Oregon Ballet Theatre review: cheerful resistance

Choreographer Nicolo Fonte, Pink Martini, and pianists Thomas Lauderdale and Hunter Noack team up to create a gay old time for everyone

Oregon Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Kevin Irving was addressing me personally when he took the stage and asked how many of us weren’t expecting to be there, which of us are the not-the-usual-ballet-audience people? Well, perhaps he was speaking to me and to many of the younger Pink Martini fans all around me. Like OSO & PCSO in recent years, OBT has been making a serious attempt to reach out to non-traditional classical audiences, people who maybe still want to see Balanchine’s Nutcracker for the zillionth time (hell, I’m going this year, aren’t you?) but who otherwise don’t have much feeling for the idiom. In Irving’s words: “OBT has never been afraid to put its own twist on ballet—it’s in our DNA.” Hey, that sounds like a song!

OBT with Pink Martini last night was possibly the gayest show I’ve seen all year. In a round 100 minutes that felt a lot shorter, OBT’s new resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte paired Thomas Lauderdale and Hunter Noack’s two-piano expansion of Gershwin’s immortal Rhapsody in Blue with the return of his popular Pink Martini revue Never Stop Falling (in Love).

Now let’s get this out of the way right at the start: if you’re still using “gay” as a pejorative, it’s time to join the 21st century and show your fellow humans some respect.

The formerly more common meaning of “gay” was something like “happy and free-spirited,” as in The Gay Nineties or “Gay Paree”. The mighty Nietzsche translator and defender Walter Kaufmann, in the introduction to his 1974 translation of The Gay Science, discusses the troubadour origins of the word (Nietzsche’s original subtitle was “La Gaya Scienza”) and identifies this spirit of “light-hearted defiance of convention” as a bridge between the word’s older meaning and the new coloring it was acquiring at that time.

To be defiantly cheerful in an era of uncertainty and de-/re-/op-pression (1890s, 1970s, 2017) is an act of fruitful resistance, an insistence on loving whom and how we will. Even those of us who identify as some other variety of queer (bi, myself) are quite happy to look for inspiration and support to the culture of gay men, especially this world of artists and musicians which has shown us all so much joy and courage and taught us how to embrace the struggle of life and how to be jubilant whenever we can.

Which brings us to OBT and its collaboration with Thomas Lauderdale and Pink Martini. I personally haven’t spent a whole lot of time at the ballet: the last time for me was probably OBT’s Stravinsky Project (featuring Stowell’s Rite of Spring) almost a decade ago. What’s worse, I was (until last night) a complete Pink Martini Virgin. I’m happy to say I’m now a believer in both.

Gershwin recorded lots of piano rolls in his youth, so we have a pretty good idea of how Rhapsody in Blue might have sounded in his head. Here’s one of several recordings immortalizing his down and dirty playing. He’s already kind of a perfect choice for this sort of adaptation, given that his high degree of bimusicality enabled him to move freely between the eternally divergent jazz-pop and classical worlds. Lauderdale and Noack put their own sparklingly modern twist on the music, expanding it and playing around with its themes, fitting it to Fonte’s treatment of “L’heure bleue.” It’s a potentially controversial choice, even in our po-mo age of Beatles reimaginings and Stravinsky remixes.

It works, for the most part. The urgent, urban verve of Gershwin’s music takes on an unhurried, luxuriant, dreamy quality. The themes don’t really survive the translation—Gershwin’s riffs are brief, motivic, and pianistic, and it might have been more effective to adapt a bunch of chord changes (as is the usual jazz thing)—but the overall vibe was still there. If Gershwin had lived into the 1980s, he might have done a version like this himself, and that counts as a win in my book. Lauderdale’s version is faithful to Gershwin’s harmonic spirit, but in a figurative-rather-than-literal sense befitting the dreamscape aspect. The music was all there, every note (or damn near close), but certain sections got repeated, stretched out, embellished in a lounge pianist sort of way. Even that rad rapid-fire passage becomes reflective: spirited still, but more in keeping with the moonstruck vibe.

But I have to be honest: I stopped paying attention to the music as soon as the three lead male dancers hit the stage. OBT principals Peter Franc, Chauncey Parsons, and Brian Simcoe—together with Xuan Cheng—presented the love quadrangle at the heart of Fonte’s story. A tender and playful duet between two of the men turns into a jealous love triangle driven by Handsome Flannel Guy which then turns into a zesty riff on the On The Town trio. The love triangle resolves itself with a kiss and a handshake, Flannel Guy pairs off with Xuan Cheng, and all is well. I did like the corp’s dancing well enough, although they were a little looser than I would normally expect from a professional company, but it was the combination of these four soloists that made the evening for me.

Never Stop

Nicolo Fonte choreographed Never Stop Falling (In Love) to celebrate OBT’s 25th anniversary in 2009. Before working on the ballet, he had “heard of but never heard” Pink Martini (a situation I too found myself in). It could have been a greatest hits sort of revue, and needn’t have involved the band at all. Instead, Lauderdale not only opened the band’s entire catalog to Fonte but brought the whole band up on stage with the dancers for a true collaboration.

Lauderdale cuts a rather distinctive figure leading from the piano, and vocalist China Forbes amazed me with both her voice and her presence, but it was the ensemble as a whole that really delighted me. Brass and percussion and violin took up the upper floor of their set-stage, while guitar and upright bass and the rest of the percussion took up the ground floor. The arrangement reminded me of other integrated dancer-musician shows I’ve enjoyed (particularly Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba), and put a unique spin on the whole “ballet” experience. Forbes occasionally ambled down onto the dance floor, her gorgeous floor-length magenta dress flowing around the dancers, her extraordinary voice filling the Keller Auditorium with honey and flowers. The dancers were splendid, especially (as in Rhapsody) in the solos and duets and trios. It was jubilant, it was romantic, it was sultry and funny and charming. It was, in other words, super gay.

Pink Martini famously got its start when Lauderdale’s political engagement overlapped with his musical artistry, emerging as a sunnier alternative to the drab music he had to endure at fundraisers and the like. Twenty-three years later, gaiety of all varieties remains a transgressive and life-affirming act. After the show, out on the street, where the troupe of percussionists who had joined the band on stage for the last number were assembled with their instruments, loud, vigorous samba rhythms filled SW 3rd Avenue, bouncing off the Keller’s walls, illuminating the receding audience, drowning out the traffic, and adorning Keller Fountain Park with the festive sounds of Afro-Latin carnaval music. The group was Portland’s Bloco Alegria, which means both “happy band” and “jolly streets” (and of course “alegria” isn’t too far from “gay” either), doing their usual street thing.

The temperature was dropping to a very mid-October mid-thirties, and as the departing concertgoers lingered to grin and dance I remembered why I love Portland so much. It was like Christmas come early out there, a spectacle of cosmopolitan bliss. Our theaters, our music, our ballet, our streets.

And so I conclude by saying to each of you, perhaps a little prematurely but with jovial sincerity: A very gay holiday season to all, and to all a good night!

You’ve got one more chance to experience OBT’s Rhapsody in Blue and Never Stop Falling (In Love): tonight. Don’t miss it, you slouches! Or if you do, you can make it up to yourself by going to hear Portland Gay Men’s Chorus at Reed tomorrow.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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