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Oregon Ballet Theatre - Modern Masters

'There Where She Loved,' 'il nodo,' 'Duo Concertant,' Façade,'

A Study in Contrasts

by Dean Speer

May 9, 2004 matinee -- Newmark Theatre, Portland, Oregon

Declaring “Happy Mothers’ Day!,” Artistic Director Christopher Stowell gave us a hearty pre-curtain welcome. He assured us that he rang his mother, Francia Russell, “at the crack of dawn” earlier that day (she was in New York) due to the three hour time difference, and reported that she was happily shopping for shoes on Columbus Avenue. Stowell also prepped us that we’d like seeing the OBT dancers in this smaller venue, as each ballet requires more intimacy than the kind of ballet that’s usually programmed for Keller Auditiorium (Portland’s Opera House, where he thinks of ballets more “architecturally.” Acting and characterizations were particularly important to this afternoon’s works.

Master and Moderns is the title theme of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s May Season of performances. I might have titled it – or sub-titled it, “Role Reversals” or “Studies in Contrast.” It was a delightful and fresh afternoon of ballets, all new to me, and many new to Northwest audiences.

Christopher Wheeldon’s "There Where She Loved" to Chopin and Weill songs is just such a study in contrasts and role reversals. It begins sunnily with three men facing an up-left diagonal – Kester Cotton, Paul de Strooper and Scott Trumbo, who are joined by Kathi Martuza and Matthew Boyes. Each partner Martuza, as a group, and Wheeldon introduces us to some of his movement themes, such as the woman being lifted up and making a lovely dévelopée, repeated by the same movement with the other leg. It’s like she is luxuriating and climbing up in mid-air. This is heavily contrasted with Matthew Boyes, in a kind of “He Done Her Wrong” set. Castoffs included Candace Bouchard, Anne Mueller, and Tracy Taylor. Bouchard began this “set” by stomping and being very agitated, with sharp, stabbing movements. Angst. Weill. Berlin. In silence. As Bouchard’s character only did this when there was no music, I wanted to send a telepathic message to the choreographer to let him know or give him “permission” to “counter” the music, even while it is going. That it is okay to go faster or slower than the music, or to do something that’s in contrast to it. Movement doesn’t always need to mimic the music. Of the handful of Wheeldon works I’ve seen, this one is the strongest by far. Certainly the one I’ve enjoyed the most.

Kester Cotton and Leann Underwood were terrific in “Spring.” Role and mood were quite reversed when the first quintet came back and essentially repeated many of the movements themes and patterns from sunny Poland of movement one, but this time done with the darker palette and backdrop of Weill’s biting and raw emotion text and music.

Alison Roper and Paul de Strooper were amazing as we progressed (regressed?) to Weill’s “Je ne t’aime pas” (I don’t love you!). The inner me wanted for the piece to end as sweetly and sunnily as it began, but I think the choreographer wanted to make a more “serious” statement. I liked how these contrasting sections played off of each other.

Musicians, pianist Carol Rich, Soprano Brenda Baker, and Mezzo Milagro Vargas were wonderful. Vargas sang the Chopin in Polish, which added wonderful “meat” to the sense of the feeling of the ballet and Baker’s Weill interpretations were, as the English are fond of saying, “dead-on” and made me feel as if I were in ‘20s/’30s Berlin.

"il nodo" by Canadian choreographer, Julia Adam, gave us indeed just about every variation on “The Knot.” Pendants, long ropes, noose, reins, streamers. I found its many sections interesting and she kept me guessing as to what we might see next. Mr. Cotton rolling full-speed off of the stage into the orchestra pit was certainly one of these surprises -- fun, and one that elicited laughter from the supportive house. As this is sometimes a forum for public confessions and occasional penance (mine!), I have to say that I cannot stand it when choreographers have dancers point their fingers as a gestural device. Way too many modern dance creators do this, and Adam has fallen into that trap with the last couple of sections of her piece. Please edit out the finger-pointing and just give us the dance, please!

Martuza and one of our recent interview subjects, Artur Sultanov, were lovely in a lovely ballet, Balanchine’s "Duo Concertant," to music of Igor Stravinsky. Its contrast and role reversal was how it surprised me in its change and deepening of mood as the music and movements shifted from happily responding to the on-stage musicians in a pas de deux format to being seen only by a lone, and lonely spotlight, whereby we see Martuza looking and searching for her partner, who find each other with twisting hands and wrists, only to be left alone again. Sweet to soulful in one ballet. Pianist Carol Rich and violinist Margaret Bichteler were wonderful to listen to. And I think that if I were alone in a salon or studio with them and perhaps with a partner, I might also break into dancing myself. I liked seeing the reference early in Sultanov’s solo to one of the movement motifs of the muses from Apollo. Very deft.

The coup de grace of the afternoon had to be Frederick Ashton’s "Façade," set to the music of William Walton. This is a piece that’s meant to be seen many times, and it so well path for later works like Kenneth MacMillan’s "Elite Syncopations," done recently at San to Francisco Ballet, and which also features outrageous, zany, and fun characters doing period social dances of the day. "Elite" takes place in a ballroom during a competition. "Façade" seems to take place in front of a fancy British townhouse. Never-the-less, the similarities are clear. This work really shows us that OBT has some terrific dancer/actors on its roster and each were outstanding. I was quite confident that each section would be authentic as Façade was staged by long-time Royal Ballet dancers Alexander Grant and Margaret Barbieri. This proved to be true.

Brilliant were the two “soft-shoe”men in their deadpan vaudeville-like precision step dance routine. With neck and head shoved forward, Cotton perfectly captured the corny yet impressive Astaire with Kelly style number, as did his partner in dance patter, Karl Vakili.

Typically, vaudeville numbers had a “nice but naughty” bit and there is one here is the second dance -- the one involving the ever-perky and ever-smiling milkmaid, played to perfection by Erika Cole. Let’s just say that no human cow was milked by lovelier hands.

Alison Roper, who has awesome reserves of technical power, was precise, energetic and playful in the Polka (“…ballet’s first striptease.”) made famous by the legendary and “ethereal” Alicia Markova, who as of this writing is still alive and active in London; merely in her early 90s. Her solo is filled with lots of steps and looked like something Mr. Balanchine might have composed for one of his muses. It really moved, looked fun, and was technical all at the same time.

The flappers and college freshmen during the Foxtrot were fun, as were the long-gloved ballerinas in Valse. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Mr. Ashton was gently poking fun at what can be stereotypical ballet patterns.

It was a hoot imaging the late, great Margot Fonteyn in the role Tango-Pasodoble role. Also playful, slightly naughty but definitely fun. Tracy Taylor and Paul de Strooper were well matched as the all-too-willing tango-er and her over-the-top gigolo partner.

"Tarantella Sevillano" was the finale romp for all, as each character/set is brought back.

It was totally fun being in the milieu of what I think of historically as Portland’s theatre district. I can still image and picture the old, pink Broadway kitty-corner across the street and the other long-gone movie temples in the block north of what the marquee sign now calls The Portland, really the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and current home of the Oregon Symphony. Mr. Stowell has picked a smart venue for OBT’s Spring outing and I’m delighted to read that the Company is returning to this block for next year’s round of Masters and Moderns. The Newmark Theatre’s inside domed ceiling takes us up to the stars and allows us to focus on OBT’s stage stars.

Edited by Jeff.

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