Toni Pimble

‘Snow Queen’ review: Frozen journey

Though some tweaks are needed, premiere performance of Eugene Ballet's dazzling new original production of H.C. Andersen’s classic tale shows promise

by RACHAEL CARNES

After years of dreaming and ideation, Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen premiered last weekend, a dazzling spectacle of stagecraft that was most compelling in its moments of pure, unadorned dance.

Yuki Beppu as Gerda in Eugene Ballet’s ‘The Snow Queen.’

It’s the largest production in Eugene Ballet Company’s 38 years, featuring the longest commissioned score — by Portland composer Kenji Bunch — in Oregon’s history. Every bit of the artistic effort, from sets to costumes, props to animations, was labored over by more than 150 artists and designers from the Eugene community, under the vision of inimitable EBC Artistic Director Toni Pimble.

EBC clearly has poured its heart into this story about a girl name Gerda, whose friend Kay disappears one day, inspiring her to go on a mission to find him.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Berlin stories

Andrea Stolowitz's "Berlin Diaries," world premiere at the ballet, new on stage, Brett Campbell's music picks, lots of links

The corner of culture, art, and politics is a busy intersection these days, when suddenly each seems to have something significant to say about the others, and so Andrea Stolowitz’s new play Berlin Diary, although it deals with events three-quarters of a century ago, also seems very much of the current moment.

Stolowitz, the Portland playwright and Oregon Book Award winner, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship retracing the steps of her “lost” Jewish family, those stuck in the archives after her German Jewish great grandfather escaped to New York City in the late 1930s. Shortly after, he began to keep a journal to pass along to his descendants, and it’s that family book that prompted Stolowitz’s sojourn in Berlin and the construction of this play.

Playwright Andrea Stolowitz, creator of “Berlin Diary.”

The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold. “It’s not easy to get a Berlin audience to laugh at jokes about the Holocaust,” Lily Kelting of NPR Berlin wrote when Berlin Diary premiered there last October. “But American playwright Andrea Stolowitz manages to do just that in her latest premiere at the English Theater Berlin.” Kelting continues: “She says that writing the play has helped her realize that the guilt of surviving the Holocaust was a secret that ultimately tore her family in the States apart — even generations later.”

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‘Snow Queen’ part 7: Taking the stage

Eugene Ballet's original production premieres this weekend

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen on his Eugene Art Talk blog. This is the concluding installment.

Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen is just about ready to freeze our hearts. The costumes are sewn. The set has been constructed. Lighting is being devised. And Toni Pimble, the ballet’s long-time artistic director, has completed her original choreography for the show, which makes its world premiere in two performances Saturday and Sunday (April 8 and 9) at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is a big deal arts event for a town like Eugene. Starting perhaps three years ago, the ballet pulled together more than a quarter million dollars in grants to create an all-new version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (which, much simplified, forms the basis of Frozen). In the story, the evil Snow Queen kidnaps the young boy Kay, who is later rescued, after much adventure, by the girl Gerda, his friend.

Company dancer Victoria Harvey at a Snow Queen rehearsal

The grant money assembled by the ballet has gone for everything from the new sets and costumes, being designed and created here by Nadya Geras-Carson and Jonna Hayden, to the luscious score, by which is composed by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and is to be performed by Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter.

At 90 minutes in length, the score, the ballet reports, is the largest piece of orchestral music ever composed in Oregon.

We checked in with Pimble last week as she rehearsed her dancers and finished off the last bits of Snow Queen choreography with them. A co-founder with Riley Grannan of Eugene Ballet 39 years ago, Pimble has been working with her dancers as often as six days a week the last few months. She was determined to get the choreography nailed down, she said, by a full week before opening night.

“The dancers need a chance to grow into their roles,” Pimble explained. “So for the last week we can be refining it.”

Choreographing a new ballet to the original score the ballet commissioned from Bunch has been hard work — and that was on purpose, Pimble said. She didn’t want to create her new ballet to easy music.

Artistic director and choreographer Toni Pimble.

“The music has been pretty challenging, which is what we wanted,” she said. “At the same time it has to be accessible to the audience. The dancers are used to working with difficult music. Rite of Spring (which the ballet performed in 2012) is a great example of difficult music, and they are used to working with that.”

Pimble’s first step with her choreography was working with the dancers to create a crow scene (friendly crows are the allies of Gerda in her search for Kay). Pimble said she picked that one to start with because Bunch’s music for it was so complex.

She played me a bit of the music for that scene from the recording of the score by Orchestra Next. To be honest, I never could figure out where the beat was. Bunch, she said, had done research on crows while writing the music; he discovered they make two different calls at the same time. Bunch’s music is layered in complex ways, she said.

“I started with that scene because I was so worried about that music. I mean, I told him to make it hard. But oh, god.…”

But the dancers quickly got it. “It doesn’t sound random to us anymore,” Pimble said.

Untypically for classical ballet, which tends to open softly and quietly, Pimble’s Snow Queen starts with a bit of a bang — a big production number with lots of dancers filling the stage.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie practices her Snow Queen moves in the studio.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie, who has the icy role of the Snow Queen herself, said that first scene involves a great deal of sheer physical work as the dancers race around the stage. “It’s like the chase at the beginning of a James Bond movie,” she said. “That first scene is going to be very tiring. But to get to act evil is a fun experience.”

This is Tolmie’s ninth season dancing with the ballet. She started as an apprentice dancer, then put in four seasons in the corps before becoming a principal last season.

Dark, evil characters, the dancer said, are seldom portrayed in the ballet world by women. So Tolmie’s very happy to dance the Snow Queen, who steals and freezes the little boy Kay in this dark tale of love conquering evil.

“Most of the evil characters always go to men,” she said. “For a woman to get one is fun!”

This is the seventh and final story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch,  Part Four, on costume designer Jonna Hayden, Part Five on dancers Isaac Jones and Sara Stockwell, and Part Six on recording the score, which is now available on CD from the company.

Eugene Ballet premieres The Snow Queen at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

Bob Keefer is an arts writer and exhibiting photographer in Eugene, and arts editor of Eugene Weekly. You can see his work at EugeneArtTalk.com and at BobKeeferPhoto.com.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Random favors

Steven Dietz's "This Random World," Ronald K. Brown dance, Portland Photo Month, Brett Campbell's music picks of the week, Blitzen Trapper & more

Steven Dietz is one of the most famous American playwrights Broadway’s never heard of. Last year’s This Random World is his 34th produced play, and that’s not even counting his 11 adaptations – an astonishing number, approaching the total of that fellow from Stratford. Many of them have been hits on the regional theater circuit, from the Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (where This Random World got its start) to major companies coast to coast. Except New York, where his Fiction, to make a long story short, made it to Off-Broadway’s Roundabout in 2004.

“This Random World” opens this week at Portland Actors Conservatory.

There’s little explaining a situation like this. Dietz’s plays are smart, well-shaped, actor-friendly, and on interesting topics, although they tend not to include things like falling chandeliers or singing cats. No matter. Regional audiences like them. A lot. Many of his plays have helped shape the contemporary American theater, and they move from city to city with ease: More Fun Than Bowling, Foolin’ Around with Infinity, Ten November, God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Becky’s New Car, Rancho Mirage, and more.

This weekend, This Random Life gets its West Coast premiere at Portland Actors Conservatory, and there’s reason to believe it’ll be worth a visit. This year’s class at the professional acting school has some very good talent, and it’s coming off a knockout production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. PAC’s talented Beth Harper is directing, and the fine veteran actor Kathleen Worley is a guest artist. Plus, it’s a secret you can keep from the Great White Way while it’s busy reliving Groundhog Day.

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Eugene Ballet preview: Cracking the glass slipper

Company premieres two new works by women choreographers along with a classic reprise

by GARY FERRINGTON

“Where are the female choreographers?” asks Michael Cooper, in the New York Times. Ballet remains overwhelmingly a man’s world when it comes to choreography Cooper suggests noting that of the 58 ballets the New York City Ballet performed during the 2015-2016 season, which included seven world premieres, none were by women. He also observes that of all the recent productions by the London’s Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, and the American Ballet Theatre, only two were by women choreographers and one of those was a collaborative effort with a man.

”The dearth of female choreographers at major ballet companies is perhaps more startling, given the prominence of women in the rest of the ballet and dance fields,” Cooper writes, “and the way pioneering female choreographers helped shape ballet during the 20th century.”

The magic of Shakespeare’s fantasy world with dancers Isaac Jones and Victoria Harvey. Photo: Eugene Ballet.

What Cooper calls the “glass slipper” is at least being chipped a bit this February when the Eugene Ballet Company presents three productions all choreographed by women. Opening the program is the world premier of a new EBC commissioned ballet, Wandering On, by Chicago-based choreographer Stephanie Martinez. A second new work, The Surrounding Third, is a short piece by EBC Company Dancer Suzanne Haag and set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The evening’s centerpiece is a reprise of EBC’s Artistic Director and co-founder Toni Pimble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream exploring Shakespeare’s “comedy of love, magic, fairies, mixed up lovers, and the mischievous Puck,” set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn.

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Snow Queen 6: Scenes into sounds

Recording the new show’s soundtrack album

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen.  ArtsWatch will repost the series here after each installment appears on Keefer’s Eugene Art Talk blog.

Something that most people don’t realize about orchestral music is this: It’s very hard for composers ever to hear what their compositions actually sound like.

I’m the first to admit I didn’t fully understand this until recently. Having been fascinated by the idea of computer music ever since I bought an Amiga 1000 computer back in the Bronze Age, I’ve always assumed that all you have to do is lay down MIDI tracks for all your instruments, hit a button, and then the computer plays your new symphony for you.

The occasional dissenting voice I’d hear from people who knew anything about music, I managed to dismiss as elite audiophile grumbling. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Recording engineer Lance Miller runs the sound board at the Snow Queen recording session.

This all came to light this month, when Eugene’s OrchestraNext sat down in a spacious studio at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance to play – for the first time it’s ever been performed – and record Portland composer Kenji Bunch’s brand-new score for Eugene Ballet’s brand-new production of The Snow Queen.

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A new “Snow Queen,” part 1: Fairy tale beginning

First in a series: Eugene Ballet creates a new “Snow Queen,” with choreographer Toni Pimble

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note:Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking the creation of a new version of The Snow Queen by Eugene Ballet.  ArtsWatch will be reposting the series here after each installment appears on Keefer’s Eugene Art Talk blog.

Once in a blue moon an arts organization gets what amounts to a blank check to create good work. Not just good work, but new work, original work, work with no strings attached and no corners cut.

That kind of fairy-tale good fortune has befallen Eugene Ballet Company, which – with the help of a generous patron – is, for the first time, creating a new ballet entirely from scratch. EBC’s new adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen will make its world premiere at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts in April 2017.

It will have a full-length original orchestral score, by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch; original sets, by local scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; original costumes, by Eugene costume designer Jonna Hayden; and, of course, original choreography by Eugene Ballet co-founder Toni Pimble.

Choreographer Toni Pimble created a new version of 'The Snow Queen' for Eugene Ballet.

Choreographer Toni Pimble created a new version of ‘The Snow Queen’ for Eugene Ballet.

With support from Eugene Ballet, I will be following the creation of this new ballet through a series of articles over the next nine months on Eugene Art Talk. I’ll focus on the key players in this process, including dancers, musicians, designers, and even the business types that it takes to mount a brand-new show like this.

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