White Bird opener: It was a dark and moody night

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet kicks off White Bird's season with an oddly monochromatic program

Photo: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Photo: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Dark, very dark. That’s what the oddly monochromatic programming was when Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a company of smart, young, very talented dancers, opened White Bird’s 2013-2014 season at the Schnitz with a single show on Wednesday night.

Each of the three pieces began on a darkened stage, starting with Cayetano Soto’s “Beautiful Mistake,” which opened with a slow walk by a single dancer that was almost the only traveling through space in the piece. Soto, a Spaniard who lives in Munich and has been commissioned in the past by Portland’s Northwest Dance Project, manipulates the dancers’ beautiful, muscular bodies like a chiropractor, or a child playing with one of those rubbery dolls.

There is a lot of heavy lifting, giving the incredibly buff men plenty of opportunities to flex their muscles and the women many chances to extend their shapely arms and legs. Sculptural posing is also a major part of the choreography, all done to an appropriately monotonous score by Olafur Arnalds and Charles Wilson. “Beautiful Mistake” does not have the dehumanizing, relentless pace of the work of some of Soto’s contemporaries (Jorma Elo comes immediately to mind), but his experiments with physicality and physique offer little if any room for individual expression. Ultimately, the piece is about as interesting as a body-building contest.

“Where does all this focus on lifts come from?” Damien Jack, my seatmate, asked me as the curtain rang down on Soto’s final pose. One answer became readily apparent shortly after the dancers began Jiri Kylian’s elegiac “Return to a Strange Land,” made the year Soto was born. But Kylian isn’t obsessed by the lifts. They are an integral part of what the ballet is about: an homage to John Cranko, director of the Stuttgart Ballet, where Kylian’s career as a dancer and choreographer began, and who died in a plane crash in 1973.

The ballet — and it is a ballet: the women wear point shoes — is a skillfully crafted series of trios and duets, eloquently danced by Katherine Bolaños, Craig Black, Samantha Klanac Campanile, Peter Franc, Nolan DeMarco McGahan and Joseph Watson, to a score by Kylian’s Czech compatriot Leos Janacek. I found myself moved by the second pas de deux, which began somewhat combatively and contained a series of backward bourrées combined with a yearning port de bras that was an entirely believable expression of anger and grief. The piece ends with a tangle of three bodies, twisted like pretzels, not at all on a happy note.

Kylian was under thirty when he made “Return to a Strange Land,” but he knew his craft. The ballet has a beginning, a middle and an end, Janacek’s music providing what Trey McIntyre (who has also been commissioned by this company) has referred to as a “road map” for the choreography. Would that Norbert de la Cruz III, who like a quarter of Aspen/Santa Fe’s dancers is a graduate of Juilliard, class of 2010, had chosen one piece of music instead of a collage of dissonant electronic sound and glorious arias by George Frederic Handel to accompany “Square None,” his first commission. It, too, began on a darkened stage, spliced with shafts of gray light – hardly brightening the viewer’s mood, as closers are supposed to do. De la Cruz was born in the Philippines and grew up in Los Angeles, and some of his movement has the spiky edge of big-city living. It is also a less muscular piece than Soto’s, although there is a fair amount of sculptural posing. Some hand-wringing at the beginning of the piece gave it some interest, but why it was included remains as mysterious as the score.

When the Handel begins, the movement gets jauntier, livelier, and a little too close to being balletically cute, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Morris’s more lighthearted dances to baroque music, although Morris never makes fun of the music he loves. Nor does he treat the dancers, as de la Cruz does at the end of this piece, like the mechanical dolls that perch on top of music boxes. Using (and I mean using) dancers purely as instruments for choreography is, alas, part of a 21st century trend, particularly in ballet. Aspen/Santa Fe’s dancers deserve better, as their performance in Kylian’s work clearly showed.

This was, in fact, surprisingly bad programming. Company artistic director Tom Mossbrucker was a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet for many years — I saw him give a spectacularly evil performance in the title role of “Billy the Kid,” when the Joffrey toured here decades ago — and should know better than to put three moody pieces on the same program. Having said that, the audience doesn’t seem to have minded, delivering the traditional standing ovation and leaving the theater in a cheerful mood.

The evening began traditionally as well, with Paul King and Walter Jaffe giving a pre-curtain speech to welcome the audience to White Bird’s 16th anniversary season and let the audience know, in their words, that October will be dance month in Portland. Coming up next in their season is Compagnie Maguy Marin, for three performances starting October 10. It’s not likely to be light entertainment, but according to the brochure, she will “lead the audience through a journey of darkness and light,” and I happen to find her work fascinating. PSU’s Contemporary Dance Season was the first to present her here; White Bird brought her company several years ago. The Australians also arrive on our shores next month. Lucy Guerin’s company, which has performed in Portland a number of times, will be at Lincoln Hall October 17 to 19, and Sydney Dance returns October 23 to the Schnitz. Both companies do extremely interesting work.

Also in October, Oregon Ballet Theater opens October 12 for two weekends at the Keller, and Jaffe and King announced that Kevin Irving, OBT’s new artistic director, was in the Aspen/Santa Fe audience. Irving is likely to program Kylian’s work for OBT in the future, and I hope he does. Northwest Dance Project also opens its season in October, the 24th-26th, at Lincoln Performance Hall; and BodyVox reprises its Body Opera Files (to live rock music) October 10-26, in a new space for the spooky occasion (I had fun when I saw the premiere), the Northwest Industrial Warehouse. And that’s just for openers. More to come later in the season.

2 Responses.

  1. Roger says:

    Idiotic review of a fantastic performance by a fantastic company

    • admin says:

      The review isn’t idiotic. You disagree with it for reasons you didn’t choose to share with us (other than the adjective “fantastic”). We enjoy substantive responses in these parts.

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