‘Terra’ firma: OBT’s dancers shine

A ballet program of Nacho Duato and Helen Pickett, including the premiere of her "Terra" belongs to the company's performers

Xuan Cheng, Thomas Baker, Peter Franc, Michael Linsmeier, Avery Reiners, and Brian Simcoe, gazing upward, their mouths held open in a butoh-like silent scream, in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s Terra.

Jacqueline Straughan wrapping her long, beautiful legs around Franc’s bare torso in Nacho Duato’s El Naranjo.

Martina Chavez, bent double, skittering across the stage barefoot in Duato’s Jardi Tancat.

Emily Parker, metaphorically taking down Linsmeier and Franc with a flick of her pointe shoe aimed at the back of their knees in Pickett’s Petal.

The OBT company in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s “Terra.” Photo: James McGrew

For better or worse, these are some of the images – all of them of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers ( this show belongs to them) – I’ve been mulling over since Thursday night when the company opened its annual mixed repertory program at the Newmark Theater.

I have been waiting all season to see, really see, Straughan dance. Yes, the company’s newest principal dancer performed well in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated and Nicolo Fonte’s Giants last fall, and unevenly as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake (not her role) in February, but the cold, cavernous Keller Auditorium creates an often unbridgeable distance between performers and audience.

This is not the case in the warm intimacy of the Newmark, and in that space I finally got my wish. I enjoyed very much Staughan’s execution of Pickett’s aggressive, propulsive movement in Terra, especially in the section in which she looks mad as hell at the foot-stamping, fist-clenching men who are doing this in unison. But it was her dancing in El Naranjo, a sensuous pas de deux excerpted from the Spanish choreographer’s North African-tinged Gnawa, that I truly loved.

Jacqueline Straughan and Peter Franc in Nacho Duato’s “El Naranjo.” Photo: James McGrew

All of OBT’s dancers gave honest, committed performances in work by two choreographers who are coming from dramatically different places culturally, technically, and artistically. What they share is early training in classical ballet – Pickett in her native California, the very Spanish Duato at the Rambert School in London – and an acutely theatrical approach to their art.

Pickett’s Terra, commissioned by company artistic director Kevin Irving specifically for this thematically earthy program, features the fractured, speedy movement of Forsythe, which is not surprising since she danced for nearly a dozen years in his company in Frankfurt, as well as movement taken from the mating dances of animals and creation myths she learned about from reading Joseph Campbell. It’s a well-made piece and an excellent showcase for the dancers, as good curtain-raisers should be. But that section of the men stamping their feet in unison, and Jeff Beal’s score, also commissioned by OBT, make it a little too reminiscent of the Nijinsky/Stravinsky Sacre du Printemps, emphasis Nijinsky’s, not the Christopher Stowell version already in OBT’s repertoire. Beal, an award-winning Hollywood composer, also has plenty of concert hall credits, and like Pickett, knows his craft. Michael Mazzola’s lights added to the cinematic effect, and that’s not a criticism: arguably, dances are moving images in more ways than one.

Martina Chavez and Colby Parsons in Duacho’s “Jardi Tancat.” Photo: Emily Nash

Duato’s work is Spanish to the core. Some years ago, maybe ten, White Bird presented the Compania Nacional de Danza, the company he directed from 1990 to 2010 (Irving was his artistic assistant for part of that time) in an evening-length work of his titled Bach. I don’t know how he did it, but Duato’s choreography made the great German composer’s precisely structured music sound Spanish. It’s a wonderful piece, funny in places, highly theatrical in the manner of Maurice Béjart, in whose company Duato performed, and I’d love to see OBT’s dancers do it. In this show, they did very well in Jardi Tancat, which followed Straughan and Franc’s eloquent execution of El Naranjo.

Jardi Tancat, Duato’s first ballet, was made for a choreography competition in 1983, and since that time has been taken into the repertoire of ballet companies all over the world. Portlanders who make the trip to Seattle to see Pacific Northwest Ballet will have seen it there, and in fact ballet master Jeffrey Stanton, a former principal with PNB, is the person who staged it here. This is Duato’s homage to Catalonia: it’s accompanied by Maria del Mar Bonet’s haunting rendition of Catalan folk songs, and they seduce me every time I see it, which I’ve done multiple times. The piece is about the hard, hard lives of the peasants who till the Spanish earth, and, appropriately, it’s danced barefoot. Chavez and Colby Parsons were particularly outstanding in their duet, and it was good to see Parker and Kelsie Nobriga shedding classical spinal placement in their duets with Linsmeier and Simcoe, respectively. If it doesn’t look all that different choreographically from other Duato works in OBT’s repertoire, that’s because in this early piece Duato established his signature movement vocabulary (some critics find it entirely too reminiscent of Martha Graham’s) and with some exceptions it doesn’t seem to have changed a whole lot.

The company in Pickett’s “Petal.” Photo: Emily Nash

The show closed on an energetically cheerful note with Petal, first performed by OBT in the same theater in 2014 and originally made by Pickett for Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet in 2008. It begins with Xuan Cheng’s rapid-fire entrance from stage right, the only piece on the program that did not start with dancers lying on the floor. The petals of the title, we were informed in Irving’s earnest remarks halfway through the show, come from Gerbera daisies, and the costumes are brilliant yellow leotards for the women and shiny deep turquoise trousers for the bare-chested men. During the course of the dance, the lights, designed by Todd Elmer, change from an equally brilliant yellow to salmon pink, and then orange: these daisies come in fifty shades of everything; I looked them up online. It’s a light-hearted, witty, high-energy piece, and on opening night it gave Reiners a chance to show off his tight fifth position and Candace Bouchard her Balanchinean allegro speed. Linsmeier and Ansa Deguchi’s tender pas de deux was as organic as a flower, and a good time was had by dancers and audience alike.


Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Terra 2017 program continues through April 22. Ticket, schedule, and casting information here.


2 Responses.

  1. Lola says:

    Jardi Tancat was staged by Kevin Irving.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    Of course it was. I misread the program (Mr. Stanton staged Petal, and damned well, too) and I do apologize.

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