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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