eugene ballet

‘Raising the Barre’ excerpt: passion and persistence

A Eugene author makes a mid-life decision to fulfill a childhood dream -- dancing in 'The Nutcracker'


Editor’s note: ArtsWatch presents an exclusive excerpt from award-winning Eugene author Lauren Kessler‘s 2015 book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker, which has just been released in paperback and would make a delightful stocking stuffer. Here’s what ArtsWatch’s Jamuna Chiarini wrote when it was published. “Her love affair with ballet and The Nutcracker began at the age of five when she was taken to see famous ballerina Maria Tallchief perform in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. From there she began ballet lessons until she was twelve when sadly she stopped after learning that her teacher André Eglevsky, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, had told her mother that she did not have the right body for ballet.

Her unrequited love for ballet and her deep obsession for The Nutcracker is where her story Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker begins. In the book, Kessler takes a ten day, whirlwind tour of Nutcracker performances across America, and when she returns home she decides she hasn’t had enough and bravely asks the Artistic Director of the Eugene Ballet Company, Toni Pimble, if she might take company class and perform in their version of The Nutcracker. The answer was yes and off she goes to prepare.

Through this adventurous immersion into the subculture of ballet, Kessler finally experiences what it is like to be a dancer—the misadventures of shopping for leotards, the rigours of getting in shape, buying and applying gobs of stage makeup, and, of course, learning steps and dancing with ease. She is a “midlife interloper” as she called herself at her book reading at Powell’s on Wednesday night (this week marks the release of this new book), and she experiences what she has been yearning for her whole life: What it is like to be a dancer and perform in The Nutcracker.

This is a great, inspirational story for someone who is looking for a push to take that leap and do that thing they have been putting off for a really long time. If Kessler can do it, you can do it.


I started this project in awe of the beauty and grace of ballet as seen at a distance, my view from the audience. I am now in awe of the sweat, the grit, the sheer will that gets them through nine-hour days and ten-hour bus trips and sixteen-city tours. To say “you have to love it to do it” is an understatement so colossal as to be meaningless. Yes, I know they are not out there curing cancer or feeding the homeless, but these dancers have committed themselves heart and mind, body and soul to an enterprise, and they do it every single day. Days when they are hurting. Days when the sun is shining, and they’d rather not be stuck in a windowless studio. Days when it’s wet and gray (like, for example, today) and bed looks like the best option. Days when life conspires against you. And still, they get up and do it. It is a lesson to us all – certainly to me — and not just a lesson about ballet and what I need to bring to class and rehearsals. It’s about what it takes, really takes, to do something well. Forget “waiting for the Muse.” It’s about daily commitment. It’s about the marriage of passion and persistence.

Lauren Kessler, center, performed in Eugene Ballet’s production of ‘The Nutcracker.’

All of a sudden it’s November. Mon Dieu! I’d say “merde!” but that’s how dancers wish each other luck (their version of “break a leg,” which, of course, is not something you’d dare say to a dancer). What I mean, though, is: Holy Shit. It’s November. My first performance as Clara’s Aunt Rose—a part created for me–is sixteen days away. Toni emails me that she’s scheduling costume fittings this week. I text Suzi and beg her to come over to give me a lesson in how to apply stage make-up. Meanwhile every rehearsal counts.


DanceWatch Weekly: Dear Santa

DanceWatch ends 2017 with a letter to Santa and a few last performances

Welcome to the very last DanceWatch of 2017. It’s been a hell of a year, but thankfully we had dance.

After today, DanceWatch will be on a break for two weeks and will reconvene in the new year on the January 12, at the Newmark, with movement artists Lil’ Buck and Jon Boogz and their collaborative work Love Heals All Wounds. The work combines dance and spoken word and “addresses social issues while also promoting diversity, inclusion, and empathy as a uniting force.” A perfect start to a brand new year.

Jamuna Chiarini

Before we leave 2017 in the dust, and head into the future, let’s recap. In 2017 DanceWatch covered 271 dance performances. That’s TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY ONE dance performances, folks! That’s a lot, and I know I missed a few.

White Bird and BodyVox both celebrated 20 years presenting and making dances in Portland, Eric Skinner retired after dancing with BodyVox for 20 years, and Portland State University clicked delete on its dance program. A state university without a dance program is almost unheard of, and the disappearing dance program is a bizarre occurrence in such a fast growing, dance-centric town as Portland, overflowing with talent.

I also had the privilege of speaking with 16 different dance artists from Portland and beyond—a completely selfish endeavor I have to admit. The more distant we become from one another in this computerized world, the more compelled I feel to connect. It’s hard living life in general, especially as an artist, and I don’t want to live it alone. I want to know how other people do it, how they live their lives as artists, how they make their work, what makes them feel successful, and how they see themselves in the world. I want to know it all, and I want to share it with you. I think the solutions are in those conversations, somewhere.

Les Watanabe in “Salsa Caliente” by Donald McKayle commissioned for the Joyce Trisler Danscompany. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe. Photographer unknown.

The year began with an interview with Les Watanabe, a dance faculty member at Western Oregon University and a former dancer with Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovitch and Donald McKayle. I was shocked to learn that he lived here in Portland and that I had never heard of him. Shouldn’t someone of his caliber be teaching in the Portland community? I think so. The same goes for quite a few of the other “retired” professional dancers I know of floating around Portland.

I also interviewed former New York City Ballet soloist Tom Gold, the three commissioned choreographers for Oregon Ballet Theatres XX program (Helen Simoneau, Nicole Haskins and Gioconda Barbuto), Iranian dancer and filmmaker Tannin, Butoh artist Mizu Desierto, Butoh artist Meshi Chavez and visual artist Yukiyo Kawano, former NW Dance Project dancer Ching Ching Wong, Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers Xuan Cheng and Ye Li, Allie Hankins on her creative process, Spenser Theberge on Forsythe technique, and Linda Austin on her new work a world, a world. These are just a few of the interviews/previews/reviews written by myself and my colleagues here at Oregon ArtsWatch. The entire collection can be found under Dance on Oregon ArtsWatch’s main page.

Dancer Ching Ching Wong. Photo (c) Peddecord Photo

Even though we had a record year, I still think more work needs to be done and more funding needs to be found in order to support a strong, healthy, growing dance ecosystem. In this past week alone, I have had three separate conversation with dance artists about feeling exhausted. Why? Because it takes every ounce of energy they have to produce a concert. Not only do choreographers have to create a dance, they have to find the money to fund it. That endeavor in itself is stressful and exhausting and takes up a huge amount of time and energy, energy that could be spent making art. What if choreographers had enough money to pay other people to do the grant writing, fundraising, and marketing, in addition to paying themselves and their dancers, of course. Sounds brilliant right? It is. This should be the norm. For a community that loves dance so much, the financial support just doesn’t match. So…

Dear Santa,

For 2018 and beyond, I would like;

1. Someone to produce regular seasons of Portland/Oregon choreographers so they don’t have to keep producing themselves.
2. More funding, we’re just barely getting by. How about new sources of funding and more of it. ArtsWatch Executive Editor Barry Johnson had a few ideas on how to fix this problem that he wrote about for Artslandia. Check it out here. He suggests that the arts in Oregon aren’t being funded sufficiently and gives suggestions on how to rectify this.
3. Free or low cost health care and mental health services for artists.
4. Fiscal sponsorship and or free or low cost help to become a non-profit.
5. A dance advocacy/resource group that helps promote the dance community as a whole throughout the larger community, and advocates for and them and communicates on their behalf with the press. Also provides administrative support with grant writing, press releases, artist statements, marketing, low cost design services, material distribution, and creates mailing distribution lists to buy. Good examples of this are The Field in New York City, Dance USA, and Dancers Group in San Francisco to name a few.
6. More artist residencies. Do you have space dancers could rehearse in? If so, create a residency. Choreographers need time and space to make work and Portland currently just has two.
7. Create opportunities and productions for choreographers to make new work. Portland has an abundance of talented choreographers and dancers floating around with nothing to do. Think Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. We can make dances anywhere for any event.
8. Have auditions and hire NEW artists instead of the ones you’ve always hired.
9. Create a pipeline of exchange with other communities outside of Portland or Oregon to get your work seen, see new work, and be part of a larger community.
10. Additional funding sources for touring.
11. A summer dance workshop for professionals that draws professional dancers and teaching professional from around the world.
12. Make Portland a dance center that people are interested in being a part of and staying in for the long term.

Your servant in dance,

Jamuna Chiarini

Candace Bouchard dances in The Nutcracker one last time before her retirement from Oregon Ballet Theatre/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

This week in Oregon dance, Nutcrackers reign supreme at Oregon Ballet Theatre and Eugene Ballet. A transformative work for a transformative time.

Long time OBT dancer Candace Bouchard will retire at the end of the run and the same goes for Suzanne Haag of Eugene Ballet who I danced with many moons ago at The School of the Hartford Ballet in Connecticut. Both beautiful and amazing dancers with talent that extends beyond the stage.

Imago Theatre’s two shows continue; FROGZ, a tale of frogs, penguins, cats, and inanimate objects combined with physical comedy and fantastical costumes that upends the viewers sense of reality and HOTEL GONE, in which five dancing travelers push, pull, and shove in a hotel lobby “where identities shift, love is uncertain, and souls search for substance Checking-in and checking-out take on new meaning as live music drifts through HOTEL GONE as the dancers are propelled through coat racks, exiting and entering a world of timeless seduction and trapped mysteries.”

Butoh dancer Paula Helen. Photo by Erica Howard.

Closing out the year will be Mood Factory #2: Bones and Flowers, hosted by Dan Reed Miller, Ben Martens, and Hank Logan, at 7 pm on December 30th at The Headwaters Theatre in North Portland. This eclectic evening of performances by an array of movement, theater, and music practitioners addresses spirituality and mythology, issues of gender and culture, racial justice and cultural appropriation, sexuality, feminism, matriarchy, and our innate connection to nature and ritual.

The featured artists are; Butoh artist Paula Helen, actor, dancer, director, practitioner and teacher of Action Theater improvisation Mary Rose, dancer and visiting Butoh teacher Nathan Montgomery, dancer, performance artist, improvisor, physical comedian, ritual creator, Butoh practitioner, and lighting wizard Hank Logan, dancer Alison Krochina, renaissance man, performance artist, dancer, electronic sound/musician, producer, Butoh practitioner Ben Martens, and Dan Reed Miller.

Have a wonderful holiday season. Celebrate with love and light, and see you in the new year with more dance.

Upcoming Performances

January 6, Community Dance Day, NW Dance Project
January 8, Free Dance Day, BodyVox Dance Center
January 12-13, I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra, Leah Theresa Wilmoth
January 12, Love Heals All Wounds, Lil’ Buck and Jon Boogz, Presented by Portland’5 Center for the Arts
January 10-11, Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, Harmonic Laboratory, Eugene
January 13, Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, Harmonic Laboratory, Portland
January 15, Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, Harmonic Laboratory, Bend
January 18, Zoe Jakes & Special Guests: A Dance & Variety Revue, Presented by Narcissa Productions LLC
January 18-28, Fertile Ground Festival of New Work/Groovin’ Greenhouse
January 19, The Global Street Dance Masquerade Presentation and Film, Portland Art Museum
January 21, M/f duet + Teething, Marissa Rae Niederhauser (Berlin) and Aaron Swartzman (Seattle), Performance Works NW Alembic Artists
January 25-27, Rennie Harris Puremovement, presented by White Bird
January 28, Garden of Earthly Delights with Salem Concert Band (World premiere), Rainbow Dance Theatre, Independence

February 1-10, The skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, presented by BodyVox
February 3-25, Chitra The Girl Prince, NW Children’s Theatre, Anita Menon
February 4, The Lady Of The Camellias, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
February 15, Faculty Dance Concert featuring guest artist Vincent Mantsoe, Hosted by University of Oregon School of Music and Dance
February 17-18, Pink Martini, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
February 18, Chapel Theatre Open House, Chapel Theatre
February 21, Mark Morris Dance Group, presented by White Bird
February 23-25, Configure, PDX Contemporary Ballet
February 24-March 4, Alice (in wonderland), choreography by Septime Webre, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre

March 1-3, Urban Bush Women, presented by White Bird
March 4, The Flames Of Paris, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
March 8-10, Jessica Lang Dance, presented by White Bird
March 14, Compañia Jesús Carmona, presented by White Bird
March 15-17, HEDDA, NW Dance Project
March 22-24, To Have It All, choreography by Katie Scherman, presented by BodyVox

April 4, iLumiDance, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5, Earth Angel and other repertory works, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5-7, Stephen Petronio Company, presented by White Bird
April 8, Giselle, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
April 9, Noontime Showcase: Jefferson Dancers, Presented by Portland’5
April 12-14, Contact Dance Film Festival, presented by BodyVox and Northwest Film Center
Apr 14-25, Peer Gynt with Orchestra Next, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
April 12-21, Man/Woman, choreography by Mikhail Fokine, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Nicolo Fonte, James Canfield, Jiří Kylián, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 19-28, Early, push/FOLD, choreographed and directed by Samuel Hobbs
April 20-29, X-Posed, Polaris Dance Theatre, Robert Guitron
April 24-25, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, presented by White Bird
April 24-25, The Wind and the Wild, BodyVox and Chamber Music Northwest

May 4-5, Current/Classic, The Portland Ballet
May 10-12, New work premiere, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Western Oregon University, Monmouth
May 10-19, Rain & Roses (world premiere), BodyVox
May 11-13, Compose, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 14, Noontime Showcase: OBT2, Presented by Portland’5
May 16, Ballet Hispȧnico, presented by White Bird
May 17-20, CRANE, a dance for film by The Holding Project
May 23-June 3, Closer, original works by the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre

June 8-10, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 10, Coppelia, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
June 14-16, World Premiere – Ihsan Rustem, MemoryHouse – Sarah Slipper, NW Dance Project
June 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance
June 24, Salem World Beat, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Salem


DanceWatch Weekly: White Bird turns 20, OBT season opens

A big week in dance starts with White Bird and Oregon Ballet Theatre and then moves to Indian dance and "Moving Through Darkness"

Twenty years ago Paul King and Walter Jaffe moved to Portland from New York City and launched White Bird, Portland’s biggest dance presenter and the sole, dance-only presenter West of the Rockies.

Their 20-year contribution to Portland’s dance scene and to the dance community at large is huge. Over the 20 years they have presented 250 dance companies from around the world, commissioned and co-commissioned 36 new works in a range of styles and choreographers from Portland and beyond, and have developed some of the most enthusiastic, dedicated, and educated dance audiences I have ever seen. White Bird’s 20th season is dedicated to those audiences.

Jamuna Chiarini

Complexions Contemporary Ballet from New York, co-directed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, opens that season. Rhoden was a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Richardson was the first Black American Principal dancer at American Ballet Theater.

The company is 23 years old itself, and has been called “America’s original multicultural dance company.” They pride themselves on being based in ballet but not limited to it, expanding their movement vocabulary into any and every genre, proposing an alternate view of classical ballet.

The company will perform three pieces, all choreographed by Rhoden: Ballad Unto…. for 14 dancers, performed to Bach, that explores love’s many facets; IMPRINT/MAYA, a solo performed by Richardson,
danced to a pre-recorded track featuring Melanie Nyema on Vocals, Ron Pedley on piano and Mat Fieldes on bass and the words of Maya Angelou; and STAR DUST, a tribute to David Bowie.

Journalist Joe Lynch, for Billboard magazine online, stated in his impassioned review of STAR DUST after it premiered at The Joyce Theatre in New York in January, that STAR DUST “isn’t a cheap attempt to capitalize on Bowie’s fame, but a thoughtful exploration by choreographer Dwight Rhoden of the way movement reveals additional layers in Bowie’s music (something Bowie himself did onstage, mimicking gifted movers from Pierrot the Clown to kabuki actors over the course of his career).” Lynch says if you’re a Bowie fan, “Star Dust is a must—whether you think you enjoy the ballet or not.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre kicks off its season this weekend with the world premiere of Rhapsody In Blue, a collaboration between Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte and Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale. With permission from the Gershwin Foundation, Lauderdale created a new arrangement of George Gershwin’s jazz classic that lengthens the score, draws out nuances in the music, and allows for more movement possibilities.

The score, originally created for a solo piano and jazz band, will instead be performed live on two grand pianos by Lauderdale and Hunter Noack. The program also includes Never Stop Falling (in Love), Fonte’s 2014 piece created for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary. It features Pink Martini singer China Forbes and a medley of Pink Martini songs.

Rhapsody In Blue the dance, softly weaves together abstract contemporary ballet choreography with a narrative describing the mood of the blue hour or “L’heure bleue.” A French phrase with no exact English translations, it describes the magical hours between daylight and night that lovers might meet before returning home to their spouses. A kind of magical time of day when things become less linear and boundaries become more fluid.

Last week I sat in on a rehearsal for Rhapsody In Blue as the costume designer was trying out different costume possibilities on the dancers. The room was abuzz with activity, full of company dancers, stage managers, costume designers, lighting designers, and other artistic personal. I am always amazed at what a massive production ballets are and how many people it takes to put a production together, compared to many smaller productions I regularly see where the choreographer does almost everything.

The costumes for Rhapsody are a gorgeous, textural mix of electric blues in satins, laces, brocades, and matte cottons, with swirling skirts, and tailored suits, evoking decadent sumptuousness and ease. The movement, like the chosen color, is also electric and explosive, shooting out from the dancer’s centers like arrows, creating dramatic, stretched lines with arms and legs. The movement sweeps and falls, rebounds and flies, describing the music and the space around the notes perfectly. Sometimes the dancing is large and uses the whole cast and sometimes it is quiet and uses a singular gesture. It’s a beautiful, dynamic work that might make you see/hear Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue in a whole new light.

Performances this week

Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Sachyn Mital Photography

Ballad Unto…., IMPRINT/MAYA, and STAR DUST
Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Choreography by Dwight Rhoden
Presented by White Bird
October 5-7
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
See above.

Eugene Ballet Company’s Mowgli. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet.

Mowgli – The Jungle Book Ballet-Eugene
Eugene Ballet Company directed by Toni Pimble
October 6-8
Hult Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Eugene Center, Eugene
Toni Pimble, the artistic director of Eugene Ballet, retells Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” through ornate costumes, masks, sets, and world music, in the story of orphaned Mowgli, his friend Baloo the Bear, the terrifying Tiger Shere Khan and the snake Kaa.

Dance artist Oluyinka Akinjiola performing at Ten Tiny Dances in Beaverton.

Moving through Darkness
This is a Black Spatial Imaginary
Featuring Intisar Abioto, Akela Auer, and Oluyinka Akinjiola
5 pm October 7
Paragon Arts Gallery, 815 N Killingsworth St.
Moving through Darkness, is a movement and dance performance featuring writer, dancer, photographer, and the author/photographer/curator of The Black Portlanders Intisar Abioto; writer, poet, dancer, and choreographer Akela Auer; and dancer, choreographer, teacher, scholar and artistic director of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre, Oluyinka Akinjiola.

“This Is A Black Spatial Imaginary’ considers the movement and fixity of Black communities, by activating past, present and future spaces for Black life. This is a Black Spatial Imaginary brings together installation, video, print media, performance, and public intervention, exploring new forms of practice at the intersection of art, collaboration, historical record, urban planning, collaboration and creative exchange.”

Bharatanatyam dancer Jayanthi Raman. Photo courtesy of Jayanthi Raman.

Dance Of The Hummingbirds
Jayanthi Raman and dancers
7 pm October 7
Dolores Winningstad Theater, 1111 SW Broadway
Combining live music, poetry by Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen, artwork by Shashank Rao, and guest dancers from Chennai, India, Portland Bharatanatyam choreographer/teacher Jayanthi Raman reflects on finding inner strength to overcome life’s obstacles in her new work Dance Of The Hummingbirds.

Rhapsody in Blue by Nicolo Fonte. Photo courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Rhapsody In Blue (World Premiere) and Never Stop Falling (in Love)
Choreography by Nicolo Fonte
Performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre directed by Kevin Irving
October 7-14
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
See above.

Upcoming Performances


‘Snow Queen’ review: Frozen journey

Though some tweaks are needed, premiere performance of Eugene Ballet's dazzling new original production of H.C. Andersen’s classic tale shows promise


After years of dreaming and ideation, Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen premiered last weekend, a dazzling spectacle of stagecraft that was most compelling in its moments of pure, unadorned dance.

Yuki Beppu as Gerda in Eugene Ballet’s ‘The Snow Queen.’

It’s the largest production in Eugene Ballet Company’s 38 years, featuring the longest commissioned score — by Portland composer Kenji Bunch — in Oregon’s history. Every bit of the artistic effort, from sets to costumes, props to animations, was labored over by more than 150 artists and designers from the Eugene community, under the vision of inimitable EBC Artistic Director Toni Pimble.

EBC clearly has poured its heart into this story about a girl name Gerda, whose friend Kay disappears one day, inspiring her to go on a mission to find him.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Berlin stories

Andrea Stolowitz's "Berlin Diaries," world premiere at the ballet, new on stage, Brett Campbell's music picks, lots of links

The corner of culture, art, and politics is a busy intersection these days, when suddenly each seems to have something significant to say about the others, and so Andrea Stolowitz’s new play Berlin Diary, although it deals with events three-quarters of a century ago, also seems very much of the current moment.

Stolowitz, the Portland playwright and Oregon Book Award winner, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship retracing the steps of her “lost” Jewish family, those stuck in the archives after her German Jewish great grandfather escaped to New York City in the late 1930s. Shortly after, he began to keep a journal to pass along to his descendants, and it’s that family book that prompted Stolowitz’s sojourn in Berlin and the construction of this play.

Playwright Andrea Stolowitz, creator of “Berlin Diary.”

The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold. “It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust,” Lily Kelting of NPR Berlin wrote when Berlin Diary premiered there last October. “But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin.” Kelting continues: “She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later.”


‘Snow Queen’ part 7: Taking the stage

Eugene Ballet's original production premieres this weekend

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen on his Eugene Art Talk blog. This is the concluding installment.

Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen is just about ready to freeze our hearts. The costumes are sewn. The set has been constructed. Lighting is being devised. And Toni Pimble, the ballet’s long-time artistic director, has completed her original choreography for the show, which makes its world premiere in two performances Saturday and Sunday (April 8 and 9) at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is a big deal arts event for a town like Eugene. Starting perhaps three years ago, the ballet pulled together more than a quarter million dollars in grants to create an all-new version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (which, much simplified, forms the basis of Frozen). In the story, the evil Snow Queen kidnaps the young boy Kay, who is later rescued, after much adventure, by the girl Gerda, his friend.

Company dancer Victoria Harvey at a Snow Queen rehearsal

The grant money assembled by the ballet has gone for everything from the new sets and costumes, being designed and created here by Nadya Geras-Carson and Jonna Hayden, to the luscious score, by which is composed by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and is to be performed by Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter.

At 90 minutes in length, the score, the ballet reports, is the largest piece of orchestral music ever composed in Oregon.

We checked in with Pimble last week as she rehearsed her dancers and finished off the last bits of Snow Queen choreography with them. A co-founder with Riley Grannan of Eugene Ballet 39 years ago, Pimble has been working with her dancers as often as six days a week the last few months. She was determined to get the choreography nailed down, she said, by a full week before opening night.

“The dancers need a chance to grow into their roles,” Pimble explained. “So for the last week we can be refining it.”

Choreographing a new ballet to the original score the ballet commissioned from Bunch has been hard work — and that was on purpose, Pimble said. She didn’t want to create her new ballet to easy music.

Artistic director and choreographer Toni Pimble.

“The music has been pretty challenging, which is what we wanted,” she said. “At the same time it has to be accessible to the audience. The dancers are used to working with difficult music. Rite of Spring (which the ballet performed in 2012) is a great example of difficult music, and they are used to working with that.”

Pimble’s first step with her choreography was working with the dancers to create a crow scene (friendly crows are the allies of Gerda in her search for Kay). Pimble said she picked that one to start with because Bunch’s music for it was so complex.

She played me a bit of the music for that scene from the recording of the score by Orchestra Next. To be honest, I never could figure out where the beat was. Bunch, she said, had done research on crows while writing the music; he discovered they make two different calls at the same time. Bunch’s music is layered in complex ways, she said.

“I started with that scene because I was so worried about that music. I mean, I told him to make it hard. But oh, god.…”

But the dancers quickly got it. “It doesn’t sound random to us anymore,” Pimble said.

Untypically for classical ballet, which tends to open softly and quietly, Pimble’s Snow Queen starts with a bit of a bang — a big production number with lots of dancers filling the stage.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie practices her Snow Queen moves in the studio.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie, who has the icy role of the Snow Queen herself, said that first scene involves a great deal of sheer physical work as the dancers race around the stage. “It’s like the chase at the beginning of a James Bond movie,” she said. “That first scene is going to be very tiring. But to get to act evil is a fun experience.”

This is Tolmie’s ninth season dancing with the ballet. She started as an apprentice dancer, then put in four seasons in the corps before becoming a principal last season.

Dark, evil characters, the dancer said, are seldom portrayed in the ballet world by women. So Tolmie’s very happy to dance the Snow Queen, who steals and freezes the little boy Kay in this dark tale of love conquering evil.

“Most of the evil characters always go to men,” she said. “For a woman to get one is fun!”

This is the seventh and final story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch,  Part Four, on costume designer Jonna Hayden, Part Five on dancers Isaac Jones and Sara Stockwell, and Part Six on recording the score, which is now available on CD from the company.

Eugene Ballet premieres The Snow Queen at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

Bob Keefer is an arts writer and exhibiting photographer in Eugene, and arts editor of Eugene Weekly. You can see his work at and at

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DanceWatch Weekly: Zipping through dance history

An important new film about Portland dance history, Ronald K. Brown, Eugene Ballet and a Butoh series highlight the week in dance

Dance offerings this weekend zip around through history’s timeline and around the world, bringing us ballet from the early 19th century, to a film documenting Portland’s contemporary dance history, to newer contemporary dance works that combines cultural aesthetics in exploration of self and place.

Portland dance artist and filmmaker Eric Nordstrom has captured six decades of contemporary dance in Portland in his new film Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present. The film screens Thursday night at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium in partnership with the NW Film Center.

With the help of some of Portland’s most notable dance artists and writers, along with archival research, Nordstrom has been begun the process of chronicling the history and evolution of contemporary dance in Portland.

Back in June 2016 I interviewed Nordstrom prior to the screening of the film’s first iteration, and I thought I would share that conversation with you again here.

Also happening this weekend is the performance of three works by Brooklyn choreographer Ronald K. Brown and his dance company Evidence, presented by White Bird. Brown has been making work since 1987 that integrates traditional African and contemporary movement aesthetics.

From April 8-11 Brown and his company members will be teaching a series of workshops at Reed College on composition and dance technique, and will give a lecture demonstration on April 10. Space is limited so register soon.

Interview with Eric Nordstrom

What inspired you to make this film?

Having danced in Portland for a decade (with Oslund and Co., Keith V. Goodman, Linda K. Johnson, and POV Dance, among others), I feel like, before this project, my knowledge of the history of dance in Portland was limited. I was seeing a lot of new people moving to Portland with an interest in dance, and realized that most of them were even more unfamiliar with the history of Portland dance, and yet that they were—through their own practices—becoming part of a rich genealogy. I wanted to make this film to honor those who built the contemporary dance scene in Portland, and also for those of us who are currently dancing here to connect with the past.

How long have you been working on this project?

A year-and-a-half. The catalyst to start the groundwork for this film was receiving a RACC grant.

Where have you sourced the most information about Portland’s dance history?

I have worked in the archives at Reed College and Portland State University, which both contain rich materials in the forms of photographs of past performances, and press releases, course rosters, and other primary documents from when both colleges were central to the dance community in Portland and participated in the shaping of Portland Dance.

The most information has come from my one-on-one interviews with over thirty prominent figures from the history of contemporary dance in Portland. These include Vaunda Carter, Bonnie Merrill, Judy Patton, Nancy Matschek, and Gregg Bielemeier, among others. Many of the artists with whom I spoke had their own archives—old VHS tapes of their own performances, often relegated to closets or basements. Part of the goal of this film is to take this material, preserve it, and to centralize it. This is one part of the film about which I am especially excited.

With this film, I’m doing three things: 1. Gathering the information about Portland dance history through these interviews and this archival footage. 2. Preserving this information by recording the interviews and converting artists’ VHS videos to digital format. And 3. Coordinating with the PSU archives to house footage of some of the seminal performances referenced in the film, and some of the interviews in their entirety.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned from your research?

I was surprised to learn how the contemporary dance scene in Portland really stemmed from early programs at both PSU and Reed College. It made me realize how much of an impact university resources have on professional companies, and how professional companies can really influence education. This is certainly something to consider as PSU has just abolished its plans to reinstitute its Dance major—which was cut in 1994—and cut its only full time Dance faculty position; this position’s job was supposed to be to help grow the program back into a major. This feels like a real lost opportunity not just for students, but also the Portland dance community. It will be interesting to see what happens at Reed now that they—for the first time in the history of the college—have a Dance major starting in Fall 2016.

Also, I was fascinated to learn about Vaunda Carter’s PBS television show from the early 1970s. It was called Vaunda’s View and played after Sesame Street.

Another pleasure was hearing recollections about Keith Goodman and Jann Dryer, two very influential people in Portland dance who are now deceased. It was really touching to talk to friends and colleagues of both of these artists, and to hear how important their work was, and how they are missed.

The other thing that is crucial to mention is that during the time of making this film, Conduit—Portland’s longtime incubator for contemporary dance—was evicted from their space on the fourth floor of the Pythian Building, where they’d been for almost two decades. Then it was announced that Conduit is closing the doors of their new rental space in the Ford Building. Conduit has been around for 20 years, and has long been the center of Portland dance. Their shuttering is an indication of a changing landscape in Portland, and this event asks us if this changing landscape is for the better or worse for our city. This is a great moment to look back at Conduit, and I hope that this film honors the space and all of the people involved in making Conduit what is has been.

How did you get involved in dance for film?


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