Josie Moseley

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.


Daniel Kirk (foreground) and Eric Skinner in "Flying Over Emptiness." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Somewhere amid the bird-screeches, stark film closeups and intense physical exertions of Flying Over Emptiness, it’s good to remember two words.

“For Mary,” the program note says simply, as if in an afterthought.

Except that the Mary in the dedication of Josie Moseley’s splendid and deeply moving new dance, which premiered Thursday night at BodyVox Dance Center, is no afterthought. Choreographer Mary Oslund, whom Moseley has known and worked with in the tight-knit circle of Portland contemporary dance for more than 20 years, is the reason the dance exists.

“I made this for my friend,” Moseley said before the opening of Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble’s new four-work program, “and I don’t know what’s happening with her.”

For some time Oslund’s been dealing with the bewildering effects of a neurological disease that has caused her to lose her muscle coordination. For anyone, it’s a painful and life-altering condition. For a dancer, it strikes to the core of who you are and what you do.

Flying Over Emptiness is far from the sort of “victim art” that Arlene Croce notoriously decried in her 1994 essay Discussing the Undiscussable, in which she declared that Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here, about AIDS and terminal illness, was unreviewable and she wouldn’t watch it. It was a short-sighted argument, which was clear at the time and has only become clearer. We’re human, and to be human is to break down. Eventually, even Faust had to accept that. How can artists not explore such perilous and poorly charted territory?

Moseley’s dance is a work of total theater, and it’s less about Oslund’s disease than the resulting realization of the isolation, the unknowability, of life: things happen, and we don’t understand them, and we reach out, but there are chasms that are uncrossable, even between the closest of companions. We are, indeed, alone. We can’t even understand ourselves. How can we understand what’s happening inside someone else?

Portland’s dance scene has its formalist creators, and its comedians, and its experimentalists and nostalgists and improvisationalists and romanticists and lovers of spectacle. Moseley may be the city’s gutsiest, most dramatic dancemaker: she jumps into the emotional deep end, and then rigorously shapes what she sees.

Flying Over Emptiness is utterly committed, fiercely honed, beautiful like a bare rock in a flattened landscape. It has just two dancers, company leaders Daniel Kirk and Eric Skinner, who move tensely and tautly on a darkened stage, like deeply knotted muscles straining to straighten out. The exertion is riveting. Above them, on a large screen, a film by Janet McIntyre rolls by in a slow black-and-white rush: images of booted feet walking in a wood, silent facial studies of Moseley and Oslund, gestures, objects. Muted lighting, by Mark LaPierre, suggests a tension between stage and screen, and the sound score by Earwax is insistent and gorgeous in a compellingly awful and natural way: scrapes, bleats, the screechings of birds of prey.

Where does your eye go when you’re watching? McIntyre’s film certainly draws attention, and at times you can almost miss what Skinner and Kirk are doing. At other times, the dancers capture you completely. The scene is fractured, fighting against itself, and I think that’s part of what makes it work so well: a battle is going on. There are many ways to look at this duality, and one is this: we have physical lives, and something else that is more than physical, or at least different – something obscured and ghostly and fleeting but also very real. Try to understand it and you will fail, but you will catch glimpses and hints. At times Flying Over Emptiness reminded me of Lear on the heath, not for the old king’s foolishness but for his deeply dawning realization of things he hadn’t seen.

Strangely, the outcome of this predestined failure is not futility or bleakness but a kind of human resonance, a brief immersion in the profound. It’s not solace, exactly, or even acceptance. Maybe it’s simply a recognition of the larger spaces of the unknown. You could call Flying Over Emptiness existential, but that’s only a word. It simply is.

“I don’t even care what anyone thinks of it,” Moseley said of the dance. She wasn’t being imperious, or defensive, or dismissive of her audience. She was simply saying that satisfying the art came first – that acceptance and applause, as nice as they  would be, were secondary. Flying Over Emptiness made me cry. And I mean that in the best possible way.

 All in all, Skinner/Kirk’s program is a hearteningly grown-up evening of dance, less obsessed with the extreme athleticism of hard bodies (although the bodies are plenty athletic enough) than with the ways that movement ideas blend into the ways in which we lead our lives.

Skinner and Kirk in "One." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

If Flying Over Emptiness is about isolation, Skinner’s aerial dance One is about the possibilities of togetherness. He and Kirk first performed this piece in 1997, and it’s held up exceptionally well, both for its quiet physical bravura and its suggestions of tenderness, trust and intimacy. It felt good to make its acquaintance again. The piece has a lovely lyricism, aided considerably by the accompanying recorded voice of the great Frederica Von Stade singing Joseph Canteloube’s soaring Songs of the Auvergne.

Belmont, choreographed by Skinner and Kirk and danced by Kirk, Elizabeth Burden, Zachary Carroll and Holly Shaw, is a light and congenial exercise in partnering, danced to music by Bach, Martijn Hostetler, and the late Portland native Lou Harrison, whose ambitious musical eclecticism is a good match for dance.

The company opened with Skinner’s fluid and quietly captivating Obstacle Allusions, which premiered last June with the same six dancers: Kirk, Skinner, Carroll, Shaw, Heather Jackson and Margo Yohner. I liked it last year and like it more on a second viewing. It’s an unassuming yet clever dance, touching down on ballet vocabulary but loosening up the language, and flowing easily into pairings that combine naturally into male-male, female-female, and female-male: just life the way it is. The hints of social dancing and the costumes, by Skinner and BodyVox’s Ashley Roland, suggest a revisitation of the 1950s. Once again the fine pianist Bill Crane accompanies the movement, to excellent effect.

Last year I fretted a bit in print over Skinner’s decision to end the dance not with Crane’s piano but with the fading scratches of a recorded dance band. This time around, I liked that choice: It suggests that this is a memory-piece, a reverie, an idyll. It’s a good thing sometimes that artists ignore what critics have to say.

BodyVox’s presentation of Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble continues Thursdays-Saturdays through February 11. Ticket and schedule information is here.





Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!