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OBT's Oregon Ballet Theatre - 'The Nutcracker'

Panache in Portland

by Francis Timlin

December 13, 2003 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland

Oregon Ballet Theatre has certainly scored a coup in obtaining the rights to the staging of the first production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" on the U.S. West Coast. For this performance, the staging was done by Elyse Borne, formerly ballet mistress with Miami City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, who now stages Balanchine works through the Balanchine Trust.

Balanchine's choreography for what can often be a deadly dull party scene in many Nutcracker versions (lots of milling about ad libitum, milling about, posing, random bits of movement) is refreshingly immediate and engages everyone onstage. The choreography for the children is continually imaginative. There are virtually no moments of static activity in this act, which is a marvelous achievement in itself. The children's roles (64 altogether in this production), staged by Darla Hoover, currently Associate Artistic Director of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, were very well rehearsed, tautly and winningly delivered.

As Herr Drosselmeier, Kevin Poe, with his long, wispy white hair and beard, cut a figure somewhere between Father Christmas and an Orthodox monk. The set designs by Peter Farmer added to my impression of something remotely Russian, beginning with the Chagall-like forecurtain and the use of a deep red tinged with russet and fringed with gold -- a thoroughly intoxicating blend of color and atmosphere.

Daniela Martin and Kathi Martuza did a splendid job with Harlequin and Columbine (to the ballerina doll music); as did Kester Cotton as a soldier in white performing entrechats with flexed feet (to the Russian Bear music).

In the battle scene, the children were once again exceedingly well drilled and effective in their roles. The apogee of act one is the snow scene, and I am pleased to report that the sixteen snowflakes were very well prepared and very together in their ensemble work.

Yuka Iino, new to OBT this season, opened act two with the Sugar Plum Fairy variation -- a most difficult assignment. I prefer versions (and they seem to be increasingly rare) that set the pas de deux in the traditional sequence (adage, male variation, female variation, coda), in part because I think it is unfair to the dancer to be compelled to suddenly emerge from a narrative character and launch into a variation of this complexity and subtlety. In addition to this challenge, Balanchine loaded this variation with all sorts of unique combinations and patterns, directional shifts and other things rarely seen elsewhere. It's enough to make a dancer nervous -- especially when it arrives so early in the act. For the most part, I thought Ms. Iino was very satisfactory in the role -- perhaps a bit uncentered early on which caused one of her pirouettes to stray off center -- but quite strong altogether.

Paul De Strooper and Kathi Martuza led the Hot Chocolate (Spanish) ensemble with panache. Long-time OBT principal and rehearsal assistant Tracy Taylor performed a Coffee (Arabian) variation that mystified me -- a piece of Balanchine that failed to engage my attention for the duration of the music. Kester Cotton was spectacular in his jumps in Tea (Chinese), and Louis-Philippe Dionne was equally splendid in his acrobatic jumps with, around, and through his Candy Cane (Trepak) hoop. This is a role that looks like it was made for Christopher Stowell (who I believe never performed in the Balanchine version), but was originated by Robert Barnett (a native of Wenatchee, Washington).

Gavin Larsen looked spendid leading the shepherdesses in Marzipan (Mirlitons).   Mother Ginger, as big as (and shaped like) a small storage tent, danced with children who were, of course, charming and well rehearsed.

Alison Roper performed Dewdrop like a woman turned loose on choreography that she was born to perform -- wonderful to see. The flower corps (mirroring the case of the snow corps) was in fine ensemble form.

Karl Vakili was Ms. Iino's partner for the adage and coda of the pas de deux. Mr. Vakili provided excellent partnering, although I sense that "white tights" roles are not his typical or preferred metier. I hope that he will continue to develop given the availability of a partner of suitable height.

The orchestra, conducted by OBT music director Neil DePonte, performed admirably and at well chosen tempi throughout the evening.

I encourage everyone to make the trek to Portland for this opportunity to see a masterwork by a master. I am already looking forward to next season's performances.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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