Eugene Ballet preview: Cracking the glass slipper

Company premieres two new works by women choreographers along with a classic reprise


“Where are the female choreographers?” asks Michael Cooper, in the New York Times. Ballet remains overwhelmingly a man’s world when it comes to choreography Cooper suggests noting that of the 58 ballets the New York City Ballet performed during the 2015-2016 season, which included seven world premieres, none were by women. He also observes that of all the recent productions by the London’s Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, and the American Ballet Theatre, only two were by women choreographers and one of those was a collaborative effort with a man.

”The dearth of female choreographers at major ballet companies is perhaps more startling, given the prominence of women in the rest of the ballet and dance fields,” Cooper writes, “and the way pioneering female choreographers helped shape ballet during the 20th century.”

The magic of Shakespeare’s fantasy world with dancers Isaac Jones and Victoria Harvey. Photo: Eugene Ballet.

What Cooper calls the “glass slipper” is at least being chipped a bit this February when the Eugene Ballet Company presents three productions all choreographed by women. Opening the program is the world premier of a new EBC commissioned ballet, Wandering On, by Chicago-based choreographer Stephanie Martinez. A second new work, The Surrounding Third, is a short piece by EBC Company Dancer Suzanne Haag and set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The evening’s centerpiece is a reprise of EBC’s Artistic Director and co-founder Toni Pimble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream exploring Shakespeare’s “comedy of love, magic, fairies, mixed up lovers, and the mischievous Puck,” set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn.

Pimble told ArtsWatch that she looks for opportunities to include works by guest choreographers when programming a season. While not being exclusive, it is her intent “to support women choreographers whenever possible.” In 1992 the company staged a program of all women composers and choreographers with music conducted by Marin Alsop. “The program began with work by myself to music of Hildegarde of Bingen and continued somewhat chronologically ending with a work by Ellen Spokane choreographed by Lisa de Rebere,” Pimble remembered.

This season audiences will have the opportunity to experience Pimble’s continuing effort to fracture, at the regional level, Cooper’s “glass slipper.”

Wandering On

Stephanie Martinez came to Pimble’s attention when she was sent a video work sample. At the time, Martinez had been selected as one of four winners of the Joffrey Ballet’s “2015 Choreographers of Color,” an award that recognizes promising young minority choreographers “whose diverse perspective will ignite creativity in the field of dance.” With Martinez in mind, the EBC applied to the Hult Endowment for support in commissioning a new work by this up-and-coming choreographer. The result is Wandering On, a 20 minute work set to a sound collage of music ranging from “No Wave Bite” by Iconoclast to Andrew Hewitt’s “A boy held up by a string.”

World premiere of Stephanie Martinez’s ‘Wandering On.’ Photo: Dave Friedman National Choreographers Initiative.

The concept for Martinez’s Wandering On is based on the Sanskrit word Samsara that translates as wandering through the constant cycle, or circuitous changes, of life. These change are not made easily or without effort and need the help and strength of others.

“What I envision for this ballet is an exploration of the different relationships that a person can have within their life, how we rely on different people for various needs throughout the course of growing up and moving on, and how these relationships can be selfish and selfless at the same time,” Martinez explains. ”I want to create an environment in which a person at any part of their cycle or growth can relate.” (View two brief sequences from the ballet with dancer Allynne Noelle filmed at the July 2016 National Choreographer Initiative workshop where it was first developed and presented by Irvine Barclay Theatre.)

The Surrounding Third

Last season when Pimble was interested in pairing her production of The Great Gatsby with a complementary piece, she offered Suzanne Haag, then in her 13th season as a dancer with the Eugene Ballet, the opportunity to create an original work. Haag’s abstract, non-narrative ballet Look became her first major choreographic creation to be premiered by the company.

After what Pimble considers the “impressive success” of Haag’s first effort, she asked her to create a new piece for February’s program. For Haag, who also is a co-creator of the local interactive performing group #instaballet, it was the opportunity to create something beautiful and tranquil after the harsh social commentary of her piece last year that focused on the disconnect between people that results from reliance on technology. This new work, Pimble notes, will “juxtapose nicely with the more frenetic quality of Stephanie Martinez’s ballet.”

Suzanne Haag (left) coaches Reed Souther and Yuki Beppu in ‘Surrounding Third.’ Photo: Antonio Anacan.

Haag’s non-narrative piece The Surrounding Third casts a single female figure in the role of manipulating and controlling the lives of three men who, Haag suggests, are really three aspects of one man. The female dancer’s interactions with each of the males reflects a different emotional response for dealing with life; sorrow, hope, and power, suggesting that though we can choose to approach life in different ways, much of life and its relationship with oneself and others are products of circumstance or external forces.

The title of the 10-minute ballet references the Greek goddess of the sea Amphitrite, whose name is derived from amphis and tris or “the surrounding third.” Haag notes that although the female dancer is not necessarily playing the part of Amphitrite, neither is she human. The dancer is more a “force of nature,” and as Haag weaves together music, movement, and the dancer’s long flowing blue dress, images of the ocean and “its beauty, power, and control” are revealed to the audience. Surrounding suggests that circumstance, like the ocean, surrounds us all. We aren’t completely in control of life, no matter background, disposition, or means. As Haag notes, “We are all tossed around in the sea of life.”

EBC rehearsal of Suzanne Haag’s ‘The Surrounding Third.’

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The third dance on the February program, Pimble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn as performed by Orchestra NEXT with Brian McWhorter conducting. In contrast to the program’s two contemporary ballets, it’s a narrative work that tells, through mime and the classical vocabulary of ballet, a complex story of romance, relationships, love potions, fairies. At the end, the clever and rascally Puck asks the audience for forgiveness and approval while encouraging them to remember the story they have just experienced as though it all had been a dream. Pimble includes “plenty of comedic choreography for the rustics and the Bottom characters and more adventuresome partnering for the lovers,” she adds.

Since EBC last performed the ballet 12 years ago, the company has produced only an abridged version for the 2009 Oregon Bach Festival. This year’s performance will be the first time it has been staged as a complete theatrical experience with Orchestra Next joined by sopranos Laura Wayte (principal) and Emma Lynn (fellow) as well as the Festival Singers, directed by Chris Dobson. The score is naturally based on Mendelssohn’s music but also includes Rossini’s Sonata No. 6 ‘The Tempest” and a rather magical moment from 19th century Italian composer Giovanni Bottesini’s Duo Concertante.

Dancer Cory Betts stars in Eugene Ballet’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Photo: Eugene Ballet Company.

This is the third season of the Eugene Ballet and Orchestra NEXT’s collaborative relationship. What began with live music for the EBC’s production of The Nutcracker the first season, now includes this year music from the pit for The Nutcracker, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the world premiere of The Snow Queen set to new music commissioned by the award-winning Oregon composer Kenji Bunch.

In addition to live music, the company has also been working on updating the look of the ballet and will have a new forest on stage complete with constructed tree trunks and fabricated leaf borders. Pimble adds that the EBC’s technical director Barry Rodgers has also been working on creating special effects with newly available technology. For instance, the flower Puck uses to weave magic spells has gotten a complete reworking.

Pimble acknowledges Michael Cooper’s observation that there has been a reversal of leadership taking place in dance as many of the big ballet companies, of which many were founded by women choreographers such as Dame Ninette DeValois and Marie Rambert, are now led by male artistic directors. Although there are a number of these directors, for example Kevin Irving, of the Oregon Ballet Theatre, who consciously program choreography by women, it is artists such as Toni Pimble who are purposefully pushing back against the descent of the “glass slipper” by staging new work by women choreographers such as Lynne Taylor-Corbett (In A Word); Jill Eathorne Bahr (Captured Angel); Jessica Lang (A Solo in Nine Parts); and Amy Seiwert (White Noise), to mention a few. This season’s performance of new work by Stephanie Martinez and Suzanne Haag adds to a growing recognition of the Eugene Ballet Company’s efforts to expand the dance repertoire by women choreographers.

Editor’s Note: Stephanie Martinez: Choreographer is a short documentary about a passionate and motivated dancer, who at the end of her career, realizes that she has become a storyteller and that through choreography creates new worlds to be shared with audiences.

Eugene Ballet performs Midsummer Night’s Dream in Salem’s Historic Elsinore Theater, Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 pm; Florence Events Center, Thursday, Feb. 2, at 7:00 pm; Corvallis’ LaSells Stewart Center, Friday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 pm; Bend High School Auditorium, Saturday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 pm; Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts with Orchestra NEXT Saturday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, Feb. 12 at 2:00 pm. Ticket information online.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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