Nacho Duato

Review: OBT’s farewell to Alison

The ballet's slick and polished "Celebrate" is a tribute to its premiere dancer, Alison Roper, who is retiring after 18 years

Mostly polished, partly sophisticated, and slickly crafted, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Celebrate program, which opened at the Newmark Theatre on Thursday night, could have used more depth. Because there is huge depth and intelligence, musicality, wit and dramatic power in the dancing of Alison Roper, whose 18 years of performing with the company is the reason for the celebration. Roper’s final appearance on stage takes place at the end of this run, next Saturday night.

Jordan Kindell and Alison Roper in Nacho Duato's "Cor Perdut." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jordan Kindell and Alison Roper in Nacho Duato’s “Cor Perdut.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

As a ballerina, she’s the real deal, able to sustain the lead role in an evening length ballet, specifically Swan Lake, her favorite, and as a chilling Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Giselle, a role she has developed and reinterpreted over the years.

She has become a Balanchine ballerina without ever darkening the doors of the School of American Ballet, a rare achievement, in a wide range of roles, from the “Russian” solo in Serenade, to the Siren in Prodigal Son.

She has served as muse to former OBT artistic directors James Canfield and Christopher Stowell, and to Nicolo Fonte and Trey McIntyre, and has danced brilliantly in Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush, and Liturgy. In Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird, now in the repertories of Kansas City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, in an expanded version, she originated the title role.  Possokhov, like every choreographer who has staged or created dances on this company, loved working with her, and it was he who said she could have danced prominently with any company in the world.

While Roper has performed a number of ballerina roles throughout the season (Titania in Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last fall; the Sugar Plum Fairy and Dewdrop in The Nutcracker; the female lead in Fonte’s Bolero in February) Celebrate actually contains no role that demands the technique and talent of a dancer of her caliber.

Roper in "Cor Perdut." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Roper in “Cor Perdut.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The meatiest is in Nacho Duato’s Cor Perdut, which, for me was the highlight of the evening. While formally constructed like a classical pas de deux, it isn’t really a ballet, but Roper, partnered by Jordan Kindell, gave it a stellar, fully committed performance.  Kindell, seemingly overnight, has developed into a sensitive partner with the stage presence of a far more experienced dancer, and Duato’s lushly expressive vocabulary, a fusion of Graham-like torso-curving modern technique and ballet, suits both him and Roper. Eloquent, passionate, fluid, like the gorgeous Catalan music, their dancing spoke to the heart, as nothing else on this program does.

Helen Pickett’s Petal, an OBT premiere, has served as a curtain-raiser for many companies, including Atlanta Ballet, where she is choreographer in residence. There are reasons for that: it showcases the dancers; and the choreography, heavily influenced by William Forsythe, in whose company Pickett danced for eleven years, challenges them to do his revved-up, fractured movement, in the improvisational way that Pickett insists that they make their own. What make this Pickett’s work, and not Forsythe’s, are its joyous tone and such tender touches as a woman tracing her partner’s face with her fingertips. And the production values, specifically lighting and costumes, are as one critic put it, “sunny,” thus warming up the audience for what’s to come.

Opening night jitters, made worse by a last-minute cast change, with Ansa Deguchi assuming the role of an injured Xuan Cheng, pretty clearly affected the way Petal was performed on Thursday night. It fell short of the go-for-broke feeling of Forsythe’s The Second Detail, to which many of these dancers gave their considerable all a couple of seasons ago, or for that matter, Smuin Ballet’s performance of Petal as seen on YouTube. But it certainly had its moments: a humorous little challenge dance between Roper and Haiyan Wu, whose innate elegance in anything she dances shone forth here. Deguchi, who is in full flower as a dancer this season, was terrific at a moment’s notice, and a couple of bravura solos by Chauncey Parsons gave it a considerable lift. As a showcase for Roper, this ballet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s a given that she danced well. She always dances well, whether she thinks so or not. Delicate and flowery, however she’s not, which doesn’t mean she can’t look vulnerable: as Odette in Swan Lake, the way she made her powerful body look fragile brought me to the brink of tears.

Jordan Kindell, Avery Reiners, and Michael Linsmeier (l-r) in Matjash Mrozewski's "The Lost Dance." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jordan Kindell, Avery Reiners, and Michael Linsmeier (l-r) in Matjash Mrozewski’s “The Lost Dance.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Throughout the run, there will be complete cast changes in Petal and Matjashi Mrozewski’s The Lost Dance, which closes the show. Roper danced with chic and snap in Mrozewski’s ballet when it premiered in 2012, but she didn’t appear in it opening night. It’s an excellent showcase for the company’s men. I missed Javier Ubell’s explosive performance from two years ago, as well as Lucas Threefoot’s, but having said that, Kindell, Michael Linsmeier and the up-and-coming Avery Reiners were swell in the trio. And Martina Chavez, who bears a startling resemblance to Ava Gardner, laced her dancing with the the late film star’s signature sultriness. While apprentice Katherine Monogue, filling in for Cheng, doesn’t have her finesse, that will clearly come in time. Choreographically, the pelvic tilts for the men lack subtlety, to say the least, and the port de bras remain fussy and a distraction from some very good dancing by Candace Bouchard and Makino Hayashi. The Lost Dance is Mrozewski’s fifth collaboration with electronic composer Owen Belton, music that has grown on me since the premiere. And the costumes, designed by Adam Arnold, are still to die for.

Following the first intermission, a mixed media tribute to Roper put together by artistic director Kevin Irving was presented by him in a style worthy of Mad Men’s Don Draper unveiling an advertising campaign for Lucky Strikes. It was redeemed by the honesty and directness of Roper’s narration of the jagged trajectory of her career, and live performance by Roper herself as Myrtha, and students from the School of OBT School, silhouetted the way the dancers are in Stowell’s Adin and McIntyre’s Like a Samba.

Curtain calls began after The Lost Dance, and Roper, as is traditional, was pelted with single flowers coming from the boxes closest to the stage. The lady is a class act: while still being pelted, she picked one up and carried it over to fellow dancer Candace Bouchard. The cheering audience started to reach for umbrellas and handbags, but were stopped in their tracks as the curtain went up again on Roper, Brian Simcoe, and Brett Bauer, costumed for Like a Samba. As an encore, Roper reprised her own first featured role as “The Girl from Ipanema.” My seatmate loathes this ballet, always has, but Roper loves doing it, and it showed as she once again danced it with easy fluidity, humor and charm.

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There are six more chances to say good-bye to Roper, and see a company that is dancing very well in the city’s most elegant theater. Go to www.obt.org for schedule and ticket information.

Roper in Helen Pickett's "Petal." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Roper in Helen Pickett’s “Petal.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

 

 

Dance: something old, something new for OBT

In its first program under a new artistic leader, the ballet troupe revives a 'Dream' and adds a work by European star Nacho Duato

 

Martina Chavez, Makino Hayashi, "Por Vos Muero." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Jenna Nelson, Makino Hayashi, “Por Vos Muero.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Toward the end of Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero,” which Oregon Ballet Theatre performed for the first time on Saturday night, six women, dressed in the square-necked bodices and full skirts of Renaissance Europe, executed a series of 20th century backward flutter kicks. It was proof, indeed, that the company, with newly arrived artistic director Kevin Irving at the helm, is still alive and kicking up a storm.

“Por Vos Muero,” which translates as “I would die for thee,” was a watershed piece in Duato’s development as a choreographer when he created it on his own company in Madrid in 1996.  In it, spoken text, spliced with period music to drive the dancing, the blending of American traditional modern movement with classical technique, the use of props, and the changes of costume, all come together to create an integrated and quite beautiful expression of what I would describe as Spanish soul.

The piece, which opened the first program of OBT’s new season, begins with twelve dancers – six men and six women, in flesh-colored body suits – standing with their backs to the Keller Auditorium audience. As lines from the poetry of Garcilaso de la Vega begin, they walk toward the back of the stage, and then start to separate into solos and duets, spiraling  their bodies, extending their legs in space-eating ways, flexing their feet, isolating hips, legs, arms in a clean performance of Duato’s signature movement style.  The standouts in this section, indeed the whole piece, are principals Alison Roper, Brian Simcoe, Brett Bauer, Xuan Cheng; soloists Candace Bouchard, and Ansa Deguchi; and Jordan Kindell, a product of OBT’s School who is now a company artist.  His authority in the Duato as well as in Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as well as his technique and musicality, make him a compelling dancer to watch even in minor roles.

After several minutes of setting the tone and the universality of the dancing body, the dancers in “Pos Vos Muero” exit and return, dressed in costumes for the women that are as lush as the movement, and period tunics over form-fitting shorts for the men. Roper and Simcoe dance a stately, courtly duet, much more spaciously conceived than it could have been performed in the confines of a 16th century palace ballroom. Later they will dance a pas de deux with boneless and heart-stopping fluidity and musicality on Roper’s part, graphically announcing that “I would die for thee.”

A percussive, finger-snapping folk dance comes between these pas de deux. The port de bras and head-shaking movement are rhythmically complex and a bit fussy, yet the dancers visibly enjoy themselves. A playful trio performed by Deguchi with two men garners a round of applause from the audience. Then our sextet of kicking women, who are holding buskers’ masks, are followed by an athletic, swirling ecclesiastical dance by the men (of course), who are dressed in vestment-like capes and are swinging thuribles, or incense burners. Finally the whole cast comes on stage again, looking naked. This part, I’m sorry to say, includes a duet in which the woman is dragged by her ankle by the man across the stage – reflecting Spanish machismo, no doubt, although choreographers from other cultures have committed similar moves as well, and more recently than this.  “Por Vos Muero” ends with a single, clothed dancer, exiting the stage. It could have ended sooner.

OBT’s dancers rose well to Irving’s challenge to learn a new way of moving. New to them, anyway. But while loosening their upper bodies and grounding their bodies instead of elevating them does present some difficulties for classically trained dancers, Duato’s vocabulary doesn’t vary much throughout this piece, or if it comes to that, in the more recent evening-length Bach piece that was seen here in 2002 when White Bird presented Duato’s company.

As for the blending of different techniques, the use of spoken text as well as music, the performance of ballet in slippers rather than point shoes, other choreographers have been doing this since the middle of the last century. Not, of course, to express Spanish soul, but to say something about their own lives, their own cultures. Todd Bolender’s “The Still Point,” comes to mind. It premiered in 1955, two years before Duato was born, with a title taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,”and a score by Claude Debussy, and it can be danced effectively by either a ballet or modern company. Longtime OBT viewers will remember Bebe Miller’s “A Certain Depth of Heart, Also Love,” commissioned by James Canfield, in 1994, which was danced to spoken text, popular and classical music, and included Miller’s personal vocabulary of angular, joint-isolating movement combined with such classical tricks as multiple pirouettes à la seconde. Canfield, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer who was OBT’s founding artistic director, and had performed to both classical and popular music, commissioned that piece to challenge the dancers and give them new ways of moving – and to re-state, no doubt, his own aesthetic roots.

Repertory invariably reflects the artistic director’s experience and point of view, no matter who it is.  This applies in spades to Christopher Stowell’s one-act “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which closed the program with wit and charm, and on the whole clear, precise neoclassical dancing.  It was accompanied by Mendelssohn’s gorgeous music, played live by an underrehearsed orchestra under the baton of Niel DePonte. Stowell, who had performed Oberon as a guest artist in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of Balanchine’s evening-length version in 1997, made this one in 2007, halfway through his tenure as OBT’s artistic director. Roper was in the original cast as Titania, her performance last night in the same role was technically polished and versatile.  Also very funny, particularly  in her besotted tango with Kevin Poe, superbly funny as Bottom, twirling his donkey tail lasciviously, wiggling his ears, clenching a rose in his teeth. In the extended reconciliatory pas de deux with Brian Simcoe’s princely Oberon, Roper’s dancing was as tenderly romantic as Mendelssohn’s score.

As Puck, which calls for both acting and bravura dancing, Ye Li did a fine job, but I missed the departed Javier Ubell’s mischievous explosiveness. Deguchi’s pert, speedy Peaseblossom, coupled with her performance in the Duato, shows her to be a dancer coming into her own, and this also applies to Makino Hayashi as a wounded, rejected Helena, with Brett Bauer doing the rejecting as Demetrius, mooning after Hermia, skull in hand.  Along with Xuan Cheng’s feisty Hermia and Michael Linsmeier’s boyish Lysander, they “read” well in the mayhem created by Puck, Cupid and Oberon. In the thankless role of the Changeling, the bone of contention between Oberon and Titania, young Johannes Gikas performed with presence and aplomb beyond his years, and the children from OBT’s School who were cast as woodland creatures (mostly butterflies) charmed the audience with their cuteness-free grace. For that we owe their coach, Gavin Larsen.

I had forgotten what a lovely production this is—we’re lucky to have it, and it’s because of Stowell’s performing career in San Francisco that we do.  Sets and costumes were designed by Sandra Woodall, and both are gorgeous.  My only quibble is the size of the wings worn by Titania, which momentarily got in the way of the partnering in that extended pas de deux.

“Dream,” the umbrella title for this show (it ought to be Love, it seems to me), repeats next weekend, with some cast changes.  I had a good time. You will, too.

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Find schedule and ticket information here.

 

 

First steps: OBT learns a new way

In the studio with new artistic director Kevin Irving, the company dancers prepare for a new season and a fresh approach

Ye Li, Brian Simcoe rehearse "Por Vos Muero." Phot: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ye Li, Brian Simcoe rehearse “Por Vos Muero.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s main studio is still unlit when I enter the building at 9:45  a.m. on the last Monday in September, although some of the dancers are doing their pre-company class warmups, looking a little like ghosts.

I’m here to watch Kevin Irving teach, and later in the morning rehearse the dancers in Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero,” a company premiere. At the time of my visit there are two weeks to go before OBT opens its first season under Irving’s artistic directorship, with a highly theatrical program that includes a reprise of Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Stowell resigned as OBT’s artistic director last December in the wake of an austerity move by the company, which despite a good deal of artistic success was on shaky financial ground. His departure sparked a chain of events that led to the arrival of Irving, the American former artistic director of Sweden’s Goteborg Ballet, and the inevitable switches in style and routine that a change in leadership entails.

The company’s first program under Irving’s leadership opens this Saturday, October 12.

Principal dancer Alison Roper appears, seemingly out of nowhere, dressed for class. She turns on the lights in the studio, and dancers continue to trickle in, including Yang Zou, who retired from the stage last season, and who tells me he wants to feel like a dancer again, just for a little while.  Company accompanist Irina Golberg takes her place at the piano (she’s a fine musician, sensitive to tempo and the dancers’ needs). The dancers take theirs at the barre, and Irving begins to teach, speaking softly but firmly.

OBT DREAM - Fall 2013“Feel the power of the floor,” I hear him say. “Pay attention to the external rotation of the hip.”

Irving stops next to Kohhei Kuwana, a new company artist, and has him demonstrate exactly how he wants the hip rotation accomplished. Irving pays a great deal of attention to individual dancers during the course of the class, giving many corrections, which means lots of help.  For many, this is a completely new way of moving. The class has a different kind of energy from Christopher Stowell’s; one dancer tells me after class he misses the speed.  Another is grateful for the scope of the corrections.

Irving is preparing the dancers to perform Duato’s signature movement, in which the emphasis is on shape rather than line, and technique is in the service of dramatic expression. Over the years, the Spanish choreographer (he was born in Valencia, in 1957)  has developed a vocabulary that fuses the classical vocabulary—pirouettes, jetés,  pas de chats, pas de bourrés, and the like—with the floor-bound, swooping curves of traditional modernism as developed and practiced by, among others, Martha Graham and José Limon. Not performed in point shoes, “Por Vos Mueros” nevertheless is a ballet, and an intensely theatrical one at that.  The title, which comes from a Renaissance poem, translates as “For you I would die.”

In due course, the women put on their point shoes while the middle of the studio is cleared of the barres and the traditional center work begins.  “Work with your lower back,” Irving instructs the dancers. “Move your spine and lift up out of the floor. At some point,” he tells a male dancer who is putting more emphasis and care on the leg he is extending than the one that’s supporting his body, “you have to accept that people are looking at both sides of your body.”

Class runs slightly overtime. Rehearsal, accordingly, starts late.

OBT DREAM - Fall 2013“Por Vos Mueros,” like “Midsummer,” is to some degree a text-based work. It begins with a reading of lines from poetry by Garcilaso de la Vega, who is said to have brought Italian Renaissance poetry to Spain.  The dancers perform to text as well as music, in this instance Spanish Renaissance music, and while there are little love stories contained in the duets and the solos, the piece is about the universality of dance itself as cultural expression. Dancing in Renaissance Spain was not at all a class-based activity. Aristocrats, merchants and peasants all danced, as did a group of choir boys trained in Seville and Toledo, called Los Seises, who still perform in Renaissance costume in churches as part of the liturgy, expressing religious faith. Duato’s vocabulary expresses all of this in highly textured fashion, and costumes are a part of that.  In the opening section, the dancers are in flesh-colored tights and look nude. In other sections, the men are in black shorts, the women in full skirts that are part of the fluid choreography. “The music is the wave you are riding on,” Irving calls out during rehearsal, and the dancers are starting to ride it with considerable skill.

In Spain, romantic passion can make you willing to die for the object of your affections. In Elizabethan England, love, at least according to Shakespeare (who could be as fatalistic as any Spanish bullfighter entering the ring), is out of your control, out of your hands. In “Midsummer,” he makes fun of this verbally, and how. In his highly sophisticated distillation of the play, Stowell uses the language of classical ballet in the service of comedy, the most difficult kind of ballet to pull off, and OBT’s dancers have in past performances done it very well, indeed.  Roper, who retires at the end of the season, is featured in both ballets (she originated the role of Titania in “Midsummer,” and dances with Brian Simcoe in “Por Vos Muero”). Kevin Poe will again appear as a superb Bottom in “Midsummer.”   The four new company artists – Jennifer Christie, who was an apprentice last year, Kohhei Kuwana, Jenna Nelson and Avery Reiners – are having their versatility tested right out of the gate.

Next stop: Saturday night. It’s a whole new season, and for OBT, a whole new day.

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The show, which has the umbrella title of “Dream,” opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Keller Auditorium and closes on Sunday, the 19th. “ Midsummer” will be accompanied by the OBT orchestra under the baton of music director Niel DePonte. Consult www.obt.org for details.

 

 
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