Kevin Irving

Choreography XX: Gioconda Barbuto and Kevin Irving bring individuality to ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Kevin Irving seeks to bring contemporary dance's individuality to the ballet form and so does choreographer Gioconda Barbuto

Since seeing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake in February, I have been mulling over what exactly classical ballet is and how it fits into our thinking about both the arts and the society in which they are situated.

In ballet, in general, I am struck by the lack of diversity (specifically the lack of African-American dancers in US ballet companies), the obvious racism and stereotyping within ballet storylines (think Chinese and Arabian dances in the Nutcracker—cultural appropriation at its max), and the general patriarchal point of view of almost every classical ballet. These days we do not think that women need to saved by princes, and we don’t think they should be commodities to be traded for money and power. Moreover, within the ballet world there is a serious lack of female choreographers.

I am not alone in my line of inquiry. Last Friday I sat down and spoke with Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving who is also bothered by ballet’s incongruence with modern day culture. In fact, he altered the storyline of his Swan Lake in February to draw the audience’s attention to some of those aspects. Even more directly, he created Choreography XX, a choreography competition to discover new women ballet choreographers. The two-night concert runs at 7:30 pm Thursday and Friday at the Washington Park Amphitheatre, and admission is free.

“It’s been important to me in a lot of aspects of our programming, to represent ideas and people that are in our community, and so it [Choreography XX] was a mechanism for me to fund more diversity and more female representation,” Irving said. The competition, funded by a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Initiative, was launched last January and received over 90 applicants from across North America. The winning choreographers were Gioconda Barbuto, Helen Simoneau, and Nicole Haskins.

Interestingly Irving’s dance background is mostly in contemporary dance, which seems to afford him a broader vision to work through these discrepancies and create a new normal for classical ballet within Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Irving also pointed out that “classical ballet is a product of a very strictly organized social hierarchy in which the czar is at the top, and everybody filters down until you have the serfs.” When he looks at classical ballets, he see’s “rows and rows of women who have no individuality, no purpose other than to be background to more important people. And that reflects the society that supported the creation of this art form, and was unquestioned for over 100 years.” Although he loves the beauty in uniformity, Irving is also interested in drawing out individuality in his ballet company.

OBT dancers Jacqueline Straughan and Martina Chavez in rehearsals for Gioconda Barbuto¹s new work for OBT¹s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

Choreographer Gioconda Barbuto, one of the three Choreography XX choreographers, is also interested in bringing the individuality and personality of each artist into the center of her work. “Because my work is so collaborative, it cannot be made without them. So this work represents who they are individually, as individuals, but also as a group.” Barbuto said in our conversation last week under the trees outside Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dance studios overlooking the Willamette River.

Barbuto has had an impressive career. Originally from Canada, she danced with the Minnesota Dance Theatre before becoming a soloist with Les Grand Ballets Canadiens de Montréal where she danced for 16 years. After she thought she was finished performing and was starting to build momentum on a choreography career, she was invited by Jiri Kylian to join Nederlands Dans Theater III in The Hague, Holland, a group of high-caliber dancers, all over the age of 40. She toured internationally with the company for eight years until the company folded, and worked two more years after that with Kylian Productions. Gioconda is featured in two of Jiri Kylian’s award winning films, Birth-Day and Car-Men.

In 1996 she was nominated for a Kennedy Center Fellowship and was the recipient of the Clifford E. Lee choreography award. She is a recipient of several grants from the Canada Council and in 2015 received the McKnight International Choreographer Fellowship.

Gioconda’s choreography has been presented at Ballet BC, Ballet Jorgen, Banff Festival Ballet, Danse Cite, Tangente, L’Agora de la danse, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, BJM Danse Montreal, Alberta Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theater, McKnight Fellowship SOLO Commission (for Abdo Sayegh Rodriguez), Bravo FACT, CBC Canada/Films Piche Ferrari, Ballet Kelowna, The Juilliard School, Arts Umbrella Dance Company, You Dance/National Ballet of Canada, Dutch National Ballet Academy, Nederlands Dans Theater Choreographic Workshop, the National Circus School, and Portland’s Northwest Dance Project, and she has created many solos and group projects for many renowned dance artists.

OBT dancers Jacqueline Straughan and Martina Chavez in rehearsals for Gioconda Barbuto¹s new work for OBT¹s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

When I watch her choreograph, she is electric, on fire, always moving, always showing, always describing what she wants, over and over again. She is inexhaustible. I also observed how deeply involved and invested in the process the dancers were. Trying and trying again, not afraid to make mistakes. Just going for it and going all out.

“I like to have fun in the room,” she said when I asked how she set the mood in the studio to enable the dancers to feel comfortable enough to open up and let go. “If I’m having fun, then I think the dancers are having fun. And I want to have fun, especially now, as you get older, and I want to keep learning right? So I’m not going to do that unless I allow the energy to move forward to create an environment where we’re having fun, and were exploring, and we’re allowed to make mistakes, and there’s no right way to do it.”

Watching from the outside, I can see her process unfolding and how she builds layers of movement, images, and action. “I think of it like painting or sculpting” she says. “You’re building a score, … we’re always throwing down a sketch, a layer, the first notes, the first splash of paint, and then you start the first carve. Your intention was that you were carving this way, but the wood cracks, the clay doesn’t come out the way you wanted, it cracked but you’re thinking, ‘No I’m going to stick with this, look where it took me, let me follow that.’ And then you go with that. This is what I’m hoping I give them: Go with the cracks and see where that takes you, because life’s like that.”

Barbuto’s creative process begins with her own movement vocabulary (built from her incredibly varied performing career), different improvisational tools, object drawing (a verbal technique Barbuto uses to describe the space around the dancers and give meaning and texture to their movement), and a long list of different kinds of songs on iTunes. She uses the music as a way “to magnetize, to emphasize, to get them into a beat or a groove, or a feeling.”

 

OBT dancer Emily Parker in rehearsals for Gioconda Barbuto’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

Referring to the dancers she says, “I want them to work from the experiences and exploration and the push and pull that happens between them, from the process. Everyone is activated by each other because they’re all connected or affected by what happens.“

Inspired by Kylian’s dance company of older dancers, I asked her how she felt about being an “older” dancer,“ which happens to be my own situation. “All of a sudden you find out there’s another level, that it’s really exciting to be an older dancer,” she says. “It’s like everything comes together and then more, and then more. You just can open up, and you can hear things, and you can feel. You understand that mistakes aren’t mistakes. You understand that the way you move has so much history in it, it’s on a cellular level. You understand that your whole body’s moving like everything’s attached, affected, connected.”

Swan Lake? Yes and no.

With its new version told through the experiences of the Prince, Oregon Ballet Theatre's production feels like something else

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new Swan Lake, with a reconceived libretto by artistic director Kevin Irving, opened at the Keller Auditorium last Saturday night. The house was filled with the usual suspects, as well as a gratifying number of young people, including a few little girls in party dresses.

With choreography by Irving, resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, and OBT School director Anthony Jones (after Petipa/Ivanov); and Filippo Sanjust’s set (to which a smithy has been added by designer Bill Anderson); this production certainly looks like Swan Lake. But it doesn’t quite feel like it.

I would attribute that partly to the incoherent libretto and partly to the crazy quilt of bits and pieces of choreography and characters from other ballets OBT has performed, specifically Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli, Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, and Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

OBT’s Peter Franc as Prince Siegfried, lakeside with the swans. Photo: Emily Nash

Since its premiere in Moscow in 1877 – and as have many of the ballets in the classical canon – Swan Lake has been adjusted, recast, torqued, tweaked, and completely transformed to reflect the points of view of those who restage it and the cultural environments in which it is performed. There is no set in stone text for Swan Lake, and I am not a Swan Lake fundamentalist — I quite love Matthew Bourne’s version, set in 20th century London, with an all-male swan corps and keyed, sort of, to the British royal family. And in fact, Petipa himself was the first to make major changes in the libretto, in 1895, and that remains the one with which audiences are most familiar.

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A fresh ‘R&J,’ a fling with the giants

Oregon Ballet Theatre announces a new season of big projects, and finishes a "Romeo and Juliet" with a revelatory performance by Ansa Deguchi

Oregon Ballet Theatre unveiled a highly ambitious 2016-2017 season on the stage of the Keller Auditorium last Thursday, with the umbrella title of Giants. The audience of (mostly) board members, funders and supporters was seated on folding chairs that had been set up in front of the sets for Romeo and Juliet. During executive director Dennis Buehler’s state of the company introduction (debt retired, new building up and running, school expanded, last year’s Nutcracker and current run of Romeo and Juliet sold out) artistic director Kevin Irving sat perched on the base of Juliet’s balcony.

After giving some ballet history Cliff Notes, Irving announced an October surprise. Two of them, actually. The fall opener includes George Balanchine’s Serenade, which makes me very happy, since I hadn’t expected to see Balanchine’s work done here again, except for The Nutcracker. The company has done Balanchine’s first ballet made in America (for students, in 1934) in 1999 and 2001 under the directorship of Canfield, and again in 2004; the students in OBT’s School danced it in 2013, when Damara Bennett was school director. Current company members Jordan Kindell and Kelsie Nobriga danced it as students.

OBT dancers perform an excerpt from Balanchine's "Serenade" at the season unveiling: from left Kimberly Nobriga, Katherine Monogue, Candace Bouchard, Jessica Lind, Paige Wilke. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

OBT dancers perform an excerpt from Balanchine’s “Serenade” at the season unveiling: from left Kimberly Nobriga, Katherine Monogue, Candace Bouchard, Jessica Lind, Paige Wilke. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The second surprise, and it was a big one, was William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a real killer in technical terms—warp speed doesn’t even begin to describe the pace—to an electronic score by Thom Willems. Not that OBT hasn’t done Forsythe before: Christopher Stowell introduced this choreographer, sometimes labeled as post-neo-classical, to Portland audiences by programming The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and The Second Detail during his tenure as artistic director. The latter is an extremely challenging work in which Xuan Cheng was a knockout, but In the Middle is going to need massive amounts of rehearsal time for the company to pull it off.

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Ballet masters of the 21st century

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Lisa Kipp and Jeff Stanton put the backstage beat and precision into "Romeo and Juliet," mastering the art of mastering everything

I wish the phrase “Ballet Master” would go away.

Those two words, put together, conjure up the image of a haughty, stern old gentleman in breeches, pounding out musical tempi on the floor with his cane and poking dancers’ bodies into desired positions. Ballet may be a traditional art form that’s proud of its roots, but it’s safe to say that — thankfully — this dusty figure no longer exists.

But ballet masters do still exist, and are important players in the daily operations of a ballet company. While the precise parameters of their role get fuzzy, they are as critical to the success of a ballet company as the dancers and artistic director. In many ways, they are the linchpin holding together the various artistic limbs of the group. They are the go-between, the conduit, the channel through which everyone communicates, and the person fielding every request, demand, and complaint. They’re the triage nurse at the ER. But they also sew up the wounds, monitor their healing, and make sure they don’t happen again.

Ballet 19th century style, complete with stick: Edgar Degas paints the renowned ballet master Jules Perrot conducting rehearsal in the Foyer de la Dance of the Palais Garnier in Paris. Oil on canvas, ca. 1871-74, 33.5 x 29.5 inches, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

Ballet 19th century style, complete with cane: Edgar Degas paints the renowned ballet master Jules Perrot conducting rehearsal in the Foyer de la Dance of the Palais Garnier in Paris. Oil on canvas, ca. 1871-74, 33.5 x 29.5 inches, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

“You really do have to know what you’re doing,” Lisa Kipp, one of two ballet masters for Oregon Ballet Theatre, says. “You have to know exactly what you’re teaching, every count, every step, every detail. The dancers can tell if you haven’t done your homework and don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kipp and fellow ballet master Jeff Stanton are responsible for much of the look and movement of OBT’s revival of James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, which opened last weekend and continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

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OBT: after 25, a leap into the future

The ballet's vigorous school shows and season-ending company performances balance new and old directions

“And how do we keep our balance?  I can tell you in one word, it’s tradition.”

I thought of those lines as I watched 14 would-be ballerinas – backs straight, heads held high, some in yellow tutus, some in red – make their imperial entrance onto the stage of the Newmark Theatre to take their places late last month in Paquita,  the opening piece of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary showcase. The show, which had two matinee performances, was, as it should have been, very much a part of the company’s silver anniversary celebrations. Those celebrations conclude May 28 with a fundraiser at the Left Bank Annex on North Weidler Street, near the east end of the Broadway Bridge. And they could well include an unofficial bonus: As it enters into its second quarter-century, OBT is expected to announce very soon its long-awaited plans to move into a new office, studio, and rehearsal center.

Sarah Griffin leaps high in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Sarah Griffin in Nacho Duato’s “Rassemblement.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof address Jewish survival in the pogrom-driven Russia in 1905, a matter of human and cultural life and death.  The cultural part of that can also be applied to the survival of classical ballet in the United States in 2015, where Oregon Ballet Theatre, which was born in 1989, is scarcely the only company finding it difficult to stay afloat. If Ballet San Jose, for example, doesn’t raise $3.5 million by October, the 29-year-old company is likely to close its doors forever, and where have we heard that before?

Paquita, Marius Petipa’s 1881 arrangement of the pas de deux and divertissements from the 1846 French story ballet about an officer in Napoleon’s army whose life is saved by a gypsy girl (she’s not Carmen!), fairly oozes the traditional set pieces we associate with the same choreographer’s trinity of ballets set to Tchaikowsky.  These are The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake, for which Petipa choreographed Acts I and III, and Lev Ivanov Acts II and IV.  OBT has danced all three ballets in various versions in the past 25 years, and currently has George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in the repertoire. Throughout that time, SOBT students have been integral to fleshing out the corps de ballet, and the performance of children’s roles.

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Every SOBT director has been responsible for passing on the torch of tradition, schooling his or her charges in the tour jetés, pas de chats, pirouettes, bourrées, fouettés and port de bras of l’École de la Danse, whose language is French, but can be, and is, “spoken” in a variety of accents, from the finish and flourish of Russian style, to the speed and directness of Balanchine’s neoclassicism. The Danes dance these steps with the ease and buoyancy of Bournonville; the British with controlled theatricality; the French with arrogant chic; and today’s Americans in whatever accent the repertoire requires. Each school director (the principal ones have been Haydee Gutierrez, brought in by James Canfield, and Damara Bennett, who came and went with Christopher Stowell) has worked closely with OBT’s artistic directors to prepare students to dance in whatever repertoire reflects  their particular vision. Now, Anthony Jones, who staged Paquita, leads SOBT in tandem with Kevin Irving, OBT’s third artistic director.

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OBT25: a gala, a reunion, a celebration of ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre's 25th anniversary show brings back the company's past and looks toward its future

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurated its twenty-fifth anniversary season on Saturday night with OBT25, a program that was part gala performance and part family reunion – and, if you will, a serious celebration of a performing art that historically has had a hard time getting established in Portland.

Wearing his opening-night purple tie for his pre-curtain speech delivered from the floor of the orchestra, artistic director Kevin Irving dedicated the performance to three OBT artists who are no longer on the planet: Dennis Spaight, the company’s first resident choreographer and associate artistic direct; Mark Goldweber, who as ballet master was instrumental in instilling the company’s strong work ethic; and Michael Rios, an impeccable and mischievous classical dancer.  And Irving set the audience thinking by quoting French film theorist André Bazin, who said: “Art emerged from the human desire to counter the passage of time and the inevitable decay it brings.”

Artslandia-ORAWreviewI didn’t see much decay, inevitable or otherwise, in dancers, musicians or choreography, although the Keller’s ever-decaying sound system nearly wrecked the pas de deux from Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love. The Fleet Foxes music was ear-splittingly loud. Come to think of it, most of the music, whether live or recorded – with the exceptions of the piano and violin accompaniment to Christopher Stowell’s Seguidilla Pas de Deux, played by Carol Rich and Nelly Kovalev, respectively; and  Thomas Lauderdale’s heartfelt playing of the Chopin Berceuse and China Forbes’ singing for Nicolo Fonte’s Never Stop Falling (In Love) – was almost unbearably over-amplified.

There’s been considerable passage of time since George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky made Agon, which opened the show, and yet there’s definitely no sign of wear in this work that expresses the jittery, cocky, competitive atmosphere of post -World War II New York – and when danced well, which it was here, is equally reflective of our own increasingly terrifying times.

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