Dennis Spaight

OBT dancers: Making an ‘Impact’

From Spaight to Duato, the ballet company's Newmark program revels in variety and the spice of life

“The rhythm of my dancing is the same as the beat of my heart.  I think. I imagine. I hear.  I feel. I do it for you.”

That is a translation of the American Sign Language the dancers “speak” in Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, the second piece on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary season wrap-up, which opened at the Newmark Theatre on Thursday.

"Crayola," from left: Kimberly Nobriga, Samantha Allen, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, Shea McAdoo, Paige Wilkey. Photo: Yi Yin

“Crayola,” from left: Kimberly Nobriga, Samantha Allen, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, Shea McAdoo, Paige Wilkey. Photo: Yi Yin

OBT’s dancers–all of them, not just the apprentices and professional level students who performed Crayola–danced those words in every piece on the Impact program, their commitment to the choreographers’ wildly different points of view driving them as much as the music, or, in the case of Crayola, the sound of their point shoes hitting the floor.

I’ve long thought Crayola a deceptive title for a piece that is not about dancing crayons, cute as that might be, but rather dance as the most human of the arts. In new, soft, costumes designed by New York cinematographer and costume designer Christine Meyers, with the sign language updated by the mother of one of the dancers, this iteration of a dance I’ve seen many, many times charmed me in ways it has not in past performances.  All six dancers–company apprentices Kimberly Nobriga, Jessica Lind, Emily Parker, an Paige Wilkey; SOBT students Samantha Allen and Shea McAdoo–executed the intricacies of Spaight’s arrangements of the classical vocabulary with precision and wit.  Wilkey, whatever she did, from holding an unsupported arabesque to whipping out fouettés to  bourréeing rapidly across the stage, showed the promise and personality of a true ballerina, and I hope she sticks around. I would also love to see this company (OBT2, that is) perform Spaight’s Theatre Dances, made originally for the Jefferson Dancers, and about the young dancers for whom he felt such empathy.

fEARnoDANCEFORM might have made a more informative title for Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Instinctual Confidence, a world premiere set to music (mostly) composed by Portland composer Kenji Bunch, artistic director of fEARnoMUSIC, which opened the show.  Choreographer and composer met when they were students at Juilliard and share a highly eclectic vision of music and dance, melding popular culture with high art, as others, such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Rennie Harris, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Virgil Thomson have done before them.

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, and Chauncey Parsons in "Instinctual Confidence."  Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, and Chauncey Parsons in “Instinctual Confidence.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Moultrie incorporates the pedestrian running of postmodern dance, classical ballet, a touch of street dancing, and children’s play into a fast-moving piece in which there is a bewildering number of undeveloped movement ideas, making it difficult for me, at least, to figure out what it’s about.  Program notes informed me that it’s basically about the dancers, these particular dancers, its official title intended to convey the unself-conscious, confident actions of children at play. Some of the movement did just that: the opening’s  runs, floor rolls and a kind of stylized tag, indicating kids playing in the streets of New York as Moultrie himself did as a lad; Martina Chavez–in a lovely turquoise dress designed by Christine Joly de Lotbinière, who also designed the workout clothes look-alikes for the rest of the cast–spinning like a little girl who is delighted with her new party dress; a trio of men playing dress-up in tutus, which Moultrie intended  to give them the experience of having their dancing restricted by tulle. It’s not meant to be funny, and it isn’t. Many audience members loved this trio, and while it was certainly well-danced by Michael Linsmeier, Chauncey Parsons and Jordan Kindell, it somehow didn’t grab me.

For me, the highlights were the two high-energy pas de deux, particularly the first one danced by the technically impeccable Brian Simcoe and the versatile (and how!) Xuan Cheng, and Michael Mazzola’s lights, some of them a stunningly beautiful re-creation of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings. The piece ends with the whole cast on stage, dancing in unison against a brilliant and celebratory red wall, to wonderful jazzy music, which then shifts to a more lyrical sound during which we see a male dancer dragging a female dancer across the stage floor.  This is a male chauvinist movement cliché I damned well don’t ever want to see again.

Martina Chavez in "Presto." Photo: Yi Yin

Martina Chavez in “Presto.” Photo: Yi Yin

What I would like to see again is Nicolo Fonte’s Presto, the penultimate piece on the program.  Danced by Chavez, Simcoe, Cheng and Parsons, who did some partner switching, it’s nine minutes of aggressive, classical dancing that demands a punching thrust of the limbs coupled with extremely sharp attack. Chavez shone in this one, and all four dancers were visibly enjoying themselves.  Presto, which takes its title from Edio Bosso’s score, was originally made for Ballet West, where Fonte is resident choreographer and David Heuvel, who designed the incredibly elegant shorts and tops, is resident costumier.

For Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement, OBT’s dancers shed their shoes and classical decorum to deliver a gut-wrenching performance of a work that made little impact on me when I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet dance it several years ago. Perhaps this is because the cultural context has changed. The 1990 piece, inspired by Haitian Creole songs recorded by Toto Bissainthe, is about 18th century plantation slaves, forbidden to practice their own religious rites and punished for doing so. As I watched the section in which Kindell, who completely owns this role, is brutalized by a couple of cops, I couldn’t help thinking about all the police shootings of African Americans we’ve seen as recently as last week in the land of the free and the brave. Movement taken from Martha Graham’s Lamentation (the dancer completely covered by cloth, body sunk in a wide second position plié,) also made me think of Franco’s Spain, where Duato, born in 1957, grew up under the oppressive eye of the Guarda Civil.

While all the dancers gave this highly emotional work everything they had, their commitment and understanding of the subject informing their dancing, I couldn’t take my eyes off  company artist Sarah Griffin, who gave a performance that was as passionate as it was political, or Kindell, or Cheng.  The closer for repertory shows, traditionally, is lighthearted and cheerful, like Balanchine’s appalling Stars and Stripes or his magnificent Symphony in C. Irving, who staged Rassemblement and as artistic director selected and commissioned the works on the program he titled Impact, ended this show with a work so well-danced that, while less than cheerful, it serves as the most powerful illustration of the program’s theme.

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OBT’s Impact continues through April 25 in the Newmark Theatre, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19; and 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 23-25. Ticket information is here.

A double dash of Dennis Spaight

OBT2 and Northwest Dance Theatre are reviving works by the late, great Portland choreographer

For lighting designer Peter West, a frequent collaborator with Dennis Spaight in the last years of the choreographer’s life,  “the door into [his] work was his musicality: his astonishing ability to compose lines of movement that complemented, expanded and illuminated music. And likewise his choices of music illuminated his movement phrases. His range was exceptional: Gershwin, Ellington, Vivaldi, Schubert, Copland, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Schumann – and even silence.”

West, commenting on a Feb. 7, 2013 ArtsWatch story, Remembering Dennis Spaight, 20 Years Later, had it right.

The young dancers of OBT2 rehearsing Spaight's "Crayola." Photo: Friderike Heuer

Rehearsing Spaight’s “Crayola”: Emma-Anne Bauman (front), Kimberly Nobriga (middle-left) and Paige Wilkey (middle-right); Siri Ell-Lewis (back-left) and Emily Parker. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s founding associate artistic director and resident choreographer died more than two decades ago, but this spring, Spaight’s spirit and his talent are very much alive in the bodies of two groups of young dancers, Northwest Dance Theatre and OBT’s newly formed OBT2.  The ballets they are performing are quite different, but both bear the unmistakable stamp of an artist whose sensitivity to the human condition was just as acute as his ear for music.

NDT performs excerpts from Gloria on a mixed program Saturday and Sunday at Portland Community College Sylvania’s Performing Arts Center. Set to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria Mass,” the ballet pays eloquent tribute to Spaight’s mother’s Catholic faith. Like the music, the dance is both celebratory and sad, the choreographer’s vocabulary a demanding mix of classical technique and modern expressiveness.  “Dance is my religion,” Spaight once told me, and this ballet, last seen in its entirety when OBT danced it in the fall of 1993 on an all-Spaight commemorative program that included Scheherazade and Rhapsody in Blue, is a richly beautiful manifestation of that creed.

When he listed “even silence” as part of Spaight’s musical range, West, who has redone the lighting for NDT’s production of Gloria, was surely referring to Crayola, which OBT’s youngest dancers will perform starting April 16 when the company concludes its 25th anniversary season at the Newmark with a repertory program titled Impact.

It is the impact of the dancers’ point shoes on the floor of the stage that provides the accompaniment for a work that is not about dancing crayons, but about incorporating American Sign Language into the classical vocabulary and turning a social occasion—in this instance young ladies at a teaparty—into a dance.  Crayola, which Spaight made for Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1979, is not, as Gloria is, a major work. But it does show that very early in his sadly curtailed career, he had full command of his craft and a light touch with it. An excellent vehicle for young dancers (it contains some exuberant movement involving chairs), Crayola, I was told by Alison Roper last fall, is fun to dance.  It is certainly fun to watch. Both ballets were staged by Spaight Trust repetiteur Carol Shults with loving care, judicious adjustments, and unimpeachable dedication to the choreographer’s intent.

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Schedule and ticket details for Northwest Dance Theatre’s performances are here.

Schedule and ticket details for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Impact are here.

Up-to-date: What’s kickin’ at OBT

New ballet boss Kevin Irving talks about money, a second company, Alison Roper, real estate, and the 25th season

George Balanchine’s Agon.  Three pas de deux by Trey McIntyre, Christopher Stowell and James Canfield. Ben Stevenson’s  Cinderella. Additional performances of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Dennis Spaight’s Crayola, to be performed by a newly formed youth company, OBT 2.

Alison Roper, around whom OBT's current season is built, with Artiur Sultanov in Nicol Fonte's "Bolero," 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Alison Roper, around whom OBT’s current season is built, with Artur Sultanov in Nicolo Fonte’s “Bolero,” 2010. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

You could have knocked me over with a firebird’s feather when Kevin Irving, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, announced next year’s season, the company’s twenty-fifth. To celebrate that landmark, the season includes works by Stowell and Canfield, Irving’s predecessors as artistic director, and by Spaight and McIntyre, important onetime resident choreographers. And it’s not the slimmed-down, contemporary season that some bystanders had expected. At $5.4 million, the 2014-15 season budget is about $400,000 higher than this season’s – for many onlookers a big surprise, considering the financial troubles the company’s been through in recent years. What’s more, Irving said, the company is looking to develop its East Side property to help stabilize finances long-term.

A new work by Nicolo Fonte on the fall program didn’t surprise me: Fonte, Irving’s partner, has several pieces in OBT’s repertory already, including the recently performed Bolero, which, as it has since its premiere in 2008, brought Portland audiences, cheering, to their feet.

A  world premiere by the hot young New York-based choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie for next April’s show at the Newmark didn’t surprise me either: Irving said last fall he wanted to focus on new American choreographers.  Moultrie, a graduate of Juilliard and a recipient of a 2007 Princess Grace choreography award, defies stylistic pigeonholing, having made work on such ballet companies as Cincinnati Ballet and Milwaukee Ballet, as well as for Beyonce’s Mrs. Carter world tour.  He has also collaborated with the phenomenal tap dancer Savion Glover.

Because of the diminished size of the company and the reduced budget that led to Christopher Stowell’s resignation as artistic director at the end of 2012, rumors had abounded over what Irving would do with OBT’s silver anniversary, the first season he would plan. His experience as ballet master and artistic assistant to Nacho Duato at the Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, and as artistic director of Sweden’s contemporary Goteborg Ballet from 2002 to 2007 – a failing company whose fortunes he reversed – contributed to an impression that he might remake OBT into a chamber-sized, contemporary ballet company on the order of the Northwest Dance Project, and therefore not this community’s most pressing need. The worst of the rumors from my point of view was that there would be no Balanchine, other than The Nutcracker, on the season. Balanchine is to American ballet as Sir Frederick Ashton is to British.

In fact, we are seeing no Balanchine this season, save his Nutcracker, and that did not bode well. Admittedly, the current season’s programming had already been set by acting artistic director Anne Mueller when Irving arrived in town in July. But he did make some adjustments, scrapping a new work by Mueller, stabling Petipa’s war horse Le Corsaire pas de deux, and  replacing them on the fall opener with Duato’s Por Vos Muerto.  For the upcoming April concerts, he added Helen Pickett’s swift neoclassical Petal and substituted Duato’s Cor Perdut for Stowell’s Adin.

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The most important change he made, however, was in the season’s focus. It was originally called Tribute, in honor of  Stowell’s nearly ten years of directorship. Irving shifted the homage to Alison Roper, whose performances in the April show will be her last after eighteen years with the company.  The Duato works, especially Cor Perdut, a pas de deux redolent of Spanish fatalistic passion, were programmed to showcase aspects of Roper’s dancing that Irving feels have not yet been brought to the fore. This season, she is the official face of OBT; her image is on every poster, and she is featured in at least one ballet in every show.  As a marketing strategy, it has certainly worked well in selling single tickets at a time when subscription sales are down.  For February’s repertory show Reveal, Irving told me in a recent interview, “single-ticket sales were the best for a non-full-length ballet evening we’ve ever had.  Dream [the season opener] was fourth or fifth on the list for single tickets, so we must be doing something right.” Irving’s catchy one-word titles for programs no doubt are another thing he’s been doing right. April’s is now titled Celebrate, in honor of Roper, and the run will end, as is customary, with a retrospective tribute to her dancing.

All that being said, Roper – whose roles have called on her to portray pioneer women and princesses, Carmen  and the Girl from Ipanema – is an extremely hard act to follow. I asked Irving what the ramifications of her absence next season from OBT’s roster would be.

Roper in Balanchine's "Seranade," 2004. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Roper in Balanchine’s “Serenade,” 2004. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Promoting the last chance to see her as a recurring theme this season does create an absence,” he said.  “But it also creates an opportunity to begin filling it.” “There are lovely, talented women in the company at this time,” he added, citing Martina Chavez’s “quiet glamour” in the pas de deux in Almost Mozart, and Candace Bouchard’s performance in the same ballet. Haiyan Wu and Xuan Cheng are very different,” he said, “and each brings a lot of charisma to the stage.” Next season’s company will remain the same size as this year’s, with 21 professional dancers (of whom four will be new) on 30-week contracts, and six apprentices augmented by the same number of professional-division students from OBT’s School. They will be performing what is clearly a classically based repertory, representing Irving’s vision for an American ballet company in the second decade of the 21st century.

OBT 25 opens the season with a modern masterpiece. Balanchine’s Agon, a note-by-note, step-by-step collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, was radical in 1957 when it premiered at New York’s City Center, and it still is. This is partly because of Stravinsky’s jazzy, atonal score, music, which original cast member Todd Bolender told me is nearly impossible for the dancers to count in any conventional, useful way. The ballet has no plot or narrative, and the title provides only a partial clue. “Agon” means” contest” in ancient Greek, and the ballet is considered to be about competition of various kinds. It demands the free-wheeling, fearless athleticism that made Balanchine want to work with American dancers in the first place, but it also requires the facility and finesse of classical technique at its best.  Moreover, several sections of the ballet are named for traditional court dances. Bolender danced a solo titled Sarabande; Roper, a Bransle Gay in 1999, the only previous time OBT has performed the ballet. It will be interesting to see how Bart Cook, who is slated to set Agon, will cast it. He did a superb job of staging Stravinsky Violin Concerto a couple of years ago.

Irving, who danced the central pas de deux when he was performing in Canada as a young man, chose Agon to represent the company’s Balanchine heritage for a number of reasons. His personal connection to the ballet, and much else that he programs, is important to him, but Agon, he said, also “added the necessary astringent quality to the program, as it is bracing, athletic, and somewhat a challenge to the audience.” The astringency will balance Canfield’s highly emotional and very beautiful “bedroom pas de deux” from his Romeo and Juliet, part of the triptych of pas de deux that provides the middle of the program, along with one by Stowell and another by  McIntyre, all of them stylistically different from Agon and each other.

With Stevenson’s Cinderella, Irving reassures the city’s story-ballet aficionados that they won’t have to travel north to Seattle, or south to Eugene or San Francisco, to see one. OBT already has several in the repertory – Giselle, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and of course, The Nutcracker – but Cinderella is new to the company. While many choreographers have used Prokofiev’s 1944 score to tell the familiar tale of child neglect and upward mobility with a happily-ever-after ending for just about everyone, Irving selected the British-born Stevenson’s in part because it is modeled on Ashton’s iconic (and I do not use that word lightly) 1948 rendering. Stevenson, who was commissioned to make this version in 1970 for the National Ballet of Washington, retains the sweetness of the comedy in Ashton’s version, but according to a number of critics, it lacks the Ashton version’s choreographic heft. Yet American audiences from Houston to New York  have loved it for nearly forty-five years, which is partly why Irving is adding it to OBT’s repertory: “I wanted something that was really going to be the full classical experience, that would provide an access point for people to come into the world of ballet.” And while he didn’t put it quite like this, that would also provide some laughter.

Duato’s emotionally intense Rassemblement, about Haitian slaves, begins the last show of the silver anniversary season, which ends with Grand Moultrie’s world premiere.  But with the introduction of OBT 2,  dancing the late  Spaight’s Crayola, the show (titled Impact) is very much about the futureSpaight made this ballet as a very young man, winning an award from Mikhail Baryshnikov for a work performed in silence by women in point shoes, with chairs as an integral part of the choreography.  So is signing for the deaf. The dancers perform in brilliantly colored costumes in a work (inspired by Jerome Robbins’ Moves, also danced without music) that is more about nonverbal, non-aural communication than the dancing crayons suggested by its unfortunate title. After watching a number of Spaight’s ballets on video, Irving selected this one because he “wanted something that wouldn’t be just another good ballet, but would stand out for the distinct approach of its creator and be a challenge for the young dancers.”

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Next season’s budget, at $5.4 million, is only slightly larger than this year’s $4.99 million, making it seem an odd time to expand the organization with a second company, albeit one that is largely unpaid.  “Why,” Irving told me, “is easy.  We need to be more present in the community and OBT2 can perform in venues [schools, community centers] we can’t negotiate with the first company.  We also need to make the professional development program more robust, which will support the School in a concrete way.”

OBT 2 potentially will have six apprentices and six professional division students. This year’s group of professional division students contains six girls, who augmented the cast in last fall’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Nutcracker. They are spending the spring season being mentored and coached, developing audition videos and rehearsing for the School program at the end of April.  This year’s contains all of Swan Lake’s second act in the first half, signaling that the classical direction has not changed under new leadership. Irving’s goal is to develop a repertory just for OBT2, starting with Crayola.

The plan for OBT2 is ambitious, dependent not only on a better financial foundation for the institution as a whole, but also an expansion of what Irving refers to as the infrastructure. OBT owns the entire close-in East Side block on which its current facility stands, giving the company what Irving calls its “one tangible concrete asset.” The goal is to use this asset, which is mortgaged, to get out of debt entirely and build a state-of-the-art facility for the company and the school.  Irving said discussions are under way to find a partner to develop the property, possibly into a large complex of condominiums in which OBT would be the primary occupant. Such a development would certainly provide the stable funding that the company has needed and never really had for the past quarter of a century.

Irving is guardedly optimistic about the company’s future, acknowledging that there is much work to be done in fundraising and season subscription sales. A new search for a much-needed executive director to oversee all that and more is under way.  Irving is, he says, “the leader of a really strong team” primarily on the artistic side, but he’s not functioning as the executive director.  This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his eye firmly on the bottom line.  Asked why he didn’t program Ashton’s Cinderella, he answered succinctly, “There are cost considerations.”  Given those considerations, OBT’s twenty-fifth anniversary season looks pretty good to me.

 

 

News & Notes dips into its Aristotle

The real worlds of Amy Freed, David Zellnick, and Dennis Spaight meet their art

Michael Elich and Bhama Roget in Artist's Repertory Theater's production of "The-Monster Builder." Photo: Owen Carey

Michael Elich and Bhama Roget in Artist’s Repertory Theater’s production of “The-Monster Builder.” Photo: Owen Carey

Right, art is always meeting “life.” Aristotle tells us that art intends “to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Now, I’m not prepared to defend that proposition against a determined attack, but accepting it just for the moment and speaking from experience, unless those outward appearances make sense to us, we have a hard time digging into those explorations of inner meaning. That means asking an artist for a report about the world she encounters is entirely plausible as a line of inquiry. And it’s also why the biography of an artist can be pertinent to the understanding of his work: The world he lived in is important.

So maybe that’s just stating the obvious! But the obvious in this case happens to pertain to today’s edition of News & Notes…

ArtsWatch pal Brian Libby engaged in a tête-à-tête with Brett Campbell about Amy Freed’s new play “The Monster-Builder” at Artists Repertory Theatre, and now he’s posted Part One of an interview with Freed on his PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE blog. You can probably guess that they didn’t talk about theater and playwriting; they talked architecture and city planning. For example, at the start Freed defends the Portland Building, which may be slated for demolition, at length: “It’s crazy but it’s not uninteresting. I hope it’s preserved. You can read the past in it and it’s meaningful in its way. Whatever goes up instead of it would be a crapshoot.”

Some other greatest hits:

  • “My hope for the play is to generate more interest in the non-architectural community about speaking up and talking back. Because the cities are such a mess, and we’re leaving a legacy of such ugliness, and such harshness, and such social dysfunction, and such class division. And it’s happening so fast and it’s happening everywhere.”
  • “San Francisco’s per square foot real estate cost doubled within a year a couple years ago. The arts are fleeing, once more. So Portland’s very attractive to serious creative types. That draws life to a city, makes it trendy, makes it attractive, and the development follows.”
  • “Have you seen these ruin-porn pictures that are coming out of Detroit? They’re not without majesty. To rebuild a city with some vision and poetry and skill as an artist, as people in architecture often aspire to be, would be to maintain these records of things that have happened: to not necessarily restore them but to allow the destruction to show. If everything turns into facelessness, that’s really where are spirits shut down and die.”

But really, the whole interview is well worth the trip. And you can take a peek at the Bob Hicks review of the play, just for a little background.

Speaking of the indefatigable Mr. Hicks, we recommend that you visit his review of Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom before or after seeing defunkt’s production of David Zellnik’s “unlikely and charming post-AIDS romantic comedy.”

“Zellnik wrote A Hundred Flowers in 2001, and even now its setup seems a little daring, a little dancing-on-skeletons, with a smart sense of the complicating fear and pain underlying the liberation. It’s a warm play, ultimately, a feel-good sort of story, but with enough nuance and emotional shadings to give it real impact.”

Leela Janelle did an excellent preview of the show for PQ Monthly.
And while we’re linking you to ourselves, take a look at Martha Ullman West’s review of the latest Eugene Ballet concert, which features Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade and Toni Pimble’s Bolero. West’s understanding of the work of Spaight (who died of AIDS) is deep, and she’s followed Pimble and the Eugene Ballet almost from the start (the ballet started in 1978 and Martha picked up the chase at their Nutcracker in 1981). There is NO substitute for this kind of context!

In this ballet, Spaight, who was dying and knew it, packed much of his autobiography as a dancer. It has the dramatic punch and stylistic eclecticism of Maurice Béjart, in whose Ballet of the 20thCentury Spaight performed when he was young. If you look closely, you can spot steps from the classical canon, such as the battu, the fluttering beat of one bent leg against the other that symbolizes captivity in Swan Lake, to which, as a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, he had received thorough exposure.

Spinning Spaight’s tales in Eugene

Eugene Ballet recaptures the magic of "Scheherazade," and premieres a bright and clever "Bolero"

EUGENE – You could have heard a program flutter to the floor, the audience was so absorbed. The Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center was nearly full last Saturday night for Eugene Ballet’s performance of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, and it’s a big house, making that  a pretty compelling tribute to the dancers, the choreographer, and OrchestraNEXT.  Under the baton of founder Brian McWhorter, the orchestra accompanied the entire program with  acute sensitivity to both the music and what was happening on stage.

Spaight's "Scheherazade" spins its tales again at Eugene Ballet. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Spaight’s “Scheherazade” spins its tales again. Eugene Ballet Photo

And that was a lot, even before Scheherazade closed a program of one premiere (artistic director Toni Pimble’s light-hearted visualization of  Ravel’s Bolero) and three revivals. That’s revivals, not reprisals, as much contemporary repertory tends to be: the dancers treated like drones, robots or machines, and much too often, earplugs handed out (or worse, not handed out) with the programs to muffle a soundscape that assaults the ears and drowns out the dancing.

Spaight’s re-casting of Fokine’s 1910 Scheherazade premiered in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre in the fall of 1990, two and a half years before the choreographer’s death in February of 1993. The original was more a spectacle than a dance. This one is still a spectacle, thanks to Henk Pander, who created the sets; Ric Young, who designed the lavish, outré costumes; and Peter West, who designed the lights. But it is also definitely a dance, and how.

In this ballet, Spaight, who was dying and knew it, packed much of his autobiography as a dancer. It has the dramatic punch and stylistic eclecticism of Maurice Béjart, in whose Ballet of the 20th Century Spaight performed when he was young. If you look closely, you can spot steps from the classical canon, such as the battu, the fluttering beat of one bent leg against the other that symbolizes captivity in Swan Lake, to which, as a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, he had received thorough exposure. The Sultan’s costume, with its aggressive symbolism, and the green makeup that Young created for all the bad guys flesh out the story. But it is the dancers who tell a tale in which unarmed women triumph over warriors and Scheherazade sacrifices her life for love of the Golden Slave. When Spaight’s seductive, sensuous choreography is performed with wholehearted commitment, as Eugene Ballet’s dancers do, the ballet doesn’t have a static moment, and the audience suspends its disbelief.

Yoshie Oshima in the title role, Preston Swovelin as her lover, and Mark Tucker as the Sultan inhabited those characters last Saturday night as if they were dancing about themselves. Oshima, physically tiny with enormous authority and stage presence, draws the eye like a moth to a flame. She’s onstage for the length of the ballet, using that body to tell a story to the harem girls, perform a tender pas de deux  with the Golden Slave, jeté into his arms to be tossed in the air in a way that made the audience gasp,  plead with the Sultan for mercy, convulsively thrust a dagger into her chest when mercy is not forthcoming, and follow her funeral cortege in a ghostly walk.

As the Golden Slave, Snovelin did a little too much mugging in the second scene, when he and Scheherazade declare their love. Ardor is easily expressed with the body, and he was much better in the moonlit garden scene, where the couple are joined by Odalisques Suzanne Haag and Beth Maslinoff, partnered by Takeru Anzai and Jeff Wolfe. What this gorgeous, elegiac Pas de Six tells us is that Scheherazade and the Golden Slave are not alone: the Odalisques and their lovers are equally doomed. Spaight shows this by not giving the lead couple center stage to perform.

They all get caught, of course, by Tucker as a Sultan who relished being evil, just enough (his performance, he told me after the show, was informed by the live music) and the Warriors, overcoming costumes based on Japanese armor that are almost impossible to move in. With its skillfully controlled chaos, the resulting battle scene, which is won by the harem girls (this is a political ballet, informed by late 20th century feminism), made me wish Spaight had had a chance to choreograph The Nutcracker‘s unconvincing fight between mice and toy soldiers.

The program opened with former company member Melissa Bobick’s pleasant Idyll for Eight, to a Janacek score, a pointe piece that showcased  the dancers’ talents and technique as curtain raisers are supposed to do. Janacek’s Idyll for String Orchestra contains five movements, and was eloquently played by the orchestra. But Bobick, who is a beginning choreographer,  ran out of ideas before she ran out of music, making the piece seem too long.  Tucker and principal dancer Heather Wallace were the standouts in this piece, along with Anzai, whose buoyancy added a little excitement to a rather monochromatic work.

Pimble's "Bolero" in Eugene. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Pimble’s “Bolero” in Eugene. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Like Spaight’s Scheherazade, Pimble’s Two’s Company – made in 1992, to music by Dvorak, for New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project – holds up well. Oshima, Swovelin, and Jeff Wolfe, like Swovelin a guest artist, seamlessly danced this dramatic vignette about abandoning one lover for another. As in Scheherazade, there is passion and grief in the music, but here it is the woman who is merciless and the man who is sacrificed, expressed in Pimble’s direct movement style.   

Bolero closed the first half, and Pimble’s take on this too-familiar music is clever, humorous, and visually exciting. It begins with a single female dancer on stage: Wallace again, clad in black briefs and a red top. As the music builds, she is joined by a male dancer, bare-chested in knee-length red tights.  As it continues to build, more and more dancers pour onto the stage, and the principals do a striptease in reverse until the women are clad in swirling red skirts, the men in abstractions of bullfighters’ “suits of light.”  There are no point shoes. The dancers deploy their legs in big developpés (unfolding of the working leg from the standing one), and the initial hard-edged angular movement becomes undulating and sinuous, reminiscent of Spanish dancing and bullfighting. Again, Anzai is given a virtuoso solo, and there is a terrifically energetic male quartet.  While the music is the same, this Bolero, which is a lot of fun, could not be more different from Nicolo Fonte’s sleekly contemporary and beautiful version for OBT, which is being revived beginning Saturday on OBT’s Reveal program.  How I wish that program, also a mixed bill, were being performed to live music, as well.

*

Eugene Ballet’s Scheherazade and Bolero program doesn’t repeat. Next up for the company’s home season, after a guest performance by Ailey II on February 26, is Zoot Suit Riot, with live accompaniment by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, April 12-13.

 

The Storytellers: Seeger & Spaight

Spaight's sumptuous ballet 'Scheherazade' in rehearsal in Eugene and Seeger's vibrant songs spin an interweaving tale of memory

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

January 8, 1955

“I’ve just come from hearing Pete Seeger, my God he really is terrific.  I think the only time I am really and completely happy is when I am watching a great, or even good artist perform.  It’s a feeling that is difficult to describe, buoyant and joyous, as if I’d had a little too much champagne.”

January 30, 2014

I was seventeen years old when I wrote that entry in a journal I’ve kept sporadically—very sporadically—ever since.  When I made the entry, in a hard-cover, lined, 200-page plus notebook my grandmother gave me ( the first one, as it happens) I hadn’t a clue I would end up writing about performance professionally, or that a first-rate performance, nearly sixty years later, would still have that affect on me, mostly on stage, sometimes in rehearsal.

Pete Seeger, 1955. Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Pete Seeger, 1955. Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 1955, Seeger had just held two hundred teenagers and about the same number of adults in thrall to a voice that proclaimed the sheer joy of singing while it told the story of the underground railway in Follow the Drinking Gourd, and rose above our group participation in the African lion-hunting song Wimeweh, riffing on the melody.  We were packed into the gym at Oakwood School, a Quaker prep school in Poughkeepsie, New York, not far from where Pete and Toshi Seeger lived, and where Pete died on Monday at age 94.

That was the height of the McCarthy era, and Seeger was under investigation by the FBI and blacklisted by television and radio. But Oakwood School was as committed to social justice and free speech as my elementary school had been, where Seeger, briefly, had been the music teacher eight years before. He, and subsequent teachers, failed utterly to teach me to play the recorder, an instrument I continue to loathe, but he did convey the joy to be found in singing a song, and taught me, de facto, to look as a dance critic for some joy in the dancing, shorthand for wholehearted commitment to the performance, whatever it calls for:  sorrow or delight, tenderness or passion, rage or remorse.

I thought of all that on Wednesday afternoon in Eugene, while observing Carol Shults’s fine-tuning the Eugene Ballet Company dancers in a rehearsal of Dennis Spaight’s beautiful, multi-layered Scheherazade, which makes the storyteller the centerpiece of the ballet, and, like Rimsky-Korsakov’s score,  is about every emotion listed above and more.  And these dancers, as well as EBC ballet mistress Jennifer Martin, who danced the ballet’s title role the last time Eugene did it in 2005, are as committed to this work as the original cast was when it premiered in Portland in the fall of 1990: It was the first work Spaight made for the newly formed Oregon Ballet Theatre. With costumes designed by Ric Young, sets by Henk Pander, and lighting by Peter West, Portland artists all, Scheherazade remains the most lavish production Oregon Ballet Theatre has ever done (with the possible exception of James Canfield’s 1993 Nutcracker, with its sets and costumes designed by Campbell Baird).  Scheherazade was last seen in Portland in the fall of 1993, twenty-one years ago, in a tribute program for Spaight, who had died in February of that year.  

EBC’s dancers have already performed this run of  Scheherazade in Florence on the Oregon coast, where the audience, Martin reports, loved it, sitting in stunned silence at the end, when Scheherazade, who has stabbed herself to death to save the life of the Golden Slave, follows her own funeral cortege offstage. Then the crowd broke into cheers when the dancers took their curtain calls.

The Sultan and the Golden slave (Frank Affrunti and Hyuk-Ku Kwon). Eugene Ballet Company

The Sultan and the Golden slave (Frank Affrunti and Hyuk-Ku Kwon). Eugene Ballet Company

So Shults doesn’t have a whole lot of “cleaning” to do, as repetiteurs call putting the finishing touches on a ballet.  She suggests to the Sultan’s wives that they individualize their dancing to tell their own stories—“each woman has a different one,” she says, “underlying the evil of the set-up.” She instructs them to reach with their spines, and works on the spacing.  I’m impressed by the flexibility of those spines, especially Yoshie Oshima’s, who dances the title role.  It’s unusual in classically trained dancers, although an important attribute for choreographers like Spaight and EBC artistic director Toni Pimble.

The corps of harem girls, led by Oshima, dances the opening dance once more. “Good,” Shults says, “Way more liquid.  You can tell how much Dennis loved this music, can’t you?” They nod in agreement.  Oshima and guest artist Preston Swovelin as the Golden Slave perform their first pas de deux, matching the music’s eloquence, in which every note tells us this love is doomed.  Shults calls for more tenderness and a sharper attack.   Oshima and Swovelin remind us both of Patricia Miller and James Canfield, who originated these roles, Canfield giving the performance of his life on opening night.

The rehearsal moves swiftly. The Sultan appears, Mark Tucker wielding the scimitar with evil flourishes, swirling the skirts of his incredibly wicked-looking costume, an expression of character, all of it bad.    The warriors, reluctantly, put on their movement-constricting costumes (“everyone always hates those costumes,” Shults tells them) and a stomping battle with the harem women takes place, with Shults requesting more muscle and the arms at a sharper angle.

“Okay, let’s run it,” she says.  The company takes it from the beginning, and I find myself completely absorbed, shocked  anew when Scheherazade thrusts that dagger upwards into her chest, weeping as she paces behind her own bier, not offstage, to the back of the studio.

Driving back to Portland, Shults and I are both high on this run-through, laughing, talking, remembering other performances (Nashville Ballet did it in the fall of  2004).  Somewhere north of Eugene we pass by some tract housing and spontaneously break into “Little boxes by the highway and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,” the Malvina Reynolds song that Seeger, who’s still on my mind, made his own.

Even as I write, the Eugene Ballet is touring Scheherazade, along with Pimble’s new version of Bolero and Two’s Company, the ballet she made for New York City Ballet’s first Diamond Project in 1992, and former company member Melissa Bobick’s Idyll for Eight.  The company’s in Spokane this weekend.  The program will be performed in Eugene at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts on February 15th and 16th, with live orchestra.  I wish I could say we’ll soon see Scheherazade in the city of its birth, but it doesn’t seem likely.  And that’s a shame.

Remembering Dennis Spaight, 20 years later

The Portland choreographer, who died in 1993, left a vivid legacy of dance

 

Dennis Spaight in the studio, 1988

Dennis Spaight in the studio, 1988

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

When I walk past a park bench facing the Mark Wing of the Portland Art Museum, I often think of Dennis Spaight, who at the time of his death, twenty years ago on February 6th, 1993, was Oregon Ballet Theatre’s associate director and resident choreographer. For some years, before the museum remodeled it, the building housed Oregon Ballet Theatre’s studios, where, between 1989 and 1993, Dennis made some damn good ballets.  I interviewed Spaight on that bench several times in those years, when the sun was shining, and he needed to get some air during a rehearsal break from those stuffy studios where he created so much work.

The first was “Scheherazade,” Spaight’s first ballet for OBT, the company formed from a merger of Pacific Ballet Theatre and Ballet Oregon, where he had been the artistic director.  It premiered in the fall of 1990, initiating the new company’s first season. With sets by Henk Pander, costumes by Ric Young and lighting design by Peter West, it was a collaboration made in heaven. Dennis loathed the original libretto, its sexism and violence, but he loved Rimsky-Korsakoff’s lush music.  So he made the storyteller, Scheherazade, the heroine of the piece, and while she does get killed, she is a redemptive figure: in the ballet’s gut-wrenching conclusion, you see her following her own bier as it is carried off stage.  The artist/storyteller may die, Spaight seems to be saying, but the art lives on.

Spaight

Spaight

For the opening of the ballet Young designed gloriously colored pleated silk skirts for the harem girls, and they were very much a part of the choreography.  For the warriors, he made costumes based on medieval Japanese armor, and Spaight used Asian martial arts movement as well as Tai Chi, and the harem girls became “a monstrous regiment of women”—there was no keeping them off the battlefield! Pander created his highly theatrical, glowing set pieces while he listened to the score, and West’s lighting designs were as musical as the choreography they revealed.  The ballet hasn’t been performed in Portland since 1994. It was on a program that paid tribute to Spaight, but the Nashville Ballet, the Eugene Ballet and Ballet Idaho have performed it in the last decade, and done it very well.

Spaight, whose heritage was Irish (and he danced with the Irish National Ballet, as well as Bejart’s Ballet of the XXth Century, San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet before coming to Portland in the early 1980s,) was intensely proud of being an American choreographer. One of several statements about that was “Ellington Suite,” made on OBT, with the Woody Hite band live on stage with the dancers.  “What composer,” Spaight said to me at some point, possibly sitting on that bench, “is more American than the Duke?”

Gershwin, of course, comes to mind, and Spaight did an elegant, sophisticated  “Rhapsody in Blue” for Ballet Oregon, really a tribute to the Depression-era musical films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, then set it on OBT, where the late Michael Rios and the very much alive Nicole Cuevas can be seen dancing a pas de deux from it:

So does Aaron Copland, and for the Jefferson Dancers, Spaight made “Theatre Dances,” then reset it on OBT. It was very much about the JD’s, however, their sensitivities and triumphs as young dancers, and I remember their performance much more vividly than the technically better OBT’s.)

“Ellington Suite” is a joyous, jazzy work. The live music energized dancers and audiences alike, and who who saw it can forget watching Patricia Miller, in point shoes, in a sexy black dress, and wearing a boa, dancing to “Satin Doll,” sung by Shirley Nanette? The compact Mark Goldweber also had a terrific role in this ballet, dancing with a group of tall, leggy ballerina showgirls, though only Miller was on point.

Not so joyous was Spaight’s “Danse Sacrées et Profane,” and on a sunny day in 1991, after I’d been to a rehearsal, we sat on that bench and talked about it. Set to music by Claude Debussy, and a text by Kahlil Gibran, with a cast that included children from OBT’s school, the piece is both elegiac and life-affirming.  I knew Dennis was ill and I asked him if this was his AIDS ballet and he laughed at me. (We were seeing a lot of AIDS ballets and modern pieces as well in those days; it had become, if you will, a genre, and some of them were really godawful.)  “Danses Sacrées,” for which David Heuvel designed costumes that looked as if they had stepped straight out of a Botticelli painting, was really about family, about children and their importance. This man who never had kids of his own had quite young nephews, who were the apple of his eye. One of them was lucky enough to look just like his green-eyed, dark-haired handsome uncle. As OBT’s resident choreographer, Spaight was interested in using children from the school in something other than “The Nutcracker,” so several young ballet students were included in the cast and at the end, someone’s baby was held aloft. For some people this was too sentimental. For others, like me, it reinforced the Botticelli theme and proclaimed in no uncertain terms that life goes on.

***

The last ballet Spaight made for OBT, not too long before he died, was “Frauenliebe und leben,” and he invited me to the studio to watch him finish it. I’d been banned from the studios by James Canfield for some reason (this happened from time to time during his tenure as artistic director at OBT) and Spaight knew it. When I arrived, and stood for a minute in the big studio’s doorway, Spaight stopped the rehearsal, walked haltingly to me and took my hand and led me to a chair next to his. I have never seen an atmosphere like that one in a ballet studio, before or since: Spaight was by that time very ill, and having trouble with the sound system. Every time he fumbled, two or three of the dancers would come rushing over and take care of it for him. The result was an eloquent dance about many of the things that most mattered to the choreographer: neoclassical ballet, great music, women (Spaight believed women were as he put it “better people” than men).  The ballet is set to Robert Schumann’s song cycle about a woman’s love for a man, from first meeting, through courtship, to marriage and then to widowhood, and was a series of solos for the women in the company framed by ensemble choreography. Cuevas, whom you see in the clip, told me this week that dancing in that ballet, working with Spaight at the end of his life, “was a great gift.”  Watching him finish it was a gift to me as well.

“Frauenliebe” may well be my favorite, but I also loved the orgy Spaight choreographed for the Portland Opera’s 1991 or 92 production of “Samson and Delilah”; his “Gloria,” set to Vivaldi’s eponoymous mass, made originally for Richmond Ballet; “Triptych,” originally made for PNB, in collaboration with composer Jon Brower; “Haydn Quartet,” a tutu ballet in Balanchinean style,;and “Schubert Songs,” originally a collaboration with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. He also made some real turkeys, as he called them. We won’t go there. This is a hymn of praise.

Spaight’s life was painfully short, his talent broad and deep. We were lucky to have him here, and I hope – do I ever – that someone will do some of these ballets again. In their entirety, not just the snippets from “Gloria,” and “Ellington Suite” that we saw in 2009 for OBT’s “Emerald” anniversary.

Thank you, Dennis, for the gifts you gave us.

 
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