Lisa Kipp

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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