Here and Happening in Portland
An Interview with Kester Cotton and Kathleen Martuza of Oregon Ballet Theatre
by Francis Timlin
May 15, 2004 -- Portland, Oregon
I met with Oregon Ballet Theatre principals, Kester Cotton and Kathleen Martuza following a Saturday evening performance of OBT's May 2004 repertory program, "Masters and Moderns." Both were tired and hungry at the conclusion of a day that included multiple roles in both matinee and evening performances. We repaired to a restaurant overlooking the South Park Blocks in downtown Portland and conversed over a late supper that was occasionally interrupted by audience members stopping by the table to offer congratulations on that evening's performance.
I like to begin with an overview of how dancers first arrived at ballet. Kester?
Kester Cotton (KC): The first ballet that I saw was "Nutcracker" with Ballet West in 1979 here in Portland. I had a friend who was in the fight scene and I asked my mom if I could take class so that I could be in next year's production. I started taking class at the Oregon Ballet School run by Leslie Baird just a few blocks from here on Tenth and Morrison. I studied there for ten years. She then suggested that I try auditions for summer programs. I went to the audition for the San Francisco Ballet School summer program in 1990, got accepted, then was asked to stay for the year 'round program, which included a scholarship and a stipend. I was 16 at the time. My mom was okay with this because we had some friends, my godparents, who had moved from Portland to San Francisco and I was able to live with them. I was taken into the Company as an Apprentice in 1992-93 and 1993-94 and moved into a dormitory at the University of San Francisco during those years. I then stayed at San Francisco Ballet for ten years.
Kathleen Martuza (KM): I started at age three in a jazz and tap school. Through age twelve, all I had was jazz and tap. I wanted to become a Rockette. At age twelve, I decided to improve my chances of becoming a Rockette by taking ballet. I started at the Lexington School of Ballet in Massachusetts, then we moved to Maryland. Someone suggested a school run by Hortensia Fonseca, the Maryland Youth Ballet in Bethesda. I auditioned and was put into classes with much younger dancers -- I had a lot of catching up to do! I spent two summers at Houston Ballet, one summer at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) School. During my senior year of high school, San Francisco Ballet came to perform at the Kennedy Center and offered masterclasses to area students. Betsy Erickson taught the masterclass. She asked me to take class with the company. After company class I was offered an apprenticeship, which I had to refuse. My parents were adamant that I stay and finish high school in Maryland. SFB understood my dilemma and advised me to attend the open audition in New York in the spring, where I was then offered a corps contract. That was in 1997 when I was 17. I stayed at San Francisco Ballet for six years.
So, you two met at SFB?
KM: Yes. I was young and not looking for romance, but that's sometimes when you find it!
KC: It just started to become a regular thing -- going out for coffee, talking -- and we both just started to realize that we really enjoyed being with each other. We have a date we use when the realization came -- July 5, 1998. We got married in June 2003.
The current program you are performing seems like it would be a lot of fun. How was it from your perspective?
KC: "There Where She Loved" [the Christopher Wheeldon piece on the program] required an enormous amount of rehearsal. There is a lot that can go wrong in that piece. It's hard to get in a rhythm when your partners are constantly changing. How to make it all work is a big challenge. Ashley Wheater and Anita Paciotti [both from San Francisco Ballet] set the work. Christopher Wheeldon came once, mostly to oversee the casting, but didn't really rehearse us.
KM: We decided on our own to take a look at a translation of the text to see whether there were any clues to the relationships in the piece and there were a number of things that started to make sense. Once we started to apply our understanding of the text to our dances, the ballet took on a whole new feeling.
KC: I love the experience of dancing to the differing interpretations of the singers from performance to performance. I love listening to them while I'm dancing. But it's really heavy duty partnering throughout the piece.
KM: I performed "Duo Concertante" [Balanchine/Stravinsky] on opening night. It's not too difficult in a technical sense, but it takes incredicle stamina, focus and thought to get through the 18 minutes onstage. We learned it in four days from Sean Lavery.
How was working with Alexander Grant and Margaret Barbieri?
KC: I did "La Fille Mal Gardee" with San Francisco Ballet in 1991 and so have worked with him before. For "Facade," Margaret Barbieri came in advance and told us to be prepared for any number of possible changes when Mr. Grant arrived. When he did arrive, we found that he was, first of all, very enthusiastic about the piece and he wanted some very specific things such as exhuberant pelvic thrusts in the Scottish section and cautioned us against overacting. He really seemed to enjoy working with the Company.
How about working with Francia Russell on "Serenade"?
KM: I had learned “Serenade” from Elyse Borne as well as from Sandra Jennings, so I was pretty familiar with the piece. Francia taught very quickly -- five days for the whole piece. There was a bit of a fear factor there; it took a couple of days to get everyone calmed down. She wanted everything to be very clean and clear.
Kester, you have been involved with several educational initiatives. Tell us about your interests in this area.
KC: I think I have a knack for teaching. It started as a business venture providing outreach for San Francisco Ballet, the Dance in Schools program. That led to more outreach activities. I hope to do more of this in the future in Portland. I really like teaching men's technique in the OBT School and love the energy and enthusiasm of the students.
Kathy, as a newcomer to Portland, how do you like it so far?
KM: I think we made the right move. Kester is from here and we wanted to perform with a smaller company. Portland is an easy city to live in but there is still a lot going on. I am constantly impressed by the solid work ethic of the OBT dancers and especially those who have been with the company the longest. People really want to work for Christopher and find him to be very accessible and available. We have a wonderful home and have discovered the joys of parenting a border collie!
KM: While we have been paired together, it has often been very difficult in the past. I think we are getting more used to it. In San Francisco Ballet, each dancer is given so little to work with [in terms of the number of parts in which they are cast] that it is easy to become obsessed with every minute detail. When you have a lot to learn and a lot to perform, it somehow makes everything seem more fun and special.
What have you particularly enjoyed performing this season and what are you looking forward to next year?
KM: I've enjoyed everything we have done this season. I have had alot of opportunities to work myself to my maximum, both physically and artistically. "Duo Concertante" was definitely a highlight, and I am looking forward to doing [Paul Taylor's] "Company B" next season. In terms of my years with the San Francisco Ballet, one of my favorite pieces has to be “Glass Pieces.”
KC: I would love to be doing a principal role in any full length ballet that was not "The Nutcracker"!
Is there anything else that you would like for people to know?
KC: That classical dance is here and happening in Portland!
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