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The evening-length work, originally made for Philadelphia’s BalletX, concludes the company’s twenty-sixth season with an eight-performance run at the Newmark Theatre, this weekend and next.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

This is a contemporary 21st century version of a story ballet. Fonte has done it before, and for OBT at that. He made a terrific updated version of Petrouchka, which was programmed with Christopher Stowell’s Carmen in a not entirely felicitous pairing in 2011. MacArthur “genius” Mimi Lien, who designed the elegantly functional series of rooms for Beautiful Decay, was also responsible for the equally wonderful set for Petrouchka.

Peter Franc (left), Sarah Griffin, Jordan Kindell. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Peter Franc (left), Sarah Griffin, Jordan Kindell. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

In Beautiful Decay pas de deux abound, as do pas de trois, and pas de quatres, their choreography rendered in Fonte’s signature vocabulary of classical, modern, and contemporary movement. I especially loved a diagonal line of dancers toward the end of Act I that was reminiscent of the corps in the lakeside scene in Swan Lake. At the beginning of Act II, Bielemeier and Banyas, seated stage left behind a scrim and watching company artist Sarah Griffin perform a passion-infused solo, immediately made me think of Clara observing the Act II divertissements in The Nutcracker; the Queen Mother watching the various national dances in Act III of Swan Lake; the King and Queen in the last act of Sleeping Beauty viewing the fairy-tale variations (Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, the Bluebird Pas de Deux).

A pas de deux toward the end of Act I, in which my friend Bielemeier (whom I first saw dance about forty years ago,  and who last studied ballet in the early seventies) partnered the extremely gifted OBT company artist Kelsie Nobriga, moved me to the brink of  tears. Nobriga, her strong feet in pointe shoes, showed the vulnerability of youth. Bielemeier, barefoot, partnered her with infinite tenderness, his hands gentle on her waist, his face expressing a lifetime of experience as an artist of the dance, and the love he has for young dancers.

From left: Jordan Kindell, Peter Franc, Chauncey Parsons, Michael Linsmeier, Avery Reiners. Photo: Yi Yin

From left: Jordan Kindell, Peter Franc, Chauncey Parsons, Michael Linsmeier, Avery Reiners. Photo: Yi Yin

Other moments: Peter Franc’s opening solo, in Act I, alternately floor-bound and elevated, observed by Banyas, costumed throughout in a spectacularly dowdy blue dress, making her look like the frumpy old lady she decidedly isn’t in her offstage life. This, it would appear, is intentional: I checked photos of the Philadelphia guest artists, Manfred Fishbeck and Brigitta Hermann, and Hermann looks even dowdier. Interestingly, Bielemeier resembles his usual suave, elegant self in a suit worn over a tee-shirt, but  Fishbeck looks decidedly scruffy. When Bielemeier and Banyas dance together, as they do several times, I’m reminded of their many renderings of different “characters,” something at which both have considerable expertise.

Jordan Kindell, leaping. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jordan Kindell, leaping. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jordan Kindell, also early in the piece, dances behind Bielemeier, shadowing a mentor maybe, and in a later section executes a truly spectacular leap. He and Franc have the kind of stage presence that makes it impossible to take your eyes off them in anything they dance; Beautiful Decay is no exception. Griffin possesses this quality as well, as do Chauncey Parsons and Xuan Cheng, dancing together exuberantly in Act I, and elegiacally in Act II.

There are, in fact, no weak links in the first cast,  which also includes Eva Burton, Ansa Deguchi, Michael Linsmeier, Avery Reiners, Jessica Lind, Paige Wilkey, Adam Hartley, and Ian Schwaner. Check the OBT website for casting, because there are changes; Bielemeier dances with Candace Bouchard in some performances, for example.

The way the company performs Beautiful Decay bodes well for the future. The dancers are developing a style and a look we’ve not seen in several years, and surely Fonte, who takes up his position as resident choreographer in the fall, is partly responsible. I’ve two quibbles about the production: I found lighting designer Drew Billiau’s lights on the dark side, often obscuring the faces of the dancers; and while none of Martha Chamberlain’s costumes hampered the movement, the short-shorts trend in contemporary costume design for dance, for me, got old several years ago.

On a personal note, I returned recently from a trip to the East Coast, where I saw several old and dear friends who are in physical decline. Fonte speaks eloquently and artistically in Beautiful Decay to the sorrow I am feeling, as well as the memories of our joyful youth.  We call this catharsis.

Xuan Cheng (foreground) and Sarah Griffin (background center). Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng (foreground) and Sarah Griffin (background center). Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert


Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Beautiful Decay continues through April 23 in the Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket and performance information here.


One Response.

  1. Oregon ArtsWatch says:

    Update: An earlier version of this review misidentified dancer Sarah Griffin. It has been updated with her correct name.

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