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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 "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.   


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

Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng, Makino Hayashi, Jessica Lind, Peter Franc, Eva Burton, Thomas Baker, Emily Parker and Kimberly Fromm performed in In the Middle on Saturday night, making me see new things in a work I first saw in London in the early ’90s, with Sylvie Guillem in the role taken by Cheng here. While everyone danced well, Simcoe, who was cast in every piece on the program, was incredible in a solo in which he sent his limbs out into space like lances and bent his spine as if it had no bones.  Franc, who has danced with the classically oriented Houston Ballet and the contemporary Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet, visibly enjoyed meeting the challenges of a joint-separating solo that in the past has seemed to me to dehumanize the dancer, a trend in contemporary ballet I tend to dislike.  Not this time.

There are many visible links to exactly what Forsythe is deconstructing here. Among them: Cheng, picking her way across the stage on her pointes, like the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker; the shape of Simcoe’s jumps, one of which echoes Edward Villella’s in The Prodigal Son;  the way that Lind, who has just been promoted to soloist, deployed her gorgeous long limbs with the thrust and phrasing the music requires and the daring Balanchine so loved about American dancers.   


All Classical Radio James Depreist


The OBT company in George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto. Photo: Emily Nash

VIOLIN CONCERTO, WHOSE VERY DIFFERENT SCORE haunted Balanchine for decades, was made for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, and it is a clear, and lovely, summation of his long and fruitful—and how!—collaboration with the composer, and more. The minute the curtain rises on the bare stage, with the blue cyclorama backdrop and the five dancers in black and white practice clothes standing poised and ready to go, those of us who are privileged to have grown up with New York City Ballet at once say to ourselves: Agon, or maybe Four Temperaments, whose music is Paul Hindemith’s  rather than Stravinsky’s, but that was the first “black and white” ballet, once some unwieldy costumes got stripped away.   

There are two pas de deux in this ballet and each tells the story of a heterosexual relationship: the first one tense, and elegantly danced by Kelsie Nobriga and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair on Saturday; the second more tenderly performed by Lind and Simcoe, and widely believed to be about  Stravinsky’s marriage to Vera, his second wife. In her book Balanchine Variations, an indispensable guide to his ballets, Nancy Goldner quotes the composer telling the person who commissioned the score in 1931 that he wrote this music as an apology to his wife for infidelity with a long-time mistress.  Regardless, each of these duets can be placed easily in the continuum of previous ballets, specifically Agon and Four Temperaments.

I also spotted some shapes from Apollo, and the work also contains a hoedown for the whole cast that is reminiscent of Square Dance, danced to Baroque music, which OBT performed some years ago.  While there were one or two minor glitches opening night, the whole cast danced with sharp attack, and in that hoedown with considerable joie de vivre. OBT Orchestra concert master Nelly Kovalev’s playing of the violin solos was just plain gorgeous.


VIOLIN CONCERTO, A SO-CALLED ABSTRACT BALLET, contains some stories. Scheherazade IS a story, retold with dance and cloth and glitter and paint and lights – oh, those lights! – by Portland artists of several disciplines, because Spaight loved the Rimsky-Korsakov score;  Ric Young, of the fabled Storefront Theatre, had always wanted to “do” a ballet; easel painter Henk Pander, designer of many sets for modern dance, also wanted to design for ballet; and Peter West was and is, a genius with what we used to call the lighting board. 

When the curtain went up on Saturday night there was an audible gasp of pleasure from the audience as they beheld Pander’s golden-circled scrim, with Simcoe in the role of the Sultan, high on his throne watching Cheng as Scheherazade in her gold-pleated skirt and feathered headdress, and the harem girls in their jewel-toned skirts. Those skirts, all of the costumes in fact, are integral to the choreography in this grand entertainment that Irving, in his intermission speech, correctly I think called a masterpiece.


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Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc in Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, a ballet commissioned by OBT but not performed by it since 1993. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

I have never seen Scheherazade better-performed than it was on opening night, and that’s saying something.  James Canfield, who as OBT’s first artistic director commissioned the work, originated the role of the Golden Slave, and I really didn’t think anyone could match him. Franc came very close, putting his own stamp on this tragic hero, dancing with ardor and joy and despair. He and Simcoe are truly good at making their acting an organic part of their dancing, as is Cheng. In fact, the way in which OBT’s dancers embraced this work, their commitment to Spaight’s movement vocabulary—basically classical, but also influenced by his own early training as a gymnast, and for this particular ballet, by Young and his costumes, which have their own challenges—led to a performance that had the audience on its feet, cheering when the curtain rang down on Cheng, as the storyteller and heroine of her own story, following her own bier off stage. The artist may die; the art lives on.

It lives on, if it’s ballet, through the dancers, and in this instance, I want to toss some bouquets to every cast member, particularly the warriors, Baker, Brian Bennett, Adam Hartley, Christopher Kaiser, Marc LaPierre, Bailey Shaw and Theodor Watler, who as any of the originals would be happy to tell you had to fight the costumes as well as the Harem women in this feminist retelling of this tale from the Arabian Nights.  As for the Harem warriors—for warriors they are—I’d single out Makino Hayashi (actually in everything she danced on this program); Lind, once more; and newcomer Coco Alvarez-Mena in particular.

And ballet lives, because it’s passed on from generation to generation, through the stagers. Scheherazade had three: Carol Shults, who during Canfield’s tenure was company teacher and the creator of the Performance Perspectives now carried on by Linda Besant; Sandra Baldwin, who danced in many of Spaight’s ballets and was OBT’s education director; and Jennifer Martin, ballet master at the Eugene Ballet, who has staged Scheherazade for that company and for Oklahoma City Ballet. Canfield himself coached the lead couples (Ansa Capizzi and Pawlicki-Sinclair are the alternates).

As for the live orchestra accompaniment to Scheherazade and Violin Concerto, that makes all the difference, especially when, under the baton of Niel de Ponte, it’s performed as well and as attentively to the needs of the dancers as it was on Saturday night.  I’m still hearing Rimsky-Korsakov’s haunting melodies, and I don’t mind at all.

While I’m tossing bouquets here, I would like to thank Keith Martin for bringing Spaight to town in 1984 to be Ballet Oregon’s resident choreographer and a principal dancer, and Toni Pimble, artistic director of the Eugene Ballet, who was present in the audience opening night, for her own stewardship of this ballet—the company has performed it on two different seasons.

There are three more performances of a show that proclaims that OBT, after 30 years of ups and downs and turnarounds, is artistically flourishing. I think you don’t want to miss this show, but be sure to check casting before you go.



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ON A PERSONAL NOTE: In his speech before the curtain rose on Violin Concerto, Irving paid tribute to the Portland ballet legend Jacqueline Schumacher, who died on September 21, two months short of her 99th birthday. Irving cited the legions of students she taught ballet, many of whom went on to professional careers, reminding the audience that she was the first American Odette in the first American production of Swan Lake, and spoke of her passion for this art form. This made me remember the many performances at the Keller where I sat a few rows behind her, always aware of her straight-spined posture, alert, energized when she approved of the dancing and the choreography, somehow expressing impatience when she didn’t. In fact, Canfield once accused me of watching her when I should have been watching the performance, and I have to say he had a point.  You can’t second-guess the dead, but I think she would have loathed the Forsythe because of the music, but respected the choreography, and loved the Balanchine and Spaight. For more information about her, go to The Oregon Encyclopedia and read Shults’s entry on her.


  • Oregon Ballet Theatre’s season-opening program, titled collectively OBT ROAR(S), concludes with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Oct. 10-12, at Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.


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