuan Cheng and Ye Li’s ballet academy.

This week a performance by the students of a new Beaverton ballet school and a busy schedule of concerts

Did you know that Xuan Cheng (a Principal Dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre) and her husband Ye Li (a soloist with OBT from 2011-2015) co-direct their own ballet school in Beaverton? They do! It’s called Oregon International Ballet Academy (OIBA) and they are performing this weekend, one classical work and one brand new contemporary ballet choreographed by Li.

Jamuna Chiarini

I just discovered their school this week in a last-minute search online before writing this week’s DanceWatch. It’s one thing to be a performer, but it’s a whole other ball of wax when performing artists, who have spend the majority of their careers bringing other people’s artistic vision to life, venture out on their own, creating work in their own voices. Watching a rehearsal video of Li’s new work sparked my curiosity, and I had to learn more. Cheng, Li, and I met briefly for coffee during Xuan’s lunch break from OBT, and we talked about their dance life, their history together, the new school, and the new work.

The OIBA students will be performing the Second Act of Swan Lake, staged by Cheng and adapted from Lev Ivanov’s choreography, and a world premiere by Li called Black and White at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall this Saturday night. They will be joined by 18 student musicians from the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, directed by Raúl Gómez, with costumes designed by Annika Schindler, a costume fabricator for LAIKA. Cheng and OBT Principal Dancer Brian Simcoe will be guest performing as well, courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre. The set design for Black and White includes a series of different-sized black and white boxes that the dancers engage with rhythmically, and the costumes have been created to evoke a sense of time, which is the constant, and the elegance of Victorian times.

Artistic Director Xuan Cheng working with her students at Oregon International Ballet Academy. Photo by Yi Yin.

Cheng and Li joined OBT in 2011 when they were hired by Christopher Stowell after one audition. They loved Portland right away and were very happy to call it home. Prior to OBT, they both danced for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and Cheng danced for La La La Human Steps. They both danced for GuangZhou Ballet in China straight out of ballet school—she became a principal dancer with the company and he a soloist.

Between the two of them there is a lifetime of experience of training and dancing ballet’s classics, as well as the works of many well-known contemporary choreographers, including William Forsythe, Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin, Jirí Kylián, Mats Ek, Mauro Bigonzetti, Christian Spuck, Christopher Stowell, and Nicolo Fonte.

When they first came to Portland, the Chinese community was very excited and proud to see Chinese dancers performing with Oregon Ballet Theatre and asked if they would teach their children. At that point they were still focused on their performing careers with OBT and weren’t able to devote the time they would like to teaching. But as time passed, Cheng started volunteering and creating small pieces for different community shows. She found that there was a big need for them and was drawn to teaching. She and Li both felt strongly that it was important to pass on their experience to the next generation and decided to open a school.

They opened Oregon International Ballet Academy in 2015, and it now has approximately 50 students. Cheng is still performing full time with OBT and teaches ballet classes in the evening, and Li retired from performing in 2015 to run the school full time.

Young dancers at the Oregon International Ballet Academy. Photo by Yi Yin.

When we met, Cheng said that teaching and running a school was satisfying. “It’s different than dancing,” she said “I feel like my life is actually very balanced. Before, I only knew ballet, ballet, ballet. Ballet is everything in my whole life. And as a dancer it’s always me, me, me, me. So during teaching it’s actually made me a better dancer. I’m also learning from the kids, too.”

She says she is treasuring her time dancing in the studio much more these days now that she has a thousand other things to focus on when she leaves at the end of the day. “It’s made my life more full and not so one sided,” she said.

When I asked about how the two of them work together, Cheng said, “It’s very challenging but we help each other. Our whole life since we met, we’re dancing together, we are always helping each other. We help each other grow and become a better person, we’re honest with each other. Sometimes we have to really say it, touch the pain. In Chinese we have a saying, it’s like the good medicine is the bitterest.” They have known each other since 1998, were each other’s first love, and married two years ago.

Ballet students at the Oregon International Ballet Academy. Photo by Yi Yin.

They want to teach their students the connections between the ballet steps and the stage, and teach the why of it all. They want to teach them curiosity and to become active participants in the process. They want more for their students than just performing and smiling and looking pretty on stage. They want to involve the students in the creative process.

The new work by Li, Black and White, is based on an idea that came from his mother. “My mom always said when a baby is born, we are like a white paper, white colors, you put a color on there. Black is a bad thing you did. You punched the cat. You did a bad thing, You put the black color on your paper. You hug somebody, you make somebody happy, then you add another color. So basically that’s your life. So the idea is at the end, we’re going to have a lot of colorful stuff, a lot of painting on the white paper. No matter what kind of stuff you do, when you look back, those colors are what you did, or your memories.”

Li’s new work features live music with compositions by David Long, ERA, Samuel Barber, Ezio Bosso, Raul Gomez-Rojas, and Li himself, who originally wanted to be a violinist. His mother wanted him to be a dancer.

The performance also holds a few surprises, especially in reference to Li’s mother’s metaphor.

Performances this week

Diva Practice (Solo) at the Risk/Reward Festival 2017.  Photo by Chelsea Petrakis.

Diva Practice (Solo)
Pepper Pepper
November 2-November 5
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St.
November 2 Post-Show Q+A talk back with Pepper Pepper
November 2-3 performances have ASL Interpretation

Diva Practice (Solo), is the last leg in a three-part cycle created by multidisciplinary artist Pepper Pepper who works in performance, drag, theatre, and dance.

“Diva Practice is a research project about drag and contemporary performance as a solo, duet, and ensemble,” Pepper says. “Diva Practice is a performance about queens dancing in the face of uncertainty, because being fabulous takes practice.”

I asked Pepper in an email interview what uncertainty queens have to face. Pepper said that “uncertainty is a political, choreographic, and emotional narrative throughout the show.” Using “improvisation and video interactivity” it places the character in uncertain situations where choice, impulse, and intention combine to illustrate her “practice.”

The making of Diva Practice (Solo), happened through a series of residencies, performances, and a tour through Oregon, Louisiana, Maine, Texas, and Georgia that “make accomplices of the audience and initiate conversation around gender, power, and vulnerability.”

“The diva practice research tour allowed me to experiment and practice with live audiences across the US,” Pepper said. “In a way, the practice became performing the show as a live rehearsal. This informs the ethos of the show, which is radical acceptance and discernment. The tour was also a way for me to see drag and diva worship in many different states which influenced my choreography and frame of mind.”

I interviewed Pepper back in 2016 close to the debut of D.I.V.A. Practice in Pepper Pepper explains D.I.V.A. Practice.

Polaris Dance Theatre dancers in Avalanche. Photo courtesy of Polaris Dance Theatre.

Avalanche
Polaris Dance Theatre, artistic director Robert Guitron
November 2-10
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave.

Creating an arch between Prince, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in this dance/music tribute, Polaris artistic director Robert Guitron plays with themes that were central to these artists—gender identity, diversity, sexuality, racism, spirituality, and fashion—in an evening work for thirteen dancers.

PDX Contemporary Ballet dancers attempting to read while dancing in Converge. Don’t try this at home. Photo courtesy of Briley Neugebauer.

Converge
PDX Contemporary Ballet, directed by Briley Neugebauer
November 3-5
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St.

In this collaborative project, PDX Contemporary Ballet, which thrives on experimentation in ballet, has combined spoken word and contemporary ballet choreography to expand the storytelling power of both by pairing Portland choreographers with Portland writers.

The pairings are: BodyVox dancer/choreographer Alicia Cutaia and Fox and Beggar Theater Director Nat Allister; ballet dancer/choreographer Micah Chermak and poet Milly Wallace; Briley Neugebauer (artistic director of PDX Contemporary Ballet) and playwright Claire Willett; and Neugebauer and poet Lorelei O’Connor.

Due to a generous donation, PDX Contemporary Ballet is offering $5 and $10 tickets on opening night.

A moment from Linda Austin’s solo Big Real from 2004. Photo courtesy of Performance Works NW.

ICONIC
A fundraiser performance presented by Performance Works NW
7:30 pm and 9:30 pm November 4
Performance Works NW/Linda Austin Dance, 4625 SE 67th Ave.

Celebrating 17 years of engaging artists and audiences in “the process of experimentation, creation and dialog around the presentation of contemporary performance,” Performance Works NW directed by dance artist Linda Austin and lighting designer Jeff Forbes present Iconic, a fundraiser performance of 18 short works by community of artists inspired by photographic prompts highlighting memorable PWNW performance from 2000-2017.

The evening promises revelry and refreshments, and all proceeds go to supporting the awesome PWNW programming.

EARLY SHOW: 7:30pm
Linda Austin and the Boris & Natasha Dancers (Michael Chambers, Tom DeBeauchamp, Ben Martens), Gregg Bielemeier, Catherine Egan, Allie Hankins, Linda K. Johnson, Meg McHutchison, Kelly Rauer & claire barrera, edward sharp, and Lu Yim & keyon gaskin

LATE SHOW: 9:30pm
Tracy Broyles, Jeff Donaldson-Forbes, Maggie Heath, Seth Nehil, John Niekrasz, Stephanie Lavon Trotter, Leah Wilmoth with Alanna Hoyman-Browe & Simone Wood, Takahiro Yamamoto & Roland Dahwen Wu, and James Yeary.

Dancers Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe. Photo by Yi Yin.

Swan Lake Act 2 and Black and White (world premiere)
Oregon International Ballet Academy, directed by Xuan Cheng and Ye Li
Swan Lake Act II, Stage by Xuan Cheng after Lev Ivanov, World Premiere: Black and White, Contemporary Ballet Choreography by Ye Li
Featuring Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe, guest dancers from Oregon Ballet Theater,
OIBA students, and live music by members of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Music Director Raúl Gómez
7:30 pm November 4
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.

See above.

Performances Next Week

November 9-12, When We, Allie Hankins & Rachael Dichter, a PWNW Alembic Co-Production
November 11, A-WOL Dance Collective 15th Anniversary Celebration
November 15, The Hip Hop Nutcracker Featuring MC Kurtis Blow, Decadancetheatre
November 15, Horizon3 in collaboration with RAW PORTLAND, Brynn Hofer, Gerard Regot, and Melanie Verna

Upcoming Performances

November
November 16-18, L-E-V, presented by White Bird
November 18, Mood Factory, Hosted by Dan Reed Miller and Ben Martens
November 24-26, The Enchanted Toyshop by John Clifford, Tourbillon by Anne Mueller, performed by the PSU Orchestra and The Portland Ballet
November 26, The Taming Of The Shrew, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
November 30-December 9, Lexicon (world premiere), BodyVox

December
December 7-9, Bolero + Billie, Ihsan Rustem, NW Dance Project
December 8-9, The Nutcracker with Chamber Ballet of Corvallis, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
December 9-24, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, Oregon Ballet Theatre
December 13-17, a world, a world (work-in-progress), Linda Austin Dance, PWNW
December 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance, Crystal Jiko, Tere Mathern, Madison Page, Wolfbird Dance
December 17, The Nutcracker, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
December 22-24, The Nutcracker with Orchestra Next, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene

January

January 12, Love Heals All Wounds, Lil’ Buck and Jon Boogz, Presented by Portland’5 Center for the Arts
January 18-28, Fertile Ground Festival of New Work/Groovin’ Greenhouse
January 25-27, Rennie Harris Puremovement, presented by White Bird
January 28, Garden of Earthly Delights with Salem Concert Band (World premiere), Rainbow Dance Theatre, Independence

February
February 1-10, The skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, presented by BodyVox
February 4, The Lady Of The Camellias, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
February 17-18, Pink Martini, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
February 21, Mark Morris Dance Group, presented by White Bird
February 23-25, Configure, PDX Contemporary Ballet
February 24-March 4, Alice (in wonderland), choreography by Septime Webre, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre

March
March 1-3, Urban Bush Women, presented by White Bird
March 4, The Flames Of Paris, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
March 8-10, Jessica Lang Dance, presented by White Bird
March 14, Compañia Jesús Carmona, presented by White Bird
March 15-17, World Premiere’s by Sarah Slipper and Cayetano Soto, NW Dance Project
March 22-24, To Have It All, choreography by Katie Scherman, presented by BodyVox

April
April 4, iLumiDance, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5, Earth Angel and other repertory works, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5-7, Stephen Petronio Company, presented by White Bird
April 8, Giselle, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
April 12-14, Contact Dance Film Festival, presented by BodyVox and Northwest Film Center
Apr 14-25, Peer Gynt with Orchestra Next, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
April 12-21, Man/Woman, choreography by Mikhail Fokine, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Nicolo Fonte, James Canfield, Jiří Kylián, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 19-28, Early, push/FOLD, choreographed and directed by Samuel Hobbs
April 20-29, X-Posed, Polaris Dance Theatre, Robert Guitron
April 24-25, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, presented by White Bird
April 24-25, The Wind and the Wild, BodyVox and Chamber Music Northwest

May
May 4-5, Current/Classic, The Portland Ballet
May 10-12, New work premiere, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Western Oregon University, Monmouth
May 10-19, Rain & Roses (world premiere), BodyVox
May 11-13, Compose, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 16, Ballet Hispȧnico, presented by White Bird
May 23-June 3, Closer, original works by the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre

June
June 8-10, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 10, Coppelia, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
June 14-16, World Premiere – Ihsan Rustem, MemoryHouse – Sarah Slipper, NW Dance Project
June 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance
June 24, Salem World Beat, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Salem

 

Swan Lake? Yes and no.

With its new version told through the experiences of the Prince, Oregon Ballet Theatre's production feels like something else

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new Swan Lake, with a reconceived libretto by artistic director Kevin Irving, opened at the Keller Auditorium last Saturday night. The house was filled with the usual suspects, as well as a gratifying number of young people, including a few little girls in party dresses.

With choreography by Irving, resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, and OBT School director Anthony Jones (after Petipa/Ivanov); and Filippo Sanjust’s set (to which a smithy has been added by designer Bill Anderson); this production certainly looks like Swan Lake. But it doesn’t quite feel like it.

I would attribute that partly to the incoherent libretto and partly to the crazy quilt of bits and pieces of choreography and characters from other ballets OBT has performed, specifically Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli, Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, and Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

OBT’s Peter Franc as Prince Siegfried, lakeside with the swans. Photo: Emily Nash

Since its premiere in Moscow in 1877 – and as have many of the ballets in the classical canon – Swan Lake has been adjusted, recast, torqued, tweaked, and completely transformed to reflect the points of view of those who restage it and the cultural environments in which it is performed. There is no set in stone text for Swan Lake, and I am not a Swan Lake fundamentalist — I quite love Matthew Bourne’s version, set in 20th century London, with an all-male swan corps and keyed, sort of, to the British royal family. And in fact, Petipa himself was the first to make major changes in the libretto, in 1895, and that remains the one with which audiences are most familiar.

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Age before (and beside) beauty

Nicolo Fonte's "Beautiful Decay" for Oregon Ballet Theatre eloquently reflects on youth and age

“Crabbèd age and youth cannot live together,” a poem attributed to William Shakespeare tells us.

That may be, but they sure as hell can dance together, and damned well, as sixtysomething guest artists Gregg Bielemeier, Susan Banyas and the energetic, fleet members of Oregon Ballet Theatre showed us Thursday night in the company premiere of  Nicolo Fonte’s  lovely ballet Beautiful Decay.

The evening-length work, originally made for Philadelphia’s BalletX, concludes the company’s twenty-sixth season with an eight-performance run at the Newmark Theatre, this weekend and next.

Guest artist Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier in "Beautiful Decay." Photo: Yi Yin

Guest artist Susan Banyas and Gregg Bielemeier in “Beautiful Decay.” Photo: Yi Yin

From Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli, which was the second half of OBT’s fall opener,  to Balanchine’s Nutcracker and James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, this has been a season of story ballets, and Beautiful Decay not only carries a narrative thread tied to the life cycle and the (expletive deleted) aging process, it also includes some of the conventions to be found in what ballet historians often refer to as the big three: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty, all with music by Tchaikovsky. Beautiful Decay is set to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, contemporary composer Max Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed, and a few pop songs composed by Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds.

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OBT: after 25, a leap into the future

The ballet's vigorous school shows and season-ending company performances balance new and old directions

“And how do we keep our balance?  I can tell you in one word, it’s tradition.”

I thought of those lines as I watched 14 would-be ballerinas – backs straight, heads held high, some in yellow tutus, some in red – make their imperial entrance onto the stage of the Newmark Theatre to take their places late last month in Paquita,  the opening piece of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary showcase. The show, which had two matinee performances, was, as it should have been, very much a part of the company’s silver anniversary celebrations. Those celebrations conclude May 28 with a fundraiser at the Left Bank Annex on North Weidler Street, near the east end of the Broadway Bridge. And they could well include an unofficial bonus: As it enters into its second quarter-century, OBT is expected to announce very soon its long-awaited plans to move into a new office, studio, and rehearsal center.

Sarah Griffin leaps high in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Sarah Griffin in Nacho Duato’s “Rassemblement.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof address Jewish survival in the pogrom-driven Russia in 1905, a matter of human and cultural life and death.  The cultural part of that can also be applied to the survival of classical ballet in the United States in 2015, where Oregon Ballet Theatre, which was born in 1989, is scarcely the only company finding it difficult to stay afloat. If Ballet San Jose, for example, doesn’t raise $3.5 million by October, the 29-year-old company is likely to close its doors forever, and where have we heard that before?

Paquita, Marius Petipa’s 1881 arrangement of the pas de deux and divertissements from the 1846 French story ballet about an officer in Napoleon’s army whose life is saved by a gypsy girl (she’s not Carmen!), fairly oozes the traditional set pieces we associate with the same choreographer’s trinity of ballets set to Tchaikowsky.  These are The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake, for which Petipa choreographed Acts I and III, and Lev Ivanov Acts II and IV.  OBT has danced all three ballets in various versions in the past 25 years, and currently has George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in the repertoire. Throughout that time, SOBT students have been integral to fleshing out the corps de ballet, and the performance of children’s roles.

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Every SOBT director has been responsible for passing on the torch of tradition, schooling his or her charges in the tour jetés, pas de chats, pirouettes, bourrées, fouettés and port de bras of l’École de la Danse, whose language is French, but can be, and is, “spoken” in a variety of accents, from the finish and flourish of Russian style, to the speed and directness of Balanchine’s neoclassicism. The Danes dance these steps with the ease and buoyancy of Bournonville; the British with controlled theatricality; the French with arrogant chic; and today’s Americans in whatever accent the repertoire requires. Each school director (the principal ones have been Haydee Gutierrez, brought in by James Canfield, and Damara Bennett, who came and went with Christopher Stowell) has worked closely with OBT’s artistic directors to prepare students to dance in whatever repertoire reflects  their particular vision. Now, Anthony Jones, who staged Paquita, leads SOBT in tandem with Kevin Irving, OBT’s third artistic director.

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