Artur Sultanov

Revealed: ballet for the 21st century

OBT's newest program is hampered by a lack of live music, but tells exciting stories of our time

Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its post-Nutcracker season at the Keller Auditorium last weekend with four 21st century story ballets, and despite the absence of live orchestra, the dancers tell the stories very well. No surprise there. With the exception of Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy, a pas de deux made originally on New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, all were created on these particular dancers, most of them anyway, and that shows.

Two of the dances on the program–which is called Reveal, and which repeats Thursday-Saturday, February 27-March 1–are overtly political.  Christopher Stowell’s curtain-raising world premiere A Second Front deals with Joseph Stalin’s persecution of Dimitri Shostakovich. The whispering soundtrack that alternates with excerpts from two of the composer’s suites for dance is also highly suggestive of the eavesdropping by today’s intelligence agencies, and not just ours.

Ye Li in Stowell's "A Second Front." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ye Li in Stowell’s “A Second Front.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Like Ekho, the last piece that Stowell made for the company he directed for close to a decade, A Second Front, is for seven couples.  Packed with classical steps, often executed at top speed in intricately designed floor patterns reminiscent of Balanchine’s, it takes place in a ballroom that the skeletal metal chandeliers suggest has seen better days. The women dance in identical silky gray evening gowns, with pleated skirts slit to the waist to reveal their beautiful legs in attitude or arabesque. The men are costumed in dreary gray suits reminiscent of those worn by members of the politburo.  Mark Zappone designed the costumes, and they, with Michael Mazzola’s lights, help to set the oppressive atmosphere of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

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The official “seasons” of the big arts groups have pretty much ended (not quite: Center Stage, for example, still has two playing at the Armory), but that doesn’t mean any slackening on my art calendar. Oh no. In fact, maybe there’s more than ever. So, even though I may have taken a little breather this weekend, that meant I missed a bunch of things that I would liked to have seen and heard. And that will be case all summer, whether I’m siesta-ing or not.

I did make it to Dance United, though, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s end-of-the-season benefit, at tidy 90 minutes of dancing (actually, part of that was clapping) by ballet stars from around the country and thanks to the Dutch Ballet, the world. I’m not going to “review” it, because that wasn’t the spirit of the thing, which was more small bites than full meal. (Martha Ullman West had a few observations about it all in The Oregonian this morning, if you want to have a look.) I do have a few thoughts, though.

1. I’d watch Wendy Whelan, the New York City Ballet prima, walk across the street. She’s so light and supple, she’d probably just drift across. She and Adrian Danchig-Waring danced the grand pas de deux from Balanchine’s Chaconne, so sweetly and gracefully that the dance’s devilish little rhythms seemed natural as breathing. Or crossing the street.

2. I also loved Dana Genshaft and Garen Scribner’s account of Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux from Ghosts, so sinuous and sexy, which is how I’ve found the San Francisco Ballet in other encounters. I wish ballet companies still toured extensively, so we could see an evening of SF Ballet pieces. Maybe an exchange could be worked out?

3. And speaking of sexy, the Joffrey Ballet has built its reputation on sexy, as longtime OBT fans know from founding artistic director James Canfield. The Joffrey’s Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili gave Yuri Possokhov’s Bells a fabulously athletic and sensuous reading, that had the fans in my section wishing there was more to come.

4. We could go on in this vein, but I’ll close with the highlight of the evening (even with the presence of Whelan, which is close to taking darshan for a dance fan): The Artur Sultanov-Alison Roper pas de deux from Wheeldon’s There Where She Loved, which also happened to be the last performance by Sultanov, who is retiring. The Sutlanov/Roper combination has been a primary pleasure of OBT the last few years, and we will miss their duos. But Roper remains, and one thing that was apparent during the evening? Roper as a dance artist fits just fine in Whelan or anyone else’s company.

Finally, what West said: I hope the evening was successful financially for OBT.

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