OBT in Napoli: a hit and a miss

The ballet troupe opens its season with a bright and joyous Bournonville, and an overwrought Kudelka premiere

Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its 2015-16 season at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday night with excellent dancing and a bill that was mixed, to say the least.

Violinist Aaron Meyer and his five-piece band set the Italian tone, sort of, with an over-miked selection of music from the land of Chianti and pasta. This musical antipasto concluded with a slice of Vivaldi’s Seasons and a small (too small!) segment of Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay, an evening-length ballet about the life cycle, which will end OBT’s season of story ballets in April.

James Kudelka’s Sub Rosa, danced to excerpts from Carlo Gesualdo’s complicated, ground-breaking madrigals, purports to tell the sordid tale of the Renaissance composer’s murder of his wife and her lover. The choreographer, charged with making a ballet that would fit the evening’s theme of love, Italian style, wanted to make a ballet that would contrast with the second, and in the end, more successful, work on the program, August Bournonville’s joyous, life-affirming third act of Napoli.


Guest Artist Amy Watson (left) and Candace Bouchard (right) in the company premiere of August Bournonville's "Napoli." Photo: James McGrew

Guest Artist Amy Watson (left) and Candace Bouchard (right) in the company premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli.” Photo: James McGrew

Napoli, which comes after intermission, is the clear highlight of the evening, carrying OBT into territory it hasn’t traveled before. “Move! Move! Move!” Frank Andersen urgently, and loudly, called out to the dancers in rehearsals, and after Saturday night’s intermission, on the stage of the Keller Auditorium, move they did: quickly, precisely, musically, reveling in the detailed intricacies of Bournonville technique, their sheer joy transmitted to the audience even before they took a step, when the curtain rose on Gene Dent’s charming version of the traditional set of the Naples harbor.  Act III is the last chapter of the Danish choreographer’s masterpiece, a story of ordinary people, Teresina, (Cheng) a beautiful young girl in love with Gennaro, a fisherman (Reiners), who in Act I is being pestered by a macaroni-seller and a lemonade seller, while she waits for Gennaro to return from fishing.  When Gennaro shows up with an engagement ring, the two merchants continue to refuse to take no for an answer, so the happy couple escape in Gennaro’s boat, even though storm clouds are gathering.  At the end of the act, a desperate Gennaro returns to shore minus Teresina, who’s been swept off the boat by the violent storm.  Everyone’s mad at him, especially Teresina’s mother. He prays, is given a sacred medal by a passing friar, and returns to the sea, where in Act II he and the medal save Teresina from being changed into a naiad by an evil sea sprite.

Act III, the one being performed on this program, is the “and they all lived happily ever after” celebration of the lovers’ marriage, religious faith, and dancing itself.  That’s the context for this version of Act III, which is stripped of most of the mime and most of the character roles, and lovingly and meticulously staged by Andersen, Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel-Schlűter.

Chauncey Parsons flying high in "Napoli." Photo: James McGrew

Chauncey Parsons flying high in “Napoli.” Photo: James McGrew

The dancers did so well with the divertissements, the Pas de Six, and the Tarantella, and the audience response was so enthusiastic, I profoundly hope that OBT will perform the entire ballet, sooner rather than later. Those dancers who spent a week in Copenhagen at the Bournonville Institute last summer had real command of the technique and the bits of mime associated with their roles, specifically Reiner, who soared when he jumped, and looked completely natural in a fit of good-humored jealousy when another fisherman flirted with his bride-to-be. Bouchard’s lightness and precision in the speedy footwork and the pleasure she took in achieving it contributed to the general delight, and Jordan Kindell and Jessica Lind infused their performance with Danish warmth and charm, as did Katherine Monogue, who’s clearly headed for the top tier of this company, at the very least.

Brian Simcoe, who did not go to Copenhagen, danced the first male solo on opening night, proving that he can dance anything thrown at him with the clarity and commitment that are the marks of a true artist of the dance. Cheng didn’t go either, but she has become this company’s most versatile ballerina, in every sense of the term, and her Teresina was performed with a Bournonville heroine’s spunky charm. The same is true of the company’s third principal dancer, Chauncey Parsons.

All of OBT’s dancers, in fact, have embraced wholeheartedly a way of dancing from the 19th century, taking it into their 21st century bodies and making it both relevant and timeless.  In Copenhagen, the audience would have rhythmically stamped their feet in approval of the performance.  Here, the standing ovation these dancers received was far from the usual undiscriminating roar: the bravos were as genuine as the dancing.


Guest Artist Amy Watson and Colby Parsons in the world premiere of James Kudelka's "Sub Rosa." Photo: Randall Milstein

Guest Artist Amy Watson and Colby Parsons in the world premiere of James Kudelka’s “Sub Rosa.” Photo: Randall Milstein

Kudelka’s Sub Rosa, which opens the program’s dancing, is a vastly different story. He wanted to make a ballet that would contrast with Bournonville’s, and in several unfortunate ways he succeeded. Self-conscious, self-indulgent, and seemingly endless, Kudelka’s choreographically repetitive build-up to the story’s murderous conclusion is a mind-numbing bore. Never have I been so relieved to see a murder on stage, even one as relentlessly flamboyant as this one.

That doesn’t mean Sub Rosa isn’t well-crafted. Kudelka is a highly experienced and well-respected choreographer, and he knows how to make a ballet.  Almost Mozart, the first one he made on OBT’s dancers, is excellent. In Sub Rosa, the ensemble dances – performed with elegance and skill (and emotional distance) by Chauncey Parsons, Makino Hildestad, Michael Linsmeier, Kelsie Nobriga, Jordan Kindell, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker and Eva Burton – are excellent examples of the dance maker’s craft. But there are too many of them, and the absence of emotional affect means they make little or no connection with the audience.

That attempt comes too late, with a tender pas de deux, danced on a platform by the beautiful Amy Watson, a Royal Danish Ballet, principal dancer making guest appearances in this show, as Gesualdo’s feckless wife, and Colby Parsons as her lover.  Even so, the duet could have been lifted from a ballet that takes place in a different Italian city, called Verona. A homicidal pas de quatre follows, with the ill-fated couple joined (and separated forever) by Peter Franc as Gesualdo and Sarah Griffin in the role Martina Chavez described in an interview as the Angel of Death. (Chavez, alas, was injured in rehearsal last week and won’t be dancing for a while, a big disappointment for her and for OBT’s audience.)  The murder itself was executed with a large blood-red cloth symbolizing none too subtly the murderer’s jealous rage.

The production itself, which featured a large, slightly vulgar rose suspended from on high, is quite pretty; and the costumes, black tutu-like dresses and a nightgown for the women designed with period details by Christine Darch and built in OBT’s costume shop, are gorgeous.  Michael Mazzola, who also designed the set, rendered his usual magic with the lights.


There are alternate casts in both ballets; check OBT’s website to see who’s dancing before you go, and for ticketing and schedule information. Remaining performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

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