OBT: after 25, a leap into the future

The ballet's vigorous school shows and season-ending company performances balance new and old directions

“And how do we keep our balance?  I can tell you in one word, it’s tradition.”

I thought of those lines as I watched 14 would-be ballerinas – backs straight, heads held high, some in yellow tutus, some in red – make their imperial entrance onto the stage of the Newmark Theatre to take their places late last month in Paquita,  the opening piece of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary showcase. The show, which had two matinee performances, was, as it should have been, very much a part of the company’s silver anniversary celebrations. Those celebrations conclude May 28 with a fundraiser at the Left Bank Annex on North Weidler Street, near the east end of the Broadway Bridge. And they could well include an unofficial bonus: As it enters into its second quarter-century, OBT is expected to announce very soon its long-awaited plans to move into a new office, studio, and rehearsal center.

Sarah Griffin leaps high in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Sarah Griffin in Nacho Duato’s “Rassemblement.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof address Jewish survival in the pogrom-driven Russia in 1905, a matter of human and cultural life and death.  The cultural part of that can also be applied to the survival of classical ballet in the United States in 2015, where Oregon Ballet Theatre, which was born in 1989, is scarcely the only company finding it difficult to stay afloat. If Ballet San Jose, for example, doesn’t raise $3.5 million by October, the 29-year-old company is likely to close its doors forever, and where have we heard that before?

Paquita, Marius Petipa’s 1881 arrangement of the pas de deux and divertissements from the 1846 French story ballet about an officer in Napoleon’s army whose life is saved by a gypsy girl (she’s not Carmen!), fairly oozes the traditional set pieces we associate with the same choreographer’s trinity of ballets set to Tchaikowsky.  These are The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake, for which Petipa choreographed Acts I and III, and Lev Ivanov Acts II and IV.  OBT has danced all three ballets in various versions in the past 25 years, and currently has George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in the repertoire. Throughout that time, SOBT students have been integral to fleshing out the corps de ballet, and the performance of children’s roles.


Every SOBT director has been responsible for passing on the torch of tradition, schooling his or her charges in the tour jetés, pas de chats, pirouettes, bourrées, fouettés and port de bras of l’École de la Danse, whose language is French, but can be, and is, “spoken” in a variety of accents, from the finish and flourish of Russian style, to the speed and directness of Balanchine’s neoclassicism. The Danes dance these steps with the ease and buoyancy of Bournonville; the British with controlled theatricality; the French with arrogant chic; and today’s Americans in whatever accent the repertoire requires. Each school director (the principal ones have been Haydee Gutierrez, brought in by James Canfield, and Damara Bennett, who came and went with Christopher Stowell) has worked closely with OBT’s artistic directors to prepare students to dance in whatever repertoire reflects  their particular vision. Now, Anthony Jones, who staged Paquita, leads SOBT in tandem with Kevin Irving, OBT’s third artistic director.

Jones assumed the directorship of SOBT in October of 2013, just in time to cope with The Nutcracker, but without enough time to prepare well for last spring’s recital. Nevertheless Act II of Swan Lake made up half the program.  That portion of the ballet calls for a uniformly expressive corps de ballet, and for comic relief, the witty, and precise, pas de quatre for the cygnets. While there is little bravura dancing in this lakeside scene, in which Prince Siegfried and the Swan Queen Odette meet and pledge their love, physical eloquence, balance and the execution of traditional mime are required of the leads. Several dancers stood out (talent will tell!), Paige Wilkey as Odette among them, but as a whole Swan Lake was seriously underrehearsed, and looked it.

Not so this year’s Paquita. Generally speaking, the young dancers seemed to relish each technical challenge, of which there are many; and throughout the show, which included Alison Roper’s new ballet Luxe, Calme et Volupté  and Nicolo Fonte’s Accidental Signals, they danced with assurance, freedom, and, in some cases, palpable delight. This was also true of the traditional concluding Etude in which the students, from the youngest to the most advanced, get to show a tiny bit of what they’ve learned. That’s unusual in a school performance, where the onus is on the students not only to demonstrate what they can do, but also to show how well their teachers have trained them. Talk to an artistic director or choreographer about an outstanding dancer, and they immediately want to know who her or his teachers were.

Jones, who staged Paquita, came to Portland from Dresden, Germany, where since 2010 he had taught ballet at the Palucca School and University of Dance, a much larger institution than SOBT in every way: it has, for example, 11 studios in a Bauhaus building.  The school was started in the 1920s by Gert Palucca, who had both classical and modern training, the latter from Mary Wigman, Germany’s answer to Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. Both forms were taught in the school, and still are, where they are given equal weight. The Palucca School is not a company school, like OBT, but rather a prep school (also a boarding school) where children as young as 10 can begin their professional training. The education goes all the way through college, and includes academics.


“Kids enter at the fifth grade level,” Jones told me last summer. “Equal time is given to ballet and modern, with improv exercises, thinking tasks, music, rhythm … it’s half that and half ballet.” Jones described himself as essentially the home room teacher for the eighth grade, which meant that in addition to teaching ballet, he kept track of his students’ progress in modern dance. Jones’s own ballet training was at the National Ballet School in Toronto and the School of American Ballet, after which he danced for several years with Pacific Northwest Ballet. His experience at the Palucca School may well account in part for that new sense of freedom in SOBT’s students, and surely influenced his decision to hire my friend Gregg Bielemeier to teach improv classes in last year’s summer intensive.

In staging Paquita, Jones instilled the Russian pride and panache he likely saw taught in Dresden. The dancers finished each port de bras with that signature flourish of the wrists, and the corps and coryphées, although scarcely uniform in size and shape, performed as a disciplined unit. This did not prevent young corps member Harper Ortlieb – winner of the Elena Carter Scholarship in 2013, and a dancer who has the coltish look of Tanaquil Le Clercq at the same age – from lighting up the stage with the sheer joy she takes in the imperial style. Note that Ortlieb was a student in Bielemeier’s improv class, where she and the other students were encouraged to keep their momentum going, not to be afraid to throw around the phrase he had given them to work with, and told, forcefully, “You don’t need to be perfect.”

That’s tantamount to sedition for many ballet school directors, but not for Jones, who reported to me last summer that he had told  his charges to take what they were learning from Bielemeier into their ballet classes.  “It’s the same thing as classical dance; it’s movement,” he said. “And I want them to get away from the idea of right and wrong. Experimentation is important. In the ballet canon, there are many ways to do a step. They can be asked by a teacher to do almost anything.”

In Paquita’s pas de deux, OBT apprentices Kimberly Nobriga and  Henry Cotton did not engage in experimentation, but both delivered  technically secure performances, with Nobriga taking as much pleasure in executing her 32 fouettés as Cotton exhibited in spinning his way through his pirouettes à la seconde. Cotton heads north to Pacific Northwest Ballet next season, where he will be a corps member. In the second of the four solo variations for women, Paige Wilkey – also a company apprentice this year, and blessed with the long legs and expressive face of the ballerina I suspect she is destined to be –danced with sparkling éclat, and the same command as she would that night in OBT’s closing performance in the rather differently accented Crayola.

She also stood out in Roper’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté, set to a rhythmically complex score by Portland composer John Van Buren. Roper, since her retirement from dancing last year, has been teaching one class at SOBT, in addition to performing her fundraising duties as the company’s Special Gifts Officer. She started working on Luxe last fall, and it is an extremely well-made piece, noteworthy for the degree with which she keeps these young dancers moving.  The cast I saw at the premiere did splendidly with the shifts in mood and rhythm, particularly (in addition to Wilkey) company apprentice Alexander Negron. Roper’s movement has the sleek swiftness of Balanchine’s, infused with the modern quirkiness of Trey McIntyre’s, and she shows considerable promise as a choreographer. Much as she is needed in her day job, I hope she continues on this path, and not just for SOBT.

From left: Paige Wilkey, Samantha Baybado, Alexander Negron, Emma-Anne Bauman, Emily Parker, and Jessica Lind in the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre's world premiere of Alison Roper's "Luxe, Calme et Volupté." Photo: Yi Yin

From left: Paige Wilkey, Samantha Baybado, Alexander Negron, Emma-Anne Bauman, Emily Parker, and Jessica Lind in the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s world premiere of Alison Roper’s “Luxe, Calme et Volupté.” Photo: Yi Yin

Fonte’s Accidental Signals, like Roper’s piece, was commissioned for students, in this instance at the Conservatoire de Paris, where it was first performed in 2000. It’s a tribute to Benjamin Britten’s music, to which it is set,and  Fonte recalls in a program note that while working on the piece, “there seemed to be developing amongst the dancers and myself, a real sense of wanting to communicate with each other through the gestural quality of the movements.” Those movements are classical, and all 10 cast members acquitted themselves with considerable skill and the athleticism that is one of the hallmarks of American ballet style. The focus here is primarily on male dancing, which was neatly, and in some cases exuberantly, performed by Isaac Allen, Cotton, Michael Garcia, Daniel Guerra, Logan Anderson-Makis and Negron. That focus is important: back in the Canfield years, Fred Locke, who taught in the school and also danced a memorable Mother Ginger in Canfield’s Nutcracker, routinely made choreography for SOBT’s male students.

Accidental Signals was staged by Irving, with detailing from Fonte, who is choreographer in residence at Salt Lake City’s Ballet West. That gave the students the opportunity to work directly with OBT’s artistic director, and that’s important, too. Just as teachers might ask a student to do anything with a ballet step, today’s artistic directors are certainly going to ask company members to perform in a single season anything from Balanchine’s astringently tense Agon, which Irving put on the opening program of OBT’s 25th anniversary season, to Nacho Duato’s passionately political Rassemblement, with which he concluded it. The opening and closing mixed repertory programs bookended two traditional story ballets: Balanchine’s Nutcracker, in December, for which this master of neoclassical ballet lifted in its entirety Petipa’s Hoop Dance, as well as the mime account of how the Nutcracker Prince and Marie happened to arrive in the Kingdom of the Sweets; and Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, which choreographically contains elements of  19th century Russian bravura dancing (most obviously the jester’s explosive solo in the ballroom scene) and English pantomime (specifically, Cinderella’s stepsisters, performed in seriously over-the-top fashion by men). I saw the final performance in March (I was out of town when it opened) and had quite mixed feelings about it. I thought OBT rehearsal director Lisa Kipp was fabulously nasty as Cinderella’s wicked step-mother, and Xuan Cheng, who is one of this company’s most versatile dancers,  a charming Cinderella (though her face was much too clean!). The Fairy variations were extremely well-performed, particularly by Sarah Griffin and Candace Bouchard, but there is something both fussy and sentimental about Stevenson’s style that I find unappealing. “Different people have different tastes,” was my cultural anthropologist godmother’s mantra when I was a child, and that certainly applies to critics as well as audiences all over the world, who have loved Stevenson’s Cinderella. What I love is Prokofiev’s score, which is complicated and gorgeous, and was played beautifully on closing night by the OBT orchestra, led by Niel DePonte.

I hadn’t much cared for Darrell Grand-Moultrie’s ungrammatically titled Instinctual Confidence at its premiere, in part because it seemed so badly crafted, although it certainly had its high-energy moments. A second viewing, on closing night, impressed me more, especially after I saw Vessels, his much more conventional and quite uninteresting ballet for Dance Theater of Harlem. What I didn’t expect was that the performance of Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement would have an even more gut-wrenching effect on me than it had on opening night. Nearly a month later, I can still see Sarah Griffin’s tortured performance, as well as Jordan Kindell’s. Neither of them in real life has been a 17th century West African slave in Haiti, any more than either has been a Neapolitan peasant. But they and the rest of the company have been dancing all season with impressive commitment to a wide variety of ballets.


I mention Neapolitan peasants because next year’s season opens with Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli, paired with a new ballet by James Kudelka (ArtsWatchers will remember his Almost Mozart), set to a score by Boccherini. And that’s the only repertory show on the season; the rest are evening-length works, including Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker (of course), and the closing ballet, Fonte’s Beautiful Decay, which will feature as guest artists two Portland modern dancers, Bielemeier and Susan Banyas.

It’s an interesting season, one that illustrates Tevye the Milkman’s point as applied to classical ballet: “How do we  keep our balance? It’s tradition.”  Whether or not OBT will balance its books this way remains to be seen, and discussed another day.

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