Oregon Ballet Theatre: The power of knowing who you are

Petrouchka sees himself in the mirror and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte's "Petrouchka"/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

On the opening night of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s season opener, “Petrouchka/Carmen,” artistic director Christopher Stowell made a short curtain speech, as he often does. This one did something more than welcome the audience and thank sponsors, as important as those gestures are.  Stowell suggested that the two dances on the program, both world premieres, set a sort of new standard for the company — great music, vivid choreography, deeply integrated and striking design elements and adventurous dancing — though he didn’t put it in exactly those terms.

Still, it’s a good brand to dance under and a good mission statement. Stowell and company have already achieved it on occasions during Stowell’s time at OBT (he arrived in 2003), but I would agree that this program had a clarity and sense of purpose that felt new to me.

I’m going to spend a little more time with the “Petrouchka” part of the program than the “Carmen” part. Stowell, who choreographed “Carmen,” was operating under heavier restrictions in the form of audience expectations than Nicolo Fonte and “Petrouchka,” and his “Carmen” was less of a departure than Fonte’s “Petrouchka.” And Fonte’s conception fit right into the cultural discussion we are having, delivered on opening night with the drums and bullhorns of Occupy Portland sounding off down the street.

“The one who discovers that it is possible to be free discovers that the act of transformation is not only an act of bravery; it is an urge to change that stems from the heart, ultimately an act of love.”  — Nicolo Fonte in the program notes

So, how do you do that with the story of “Petrouchka,” in which the hero (a puppet that comes to life) dies and comes back as a ghost? Well, you change the story. And because Stravinsky’s score is sufficiently abstract and complex, there’s absolutely no musical reason you can’t, unlike “Carmen,” which is built around some great melodies and rhythms we immediately interpret as “Spanish” or “flamenco.”

In Fonte’s re-telling, the puppet Petrouchka is not a puppet at all; he’s one of the crowd of mask-wearing dancers, obeying the instructions of the mask-wearing Conjurer. He’s a little bit different, though, and when he has a moment alone to regard his image in a mirror, something happens: He loses the mask. And the solo that Fonte gives Brian Simcoe, who is dancing Petrouchka, is a glorious ode to liberty.

From there, the revolution is underway, as Petrouchka attempts to help others lose their masks as well, including The Girl, of course. His primary foe is a character known as The Friend (danced by Lucas Threefoot), who really is Petrouchka’s double. Who is the enemy of my freedom? I am, myself. The only thing I would have changed in the narrative/dance? I would have given Yuki Iino as The Girl her own celebratory solo of freedom once she loses her mask. As well as Iino dances, that would have been something to see.

On stage, this story becomes gripping. Fonte’s choreography is interesting, especially the way he manipulates the essentially unison dancing of the rest of puppet nation. And he uses the Mimi Lien’s set, a large, moving construction with several sections and a mirror-like surface, expertly to frame sections of the dance and to dramatize that moment when Petrouchka sees himself in the mirror for the first time. Stravinsky’s music, played  by the full OBT orchestra, led by Niel DePonte, easily adapts to the strict modernist lines of Lien’s set and Mark Zappone’s costumes, as well as the place-making and dramatization that Michael Mazzola achieves with his lighting design. Frankly, this production is setting the bar quite high.

Alison Roper and Chauncey Parsons in OBT's "Carmen"

Stowell’s “Carmen” tracks the original story closely. Don Jose, engaged to the lovely Micaela, falls in love with Carmen and sets her free from prison.  On the lam, she runs into Escamillo and falls in love herself, and well, you know Carmen isn’t going to make it out of this ballet any more than she does the opera.

Stowell distills things, though, avoids the cliches, and creates a series of beautiful duets for the lovers in their various configurations to dance. And he knows how the dancers move, too, how to play to their strengths, which makes sense — he works with them every day and hired most of them, including ten new dancers this year.

And yes, what everyone will be talking about after the show is Alison Roper, whose Carmen contains the right amount of tempest, seduction and attitude, which is to say large quantities of all three. I’ve never seen Roper dance any better than this, either. She’s sleek and strong, her movements exact and flowing at the same time.

Xuan Cheng’s Micaela is small, light and swift, a great pure counterpoint, and the men — Chauncey Parsons (Don Jose), Brett Bauer (Escamillio) and Artur Sultanov (as Muerte, a role that resembles his part as the Conjurer in “Petrouchka”) — partner beautifully and take their own solos with the sense of adventure that Stowell talked about in his curtain speech.

The colors of this “Carmen” are beautiful, sandy with a little blue (though maybe the sky blue in the soldiers’ uniforms isn’t all that fearsome) and red. Lien used the same sort of sectional approach to this set that she used in “Petrouchka,” with the sections tilted in various ways to suggest new places in the story, though I’d say it worked better in the non-specific spaces of “Petrouchka,” perhaps.

By now, though, we are comparing two similar approaches and attitudes toward making dance theater as though they were apples and oranges. They aren’t. Fonte and Stowell are working side-by-side here, with many of the same values and interest in renovating classical ballet for a modern audience. And if they have established a new standard at Oregon Ballet Theatre, we might applaud the result just as enthusiastically as the crowd on opening night applauded at the end of “Carmen.”


Martha Ullman West has followed the history of Oregon Ballet Theatre more closely than any other Portland critic, and her review of the evening is required reading for ballet fans.

The program continues through Saturday, October 15, in Keller Auditorium.

I’ve written about Alison Roper several times before, including this 2009 column.

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