News & Notes dips into its Aristotle

The real worlds of Amy Freed, David Zellnick, and Dennis Spaight meet their art

Michael Elich and Bhama Roget in Artist's Repertory Theater's production of "The-Monster Builder." Photo: Owen Carey

Michael Elich and Bhama Roget in Artist’s Repertory Theater’s production of “The-Monster Builder.” Photo: Owen Carey

Right, art is always meeting “life.” Aristotle tells us that art intends “to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Now, I’m not prepared to defend that proposition against a determined attack, but accepting it just for the moment and speaking from experience, unless those outward appearances make sense to us, we have a hard time digging into those explorations of inner meaning. That means asking an artist for a report about the world she encounters is entirely plausible as a line of inquiry. And it’s also why the biography of an artist can be pertinent to the understanding of his work: The world he lived in is important.

So maybe that’s just stating the obvious! But the obvious in this case happens to pertain to today’s edition of News & Notes…

ArtsWatch pal Brian Libby engaged in a tête-à-tête with Brett Campbell about Amy Freed’s new play “The Monster-Builder” at Artists Repertory Theatre, and now he’s posted Part One of an interview with Freed on his PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE blog. You can probably guess that they didn’t talk about theater and playwriting; they talked architecture and city planning. For example, at the start Freed defends the Portland Building, which may be slated for demolition, at length: “It’s crazy but it’s not uninteresting. I hope it’s preserved. You can read the past in it and it’s meaningful in its way. Whatever goes up instead of it would be a crapshoot.”

Some other greatest hits:

  • “My hope for the play is to generate more interest in the non-architectural community about speaking up and talking back. Because the cities are such a mess, and we’re leaving a legacy of such ugliness, and such harshness, and such social dysfunction, and such class division. And it’s happening so fast and it’s happening everywhere.”
  • “San Francisco’s per square foot real estate cost doubled within a year a couple years ago. The arts are fleeing, once more. So Portland’s very attractive to serious creative types. That draws life to a city, makes it trendy, makes it attractive, and the development follows.”
  • “Have you seen these ruin-porn pictures that are coming out of Detroit? They’re not without majesty. To rebuild a city with some vision and poetry and skill as an artist, as people in architecture often aspire to be, would be to maintain these records of things that have happened: to not necessarily restore them but to allow the destruction to show. If everything turns into facelessness, that’s really where are spirits shut down and die.”

But really, the whole interview is well worth the trip. And you can take a peek at the Bob Hicks review of the play, just for a little background.

Speaking of the indefatigable Mr. Hicks, we recommend that you visit his review of Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom before or after seeing defunkt’s production of David Zellnik’s “unlikely and charming post-AIDS romantic comedy.”

“Zellnik wrote A Hundred Flowers in 2001, and even now its setup seems a little daring, a little dancing-on-skeletons, with a smart sense of the complicating fear and pain underlying the liberation. It’s a warm play, ultimately, a feel-good sort of story, but with enough nuance and emotional shadings to give it real impact.”

Leela Janelle did an excellent preview of the show for PQ Monthly.
And while we’re linking you to ourselves, take a look at Martha Ullman West’s review of the latest Eugene Ballet concert, which features Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade and Toni Pimble’s Bolero. West’s understanding of the work of Spaight (who died of AIDS) is deep, and she’s followed Pimble and the Eugene Ballet almost from the start (the ballet started in 1978 and Martha picked up the chase at their Nutcracker in 1981). There is NO substitute for this kind of context!

In this ballet, Spaight, who was dying and knew it, packed much of his autobiography as a dancer. It has the dramatic punch and stylistic eclecticism of Maurice Béjart, in whose Ballet of the 20thCentury Spaight performed when he was young. If you look closely, you can spot steps from the classical canon, such as the battu, the fluttering beat of one bent leg against the other that symbolizes captivity in Swan Lake, to which, as a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, he had received thorough exposure.

Spinning Spaight’s tales in Eugene

Eugene Ballet recaptures the magic of "Scheherazade," and premieres a bright and clever "Bolero"

EUGENE – You could have heard a program flutter to the floor, the audience was so absorbed. The Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center was nearly full last Saturday night for Eugene Ballet’s performance of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, and it’s a big house, making that  a pretty compelling tribute to the dancers, the choreographer, and OrchestraNEXT.  Under the baton of founder Brian McWhorter, the orchestra accompanied the entire program with  acute sensitivity to both the music and what was happening on stage.

Spaight's "Scheherazade" spins its tales again at Eugene Ballet. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Spaight’s “Scheherazade” spins its tales again. Eugene Ballet Photo

And that was a lot, even before Scheherazade closed a program of one premiere (artistic director Toni Pimble’s light-hearted visualization of  Ravel’s Bolero) and three revivals. That’s revivals, not reprisals, as much contemporary repertory tends to be: the dancers treated like drones, robots or machines, and much too often, earplugs handed out (or worse, not handed out) with the programs to muffle a soundscape that assaults the ears and drowns out the dancing.

Spaight’s re-casting of Fokine’s 1910 Scheherazade premiered in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre in the fall of 1990, two and a half years before the choreographer’s death in February of 1993. The original was more a spectacle than a dance. This one is still a spectacle, thanks to Henk Pander, who created the sets; Ric Young, who designed the lavish, outré costumes; and Peter West, who designed the lights. But it is also definitely a dance, and how.

In this ballet, Spaight, who was dying and knew it, packed much of his autobiography as a dancer. It has the dramatic punch and stylistic eclecticism of Maurice Béjart, in whose Ballet of the 20th Century Spaight performed when he was young. If you look closely, you can spot steps from the classical canon, such as the battu, the fluttering beat of one bent leg against the other that symbolizes captivity in Swan Lake, to which, as a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, he had received thorough exposure. The Sultan’s costume, with its aggressive symbolism, and the green makeup that Young created for all the bad guys flesh out the story. But it is the dancers who tell a tale in which unarmed women triumph over warriors and Scheherazade sacrifices her life for love of the Golden Slave. When Spaight’s seductive, sensuous choreography is performed with wholehearted commitment, as Eugene Ballet’s dancers do, the ballet doesn’t have a static moment, and the audience suspends its disbelief.

Yoshie Oshima in the title role, Preston Swovelin as her lover, and Mark Tucker as the Sultan inhabited those characters last Saturday night as if they were dancing about themselves. Oshima, physically tiny with enormous authority and stage presence, draws the eye like a moth to a flame. She’s onstage for the length of the ballet, using that body to tell a story to the harem girls, perform a tender pas de deux  with the Golden Slave, jeté into his arms to be tossed in the air in a way that made the audience gasp,  plead with the Sultan for mercy, convulsively thrust a dagger into her chest when mercy is not forthcoming, and follow her funeral cortege in a ghostly walk.

As the Golden Slave, Snovelin did a little too much mugging in the second scene, when he and Scheherazade declare their love. Ardor is easily expressed with the body, and he was much better in the moonlit garden scene, where the couple are joined by Odalisques Suzanne Haag and Beth Maslinoff, partnered by Takeru Anzai and Jeff Wolfe. What this gorgeous, elegiac Pas de Six tells us is that Scheherazade and the Golden Slave are not alone: the Odalisques and their lovers are equally doomed. Spaight shows this by not giving the lead couple center stage to perform.

They all get caught, of course, by Tucker as a Sultan who relished being evil, just enough (his performance, he told me after the show, was informed by the live music) and the Warriors, overcoming costumes based on Japanese armor that are almost impossible to move in. With its skillfully controlled chaos, the resulting battle scene, which is won by the harem girls (this is a political ballet, informed by late 20th century feminism), made me wish Spaight had had a chance to choreograph The Nutcracker‘s unconvincing fight between mice and toy soldiers.

The program opened with former company member Melissa Bobick’s pleasant Idyll for Eight, to a Janacek score, a pointe piece that showcased  the dancers’ talents and technique as curtain raisers are supposed to do. Janacek’s Idyll for String Orchestra contains five movements, and was eloquently played by the orchestra. But Bobick, who is a beginning choreographer,  ran out of ideas before she ran out of music, making the piece seem too long.  Tucker and principal dancer Heather Wallace were the standouts in this piece, along with Anzai, whose buoyancy added a little excitement to a rather monochromatic work.

Pimble's "Bolero" in Eugene. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Pimble’s “Bolero” in Eugene. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography

Like Spaight’s Scheherazade, Pimble’s Two’s Company – made in 1992, to music by Dvorak, for New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project – holds up well. Oshima, Swovelin, and Jeff Wolfe, like Swovelin a guest artist, seamlessly danced this dramatic vignette about abandoning one lover for another. As in Scheherazade, there is passion and grief in the music, but here it is the woman who is merciless and the man who is sacrificed, expressed in Pimble’s direct movement style.   

Bolero closed the first half, and Pimble’s take on this too-familiar music is clever, humorous, and visually exciting. It begins with a single female dancer on stage: Wallace again, clad in black briefs and a red top. As the music builds, she is joined by a male dancer, bare-chested in knee-length red tights.  As it continues to build, more and more dancers pour onto the stage, and the principals do a striptease in reverse until the women are clad in swirling red skirts, the men in abstractions of bullfighters’ “suits of light.”  There are no point shoes. The dancers deploy their legs in big developpés (unfolding of the working leg from the standing one), and the initial hard-edged angular movement becomes undulating and sinuous, reminiscent of Spanish dancing and bullfighting. Again, Anzai is given a virtuoso solo, and there is a terrifically energetic male quartet.  While the music is the same, this Bolero, which is a lot of fun, could not be more different from Nicolo Fonte’s sleekly contemporary and beautiful version for OBT, which is being revived beginning Saturday on OBT’s Reveal program.  How I wish that program, also a mixed bill, were being performed to live music, as well.


Eugene Ballet’s Scheherazade and Bolero program doesn’t repeat. Next up for the company’s home season, after a guest performance by Ailey II on February 26, is Zoot Suit Riot, with live accompaniment by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, April 12-13.


The Storytellers: Seeger & Spaight

Spaight's sumptuous ballet 'Scheherazade' in rehearsal in Eugene and Seeger's vibrant songs spin an interweaving tale of memory


January 8, 1955

“I’ve just come from hearing Pete Seeger, my God he really is terrific.  I think the only time I am really and completely happy is when I am watching a great, or even good artist perform.  It’s a feeling that is difficult to describe, buoyant and joyous, as if I’d had a little too much champagne.”

January 30, 2014

I was seventeen years old when I wrote that entry in a journal I’ve kept sporadically—very sporadically—ever since.  When I made the entry, in a hard-cover, lined, 200-page plus notebook my grandmother gave me ( the first one, as it happens) I hadn’t a clue I would end up writing about performance professionally, or that a first-rate performance, nearly sixty years later, would still have that affect on me, mostly on stage, sometimes in rehearsal.

Pete Seeger, 1955. Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Pete Seeger, 1955. Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 1955, Seeger had just held two hundred teenagers and about the same number of adults in thrall to a voice that proclaimed the sheer joy of singing while it told the story of the underground railway in Follow the Drinking Gourd, and rose above our group participation in the African lion-hunting song Wimeweh, riffing on the melody.  We were packed into the gym at Oakwood School, a Quaker prep school in Poughkeepsie, New York, not far from where Pete and Toshi Seeger lived, and where Pete died on Monday at age 94.

That was the height of the McCarthy era, and Seeger was under investigation by the FBI and blacklisted by television and radio. But Oakwood School was as committed to social justice and free speech as my elementary school had been, where Seeger, briefly, had been the music teacher eight years before. He, and subsequent teachers, failed utterly to teach me to play the recorder, an instrument I continue to loathe, but he did convey the joy to be found in singing a song, and taught me, de facto, to look as a dance critic for some joy in the dancing, shorthand for wholehearted commitment to the performance, whatever it calls for:  sorrow or delight, tenderness or passion, rage or remorse.

I thought of all that on Wednesday afternoon in Eugene, while observing Carol Shults’s fine-tuning the Eugene Ballet Company dancers in a rehearsal of Dennis Spaight’s beautiful, multi-layered Scheherazade, which makes the storyteller the centerpiece of the ballet, and, like Rimsky-Korsakov’s score,  is about every emotion listed above and more.  And these dancers, as well as EBC ballet mistress Jennifer Martin, who danced the ballet’s title role the last time Eugene did it in 2005, are as committed to this work as the original cast was when it premiered in Portland in the fall of 1990: It was the first work Spaight made for the newly formed Oregon Ballet Theatre. With costumes designed by Ric Young, sets by Henk Pander, and lighting by Peter West, Portland artists all, Scheherazade remains the most lavish production Oregon Ballet Theatre has ever done (with the possible exception of James Canfield’s 1993 Nutcracker, with its sets and costumes designed by Campbell Baird).  Scheherazade was last seen in Portland in the fall of 1993, twenty-one years ago, in a tribute program for Spaight, who had died in February of that year.  

EBC’s dancers have already performed this run of  Scheherazade in Florence on the Oregon coast, where the audience, Martin reports, loved it, sitting in stunned silence at the end, when Scheherazade, who has stabbed herself to death to save the life of the Golden Slave, follows her own funeral cortege offstage. Then the crowd broke into cheers when the dancers took their curtain calls.

The Sultan and the Golden slave (Frank Affrunti and Hyuk-Ku Kwon). Eugene Ballet Company

The Sultan and the Golden slave (Frank Affrunti and Hyuk-Ku Kwon). Eugene Ballet Company

So Shults doesn’t have a whole lot of “cleaning” to do, as repetiteurs call putting the finishing touches on a ballet.  She suggests to the Sultan’s wives that they individualize their dancing to tell their own stories—“each woman has a different one,” she says, “underlying the evil of the set-up.” She instructs them to reach with their spines, and works on the spacing.  I’m impressed by the flexibility of those spines, especially Yoshie Oshima’s, who dances the title role.  It’s unusual in classically trained dancers, although an important attribute for choreographers like Spaight and EBC artistic director Toni Pimble.

The corps of harem girls, led by Oshima, dances the opening dance once more. “Good,” Shults says, “Way more liquid.  You can tell how much Dennis loved this music, can’t you?” They nod in agreement.  Oshima and guest artist Preston Swovelin as the Golden Slave perform their first pas de deux, matching the music’s eloquence, in which every note tells us this love is doomed.  Shults calls for more tenderness and a sharper attack.   Oshima and Swovelin remind us both of Patricia Miller and James Canfield, who originated these roles, Canfield giving the performance of his life on opening night.

The rehearsal moves swiftly. The Sultan appears, Mark Tucker wielding the scimitar with evil flourishes, swirling the skirts of his incredibly wicked-looking costume, an expression of character, all of it bad.    The warriors, reluctantly, put on their movement-constricting costumes (“everyone always hates those costumes,” Shults tells them) and a stomping battle with the harem women takes place, with Shults requesting more muscle and the arms at a sharper angle.

“Okay, let’s run it,” she says.  The company takes it from the beginning, and I find myself completely absorbed, shocked  anew when Scheherazade thrusts that dagger upwards into her chest, weeping as she paces behind her own bier, not offstage, to the back of the studio.

Driving back to Portland, Shults and I are both high on this run-through, laughing, talking, remembering other performances (Nashville Ballet did it in the fall of  2004).  Somewhere north of Eugene we pass by some tract housing and spontaneously break into “Little boxes by the highway and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,” the Malvina Reynolds song that Seeger, who’s still on my mind, made his own.

Even as I write, the Eugene Ballet is touring Scheherazade, along with Pimble’s new version of Bolero and Two’s Company, the ballet she made for New York City Ballet’s first Diamond Project in 1992, and former company member Melissa Bobick’s Idyll for Eight.  The company’s in Spokane this weekend.  The program will be performed in Eugene at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts on February 15th and 16th, with live orchestra.  I wish I could say we’ll soon see Scheherazade in the city of its birth, but it doesn’t seem likely.  And that’s a shame.

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