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Dámaso Rodriguez and the politics of collaboration

Artist Repertory Theatre's new artistic director search found a partner

Dámaso Rodriguez

Dámaso Rodriguez

As if to lead by example, Artists Repertory Theatre last week named a replacement for its artistic director of 25 years last week, after a deliberate process that involved a representative chunk of its community in a months-long search.These things go so much better when your arts organization is in good shape, financially and artistically. And so we learned that Dámaso Rodriguez, 38, an actor and director from Los Angeles, who had applied for the job in April and visited the city a few times to talk to staff and board and patrons, would take over Allen Nause’s job.

Nause didn’t leave under bad terms. In fact, he’s still at the helm, where he’ll be for six months to help Rodriguez transition into the job and the city. And he participated in the selection process, which is fitting given his vast contribution to the company during the last quarter century, during which it evolved from one of many scrappy little theater companies in the city, operating out of a big upstairs room at the downtown YWCA, into Portland’s second-largest company, with its own building and two fine, intimate theaters that it fills with productions of a high order.

How did Artists Rep manage this transformation? Well, that’s a story of its own, a case study awaiting a researcher to detail the tens of thousands of decisions that were made along the way. Put simply, the company always operated in a very conservative way on the administrative side of things (to an exasperating extent for me at times, I have to admit), built its community and level of support over time, and allowed Nause and associate artistic director Jon Kretzu to program adventurously within their budget. And it understood that all of these things were linked at the deepest possible level.

It sounds so simple. But Rodriguez’s ascension to artistic director at Artists Rep was obscured by the travails of Oregon Ballet Theatre, where the artistic director, Christopher Stowell, just resigned over his board’s decision to impose a new budgeting discipline on the company. That’s a complicated story, too, of course. But it wouldn’t have happened at Artists Rep, not with Nause and his staff and board.

Yesterday, Bob Hicks and I talked to Rodriguez for a bit, and from that conversation I’m guessing that it wouldn’t happen with Rodriguez, either.

Continues…

‘King Hedley II’: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…

Portland Playhouse's intense production seizes August Wilson's most despairing play

Vin Shambry and Peter Macon in “King Hedley II” at Portland Playhouse/Brud Giles

King Hedley II has a long, nasty scar running down the side of his face and a scowl across his brow that is just about as nasty and just about as long.  As played by Peter Macon in Portland Playhouse’s fierce version of “King Hedley II,” King’s shoulders are wide, his arms are thick and his mind takes strange leaps from tenderness to violence and back again. Sometimes he’s the model of reasonableness, and at others, especially when he’s brandishing a machete, he’s untouched by reason at all.

So, yes, life with King isn’t easy for his wife Tonya or mother Ruby or even his pal Mister. Not that he threatens them directly, but when a dark mood overcomes him and he takes off through the gate at the back of the house, it’s impossible to guess what mayhem he’s about to unleash. He’s a hard man to trust.

He has his reasons. August Wilson’s plays are great at experimenting with the human psyche under extreme pressure, a tension he generates by catching it between racism and poverty, systematically removing hope plot complication by plot complication. But “King Hedley II” is especially dark, and King himself on the edge of disaster for the entire play. There’s no compromise in King or the play, and as it begins the great Wilson matriarch, Aunt Ester, has died. Wilson plays don’t come any sadder.

And so, when the grace notes occur—the little glints of light, the good old stories, the flights that take us and the other characters away from this dismal reality—they feel like a sudden breath of fresh air. Just don’t get used to them.

Continues…

No fooling: This time, ‘The Nutcracker’ is magical

As Oregon Ballet Theatre endures a crisis behind the scenes, the company glows onstage

Alison Roper as Dewdrop. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

It’s a long time, very, since I’ve been bewitched by a “Nutcracker” performance, though I have frequently been enchanted by individual dancers and the way in which such set pieces as Snow and the Waltz of the Flowers have been done.  And I still consider the Campbell Baird Imperial Russia-infused costume and set designs for James Canfield’s version at Oregon Ballet Theatre the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Having said that, last Saturday night OBT’s dancers performed George Balanchine’s “ The Nutcracker” with such joy and commitment — and musicality and fine-tuned, precise technique — that in some ways I felt I was seeing it for the first time.

That’s not just because of the bravura dancing in the second act, the divertissements that keep dedicated ballet viewers coming back year after year to see how well a company’s ballerinas (and I don’t use that term lightly; not everyone dancing in pointe shoes is a ballerina) perform Dewdrop, the Sugarplum Fairy or Coffee; or how the principal men dance Sugarplum’s Cavalier, or Hot Chocolate, or the unspeakably Orientalist Tea.

This ballet demands a lot more than musicality and technique from the dancers, at least in Balanchine’s version. The principal children (there are three: Marie, Fritz, and Drosselmeier’s nephew, who becomes the Nutcracker in Act 1 and the Little Prince in Act 2) must be able to act, perform musically timed mime, and dance.  Character roles abound in Act 1, too.  Drosselmeier must in turn be avuncular, mysterious, stern, courtly, and more than a little sinister.  Marie’s parents, Dr. and Frau Stahlbaum, are called upon to act like middle-class Germans of the 19th century, going through a family ritual, and the party guests, large and small, must be able to pull off the stately Grandfather dance, possibly my favorite part of Tchaikowsky’s all too familiar score. And company members must be able to look like wind-up dolls, not flesh and blood dancers as they emerge from Drosselmeier’s gift box.

Remarkable, then, considering the upheaval that continues at the company – artistic director Christopher Stowell announced late last month that he is leaving the company effective the end of this month, and the scrambling for new leadership has begun – that this “Nutcracker” hits such a height. Individually, how did the performers do on Saturday night? In the first act, the party children were impeccably rehearsed by Gavin Larsen, and danced with the natural impulse of the young, just as Balanchine intended in his choreography.  As “naughty” Fritz, Collin Trummel was completely convincing, and I loved the “Oh gee whiz!” resignation of the way he stomped across the stage to Drosselmeier to be disciplined after he broke the nutcracker.

Jennifer White, as Marie, moves beautifully, although I’d like to have seen a little more fearfulness in her running as she searched for her nutcracker in the darkened Stahlbaum parlor. But I loved the professional way that she, Wyatt McConville-McCoy (who has done a splendid Fritz in the past) as the nutcracker come-to-life, and Adam Hartley as the Mouse King covered the fact that White missed hitting the Mouse King with her shoe.  As the Stahlbaums, Haiyan Wu danced a radiantly happy hostess and tender-hearted mother, and Brian Simcoe a courtly host and slightly harassed father. Company historian Linda Besant has developed the Grandmother role with downplayed humor; and David Threefoot, father of Lucas  (who, alas, got only a minute or so onstage Saturday night in the second act Tea) did well as the anxious Grandfather.  As for the mechanical dolls, Ye Li really did look like a wind-up soldier, jumping high with flexed feet; Julia Rowe as Columbine did fine, and Olivia Ornelas ditto as Columbine.

To Brett Bauer, for his polished, detailed, and highly nuanced interpretation of Herr Drosselmeier, goes my biggest Act 1 bouquet. I believe Bauer to be the best Drosselmeier I’ve seen, though I never saw Balanchine do the role, or Robert La Fosse, who by all accounts has been spectacular as the toymaker/magician. Kevin Poe, who danced it at the matinee, is also marvelous. Bauer is avuncular and comic, though occasionally stern in the party scene, and downright sinister as he repairs the nutcracker and creates Marie’s dream of the growing Christmas tree. (The tree is crucial: Balanchine, when told by  City Center management when he created his version of the ballet that the mechanism for the tree was too expensive, said that the tree was the ballet, and got 80 grand for it, a fortune in 1954.)

Act 1 ends with the snow scene, which reveals Balanchine at his most skillful in creating kaleidoscopic movement for a corps de ballet. On Saturday night Candace Bouchard, Rowe, Grace Shibley, and Makino Hayashi stood out (but not too much!) for their speed and swirling energy. But I missed the live singing of the children’s choir from behind the scenery that enhances the scene’s celebratory feeling.

Act 2 begins with the gliding dance (inspired by Balanchine’s native Georgian folk dance) of the little angels, who usually make me want to call for an angel swatter.  But not this year. I think they may have been a slightly older group than in previous years, and they danced smoothly, united in grace, as was the entire company.  Then Marie and her Little Prince escort arrive in the Kingdom of the Sweets (with not a sweet in sight on the backdrop, unless those are meant to be candied flowers) by walnut boat.  There, McConville-McCoy executed the mime from the original Petipa-Ivanov “Nutcracker” with admirable clarity and éclat.  He’s a nice young dancer, with real stage presence, and I enjoyed watching every move he made.

Since OBT’s fall opener, I’ve felt the same way about Xuan Cheng. As the Sugarplum Fairy on Saturday night, she looked as if  she was made of spun sugar and could break at any minute. But she danced as if she were as indestructible as steel cable, her affect otherworldly in her solo variation, humanly romantic in the Grand Pas de Deux with Chauncey Parsons as her elegant Cavalier.  Their performance of that pyrotechnical set piece was darned near flawless, marred only by a thin-sounding orchestra. You can tell that Parsons has been trained by the Russians (he’s a Kirov Academy graduate); in his variation he delivered the jetés and tours en ménage with accuracy and attention to line, of course, but also with considerable panache.

The Dewdrop Fairy has no Cavalier to support her in balancés, of which Mr. B. gives her plenty, along with steps that must be executed with the speed of a dewdrop melting in the hot summer sun. This makes the linchpin of the Waltz of the Flowers  one of the most difficult ballerina roles in the Balanchine canon.  Alison Roper’s performance on Saturday night was iconic, not a word I use if I can avoid it. Eloquent and fast (oh lord was she fast), her joyful dancing was, for me, literally breathtaking.

Of the other diverts, as balletomanes call them, Javier Ubell’s Candy Cane hoop dance, a role Balanchine performed himself as a student at the Imperial School, made the timing required look like fun; and Simcoe, leading what I call the Cocoa variation because of the milky-colored costumes, danced with such musically accented flair that I renamed it spicy Mexican chocolate.  Martina Chavez’s Coffee was musical and technically accurate, but I missed Roper’s satirical smile at the end, which gives it the send-up it so richly deserves. Balanchine changed it from the 1954 original, which featured a male dancer smoking a hookah surrounded by four little girls costumed as birds, in order to please, he said, the fathers in the audience. I’d give anything to have that restored, though I think Kent Stowell, in collaboration with Maurice Sendak, solved the problem admirably at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet by creating a solo for a pretty fine peacock.

Saturday night’s performance had Christopher Stowell’s fingerprints all over it, as did the opening matinee, judging from Catherine Thomas’s review of it in the Oregonian. The dancing was so textured, the interpretations so detailed.  And bear in mind, there are opportunities during the run (there are 11 more performances, the last one on the 23rd) to see all of these dancers in different roles. Shibley will probably do Sugarplum; Threefoot the Cavalier; Rowe did Dewdrop at the opening matinee and may do it again; Parsons did the hoop dance, and so it goes. Check the OBT website for casting.

Magical, that’s what this Nutcracker is, and give me a break, I can hear ArtsWatchers snorting through cyberspace.   But in this case, the magic is very real – and it’s OBT’s dancers who cast the spell.

 

A Victorian Christmas: ART’s Sherlock-Scrooge mashup

... oh and robots, so maybe it's a steampunk holiday

Michael Mendelson as Sherlock Holmes/Owen Carey

By EMILY STEVENS

While the concept seems kitschy, Artists Repertory Theatre’s remount of “Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Christmas Carol” is so filled with Victorian nostalgia and cheer that it’s just crazy enough to work.

The story is predictable enough: Sherlock Holmes has returned to Baker Street after fighting Professor Moriarty to the death and spending several years abroad while all believed him to be dead, too. This bloodshed has shaken him to the core, and he has withdraw from friends, ceased to see clients, ignored his violin, and shut himself up with unsavory experiments— on the whole, he’s utterly disenchanted with society of all kinds.

After nasty fights with his dear compatriot Dr. Watson (Tim Blough) and his caretaker and landlady Mrs. Hudson (Jane Fellows) on Christmas Eve, Holmes is treated to the hauntings of three ghosts (or, rather, two ghosts and a weird furnace robot). You know the drill: After revisiting all the pains and regrets of Christmas past, the tragedies he himself could have prevented in Christmas present and the dooms of Christmas Yet To Come; Holmes is given a new lease on life and a great amount of hope and holiday spirit just in time for Christmas Day.

This mashup is taken up with the best intentions. Playwright John Longenbaugh is an obvious Sherlock fanatic, and he lovingly creates a fully realized character with a tangible past, present and future. His writing style is rich, his wit cutting, and clocking in at just about two hours, there isn’t an extraneous or over-indulgent moment in the script. Associate Director John Kretzu’s direction is clear and effective in his last hurrah at Artists Rep as associate artistic director, and Michael Mendelson plays Holmes’ every crotchety quirk on point. Despite minor lapses in dialect, the cast shines as an ensemble in multiple roles. The sets and costumes are cozy and traditional  and the ghosts are spooky without being cheesy (with the exception of the aforementioned robot).

At times the premise  does feel a little more forced than other renditions of A Christmas Carol (the 1998 film Scrooged is one of my favorites). Are we truly supposed to feel that Holmes’ soul is doomed in the same way as Ebenezer Scrooge’s, “… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”? I never quite got there. The deep pit of purgatory doesn’t seem to be looming in the climax of the play, and I wish Kretzu had gone just a little bit darker.

But, if you suspend your disbelief a little, there are some truly fine moments played out onstage. Sherlock isn’t earth shattering, but it touches on the surface of what it means to be human just enough to remind us what this whole yuletide season is all about.

Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Christmas Carol runs through December 30th. Visit the Artists Repertory Theatre website for more information.

Matt Stangel: The Portland in the poetry

Tin House's new collection and Matthew Dickman collide with life itself

By MATT STANGEL

Sitting outside in the sun at a cafe on Hawthorne, I’m on the final stanzas of a poem by Mary Szybist from Tin House‘s Portland-Brooklyn issue when the upward buzz of an accelerating engine becomes a screech and then a street-silencing slam.

I look up as the rider hangs in the air between his motorcycle and the pavement before disappearing behind the wreckage—the chopper splintering through the front end of a mint-green hybrid, wedging into the wheel well. My heart in my fingers. Searching for my phone. Dialing 9-1-1.

The surrounding blocks take the tenor of disaster. First, a quiet that defies the city experience. Then, as the details settle in, as buildings empty and people begin to understand what they’ve just seen, it’s all panicked voices, oh my Gods and holy shits, hands held in shock over open mouths. For a brief moment, everyone forgets what it is they’re doing, abandons the active tasks of daily life.

“To confirm that you’re calling about an emergency, please say ‘nine one one’ after the tone,” instructs a sterile, pre-recorded voice, and I comply. “Please hold, someone will answer your call as soon as possible.” My pulse in my fingers. A long pause. The message again. The man flying through the air, the epinephrine shockwave behind him, the message again.

I feel like I’m pinned to my seat. Time isn’t working. The cops show up first. Ambulances later. Much later.

When curiosity finally gets the best of me, I approach the scene of the accident with a two-part morbid curiosity: Where did the motorcyclist touch ground and can a human survive such trauma?

A half-block from the crude recombination of vehicles is a busted-up cell phone. This pile of white plastic and computer chips, a cop tells me, is where the man on the motorcycle landed.

“He was going 90,” the cop clarifies, perhaps parroting exaggerated witness testimony. That fast?

A sedan runs over the pile of cell phone, sending bits and pieces up into the air and down again like leaves, moving them ever so slightly away from the crash, abstracting their function as a forensic marker, car by car.

****

I’m sitting at the Side Street Tavern with Matthew Dickman, author of a recently-released book of poems called Mayakovsky’s Revolver and poetry editor at Tin House, the lit mag that I was reading at the time of the crash.

Dickman’s beer is missing a few sips, and we’re flipping through the aforementioned Portland-Brooklyn issue (thematically dedicated to literature coming out of Tin House’s bicoastal hometowns).

Our discussion hovers around the local literary identity—specifically, that of our poetry. I’m wondering if, after having sifted through so many submissions for the regionally-focused issue, it seems like there’s anything that makes a Portland poet unique. What is it that local poets share? What are people writing about?

Illustration by Matthew Seely for Tin House

He flips to page 170 and talks about the distances traversed in local poet Lisa Ciccarello‘s long lines. He reads aloud the opening sentences of Bianca Stone‘s “Sensitivity To Sound,” giving me time to absorb her tight images. My impulse is to strip things of aesthetic trappings and get down to content. What is it these poets want me to know?

Dickman says that, by and large, poetry—written locally or otherwise—expresses love and suffering. Portland poets merely live in a particular urban landscape, and like any landscape, it can act as the framework for the discussion of humanity’s most commanding emotional forces.

He’s got a metaphor for how to view this issue of Tin House: the essays, the fiction, the explication, those are the body. They deal with exterior things. But the poems, those deal with the interior. The wide emotional geometries a person carries within.

I can see how the inside and the outside come and go from one another; how the poems and essays and pieces of fiction allow for a certain degree of intertextual osmosis.

Ciccarello’s “At Night, the Dead, the Perfect Inside Is Outside” starts with images of rain, sky, and mountains before she declares, “This much white is a kind of darkness,” and takes the reader to an amorphous place: a boat stands in for the mountain, the absence of the moon turns everything off: “We light candles but the flame is taken away. We reach the deck but see no way down. What is outside of trust is outside of belief.”

Ciccarello goes to a place of fear, everything just out of reach, mistrusted, pushed into a void of unreliability—though to what end isn’t necessarily clear.

As a reader, I can’t help but pair the dank environmental conditions that hang over Ciccarello’s poem to the rains and muds that define the Occupy camp in Jon Raymond‘s level-headed reportorial piece, “The Broadway Gang.” Raymond’s essay, anxious in its own ways, accounts as much for the political dilemma surrounding last year’s protest movement as it does for the encampment’s social strangeness, with “NPR liberals” joining protests as tourists of activism, while hardy-but-sad street kids live in pits of mud for weeks on end.

The piece builds to Raymond’s decision not to stand against riot cops on eviction day, a day riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. There’s a fear of humanity in this day that I can also see in local poet Crystal Williams‘ piece, “Cancer Rising.” Williams’ poem opens in a cancer treatment center, where she isolates the battleground between life-threatening illness and dignity: “when all the body understands/& uses for sustenance is encased—/iced over or dead—/when it is malnourished & slow,/& all you can depend on/is your own disbelief/in nature’s grace, your sly hoarding/eyes―in the waiting room,/at the window—/your stupid animal,/starved/& hungry for blood.”

The takeaway is pointed: Williams doesn’t buy into notions of a graceful natural world. She sees its ugliness, how cancer wicks the elegance from a person, how entropy takes over, destroys the sense of order that civilization drapes over wilderness.

Like the maze of emotional throughlines found in the Portland-Brooklyn issue, my conversation with Dickman rambles. We trade stories about Gerald Stern. He recites a Mark Strand poem from memory. Peanuts are cracked and shells are deposited into a coffee mug.

Pretty soon we’re finishing drinks and I’m not sure if I’m closer to understanding Portland’s literary identity, but it feels like progress.

****

When I recognize the road-rashed scrap of white plastic—the protective back panel of the motorcyclist’s cell phone collecting dirt on the side of the road—I’m almost home from Side Street and my sharp memories of the crash cut through the whiskey and pissy rain: the motorcycle-shaped peg in a car-shaped hole; my hands trembling as I gave my report to the 9-1-1 dispatcher; the image of the man flying through the air inscribed on every third thought.

I realize now there was poetry in that moment. There was a horrible stanza on the road, communicating its suffering in debris and sirens, and we all read it the same; we on the streets—onlookers, rubberneckers, and witnesses—suddenly unified in our empathy for the suffering of those injured.

Or perhaps there wasn’t poetry in that moment—certainly no artistic intent in a car crash—but rather a lesson about poetry: for readers to empathize with a poem, with an expression of a particular emotional state, they must see, and believe in, the impetus for those emotions. If the streets are to flood with concerned people, there must be a car crash, an earthquake, an event commensurate with a poet’s reactionary emotional substance.

For instance, in Dickman’s own work, the poet’s emotional state circulates around his brother’s suicide and the ways that event has burrowed into the fabric of the city. There’s a clear causal relationship between the real world and how the poet is feeling. In representing full-spectrum experience, readers can see the truth in a work, how the poet’s inner life got the way it is and why they should share in it.

I look down at the white piece of plastic gathering dirt at the side of road—let the memory wash through me one more time, allow the man his flight between one wreck and another—and make my way home.

Farewell to the Christopher Stowell Era at OBT

The great dancing the exiting artistic director left with us

Oregon Ballet Theatre performs Christopher Stowell’s “The Rite of
Spring”/Blaine Truitt Covert

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Alison Roper’s seductive Carmen, heartbroken Odette, implacable Myrtha, hell for leather dancing in William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail”…

Grace Shibley’s long legs flashing across the stage in Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” her choreographically and musically contentious pas de deux in the same ballet with Brett Bauer…

Whippet-thin Anne Mueller’s whip smart performance in Stowell’s urban take on “Rite of Spring,” her swift, chrystalline Dewdrop in Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”…

Gavin Larsen and Artur Sultanov’s eloquent musicality in Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” their highly nuanced dancing in Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun”…

Chauncey Parsons’ aristocratic Albrecht and down and dirty performance in Twyla Tharp’s “Junk Duet”….

Yang Zou and Haiyan Wu’s heart-rending dancing in Kent Stowell’s “Orpheus Portrait”…

Wu’s dramatic shifts in Act One of “Giselle,” her desperate resolve in Act Two…

Brian Simcoe and Lucas Threefoot’s pas de deux in Stowell’s “Ekho” and the pas de trois with Xuan Cheng, whose dancing in the fall opener was consistently top notch, beautiful when called for, highly disturbing in “The Second Detail”…

Sultanov’s Phlegmatic in Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments” and hen-pecked husband in Robbins’ “The Concert,” roles originated by Todd Bolender, one of the subjects of the book I’m working on, so I’m mighty fussy about them…

Yuka Iino’s Odette/Odile, fleet Dewdrop in Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” her witty, hard-edged Girl in Nicolo Fonte’s 21st century take on “Petrouchka”…

Threefoot’s solo in Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba,” his first crack at Balanchine’s “Apollo” with Shibley as a stunning Terpsichore…

Candace Bouchard’s stylish performances of multiple roles in “The Nutcracker,” including Dewdrop, Marzipan and the Sugar Plum Fairy, not to mention her detailed speed as Polyhymnia in last fall’s “Apollo”…

Kathi Martuza’s dewy Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty,” another great ballerina role, and driven dancing in James Kudelka’s “Almost Mozart…”

Half the company, more or less, surging across the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage in Christopher’s Wheeldon’s “Rush,” in 2008, and I might add Roper and Sultanov were featured on the Ballet Across America Festival playbill cover that year…

****

Yuka Iino, Brian Simcoe and Lucas Threefoot in OBT’s “Petrouchka”/Blaine
Truitt Covert

These are some of the images that flashed through my mind when I learned of Christopher Stowell’s decision to resign from the artistic directorship of Oregon Ballet Theatre, effective the last day of the year. While Sultanov and Martuza retired from the company last season,  Mueller in 2011 and Larsen in 2010, if the rumors of the board’s decision to cut roughly a fifth of OBT’s budget (which the board itself denies having done) are true, that means the potential loss of many of these dancers and a number of others I’ve not yet mentioned, as well as much of the repertoire and, one would assume, since it’s happened before, live orchestral accompaniment.

But I’m frankly surprised Stowell stayed as long as he did. His reasons for resigning in the middle of the season have been discussed elsewhere (including this post by Bob Hicks), and he’s not to be blamed for moving on, much as it saddens me personally and professionally. He’s fought the good fight to do the job he was hired to do, and he’s justifiably proud of what he’s accomplished. Why would he want to oversee the dismantling of the company he’s built, the departure of the dancers he brought to OBT and trained, (everyone now in the company except for Roper), the mothballing of much of the repertoire a downsizing of the company and potential change of performance space would mean?

Or work with a board that doesn’t support his vision (or mine, either) of what a medium-sized ballet company in a small city should look like, certainly not one that since Stowell’s arrival in 2003 has taken its rightful place in the panoply of the city’s major arts institutions, Portland Center Stage, the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Opera. (No one, incidentally, has mentioned his gift for collaboration with other arts institutions. He’s done two with the Portland Art Museum, the first a program of ballets performed to French music, including his own “Zais,” when in 2008 the Museum mounted a show of works by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Forain, the second this past fall, in conjunction with The Body Beautiful.)

I first saw Stowell dance in 1994, when, as a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet he performed a spectacularly virtuosic Mercutio in Helgi Tomasson’s staging of “Romeo and Juliet,” a role I had seen Mark Goldweber perform equally memorably, but differently, in James Canfield’s staging of the same ballet. A few years later, I encountered him at a Dance USA roundtable in Charleston, South Carolina, where I was representing the Dance Critics Association and he was on a panel discussing the effects of such things as changes of performance venue on ticket and subscription sales—not good, OBT board members please note. I was struck by the intelligence and thought behind his presentation and chatted with him briefly at some reception or other later in the day.

Over the years, I saw him dance Oberon in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as a guest artist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, read positive reviews of his choreography in the Bay Area by colleagues whom I respect, and, in 2003, when I learned he was a finalist for the job, hoping to God that he would become OBT’s artistic director, not for his sake, but for ours.

****

Yuka Iino and Chauncey Parsons in “The Four Temperaments”/Blaine Truitt
Covert

This was partly because of his talent, intelligence and experience, but also because his dancing career had been spent in the Pacific Northwest, not to mention much of his childhood, and because of his role (not business) models: his parents in Seattle, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, founding artistic directors of PNB, and Tomasson, who rescued San Francisco Ballet from tumultuous times when he took the helm there. And it hasn’t hurt that as a supremely gifted dancer he developed close relationships with choreographers such as Kudelka, Wheeldon, Mark Morris (I was looking forward to a Morris work at OBT), Forsythe, Paul Taylor, whose “Company B” opened his first season, and those in charge at the Balanchine and Robbins Trusts.

It is because of the respect he has earned nationally and internationally as a performer, as well as his pedigree—he is after all third generation in the Balanchine diaspora—that Stowell has been able to get quite a bit of OBT’s current and astonishing repertoire at lower rates than anyone else could. Moreover, OBT is one of very few American companies that has performed a work of Sir Frederick Ashton’s in the last decade. “Façade” brought out the comic talents of the dancers and also exposed them to the wisdom of Alexander Grant, one of the great comic dancers of all time, who came to stage the ballet.

What I had no reason to know until Stowell arrived in town is what a superb teacher and coach he is. Watching him teach company class is to see a first class performance, or it was until his hip deteriorated. The level of detail in his demonstrating, the precision of his coaching, and the combinations he gave the dancers both challenged them and gave them pleasure in the hard, hard work.

****

Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng and Lucas Threefoot in “Ekho”/Blaine Truitt Covert

In his public statements since his resignation, Stowell has revealed many times over his love and respect for OBT’s dancers, and I’m as certain as I am that the rain will continue this winter that the timing was to protect them by giving them time to audition for other companies, or perhaps in some cases start alternative careers, before they get the chop at contract renewal time.

Larsen told me in an email that Stowell told the artistic staff and dancers when he met with them last Wednesday that “he could not ‘let go of what [he] believes in.’ [This means] I’m sure,” she added, “ that he believed in the work we’d done since 2003, and wouldn’t stand there to see it destroyed.”

“The work we’d done….” That phrase speaks volumes for the ownership the dancers feel they share in the artistic direction of the company. It’s not surprising. As director, choreographer and teacher, they know Stowell has their best interests as artists at heart. Needless to say, when he plans a season—which he won’t be doing this year—he has the audience and box office in mind, but he chooses, commissions, and creates choreography that both showcases and stretches the dancers, just as all artistic directors who are worth their salt do. If pieces he originally choreographed to sell tickets—“Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Rite of Spring” (which he made in collaboration with Mueller)—turn out to satisfy him aesthetically, as both those pieces did, that’s all to the good.

“I’m proud of them,” he told me in a brief telephone interview, and so he should be. The former is sophisticated and witty, with a wonderfully choreographed marital row between Oberon and Titania that brought out another side of Roper. Javier Ubell danced an impudently manipulative Puck, moreover, and the libretto was extremely skillfully compressed into one act. “Rite” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea in this version, but it showcases the dancers and their well-schooled look.

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“Swan Lake,” the first evening-length ballet Stowell staged, gave Roper, Martuza and Iino the opportunity to dance one of the great ballerina roles; their interpretations were quite different, and equally valid. And it was a huge box office success. In February, perhaps Shibley, still a company artist because of budgetary concerns, will get a crack at it, and Brett Bauer, who under Stowell’s tutelage, has become a compelling dancer to watch, a chance to perform the feckless Siegfried. Watching Stowell rehearse a segment of the “White Act,” before the ballet’s premiere, demonstrating the details he wanted incorporated into Roper’s performance, he so vividly transformed his compact, male body into the Swan Queen’s I told him I thought he should dance the role himself.

Stowell’s staging of “Swan Lake” is one of the best—a lot of liberties have been taken with it since its Russian premiere in 1877 and have seldom improved it. And it has been a gratifying experience for this critic to watch him develop as a choreographer. I thought “Ekho” was one of the best things he’s done, replete as it is with all of the qualities that are most important to him—musicality, detailed movement classically based but melded with modern style, just as Balanchine did with “Apollo,” arguably the first post-modern ballet. And it has charm,  a quality sadly lacking in much contemporary choreography in every dance form. Other highlights of work Stowell created on and for OBT’s dancers include “Adin,” a series of pas de deux that premiered in his first season; the aforementioned “Midsummer” and “Rite of Spring;” and “Carmen,” in which he incorporated children from OBT’s School, provided a pyrotechnical pas de deux for Ubell and Julia Rowe, and was marred only by the noise made by the not entirely movable set piece.

OBT’s School has had its ups and downs over the years, goodness knows, but its establishment in current form as a feeder school for this company and others is something for which Stowell can take credit, along with Damara Bennett, who came up from San Francisco with him. While the board hasn’t mentioned the School as something that will be affected by the vague new business model, I think it’s likely that Bennett will leave at the end of the school year. I might add that Stowell has done some of his most charming choreography for the School show, specifically a highly innovative “Peter and the Wolf,” and in the last show I saw, the students tossed off a highly professional rendition of Balanchine’s quite difficult “Divertimento 15.” I was, however, grieved when I learned that Josie Moseley, one of Portland’s leading modern choreographers, and a passionate teacher of modern dance who had been instrumental in getting up-and-coming choreographer Rachel Tess into Juilliard, and several others, had been let go. In any case, along with dancers, repertoire and live music, I fear we will lose the School in its present form, though we don’t know for sure where the current reorganization will lead.

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Alison Roper and Anne Mueller in Trey McIntyre’s “Just”/Blaine Truitt Covert

I haven’t liked, or thought was good (two different things as I keep yelling at my colleagues in the Dance Critics Association) everything that Stowell has created or commissioned or added to the repertory. I loathed Kudelka’s “Hush,” for example, and thought Emily LeCrone’s piece of several years ago was awful, while respecting Stowell’s willingness to take a risk on a young choreographer. And I think Robbins’ “Cage” is one of the most detestable ballets ever made.

I do think Stowell has made some expensive mistakes—renting a production of “Giselle,” as lovely and lavish as it was, from a company in Italy was a bit on the extravagant side. Taking a piece requiring a dozen dancers rather than half that to the Kennedy Center in 2008 was also pretty costly, but both those expenditures paid off aesthetically. (Note: this June OBT is taking Kudelka’s “Almost Mozart,” which has a much smaller cast, if of course it makes it through the rest of the season, as the board says it will.)

This is after all a very expensive art form, and I would remind the board, in its most expensive incarnations—“Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “The Sleeping Beauty”—sells the most tickets. The artistic director of American Ballet Theatre knows that: their spring season is almost nothing but evening length  ballets, and elsewhere in the country, companies are abandoning repertory evenings for story ballets as well. OBT isn’t the only ballet company in the country scrambling to balance its budget; as was said in Clinton’s first  presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

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Larsen asked me if I would express the dancers’ sense of loss at Stowell’s departure. “Who wants to dance at OBT without Christopher?” she wrote. “We all came here for him, stayed here for him, danced and worked each day for him—even when he wasn’t in the studio or even the building—and the mere thought of his departure is [kind of] terrifying.” In her blog for Pointe Magazine, Larsen quotes Roper: “Christopher’s departure is an immense loss for our organization and for me personally. He has been an inspiration as a leader, a friend and an artist these past 10 years. Although realistically I’m aware that the ballet will continue to thrive and evolve without him, at the moment I’m in a state of mourning.”

From my point of view, the ballet in the scaled-down version, if that’s what the board decides, represents devolution, not the reverse. But I too am in mourning for the loss to Portland of this gifted, knowledgeable and generous man, the dancers he nurtured who can go anywhere in the country it seems to me, and a ballet company that brought my colleagues in the national dance press to town to see it.

John Rockwell, then chief critic of the New York Times, came to see “Swan Lake;” Sandra Kurtz, of the Seattle Weekly, has come many times, most recently to see OBT perform the complete “Apollo,” which PNB doesn’t do, and Rita Felciano, my San Francisco colleague, came to see Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird,” when it premiered.

Recently she emailed me, “I have been struck by the intelligence, courtesy and eminent reasonableness of every one of Christopher’s public statements. He is quite an artist and man.”

I would add that he is a man of grace and integrity, stepping down now, not only to give the dancers time to regroup, but the board to find someone interested in implementing whatever vision they have.

As Balanchine said, “Aprés moi, le board.”

Camille A. Brown’s gripping dance of racial stereotypes

"Mr Tol E. RAncE" takes its cues from pop images of African Americans

Camille A. Brown

By NIM WUNNAN

At the start of the Q&A that followed the opening night performance of Camille A. Brown and Dancers’ “Mr. Tol E. RAncE” at Lincoln Hall, moderator Kemba Shannon asked, “Who here cried?”

A few hands went up. “Who here laughed?”

Nearly everyone’s hands shot up. “Who here said to themselves, ‘I don’t know if I can keep watching this?’

Lots of hands went up, slowly, and a broken, nervy laugh bounced around the room. It sounded relieved, grateful that someone officially acknowledged how deeply discomforting so much of the material that “Mr. Tol E. RAncE” dissected and brought to life made the audience feel.

Continues…

 
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