Sister dance cities? Goteborg meets Portland

Goteborg (or Gothenburg), Sweden, in case you don’t know the town, could be a sister city to Portland. With close to a million people in its metropolitan area and about 31 inches of precipitation a year, it’s only slightly smaller and dryer. True, it’s a little colder than Portland – a balmy 68 degrees on an average August day – and it was founded in 1621, when the place that would become Portland more than 200 years later was pretty much a couple of rivers and a whole lot of forest. But both cities love good food, are transportation hubs, and boast, among other cultural attractions, highly regarded ballet companies.

OreloB, by Kenneth Kvarnsrom

Those ballet companies, though, are yin and yang. “James Canfield,” dance writer Martha Ullman West whispered succinctly at one point during Goteborg Ballet’s premiere performance in Portland Thursday night at the Newmark Theatre.

She was talking about the founding artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, who came to town from the Joffrey Ballet and set out to establish a contemporary, pop culture-infused company that reveled in loud music and big effects. When Christopher Stowell came from San Francisco and replaced Canfield, he reset the course toward heavily Balanchine-influenced neoclassical territory, where OBT has prospered.

Goteborg felt, in a funny way, like a return to the Canfield years, although a little more intellectual and a little less rock’n’roll. The Swedish company’s gone the other way from Portland’s, traveling in the past 10 years from traditional ballet to very contemporary European work. It, too, has prospered. With 39 dancers from 16 countries, it’s become the biggest contemporary dance company in the Nordic countries. Fourteen of those dancers made the trip to Portland for three concerts in the White Bird dance series (final shows are at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday), and there wasn’t a slipper or a pointe among them. If the three pieces the company performed are representative, the journey from traditional to contemporary is complete.

First things first: the dancers are very good. This is almost always the case with the companies White Bird brings to town, and is a big key to the series’ resounding success. It makes it easy, if you want to, to just sit back and revel in the technique and athleticism of the performers, no matter what the choreography happens to be doing. It also means the choreography is getting a more than fair shake: you can be pretty sure at most White Bird shows that the dancers are doing what the choreographers want them to do, and doing it well. In a way, there’s no place for the choreography to hide.

And there’s where things get interesting. Much of the European dance scene has broken sharply from its balletic roots, discarding the shaping influences that both story and specific music can supply, preferring a kind of open-ended atmosphere not really bound by oceans of loosely structured sound.

You can argue that the approach is better suited to a 21st century world that embraces the idea that the universe is the product of chance, not design. The program notes for Johan Inger’s Falter, an “explorative journey from chaos to order,” are telling: the dance depicts “a world where nothing is constant. Our struggle to adjust to external and internal changes is ongoing; all we can do is to start anew.”

In such a place ballet training is useful and used, but contemporary dancers tend to employ their bodies in different ways. There are technical differences, and a lot of exceptions and qualifications. But to make a grossly oversweeping comparison, traditional ballet is about staying balanced under pressure; contemporary is about seeing how far out of balance you can get without losing control.

Goteborg’s opening piece in Portland, choreographer Orjan Andersson’s Beethoven’s 32 Variations, is the closest to a traditional ballet, and also the one that makes the most overt point of rejecting tradition. It’s danced to a live piano performance by Joakim Kallhed, and begins with an implicit nod to old-fashioned court dance: a glimpse of the past before it moves on. I liked the way that Kallhed attacked the familiar phrases of the Pathetique, emphasizing the rhythm and thrusting the music’s pulse forward slightly, so that when the more languid sections came it seemed as if the dance was emerging onto a different plane. (Andersson explains that he had in mind the increasingly open silences that came to define Beethoven’s slip toward deafness.) Andersson is a talented phrasemaker – the dance has moments of genuine beauty – but the breaks seem abrupt and less organic than for effect, as if they were saying, we can do ballet, but we don’t want to. In the end I found myself concentrating more on the music than the dance.

Kenneth Kvarnstrom’s OreloB (that’s Bolero backwards) was an almost immediate pick-me-up, a piece in which the music and dance were completely intertwined, feeding inventively off of each other and creating an almost narcotic transformation, a dervish sensory swirl, in the audience. “The driving force behind Kvarnstrom’s choreographic work is the wish to find and work with the inherent musicality of movement,” his program bio reads, and with OreloB he succeeds in spades: It’s the only one of the program’s three works that genuinely and consistently engaged me.

At the core of OreloB is Jukka Rintamaki’s electronic score, based on the sinuous repetitions of Ravel’s Bolero but scratching them up so they sound ragged and removing the overly familiar undulations while retaining the hypnotic effect. Helena Horstedt’s costumes, with little shoulder-and-back ruffles that seemed like sea-creature gills, lent the piece a slightly sinister science-fiction feel (the designs reminded me a little of the stuff the late lamented Portland theater artist Ric Young used to do). And the dancing was vigorous and unstoppable, inventive and relentless. The energy doesn’t let up: when the dancers walk, they walk with purpose. It’s rhythmic, sexy, trancelike – maybe something like Ravel’s music was when it was fresh, before it became commonplace. I’ll be listening to Beethoven’s Pathetique for the rest of my life, and chances are I’ll never listen to Rintamaki’s music for OreloB again. Yet as a dance, Kvarnstrom’s OreloB is considerably more memorable than Andersson’s 32 Variations.

The closer, Inger’s Falter, is the most theatrical and Canfieldesque, a piece that revels in blasts of sound and vivid stage effects. The set, which Inger designed, is dominated by a jungle’s worth of hanging ropes (64 of them) that gave the impression that aerial work would soon be commencing. Except for a couple of desultory half-attempts it didn’t: the ropes really were set pieces, suggesting the jungle, or prison bars, or whatever sort of obscurant you wanted to make of them. Blinding lights flashed in the dancers’ faces; their heads shook violently as if gripped by seizures; their bodies jolted. Why? I’m not sure, but then, a dance doesn’t need a precise reason.

It does need a shape, though, and like a lot of dances performed to more-or-less ambient music, the shape of Falter is difficult to detect. “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously said, and Falter, despite Inger’s suggestion that it moves from chaos to order, seems to follow that dictum. Certainly the piece didn’t seem to end at the end. Those ropes, eventually, came tumbling down, plopping on the stage and raising little puffs of dust like stage fog, until finally the last one coiled on the floor. But the music and the dancing continued, puzzlingly, anticlimactically, shapelessly. When it stopped I wasn’t sure why or why then, but I was glad: It had overstayed its time.

Still, I was glad to see Goteborg Ballet in town. The dancers are obviously deeply skilled, the company has high technical values, and like almost everything that White Bird imports, it represents a vivid snapshot of what’s going on in the world of contemporary dance. If Goteborg Ballet is the balletic yang to Oregon Ballet Theatre’s yin, White Bird is OBT’s yang in terms of local presentation: OBT provides a lively and satisfying continuing tradition, White Bird brings in messengers from the rest of the world. Goteborg and Portland could be sister cities. White Bird and OBT are sister dance presenters, the twin poles of the city’s fertile dance scene – and together, they create a satisfying whole.

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    An interesting review, and I’m in almost complete agreement. While Christopher Stowell does indeed program quite a lot of Balanchine, and I urge, nay, demand that everyone with the slightest interest in theatrical dance of any kind go see the upcoming Stravinsky Violin Concerto, made forty years ago exactly, and like Four Temperaments by the same choreographer about as contemporary as ballet gets, I think he is also extremely interested in presenting new work by young choreographers that couldn’t be less neo-classical. So it’s not quite a yin and yang situation. As for the assessment of the Goteborg Ballet itself, I couldn’t agree more.

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