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Oregon Ballet Theatre - 'White Nights'

'Adin' -- Will there be a 'Dva'?

by Dean Speer

March 6, 2004 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland

The platform theme for this program was based on Russian music ("White Nights" -- because of St. Petersburg's northerly location, the city enjoys the half-light "white nights" in early summer -- one of its most renowned features). And what a terrific way to open the bill with Francia Russell's impeccable staging of George Balanchine's 1934 seminal work, "Serenade," made to Tchaikovsky's glorious "Serenade for String Orchestra in C Major."

This is a ballet filled with light. In fact, for some -- and this is a quote -- " 'Serenade' is not just ballet, it's religion!" I have to disagree with Mr. Balanchine's own assertion that, "many people think there is a concealed story in 'Serenade.' There is not." I mean, just look at the fourth movement (which is actually the music's third; Mr. Balanchine switched the order of the two). For me, the "dark angel" that comes in covering a man's face and clutching his body, being partly hidden by it, and how this pair interacts and then leaves the ballerina, speak volumes. And subsequently, when this ballerina is left alone and seeks comfort in her despair, it says to me that she is moving to a new level of her experience, here or hereafter, and is moving to "the light" as she is lifted up and carried upstage right as the curtain falls. Yes, there is no narrative, but to me there certainly is a story -- and one that never fails to leaves me blurry-eyed every time I see this wonderful ballet. It's one of those works where earth and heaven shift with each telling.

Telling was seeing OBT's increased mastery of the Balanchine canon and their belief and strong attack of this work. You could just feel that the dancers were really "into" getting to the heart of the material. When I first saw OBT do this work in about 1999, they looked good but also I had to say that "Serenade" in some senses is "forgiving" and can be done well by ballet companies of different levels. This OBT outing really shows the re-tooling of the company that's happening fairly quickly under its new artistic leadership. It's also telling for other reasons.

Missing in action due to an injury, Yuka Iino was replaced by PNB prinicipal dancer Carrie Imler. Clearly, as OBT grows and is able to afford more dancers on its roster, it will be able to look increasing less to the "outside" for backup dancers. The alternate for Iino's part, Alison Roper, was already booked to do “Firebird” that night, and to have had to perform both parts would have meant too much dancing.

Ms. Imler is on a different plane artistically, and OBT was most fortunate to be able to have her. For example, she initiates movement differently than the OBT cast; beginning movement slightly ahead of them -- yet each were "correct." She is also fearless in her attack. I think as the company becomes more mature and each ballet is "seasoned," it will more closely match her level of presentation. Nevertheless OBT's "Serenade" was one not to be missed and was indeed a match for the glorious score and choreography -- and one that brought us audience-types into the "White Night."

I've seen most of the choreographic oeuvre of Artistic Director Christopher Stowell. His "Adin" (pronounced "ah-deen" and meaning "one" and referring to this being his first work for OBT) to four Rachmaninov songs (three of which were newly-orchestrated by OBT Music Director Niel DePonte) was for three couples, deployed in three duets, and concluding with each of the couples on stage for the last song. Each pas de deux was beautifully and sensitively danced by each couple -- Kathi Martuza and Matthew Boyes; Anne Mueller and Karl Vakili; and Gavin Larsen and Artur Sultanov.

The first duet had the female alone at first. Her partner comes in, they dance, he rushes off and she's left alone again. The second duet was playful and young. And the third was the most romantic and with some unusual two-dimensional poses (like virtual Egyptian friezes). My only complaint would be that I found the movement motifs for each duet to have come from the same movement palette and too similar. One duet would have been enough for what needed to be said.

My seatmates found "Adin" fresh and really liked it. I have to agree about it being fresh. I just would have liked more contrast between songs, and to have seen an "ensemble" finish, rather than three couples each doing their own thing during the last movement, rather than dancing together. This would have been a more satisfactory conclusion for me. Clearly, Mr. Stowell has proven to me his mastery of the duet form. I'd like to see him move on to ensemble pieces. So perhaps his "Dva" will be a group work?

Finishing off our "White Nights" excursion was the premiere of Yuri Possokhov's choreographic rendition of the 1945 version of Stravinsky’s "Firebird" suite. Featuring the amazing Alison Roper as the Firebird and Russian born and trained Artur Sultanov as Ivan, Possokhov is faithful to the essential story of a prince (Ivan) encountering a magical bird who gives him one of her feathers that he can use to summon her aid, should he need to. And, wouldn't you know it, true to fairy tale literature, he does! The beautiful princess (aren't they all!?) and her female attendants are being held captive by the evil Kaschei. Of course Ivan falls madly in love with the princess. Getting away from Kaschei proves to be tricky and out comes that feather and the Firebird. The egg (it's a fairy tale, folks!) that holds Kaschei's soul is shattered, and his life and power over the princess and attendants is over. The couple is united.

I've seen many versions of this ballet, including the original version which Fokine set himself on ABT, Béjart's where the Firebird is a man, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole version, Mr. Balanchine's at NYCB, and Kent Stowell's for PNB. And I have to publicly admit that "Firebird" just doesn’t work totally as a ballet for me. I'm not sure exactly why. Perhaps I find stretches of it uninteresting, regardless of its compelling score. There have been several elements that I've loved -- Margot Fonteyn's utter passion as the bird, particularly when she takes a bite of one of the golden apples. Or Cynthia Gregory in ABT's. The wedding scene in both the original and Mr. Balanchine's -- the best part of the score and done with the most spare of movement; heraldry and pageantry.

And of the versions that I have seen, Fokine's has worked the best for me. Even then, I'm not sure I'd need to see repeats. Somehow, it's a difficult ballet to master. That said, and my bias aside, I think OBT has a sure-fire audience pleaser on its hands. Audiences do eat up story ballets, particularly ones as famous as this. The only scene I would strongly suggest Mr. Possokhov re-think and perhaps re-work is the one in which Kaschei and his minions are chasing after Ivan who has snatched away Kaschei's egg. It comes across as rather silly, and the audience laughed and laughed. It was rather funny. Perhaps it's a visual cultural reference that Mr. Possokhov wouldn't have -- that of Keystone Cops. So I'm not sure that funny was the intention; if it was, then fine.

I'm glad Mr. Stowell insisted that OBT school children were used, as they made a delightful addition as "spiders" (minions in the program but referred to in the pre-performance talk as spiders, which I find creepier and better). It's very important to include students from the affiliated ballet school in productions, for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's part of ballet's evolutionary cycle.

Since I took OBT to task in my review of its October inaugural program under the fresh guidance of Christopher Stowell for not having live music, I find myself in the delightful position of having to put my money where my Internet mouth is! I'm happy to report they've made a big push to have live music and "White Nights" featured a full orchestra under the baton of Mr. DePonte. Not only has the PR materials made much light of this, a program insert invites and solicits patrons to support this effort. Music for White Nights cost over $85,000, and they've budgeted $400,000 for music for next season, which they tell us is about ten percent of the operating budget. Looking to "soar to new heights together," OBT asks our help. Visit their web site: or call, 503-227-0977, ext. #228. My seatmate to my left, Juni, commented to me, "Well, Dean, you now have to give to this music fund, yes?" Well, "yes!"

I'm very, very pleased with the artistic strides that OBT has made in a few, short months. And as I'm fond of saying about PNB, we should be very proud of what we have in Portland, even though it's not exactly in my backyard!

Edited by Lori Ibay

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