Martha Ullman West

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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


From left: Alison Roper, Kate Oderkirk and Makino Hayashi in the world premiere of Matjash Mrozewski's "The Lost Dance." Photo: James McGrew

After a season in the yawning expanses of the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium (a hall that both Portland Opera and Oregon Ballet Theatre have learned to work with very well despite its eccentricities) it’s nice to see OBT finishing its regular season in the more congenial folds of the Newmark Theatre. The Edwardian-style Newmark strikes a fine balance between formalism and comfort, connecting audiences and performers in a warm oval embrace. It’s a lovely hall for dance, enveloping and intimate yet also, with 880 seats and three tiers, big enough to handle a decent-sized crowd. Its main drawback may be its small orchestra pit, but that just means you choose your repertory to fit the space.

For the most part OBT’s Chromatic Quartet, which opened Thursday, does that exceptionally well. The lone piece with live accompaniment, Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy (danced beautifully at Thursday’s opening-night performance by Haiyan Wu and Brian Simcoe), needs just two performers to fill the hall with Arvo Part’s haunting and broken music: pianist Carol Rich and violinist Margaret Bichteler. Val Caniparoli’s familiar Lambarena uses a recorded blend of Bach and traditional African music, and Matjash Mrozewski’s The Lost Dance, in its world premiere, is performed to a recorded contemporary score by Owen Belton that’s meant for electronics. It would have been good to hear Stravinsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major performed live for the program opener, Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, especially since the rhythmic meeting of the music and the dancers is so essential to the piece. But a good recording, if not ideal, was at least second-best.

Dance critic Martha Ullman West reviewed the opening-night performance perceptively, as always, for Oregon Live, and I have little to add. I recommend you click the link to see what she has to say, which in part is this: “(T)he dancers (put) heart, soul and technical skill into the performance of four wildly different ballets.”

One thing that struck me quite happily was the rhythmic connection, whether purposeful or by happenstance, between Balanchine’s 1972 choreography for Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Mrozewski’s for the brand-new Lost Dance. It’s not that  the movements themselves are all that similar (as Martha notes, Lost Dance’s lightly nostalgic mix of pop, classic and modern influences is closer to Tharp than Balanchine). It’s that both play very tricky, off-kilter rhythmic games that require the dancers to understand what’s going on off the beat as well as on it.

Stravinsky’s music is from 1931 and feels historic yet also intensely, compulsively modern in its drive and energy, and Balanchine, who was at once a nostalgist and a brilliant innovator, responded naturally to it. The result is a ballet that creates its beauty from a nervous complexity of angular shapes, and must be devilishly hard for dancers to perform without giving the impression that they’re anxiously counting out the beats inside their heads. Martha noted, correctly, that the performance on Thursday was sometimes a little too cautious, but not always: Alison Roper, Yang Zhou, the fast-rising Grace Shibley and others swept beyond the counting and deep into the heart of the music. I have a feeling that the company will only improve as it moves past its initial uncertainties and gets this marvelous choreography deep inside its bones.

Owen Belton’s dance floor-infused electronic score for The Lost Dance could hardly be more different from Stravinsky’s music, except that both are demanding rhythmically. It’s the kind of music that a lot of choreographers noodle around in, trying out different movements without feeling any urgent need to shape them. Yet the shapes that Mrozewski discovers are clear, complex and riveting, and the dancers respond with precision and enthusiasm. Company and choreographer seem to click. Now that they’ve been introduced, it’d be good if they kept the relationship going.

I’m a little more open to the pleasures of Lambarena than Martha, who refers to it as a “gimmicky fusion of the baroque and the tribal.” Maybe its gimmicky, but it’s also gorgeously designed, and uplifting without any of the icky connotations of the word, and I find the blending of Bach and traditional African music quite affecting. The dance isn’t “authentic,” and I don’t think it pretends to be. It’s simply an appreciative nod by an artist of one culture to artists he admires in another. I’ve seen it performed several times, by different companies, and when it’s danced well, as it was here, it works. In one sense it’s like Carmen or Carmina Burana: a person can walk off the street with little knowledge of the discipline and respond immediately to what she sees and hears. That’s not a bad thing at all. Watching it Thursday, and especially watching Kathi Martuza’s full-throttle return from maternity leave, I thought, “Ah. Here you are again, Lambarena. Nice to see you. You’re looking good, Live long and prosper.”

 A final note: With 28 company dancers and seven apprentices, OBT has reached the size and talent level to be able to do multiple castings of its programs. Different dancers in major roles can bring remarkably different nuances to the ballets, which means that if you’re really interested in a piece you might want to see it performed more than once, by different casts. You can check OBT’s Web site for casting information here. The production continues through April 28.







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