George Balanchine

Everyday Ballerina 3: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2

In the third of twelve daily episodes, Gavin Larsen recalls the hopes and fears of a beginner, and the terrors of an old Greek teacher in New York

Editors’ note: What goes into the making of a professional ballet dancer? In this twelve-part series of reminiscences and turning points excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life.  Part 3 of “Everyday Ballerina”: The 8-Year-Old, Part 2.

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By GAVIN LARSEN

Now that she knew which studio to go into, the 8-year-old did return the following week, and the one after, and even more after that. As these weeks passed, she began to slowly gain, if not real confidence, a familiarity with how things worked. She followed along. She watched, and copied, but just when she started to think she knew everything she and the other students would be told to do during class, the teacher called for a step or movement that was foreign. As before, momentary panic would strike, and that fear of looking stupid. She was afraid no one remembered that she was the girl who was supposed to be given leeway, who was still catching up. She wanted to wear a sign reminding everyone she was new.

Gavin Larsen

Gavin Larsen

Did she think of her new-ness as a defense— a justification for any mistake she might make? Was it becoming part of her psyche, her identity? A shield, so that she could fail without fear of shame? But the curse of being a good faker is that people begin to think you’re for real, and then they expect things.

She was trying, and listening, hard, very hard. Every instruction that was given she multiplied by at least two or three. A straight knee had to be very, very straight. Shoulders down meant really, really down. “Point your toes” meant make your foot as strong as a dagger. “Stomach in” meant belly button touching backbone.

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‘Nut’: doin’ what comes naturally

In this beloved and most artificial of holiday perennials, George Balanchine wanted his dancers to seem natural. In OBT's 'Nutcracker," they do.

There’s much to love in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, and in the way it is performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre. OBT opened its annual run at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, with live orchestra under the baton of Niel DePonte, and would that the orchestra were present at all performances. Even when the musicians play Tchaikowsky’s score less than perfectly, both they and the dancers, working together, make me see and hear new things in a ballet I’ve watched more times than I can count.

Kelsie Nobriga as a Snowflake. Photo: James McGraw

Kelsie Nobriga as a Snowflake. Photo: James McGraw

Balanchine wanted the children to look natural (actually he wanted all dancers to look natural, in this highly artificial form) and they definitely do in the party scene that begins the familiar story of Marie’s Christmas Eve dream. Johannes Gikas, as Fritz, Marie’s brother, misbehaved so easily, he made me wonder if he is something of a handful at home.  Zaida Johnson, the afternoon’s Marie, thoroughly convinced me that she loved her basically hideous Nutcracker doll (injured by naughty Fritz) enough to risk that spooky Stahlbaum parlor to check on him after everyone else was in bed. Balanchine’s Marie is an activist, moreover,  brave enough to save the Nutcracker Prince from certain death by flinging her shoe at the Mouse King during their duel, although on opening day she missed him by quite a bit. Possession of a lovely port de bras doesn’t necessarily also mean possession of a good pitching arm.

I love, always, and mostly because of the music, the first act’s  “Grandfather Dance,” which is not dissimilar to a Virginia Reel,  and is a multi-generational affair. Company artist Thomas Baker danced a wonderfully arthritic grandfather, partnering Samantha Baybado as a less convincingly ancient grandmother. Chauncey Parsons as Herr Drosselmeier, avuncular in the party scene when he presented the dancing dolls and the Nutcracker, and deliciously sinister as he sets the stage for Marie’s dream, proved himself as good a character dancer as he is a bravura technician.

En route to the Land of the Sweets, Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, in which the excellent Collin Trummel gives fresh touches to a role he could probably do in his sleep, pass through the Land of the Snow, wherein lies some of the most challenging dancing in the ballet. That’s because of the artificial snow, which can make the stage nearly as slippery as the real thing. I was particularly taken with the centered, expressive dancing of Sarah Griffin, a new company artist this year, but all sixteen dancers, some of whom are advanced students, stayed on their feet and stayed together in sparkling fashion, like real snowflakes, none of them looking precisely alike.

When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in 1954, New York Times critic John Martin complained that there was no real dancing in it, that it was nothing but mime and pageantry and spectacle, the very things that Mr. B. had stripped from classical ballet in such works as Four Temperaments and Symphony in C. The Waltz of the Snowflakes in fact is pure, plotless movement, it struck me on Saturday, and so is the Waltz of the Flowers. In some versions of this ballet it can be a boring repetition of Snow, albeit to different music. What saves it here is the Dewdrop Fairy, an invention of Balanchine’s, and a role he made originally for Tanaquil LeClercq, whose speed and chic and technical finesse were legendary. Candace Bouchard, a very different dancer, has made this role her own in the last couple of years, and on Saturday she really nailed it, dancing it with such musicality and delicate strength she managed to distract me from the garish backdrop and ditto tutus worn by the candied flowers. Lighting designer Michael Mazzola does his magical best each year to spotlight the dancing and obscure the set, but there is just so much that even he can do. I noticed this year that he had changed some of the lighting for the preamble to the party, suggesting, as does the music, the spookiness to come.

Balanchine loved acrobatics and had much enjoyed performing what was called the Hoop dance when he was a student at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, so along with the mime that tells the Sugarplum Fairy how Marie and her Nutcracker Prince made it to the Kingdom of the Sweets, he included it intact in his twentieth-century version of the nineteenth-century classic. Jordan Kindell infused his performance of what’s now called Candy Cane with what I imagine is much the same infectious joy as the young Balanchine.

And when danced well, as it was on Saturday afternoon, by Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier’s Grand Pas de Deux can certainly make the heart beat faster and the tears flow. Balanchine broke up this traditional pas de deux and got some flack for it, but Sugar Plum does her variation at the beginning of the second act, and I thought that, while Cheng plucked at the floor with her pointes with time-honored musicality, she was just a little too “look at me” presentational.  That quality went away by the time she danced with the courtly Simcoe, who pulls off the technical tricks here with insouciance and ease.

A roiling of rats. Photo: James McGrew

A roiling of rats. Photo: James McGrew

What I find it increasingly difficult to love are the “national” divertissements of the second act. Hot Chocolate is OK, and Martina Chavez gave it some actual heat on Saturday afternoon; and the Marzipan Shepherdesses can be charming. But Coffee and Tea are really dated, and not in a good way. In the hootchy-kootchy Coffee, Makino Hayashi undulated on pointe as required, but I think took it sufficiently seriously to omit the satiric edge that Alison Roper used to give it, which for me at least makes it nearly bearable to watch. Tea, with its winsome Orientalist cuteness, usually makes me cringe, and my heart sank when I saw that Ye Li, who actually is Chinese, had been given the assignment.  Li, however, omitted the head-tilting cuteness, jumping high and rapidly, but I couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking.

I was curious, too, to see what Colby Parsons, new to OBT this season, would do with the role of Mother Ginger; if he would camp it up the way others have, or play it relatively straight. He played it quite straight, and mostly got laughs when he brushed his teeth, logical after consuming all those sweets, but a bit of didacticism I hadn’t noticed before. That, since the Balanchine Trust is extremely picky about note-by-note, step-by-step fidelity to the master’s original, or more specifically, the version of the ballet set by the authorized répétiteurs, sent me scurrying through histories of this Nutcracker to see if that was part of the original choreography.  Turns out Mr. B. did allow for some improvisation in this role, so it’s permissible. Why the Trust refuses permission to have the party girls win the tug of war against the party boys every now and then beats hell out of me. Kevin Irving asked, and was turned down flat.

Casting changes throughout the run: there are three new Sugar Plums this year: Bouchard, Eva Burton and Chavez, each of whom will put her own stamp on the role.  That was encouraged by Balanchine, and he often adjusted the choreography for individual dancers. Absent the choreographer, it is the dancers, after all, with the help of their ballet masters (in this instance Lisa Kipp and Jeffrey Stanton), who at the end of the day are responsible for providing this Nutcracker much to love.

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OBT’s “Nutcracker” continues at Keller Auditorium through Dec. 27. Some performances include live music, and others are performed to a recorded score; be sure to check the schedule. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

OBT25: the Agon and the ecstasy

Oregon Ballet Theatre leaps into its 25th season with a Balanchine masterpiece, salutes to its past, and a creative new venture with Pink Martini

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurates its 25th anniversary season on Saturday at the Keller Auditorium with a bold, demanding program that  pays homage to the company’s past and celebrates its continuing, if often financially fragile, presence as the city’s resident ballet company.

The program starts with Agon, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine’s mid-twentieth century jazz-inflected masterpiece, and ends with the world premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s  Never Stop Falling (In Love), made and performed in collaboration with Pink Martini. These two pieces bookend excerpts from longer works by choreographers who have played significant roles in shaping OBT’s eclectic style.  They include founding artistic director James Canfield’s “bedroom pas de deux” from his staging of Romeo and Juliet, former artistic director Christopher Stowell’s “jail house” pas de deux from Carmen, and a duet from former resident choreographer Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love, which premiered in the spring of 2013, originally commissioned by Stowell.

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing "Never Stop Falling (In Love)" at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing “Never Stop Falling (In Love)” at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Rehearsals for OBT 25, as this opening show is called, began in late August, when the public open rehearsals called OBT Exposed were in residence for the first time at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was hotter than hell’s hinges, which didn’t stop the dancers from giving Fonte their all as he started making, and demonstrating, the high-energy movement for Never Stop Falling (In Love). Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini’s leader, came to see what was going on the first time I was there, and returned the next day, which was just as hot as the previous one, with lead singer China Forbes, and a violinist. A piano was found for Lauderdale, and they joined the rehearsal, energizing the dancers as only live music can.

During a joint interview with Fonte and Lauderdale the following week, both emphasized that this is a true collaboration of musician and choreographer, with both artists working together on the selection of songs for what Fonte called “a soundscape,” and the tempos at which they are played.  “This has been a fantastic learning experience for me,” Lauderdale said. “When we selected some of this material, I realized that some songs we recently recorded, the tempos were just really too fast for dance, and [need] much more space to breathe and jump.”

At the time of the interview, they were still changing the playlist, in part because, Lauderdale said, “I don’t want this just to be Pink Martini with dance, I want for us to write something that feels new, not just a rehash.”

Lauderdale characterizes his music as “old-fashioned global symphonic pop,” making it a good match for Fonte’s contemporary take on neoclassical ballet.  Nevertheless, as OBT’s audience knows, Fonte usually makes dances to classical scores. Left Unsaid is accompanied by Bach; Petrouchka and Bolero, which Stowell commissioned Fonte to make for OBT during his tenure as artistic director, are performed to Stravinsky and Ravel, respectively.

Kevin Irving, who took over the company last year, and is Fonte’s partner in private life, gives him a lot of well-earned credit for “finding his way into music he doesn’t usually respond to,” and creating “very physical movement for the whole company.”

Never Stop Falling was looking good in a run-through at OBT’s studios earlier this week that included the Pink Martini musicians, with Lauderdale at the piano and Forbes at one point moving among the dancers holding a water bottle in lieu of a microphone.  The dancers were still in practice clothes rather than Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak’s costumes, which I’ve not seen. Watching were Dennis Buehler, the first company executive director I’ve seen set foot in the studio since Johann Jacobs, and OBT School director Tony Jones, whose soft-voiced, relaxed style of teaching company class several dancers have told me they love.

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in "Never Stop Falling (In Love)." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in “Never Stop Falling (In Love).” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

It is indeed a high-energy piece, although it begins quietly, with Martina Chavez alone on stage, unfolding one of her beautiful legs to the side in an endless développé, then closing it into a tight fifth position just before Chauncey Parsons makes a rapidly pirouetting entrance. This beginning proclaims clearly that this is a classical ballet, made to be performed by 21st century classically trained dancers. It’s a celebration of the art form as well as of OBT’s anniversary.

The rest of the cast enters one at a time, extending their limbs with Balanchinean space-devouring reach.  As the piece  and the music build, the rhythms become infectious, and I realize I’m tapping my foot on the floor, at the same time that I spot Lauderdale, seated at the piano, pounding out the beat with his left foot, dancing along with the dancers.

Much of the 40-minute piece involves a substantial number of high-flying jumps and some extremely risky lifts (especially for Xuan Cheng, who gets sent flying through the air by Brian Simcoe and Avery Reiner). It ends, as is customary for program closers, with everyone on stage dancing joyously – and in this case, some dancers playing drums, including Michael Linsmeier, who has rock band experience, and Brett Bauer.  There is respite for the audience if not the dancers in a section danced by Parsons and his brother Colby, new to the company this year, to Chopin’s Berceuse, played by Lauderdale.  With Fonte’s assistance, the brothers were still polishing movement that demanded both impeccable musicality and control.

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing "Agon" at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing “Agon” at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

There is no part of Agon, a rather different collaboration of composer and choreographer, that does not demand those qualities, with the added challenge of music that is almost impossible to count. Balanchine, according to Todd Bolender, who originated the Sarabande and first pas de trois, which Chauncey Parsons will dance opening weekend, never did counts for any of his ballets, leaving it up to the dancers to make up their own.  Fortunately, for OBT’s dancers, Balanchine Trust répétiteur Bart Cook, who during his career with New York City Ballet danced all four of Agon’s male roles, was rapping out counts like mad when I watched a rehearsal late last week. OBT ballet master Jeffrey Stanton, who danced the central pas de deux countless times with Pacific Northwest Ballet, was taking notes. Irving, who danced it during his eight-year stint with Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, was also in the studio. Each learned the ballet from different people: Cook from Balanchine himself, who changed a bit of the choreography for him; Stanton from Francia Russell, who was present at the creation; Irving from Sara Leland, to whom he says he owes his career. When OBT performed Agon the first time, in 1999, it was staged by Patricia Neary. Which is all by way of saying that no version of Agon is set in stone.

“With purpose,” Cook instructs the dancers, as the run-through begins with Parsons, Kindell, Adam Hartley and Brian Simcoe standing, facing upstage. They turn and break into a pelvic-thrusting dance that briefly tosses classical spinal placement out the window.  Parsons dances the first pas de trois with Sarah Griffin, who joined OBT this season and is clearly an extremely talented addition, and company artist Eva Burton, who is equally gifted.

As the rehearsal proceeds, Cook makes gentle suggestions and sardonic comments: “this is much ado about nothing,” he says, and at one point, “this is a weird, uncomfortable step.”  To Kindell, who dances the second pas de trois with Hartley and Candace Bouchard (who gets a terrific Spanish tinged solo), he says, “Don’t rush it.  The timing is more important than the size of the jump.” Chavez, whose long-limbed body seems made for the Agon pas de deux, and Brian Simcoe, one of the few native Oregonians in the company, move smoothly through the body-bending duet, and Bart tells the dancers they “are mechanically correct, [but they] need to be less academic.”

A great deal has been written about Agon, its intellectuality, Balanchine’s radical casting of Caucasian Diana Adams and African-American Arthur Mitchell in 1957, the year the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown vs the Board of Education that at least attempted to end the segregation of public schools. Historians put the moment into the context of the Russians’ launch of Sputnik into outer space; Balanchine himself called Agon a “computer that smiles”; critics for the past half-century have written about it in the same reverent tones as Christ’s apostles used to describe the Epiphany.

Forget it.  Jittery, sophisticated, urban and urbane, at the end of the day, when danced with the “verve, aplomb, dynamic power and artistic expression” that Irving wants from OBT’s dancers no matter what they’re performing, Agon provides a hell of a good time for the audience. I came out of New York City Center, the year it premiered, a 19-year-old college student, feeling as high as I got in those days on two glasses of champagne. And, while the music, which will not be performed live, is not exactly easy-listening, it’s not a chore, either. If you watch the dancers closely, their combative, courtly movement clarifies the clashing rhythms of the score (“agon” means “contest” in Greek) as well as the Renaissance court dances Stravinsky used to structure it.

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield's "Romeo & Juliet." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I’ve been watching OBT all of its life, and before that, Pacific Ballet Theatre (for which Canfield originally made Romeo and Juliet, his first evening-length ballet) and Ballet Oregon, founded by V. Keith Martin, which after much negotiation merged in 1989 to form the present company. Over the years, most of which have been bumpy financially, there have been a great many changes in company personnel, in the size of the company (it was down to fifteen dancers in 2000 when Lauderdale and Canfield started to collaborate on an evening-length ballet based on Felix Salten’s Bambi, don’t ask) the repertoire, and  the funding.

There has also been an astonishing amount of continuity.  Lisa Kipp, who is now OBT’s rehearsal director, danced with Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre (she understudied Juliet in R and J) and then briefly with OBT.  She returned as ballet mistress when Christopher Stowell assumed the artistic directorship in 2003.  Tracey Sartorio, now Irving’s assistant, was one of OBT’s 25 company members its first season, partnered frequently by the late Michael Rios. BodyVox’s Jamey Hampton, who was on the search committees that found both Irving and Buehler, choreographed Wild Man for OBT, commissioned by Canfield.

In April, OBT will celebrate the future with the inauguration of OBT II, a second company of apprentices and advanced professional students from OBT’s School, with a bow to the company’s past. Carol Shults, former company historian and teacher, and with Sandra Baldwin, a director of the Dennis Spaight Trust, has already staged Spaight’s Crayola, which is performed without music, to the sound that pointe shoes make as they hit the floor.

Meanwhile, OBT starts a five performance celebration of its Silver Anniversary Saturday night at the Keller, in a program that enlightens, amuses, and proclaims loudly that this company is still here, dancing its collective feet off.

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OBT25 opens Saturday, Oct. 11, at Keller Auditorium, and continues through Oct. 18. Ticket and schedule information here.

Afternoon of a faun, interrupted

Public television's portrait of the great Tanaquil LeClercq is too little about the ballet, too much about the polio that cut her dancing career short

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, an American Masters film about the Paris-born dancer whose stellar career was cut short when she contracted polio at the age of 27,  was aired on OPB at noon on Sunday and repeats at the convenient hour of 2 a.m. this Saturday, July 19.

Directed by Nancy Buirski and billed as a “dance-disability documentary,” Afternoon includes some wonderful clips of Le Clervq dancing. But after a second viewing, I believe Buirski’s film to be deeply flawed, at least from a dance perspective, because the focus is on the polio, not the art. Footage of Le Clercq’s witty send-up of dance-hall girls (and of the ballet itself) in George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, the detailed drama of her performance of the doomed woman in the same choreographer’s La Valse, and her sensuous, narcissistic Nymph in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun – all roles she originated – show far more clearly than most of the film’s talking heads why she was muse to two of the greatest choreographers of the twentieth century.

LeClercq in repose, faun-like.

LeClercq in repose, faun-like.

There are exceptions: Pat McBride Lousada’s recollections of their close friendship as teenagers at the School of American Ballet, as well as her descriptions of the intelligence, wit and musicality with which Le Clercq infused her dancing, seem to me some of the best parts of the film. Jacques d’Amboise, whom we see dancing with her in Western and Faun, gives insights into the way she worked, as does Arthur Mitchell, who danced with her in Western the last time she performed, on tour in Copenhagen in 1956. Years later, Mitchell  persuaded her to teach from her wheelchair at the School of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded in 1968, and we see fascinating footage of that. But why in the world didn’t the filmmakers include an interview with Virginia Johnson, now DTH’s artistic director, and former principal dancer, who was in those classes and, Mitchell says on camera, owes much of her career to Le Clercq’s training?

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Another Plum for the holiday pudding

It's a tradition, sure. But OBT's "Nutcracker" is about the music and dance.

George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” premiered at New York City Center on February 2, 1954, and was the six-year-old New York City Ballet’s most expensive and elaborate production to date.  That’s because Balanchine insisted on a three-dimensional “growing” Christmas tree, which turned out to be more dramatic than anticipated:  because of faulty wiring, the lights on it shorted out from time to time.

Chauncey Parsons as Candy Cane. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2012

Chauncey Parsons as Candy Cane. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert/2012

Nearly sixty years later, Oregon Ballet Theatre opens this year’s major Portland production of  “The Nutcracker”  at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Keller Auditorium. The timing is in keeping with what did not begin as a Christmas ritual, but became one in short order for what only seems to be every ballet company in America – large, small, professional, or student.

I will be there with my five-year-old grandson.  I want him to peer into the orchestra pit as the musicians tune up (there is live orchestra of Tchaikowsky’s score for Saturday’s matinee performance and five others). I want him to see the first act party, the mechanical dolls, the sinister Drosselmeier, the “Grandfather dance.”  And I want him to see Marie’s dream of the growing Christmas tree, the battling mice and soldiers, the journey through the land of snow to the Kingdom of the Sweets, because that’s what children like to see.

But most of all, I want him to see what I want to see, the second-act divertissements, some of which offer sublime opportunities for classical dancing: the Dewdrop variation as part of the Waltz of the Flowers; the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo and pas de deux with her Cavalier; the Marzipan Shepherdess, which Portland-trained Janet Reed originated at the 1954 premiere in New York.  And I want him to see OBT’s dancers perform them, each of them dancing Balanchine’s choreography (OBT’s version, unlike many others, is his), but making it their own.

“The Nutcracker” is a Christmas tradition, but when you come right down to it, it’s all about the dancing and the music and the art form known as ballet.  I don’t know how many “Nutcrackers” I’ve seen; I really don’t. But I’m eager to see this one, this year, through the eyes of a child who already loves fantasy, music and dancing.

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OBT’s production of “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'” runs for 14 performances, Saturday, December 14, through Tuesday, December 24. For performance times and ticket information, click here.

The corps de ballet. Photo: Blaine truitt Covert/2012

The corps de ballet. Photo: Blaine truitt Covert/2012

 

 
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