John Clifford

DanceWatch Weekly: Giving thanks through dance

The "Enchanted Toyshop" returns for another Thanksgiving, and you could make it a Butoh celebration with Mushimaru Fujieda

On this Thanksgiving week there are just two performance offerings, but they are mighty. The first is a double bill performed by the students of The Portland Ballet (TPB) of The Enchanted Toyshop, choreographed by John Clifford (restaged by founder and TPB artistic director Nancy Davis), and the world premiere of Tourbillon by TPB artistic director Anne Mueller. Both works will be performed to live music by The Portland State University Orchestra, under the direction of Ken Selden, and open Friday, November 24, at Lincoln Performance Hall. The second concert features Butoh artist Mushimaru Fujieda and his solo Natural Physical Poetry, at The Headwaters Theatre for one night only, also on the 24th.

Quickly becoming a Portland Thanksgiving holiday tradition, much as The Nutcracker is for Christmas, The Enchanted Toyshop – originally titled La Boutique Fantasque – was choreographed by Leonide Massine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1919. Clifford has adapted the story ballet for The Portland Ballet, cutting out much of the original libretto but keeping the original sets and costumes and making room for many new characters. Clifford, a protégé of George Balanchine, is an artistic advisor to TPB and provides a link for the company to one of America’s most influential ballet choreographers.

The Portland Ballet in The Enchanted Toyshop. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Dance writer Martha Ullman West, in her ArtsWatch review of the show last year, said the ballet “offers comedy and pathos, fantasy and romance, a thoroughly satisfactory happily-ever-after-ending…”

The Enchanted Toyshop, featuring a cast of 75 dancers and 38 musicians, taps into the childhood fantasy of accidentally getting locked in a toy shop overnight. Adventure ensues when toys come to life, and so does lots of dancing by fairies, dolls, children, and Pinocchio, who serves as the master of ceremonies.

Tourbillon, by Mueller, is a new ballet for 27 advanced dancers, set to the music of Joseph Lanner, an Austrian dance composer from the early 1800s who helped popularize the waltz. The ballet features two waltzes, a galop, and a polka danced in colorful 1950s cotillion-inspired dresses, white gloves, and jeweled crowns.

Butoh artist Mushimaru Fujieda. Photo courtesy of Mizu Desierto and Water in the Desert.

Natural Physical Poetry, by Japanese Butoh artist Fujieda, is a solo performance that expresses emotional moments in life poetically, utilizing the body’s movement in relation to its own breath and rhythm, producing a combination of tension and lyricism.

Originally from Handa city, in the Aichi Prefecture of Japan, Fujieda has worked as an actor, scriptwriter, director, producer, writer, and dancer, performing internationally since 1972.

This week’s DanceWatch is brought to you from the beautiful, tropical island of Maui, in Hawaii. I’m here with my family hiding out, but having lots of fun, trying to subvert the traditional Thanksgiving celebration, which wasn’t even a real event, anyway. We are vegetarians (for religious reasons), and we don’t really like the post-holiday shopping mania in celebration of this fictitious, whitewashed holiday.

But I do enjoy the underlying sentiment of Thanksgiving, which is not meat-based, and is about being thankful and generous, and I think traditional Hawaiian culture embodies those sentiments wholeheartedly.

In Hawaii, “Aloha” isn’t just a generous feel-good greeting but also an embodied way of life. Aloha is a way of living and treating each other with love and respect. The lei, which can be made of flowers, feathers, or nuts, is a symbol of family and unity, and the beautiful dancing that Hawaii is so famous for is actually the entire history of the culture told through movement.

So in the spirit of Aloha, Happy Thanksgiving.

Coming up next week: BodyVox celebrates its 20th anniversary with the premiere of Lexicon, a new work by BodyVox directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland in collaboration with Italian avant-garde composer Ludovico Einaudi. Lexicon creates a new performance experience by marrying dance and technology and by having the dancers interact with infrared sensors, live video graphic generation, motion capture, virtual reality, and more, live on stage.

Performances this week

Mushimaru Fujieda: Natural Physical Poetry Performance
hosted by Water in the Desert
8 pm November 24
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St. # 4

The Enchanted Toyshop by John Clifford, Tourbillon by Anne Mueller
Performed by the PSU Orchestra and The Portland Ballet
November 24-26
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.

Upcoming Performances

November/December
November 30-December 16, Lexicon (world premiere), BodyVox
December 1-3, SAY WHEN -a mini festival, Hosted by Physical Education
December 2, Tidal-the first cut, Wobbly Dance

December
December 7-9, Bolero + Billie, Ihsan Rustem, NW Dance Project
December 8-9, The Nutcracker with Chamber Ballet of Corvallis, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
December 9, Winter Dance Concert, Reed College Performing Arts
December 9-24, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, Oregon Ballet Theatre
December 13-17, a world, a world (work-in-progress), Linda Austin Dance, PWNW
December 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance, Crystal Jiko, Tere Mathern, Madison Page, Wolfbird Dance
December 17, The Nutcracker, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
December 17, Fiesta Navideña, Hosted by Espacio Flamenco Portland
December 22-24, The Nutcracker with Orchestra Next, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene

January

January 12, Love Heals All Wounds, Lil’ Buck and Jon Boogz, Presented by Portland’5 Center for the Arts
January 18-28, Fertile Ground Festival of New Work/Groovin’ Greenhouse
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
February 1-10, The skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, presented by BodyVox
February 4, The Lady Of The Camellias, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
February 17-18, Pink Martini, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
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
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, World Premiere’s by Sarah Slipper and Cayetano Soto, NW Dance Project
March 22-24, To Have It All, choreography by Katie Scherman, presented by BodyVox

April
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 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
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 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
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

 

Fresh faces, historic ballet

A hundred years after Ballets Russes's sole Portland performance, the young dancers of The Portland Ballet delve into the Russian tradition

“Ms. Davis, this is my daughter, she’s 5, and I’m wondering if you have a class she could take?”

“What a wonderful show. My daughter has been studying ballet since she was 8, she’s 12 now, do you think she could study at Portland Ballet?”

These were two of the many questions fielded by Nancy Davis, who with Anne Mueller is co-artistic director of the The Portland Ballet, immediately following the conclusion of their spring concerts at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall on the last Saturday in May.

And I couldn’t help thinking that these and other questions were inspired by the palpable pleasure the young performers were taking in being on stage, dancing their hearts out in a difficult program that demanded the mastery of quite different techniques and styles.

Henry Winslow and Naomi Rux in “Les Sylphides.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program was keyed to ballet history in Portland and elsewhere, and began with Les Sylphides, the Michel Fokine ballet that Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed here a century ago, in the spring of 1917. Set to an arrangement of Frédéric Chopin’s music by that most Russian of composers, Alexander Glazunov, it premiered as “Chopiniana” at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1907. The version performed by TPB, its third revision by the choreographer, was made for the Ballets Russes’s first tour to Paris, and premiered at the Théâtre du Chatelet, in 1909, with Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky heading the cast.

Continues…

Enchanted Toyshop, all Gift Boxed

The Portland Ballet's holiday special features John Clifford's charming revision of a Ballets Russes original, plus a new piece by Anne Mueller

At the opening of The Portland Ballet’s annual holiday concert at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall on Friday afternoon I found quite a few reasons to be thankful. Many of them were kids, dancing their hearts out in John Clifford’s version of The Enchanted Toyshop.

Originally titled La Boutique Fantasque and choreographed by Leonide Massine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (it premiered in London in 1919), Toyshop in Clifford’s version discards most of the libretto conceived by Massine and painter André Derain, who also designed the sets and costumes.  Derain’s designs are meticulously replicated for TPB by the wonderful Mary Muhlbach, who was also responsible for new designs for added characters:  Pinocchio, who serves as master of ceremonies; Amélie, the shopkeeper’s wife; the Blue Fairy; the Giselle doll; and hordes of miscellaneous children visiting the toy shop with their parents.

Kerridwyn Schanck, Andrew Davis, Lauren Kness in "Toyshop." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Kerridwyn Schanck, Andrew Davis, Lauren Kness in “Toyshop.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The Enchanted Toyshop – set to music by Gioacchino Rossini, arranged and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, and expanded by Clifford with more of Respighi’s music orchestrated by Benjamin Britten – offers comedy and pathos, fantasy and romance, a thoroughly satisfactory happily-ever-after-ending, and a lot of dancing, mainly by mechanical dolls who have come to life. (Think Nutcracker, think Coppélia, and sophisticates can also think Mary Oslund’s Reflex Doll.)

Continues…

I love the silence that surrounds me when I stand in the middle of a heavy snowfall. It feels strange and exciting, magical and otherworldly, like time is standing still. It’s amazing to me that you can see so much movement in the falling snow, but not hear a sound. In this moment, my senses are heightened and I notice things I’ve never noticed before. The snow is beautiful and I feel happy, calm, and my mind it quiet and focused-which is difficult to do sometimes.

The only other experience that I can equate to this, for me, is dancing and watching dance. In these moments I am able to focus my mind and my body, transport myself, and block out everything that isn’t necessary for that moment. Right now I want this. I am exhausted from the election, the constant chatter on Facebook, the news, the atrocities in the world, the suffering, the anger, the fighting, everything.

I am not trying to encourage sticking your head in the sand but rather to encourage art making, doing and seeing. It seems like the best possible way to process what is going on around us, and it might even give us a feeling of empowerment over our circumstances.

In keeping with the Thanksgiving tradition of avowing what we are thankful for, I am most thankful for dance and dance makers and artists of all kinds, they transport me and help me see and feel things I might not have been able to on my own.

I am specifically thankful for the four performances that I witnessed and participated in post-election and the ideas they left behind: my own, The Kitchen Sink, Linda Austin’s The last bell rings for you, Reggie Wilson’s Moses(es), and Suspended Moment: Activating the Nuclear Past + Present by Meshi Chavez, Yukiyo Kawano, Allison Cobb and Lisa DeGrace.

The Kitchen Sink was a year-long project that I worked on with fellow dancers Celine Bouly and Abigail Nace, which culminated last weekend at BodyVox. You can read about my process creating the dance in a story I wrote for ArtsWatch.

What’s my take away from my own show? I love circles. Circles are not a choreographic trope that choreographers use when they run out of ideas.They are beautiful, timeless, natural and full of meaning. Life is circular, my joints move in circles, I will always use them.

The last bell rings for you seemed to say that every “body” is sacred with the ringing of bells by performers (as well as audience members) as a variety of bodies moved as humans do throughout the performance space at Shaking the Tree Theatre, creating a sacred, church like atmosphere. These 28 bodies explored the space and each other, sometimes moving together, and sometimes not, and often were moved by unseen forces. That made me think about what is in our control and what is not.

Moses(es), which was created across the country in Brooklyn, New York, was similar in structure in so many ways to The last bell rings for you, which is amazing to me given the distance between the two companies. It made me wonder about the power of collective thinking, the evolution of post-modern dance, cultural expectations and that maybe we are more similar than dissimilar.

Suspended Moment: Activating the Nuclear Past + Present, which was performed in the Littman Gallery at Portland State University this past Tuesday, was a scary and timely reminder of what can happen to power when it’s left unchecked. Visual artist Yukiyo Kawano decorated the gallery space with two hanging replicas of the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 fabricated from her grandmother’s kimonos, stitched together with strands of her own hair. In addition she added hanging paper lanterns for the dead, a calligraphic tapestry on the wall with the famous work of Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to a Far Province, and a river of rice paper flowing down from the ceiling meandering through the space with the same writing on it.

Butoh dancer Chavez—dancing to Cobb’s poetry recited live by Kawano and Cobb, with music by Lisa DeGrace—animated the space, invoking the spirits of the dead and creating indelible images of death and suffering and remembrance as a reminder to us not to change the narrative.

This weekend offers us three wonderfully different respites from the world.

Continues…

Young, gifted, and ready for more

The dancers in the rising professional training company The Portland Ballet show off their considerable skills

“I dance, therefore I am.”

That’s the message sent by many of the young dancers in The Portland Ballet’s ambitious spring show at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall last Friday night.

Where this was most apparent was in the two pieces, both of them premieres, made precisely for them, and, in one way or another, about them.  In Josie Moseley’s Us, set to songs by Fiona Apple, the whole cast put heart, soul and body into Moseley’s modern, grounded vocabulary, performed barefoot, although it did seem slightly more balletic than in previous choreographies.

The company in Josie Moseley's "Us." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The company in Josie Moseley’s “Us.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Thematically, Us signals a new direction as well: unlike much of Moseley’s previous work, it has no politics, no deep drama: it’s simply about these dancers and life as a teenager. I’m by no means, incidentally, knocking the earlier repertoire. Moseley has tackled some huge issues in her work, from school desegregation to the Holocaust, and done it with considerable artistic success.

Us opens with a trio, performed by Amelia Carroll, Delphine Chang, and Annie Garcia. Dancing to Every Single Night, whose lyrics include lines like “I just wanna feel everything,” they fully inhabit their roles as yearning, hungry for experience adolescent girls. For the second part, they are joined by Puneet Bhandal, Nick Jurica, Evan Lindsay, Charlotte Logeais, Ophelia Martin-Weber and a number of chairs. Jurica, Carroll and Longeais in particular bring to life the “dancing bird of paradise” of  the accompanying Hot Knife lyrics, though not, except by implication, “If I’m butter, then he’s a hot knife.” Moseley knows when to make use of abstraction in her choreography; the dancers added the eloquence.

Songs also accompany Anne Mueller’s Carioca, in this instance either written or performed or both by Lord Burgess, Edward Eliscu, Gilberto Gil, Talking Heads, Gus Kahn, Richard Rodgers, and Caetano Veloso. The costumes, which are sleek and black, were inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s garb for her quirky dance in a smoke-filled “existentialist” or beatnik club in Paris in that marvelous pre-The Devil Wore Prada film, Funny Face. The ballet’s title and Latin American atmosphere came from two sources – Flying Down to Rio, like Funny Face a Fred Astaire film, and Trey McIntyre’s Like a Samba, which Mueller knows well.

From left: Evan Lindsay, Puneet Bhandal, Charlotte Logeais in "Jamaica Farewell" from Anne Mueller's "Carioca." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

From left: Evan Lindsay, Puneet Bhandal, Charlotte Logeais in “Jamaica Farewell” from Anne Mueller’s “Carioca.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

None of which matters much: What Mueller has made is a closing ballet that showcases who the  young dancers in this professional ballet school are as dancers, and what they have achieved in their training to date. And, moreover, it shows them having fun.  There is an exuberant solo for Jurica; in Jamaica Farewell,  Logeais’ endless legs remind us of Hepburn’s; and, dancing with Bhandal, Lindsay, Hanan Margoles and Ethan Myers, she’s relaxed and at ease and enjoying herself. She begins her professional career at Grand Rapids Ballet in the fall, under the artistic directorship of Patricia Barker, who as a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet had a much-acclaimed international career.

In George Balanchine’s Tchaikowsky Pas de Deux, Medea Cullumbine-Robertson, partnered by Jurica, announced with every grand jeté and pas de chat that on stage, dancing, is where and how these young performers live.  Tchai Pas, as it is fondly called, contains just about every step in the classical lexicon, revved up to maximum speed, and the two young dancers pretty much nailed it.

Many, many dancers have performed this quintessential Petipa-style pas de deux. Balanchine made the duet 55 years ago, originally for Diana Adams, who was indisposed shortly before the premiere, so Violette Verdy ended up originating the role, partnered by Conrad Ludlow.

For Jim Lane and Nancy Davis, directors of The Portland Ballet, it was a signature work when they were principal dancers with John Clifford’s original Los Angeles Ballet. Here in River City, Zachary Carroll and Elizabeth Guerin  performed it in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s second season. I have a vivid memory of watching Clifford set it on Carroll and Guerin, as well as on Diane Fisher and the late Michael Rios.

“Faster, faster,” he kept yelling at them, and faster and faster they danced. Clifford, who in many ways is The Portland Ballet’s good angel, taught the pas de deux to Cullumbine-Robertson, Jurica, Logeais, and Henry Cotton last fall. Since then, they’ve been coached to a fare-thee-well by Davis, Lane, and Carroll, who now directs Body Vox 2 and also teaches at the Portland Ballet Academy.  Sadly, Cotton, who had become an apprentice at Oregon Ballet Theatre, was injured in OBT’s last show; Longeais lost her partner and therefore the opportunity to test her technical mettle in the bravura dance.

Verdy, who is I believe still conveying her technique and joie de la danse to students in the ballet program at the University of Indiana, was famous for launching herself at top speed into Ludlow’s arms in a fish dive. That was a near-miss for Cullumbine-Robertson and Jurica on opening night, but only a near one, and from their triumphant smiles in Blaine Truitt Covert’s photograph, you’d never know they had faltered at all.

Medea Cullumbine-Robertson and Nick Jurica in Balanchine's "Tchaikowski Pas de Deux." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Medea Cullumbine-Robertson and Nick Jurica in Balanchine’s “Tchaikowski Pas de Deux.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program opened with excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty, the de rigeur classical story ballet for professional ballet schools, which Portland Ballet Academy certainly is.  Lincoln Hall’s small stage and its slippery floor made these excerpts even more challenging than usual: two dancers fell, but made highly professional recoveries. Nevertheless, as the calm, wise Lilac Fairy (she’s the one who puts Aurora into a century long sleep instead of allowing Carabosse to kill her off) Lauren Kness, who is all of 16, danced her variation with a mature warmth and amplitude that bodes well for her future. And in the Bluebird variation (a role Nijinsky danced!), 13-year-old Myers injected his performance with the same wit and exuberance as his Pinocchio last winter in The Magic Toyshop.

Lane and Davis have worked long and hard to get the PDA established, and they now will be joined in this enterprise by Mueller, who will take up full-time duties as Co-Artistic Director of the performing arm and the new Career Track Program. In a pre-curtain speech, Mueller talked about how much she was looking forward to passing on what she has learned in her years as a dancer, most of them with Oregon Ballet Theatre, and as a teacher in the company’s school. What Carioca signals is Mueller’s ability to transfer her own intelligence and wit as a performer to pre-professional students – no small thing. And, yes, there is room for two professional ballet schools in Portland. I’m hoping for more cooperation and less competition than exists at present.

 

Mother Goose in pointe shoes

The Portland Ballet's annual holiday show finds the charm in John Clifford's fairy-tale choreography

Gentle, calm, basically peaceful (except when danger is present in Maurice Ravel’s gorgeous music and the narrative), John Clifford’s choreographic rendering of Mother Goose contains many charms. As performed by the young dancers of The Portland Ballet at the Sunday matinee in the company’s annual Thanksgiving weekend showcase at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall, it delivers a subtle, reassuring message at a time when we are otherwise bombarded by marketers in celebration of the miracle of the Hannukah lights and the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Photo courtesy The Portland Ballet

Photo courtesy The Portland Ballet

Ravel’s best-known scores for ballet are Bolero and La Valse. But the first one he did, in 1912, was Ma Mère l’oye (Mother Goose), originally for piano, then orchestrated for a production at the Theȃtre des Arts in Paris. The stories told in this ballet, in broad, brief choreographic strokes  are Jules Perrault’s versions of Sleeping Beauty,  Beauty and the Beast,  Tom Thumb (aka Hop ‘o My Thumb), and The Princess of the Pagodas. The action is framed as a young girl’s dream, and transitions are made with Mother Goose, toy goose tucked under her arm, summoning the characters.

The curtain rises on one of the loveliest sets I’ve ever seen, designed by Portland artist Liliya Drubetskaya. The young dreamer, danced on Sunday afternoon by Sophia Dahlstrom, is seated in an armchair, reading a large book. The armchair faces a large window overlooking a lush garden—this is not a winter’s tale. The child falls asleep, the chair is pulled offstage, and Sleeping Beauty begins with a group of coltish courtiers playing badminton and the extremely gifted Medea Cullumbine-Robertson deploying her pointes as Aurora.  The music darkens, the lights (designed by Michael Mazzola) do as well, Aurora has a close encounter with the wicked fairy’s spindle, and is deposited on an elaborate bed.

Next up is a different Beauty, the dark-haired Kerridwyn Schanck, dancing an eloquent pas de deux with guest artist Josh Murry, a member of BodyVox, who also reprised the role of Gerard, the desperate shopkeeper in The Fantastic Toyshop, which closed the program. Ravel’s music for Beauty and the Beast is particularly lovely, emotionally and rhythmically complex; and the playing throughout Mother Goose of the PSU Orchestra, under the baton of Ken Selden, was as heartfelt and skillful as the dancing.

Lights and slide projections then take our dreamer and the audience to a dense forest, with a corps de ballet of cleverly costumed trees. Generally speaking it’s the wind that choreographs trees, but the kids in this training company did their charming best. Emily Rapp, swooping down in a canary-yellow wig and pointe shoes on the bread crumbs that little Thumb had dropped in order to find his way home again, thoroughly inhabited the greedy bird’s character and displayed fine technique.

Given my dislike of the artificial cuteness of the Chinese divertissement in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, I dreaded the concluding Princess of the Pagodas. But Clifford is to be commended for at no time in this ballet descending into what the British call twee. The corps of red-clad Chinese servants does some acrobatics; and Nick Jurica, as the snake, did lose his balance finishing his pirouettes à la seconde. But more experienced dancers than he have done that. And Charlotte Logeais, who has beautiful legs and feet and increasingly fine-tuned technique, made a regal princess–and a fiercely kind Blue Fairy in Toyshop.

Mother Goose ends with the dreamer reunited with her parents, costumed ’50s style (no jeans for Mom in this ballet; she’s wearing a dress, and Dad is in slacks and shirt). In a reassuring show of togetherness, the curtain goes down on them reading Mother Goose, the book.  The gifted Mary Muhlbach was responsible for these costumes, and with Jane Staugas Bray, for Toyshop‘s as well.

The Portland Ballet has been performing Clifford’s Toyshop for about a decade, and the tale of an impoverished shopkeeper and his longsuffering wife, the accidentally locked-in children and the toys that come to life, contains many roles that offer opportunities for ballet students at all levels to display their dancing and acting skills. On Sunday, it was 10-year-old Andrew Davis–son of The Portland Ballet’s Jason Davis, ballet master and school principal, and the youngest Pinocchio I’ve seen–who stole the show. His joy in being on stage was palpable, his comic timing impeccable. I missed Alexandrous Ballard doing the Cossack dance, and the Giselle doll’s over-the-top makeup distracted the viewer from Delphine Chang’s perfectly good display of Romantic technique, but Lauren Grover as the Soldier Girl danced with considerable flair and polish. And the PSU Orchestra played well the Rossini-Respighi score that accompanies this Ballet Russes chestnut.

Dancing toys, flaming bird: ballet in embryo

The young dancers of The Portland Ballet give a glimpse of dance's future through its past

The dancing dolls, preceded by a magical firebird, returned to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on Friday night when The Portland Ballet Youth Company opened its annual Thanksgiving weekend concerts accompanied by the PSU Symphony Orchestra.

“The Firebird,” whose haunting 1910 score was Igor Stravinsky’s first for ballet (Michel Fokine did the choreography), opened the ambitious program with Marina DiCorcia in the title role and Devin Packard as the hapless Prince Ivan.

Prince Igor (David Packard) and the Firebird (Marina DiCorcia). Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Prince Igor (David Packard) and the Firebird (Marina DiCorcia). Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Wandering around in the moonlight, in classic-ballet hero fashion, clutching a bow and arrow, Ivan finds himself in an enchanted garden where he spots a bright red bird. Clad, needless to say, in a tutu. Their actual meeting seems to take forever, not because of Clifford’s choreography, or the promising young dancers’ execution of it, but because of the orchestra’s funereal tempo. For any of these dancers going on to professional careers, this did provide a learning experience in coping with conductors, and for the young musicians, a lesson in the difference between playing for dancers and performing for an audience of listeners only. More balletically experienced conductors than Ken Seldon, who heads the PSU orchestral program, don’t always grasp that difference.

toy 2

Ivan captures but does not kill the Firebird, and she is so grateful for her release that she gives him a red feather with which he can summon her help if he needs it, which he will. Clifford has provided some pretty difficult steps on point for the Firebird, and Di Corcia, who has been studying ballet since she was 3 (she’s now 17), the past five years at the Portland Ballet Academy, performed them with precision and style, particularly in the solo that celebrates her freedom. That solo is packed with a daunting series of unsupported turns and jetés, and while Di Corcia doesn’t yet have the finish or finesse of a professional dancer, she performed with considerable presence and aplomb.

Enter a group of enchanted princesses, nine of them, in flowing costumes, led by Emma-Anne Bauman as Princess Elena, also 17.  Ivan falls in love with the willowy princess at first sight, and emerges from his hiding place to let her know it. Packard, who has been dancing for only three years, injects his role with the appropriate adolescent gawkiness and rough edges, and everyone dances a happy, if musically  too slow, little dance.  For a while.  Music and stage darken (Michael Mazzola designed the lights), Ivan is attacked by a little monster, followed by a second, a third and a fourth, and the wicked evil sorcerer Kaschei appears in skeleton costume and a wig of long scraggly hair, accompanied by a group of bigger monsters. A chaotic dance takes place with seemingly a cast of thousands (Clifford is extremely good at ensemble choreography, which is no surprise since he learned it from a master named George Balanchine), Ivan fumbles for the feather, the Firebird appears and counter-enchants Kaschei and his monsters with a series of tours en ménage. The monsters turn back into villagers (and a backdrop appears with three onion domes), Ivan and Elena wed (minus anyone officiating) and all but the Firebird, who has possibly been so unwise as to fall in love with Ivan, live happily ever after.

*

“The Magic Toyshop” does end unambiguously happily for everyone concerned. For 10 years now, the Portland Ballet has been performing Clifford’s staging of Leonid Massine’s originally titled “La Boutique Fantasque,” which features an exhausted shopkeeper (Gerard, performed by guest artist Josh Murry) and his wife, Amélie (who does all the work and gets all the blame), more dancing dolls than the main floor of F.A.O. Schwarz can hold, and a charming score by Giacomo Rossini which the PSU orchestra played far better than “Firebird.”

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I’m told Sir Frederick Ashton thought this ballet was Massine’s best, and it struck me, as I watched students of all ages and experience performing the dolls’ divertissements that take place after the shop closes, that it provides an education not only for the young dancers, but for the audience as well. There is, for example, a takeoff on Romantic ballet by the Giselle doll, danced on Friday night by Dori Pollard with considerable wit and skill while pursued by Ethan Myers as a very annoying Pinocchio. We get a Russian variation (Matrushka dolls, lots of them) complete with a Cossack dance that Zach Lyski, who made a good recovery from a stumble Friday night, infused with almost the panache of Alexandrous Ballard, who used to dance it.

A tarantella was danced with eye-popping precision and joy by 14-year-old Medea Cullumbine-Robertson and Nick Jurica, and I thought the Can-Can girls (Julia Bullard, Cleo Forman, Emily Rapp, Ruby King and Willa Clare Truby) were best at staying in doll-like character.  The audience always adores the French poodles, who were perfectly decently danced by Azelle Chang and Sarah Jurica on Friday night, on point at that. I confess that the poodles’ charm eludes me, but then, I don’t much care for the real thing.

As the naughty American children (of course they are!) who get left behind when the shop closes and are the viewers of these and many other dolly divertissements, Safia Barmada and Alexa Campbell, who appear to be very young indeed, were clearly enjoying themselves with the natural ease of born performers. Eventually, the kids’ parents realize they’re missing, and return to collect them, blaming the shopkeeper for locking them in. He in turn blames Amélie, his wife, who was danced on opening night by Ann Bauman, transformed at intermission from a radiant Princess Elena to a plain and weary woman. But, this is a story ballet after all, and there is a fairy godmother of sorts, in the person of the Blue Fairy, who transforms Amélie into the young beauty she once was, and the couple makes up, dancing a stately pas de deux. As the Blue Fairy, Charlotte Logeais carried herself with warmth and majesty; she’s an experienced dancer, and it showed.

A grand finale wraps it all up and ties it with a festive ribbon. I’m sure every child in the school was not on that stage, but it certainly looked like it. Giving every student a role is no mean feat, and artistic director Nancy Davis exercises considerable skill at doing just that.

As usual, Mary Muhlbach, assisted by Jane Staugas Bray, did a phenomenal job with the costumes for both ballets, I’m sure on less than a shoestring.

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There are two more performances on Sunday, at 1 and 4 pm, for which the casting will be different and I imagine the orchestra much improved. This annual institutional collaboration is to be commended, glitches and all. Ticket link here.

 

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