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Oregon Ballet Theatre - Movement as Metaphor Program

'Concerto Barocco,' 'Orpheus Portrait,' 'Swan Lake' Act III

Meeting high expectations

by Dean Speer

October 9, 2004 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

In his pre-curtain audience warm-up, Oregon Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Christopher Stowell told us that he thought of looking for a piece of music to be used as a fanfare to set the tone for the opening night concert and season, and one that would be used every year for this purpose. Music Director and Conductor Niel DePonte came up with the excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3 for orchestra in G major: Tema con variazioni, polacca (excerpt), Intrada -- which is used by Balanchine as an overture for his famous 1947 ballet, "Theme and Variations." This certainly is an audience-rouser and I was thinking how marvelous it will be when the moment comes when Stowell believes his company is ready to have on his mother stage the actual ballet and then we could all have each season kicked off with this wonderful ballet. Wouldn't this be an audacious and exciting way to begin each and every OBT season!? To hear this soul-lifter and then to see it continue as the curtain rises on tutus and crowns and Balanchine's glorious reading of this Russian music jewel. I agree with his choice and thoroughly enjoyed hearing it. Perhaps use of music as a metaphor and of setting a theme, indeed.

Speaking of jewels, "Concerto Barocco" is always delicious in just about any context, and so it was a double delight to see Francia Russell's staging of this famous ballet gem for OBT in the context of Christopher Stowell launching of his second season as artistic head of this City of Roses company.

As we first viewed the 8 corps women in their two lines, the intake of air was not from the curtain going up but from the delighted gasp of the audience. Expectations were high and were certainly met.

Both the on-stage-for-it-all corps de ballet of women and principals Alison Roper and Kathi Martuza looked at home, sharp, and full of explosive energy during all three movements. Martuza especially attacked her opening steps and reached into the choreography to pull out a performance that was on the edge, as I like to see. Having gotten to know Roper's dancing this past year, I was really looking forward to see what she would do with the first violin part. Magnificent. She's able to combine large movement and statements with speed and an attack that's on par with Martuza's. A very smart pairing.

Paul De Strooper was more than able in his function of old-time ballet cavalier role of fetch and carry the ballerina. I counted 7 lifts in a row at one juncture but stopped the meter after that. While it could be perceived as merely "old-time" or of using a danseur in a limited way, Balanchine uses this partnering as a device to build his ballet in a way that's a great example of masterful composition.

Sometimes the corps dancers looked perhaps a little too careful, and I know it was opening night, so look forward to seeing them dig into the material, getting it "seasoned" and seeing where it's at in the not-too-distant future. That said, they looked very well rehearsed and like they were truly enjoying themselves, the dancing and choreography, and the music that was driving it. Having gotten used to "Too fast Stewart!" at my home turf ballet company, Pacific Northwest Ballet, occasionally Niel DePonte's tempos seemed somewhat on the sluggish side, but not until I thought about it afterward in comparison. At the pre-performance talk, one of the new apprentices thought movement three was"cool!" She likes the energy and the demands of it and the way Balanchine uses counts to off-set through movement counterpoint the groups of corps women. Sometimes they are one beat apart, sometimes together, with traveling hops on pointe. Very exciting and very "cool!"

If the "Theme and Variations" Intrada is a metaphor for the once and future OBT seasons, and "Concerto Baracco" is a nod to what has become traditional neo-classical dance (can you believe that this 1941 work is now a standard flag-bearer and benchmark of today's contemporary ballet companies already?), then Kent Stowell's 1990 "Orpheus Portrait" is a keystone connector to an old, ancient story and to future story-based pas de deux and of one-act ballets.

Gavin Larsen and Arthur Sultanov in the parts first originally made for the team of Deborah Hadley and Benjamin Houk were well paired and interpreted the expressive choreography with great understanding and sympathy. While I very much like the new backdrop by Charlene Hall, I found that I did miss the original design concept of having photographic portraits of the dancers used for this and especially missed them during the transition from when Eurydice dies the first time and when Orpheus begins to lead her back from Hades to the surface of the world. The blackout that's used now just isn't the same effect; it was okay but just not providing as smooth a transition while Eurydice is off stage changing her unitard. This one of my personal favorites of Stowell Senior's works. It's clear it was done by collaborating with the extraordinary talents of his first cast dancers and done with sincerity and conviction. Larsen has cultivated herself into a ballerina of first rank and her work with the elegant Sultanov made this sad pas de deux an audience pleaser and they each deserved the cheers at its conclusion.

Someone suggested to me that perhaps the sub-title for the next section of my observations and remarks about Act III of "Swan Lake" should have been, "Swan Lake Takes a Dive." I wouldn't go that far at all but have to report that I found the parts to fall short of the conceptual aspirations illustrated by the set and sumptuous costumes.

If we're going with metaphors here, then Stowell's addition of Act III of "Swan Lake" is most certainly representative of his courageous and bold vision of artistic ascension for OBT. We have to presume that his intention is to complete the ballet by adding the other acts in the future.

With sets and costumes courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet, all Stowell had to do was stage and/or choreograph this act. Sounds easy but it's not, and is a huge, huge assignment -- and fraught with perilous landmines along the way. There are the pressures of time, deadlines, and of the enormous expectations that audiences have of such famous and well-known ballets.

There is one concept that I disagree with and that is using music from Act IV (inserted shortly after the entrance of the twin evils, seductress Odile and her spell maker and power-desperate father, Von Rothbart) to give us what seems like a quick synopsis of the meeting of Odette and Siegfried.  But, I think what is meant actually is to sketch out the character of Odile. It didn't exactly work for me and I would suggest another way to achieve the setup of Odile going after the hapless prince.

I thought the actual dances and staging through the Pas de Trois were choreographically solid and well done. However, I found Spanish to have been a reach. For example, what was to have come across as fast footwork for the men at the end instead came across as mincing little steps. I would have been embarrassed to have done these. And when the two women were draped across the left knees of their partners and the men made en de hors port de bras a couple of times with their right arms, it looked like a kind of vampire gesture since it began at the women's head/necks. I wouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater, but suggest some small edits.

Neapolitan with Anne Mueller and Karl Vakili was as near perfect as you could get. Bouncy, playful, and filled with delicious patterns and steps and fit the characters, action, and music with a nice, sturdy and expected and satisfying conclusion.

Russian with the lovely Tracy Taylor was weak choreographically. It didn't go anywhere and we were patiently waiting for something to happen and when the "breakout" moment happens in the music (change of pace ... faster ... and feeling ... happy) we expected Taylor to also break loose but it didn't happen. Lots of bourées and soulful reaches and bendings but not too much else. Easily fixed, which will make it stronger and avoid the audience landmine expectation.

Speaking of breaking out, the tiger, in the form of guest Jonathan Porretta needs to be let out of his cage. Porretta is a spectacular dancer and can do just about anything. He has technique out of the kazoo and can turn, jump and do steps in ways that others cannot. Yes, I understand that the prince is not the jester, nevertheless I was gravely disappointed that he wasn't given (or allowed?) anything to do that none of the OBT men couldn't do and do well, I might add. If his special talents were not tapped, I have to ask, why even have him there, when, as I said, any of the OBT men could and would have danced this role very adequately. In his pas de deux solo, after the relevé/piqué into attitude croisé, I really had expected a double cabriole and instead we got a single. Okay, so I thought, he's going to build his solo. Nah, that didn't happen. Tombé, pas de boureé, hop assemblé to fifth, double tour en l'air, tombé pas de boureé to fifth, tendu back to fourth, double pirouette to fourth. While Mr. Porretta danced beautifully, as always, it (meaning the choreography) makes him comes across as ordinary when it could have been extraordinary and so exciting. If the perception is that this part needs to be a "standard-issue" variation, then it's time to change the variation.

Yuka Iino was born for the part of Odile. Strong and confident with a technique to match, she was the diamond showcased by the jewel-like setting. It was great having an experienced Odile for opening night. Everything was there -- secure technique, interpretation and sustaining of a character and role that's a difficult aspect of stamina to master. The variations for Odile have stood the test of time, unlike what's bandied about for her target, the Prince. Iino was rock solid in all of the attitude turns, piqués, balances and the etching of her character with the music. Okay, so she did "only" 28 of the 32 fouettés but in the heat of battle you have to make choices that work and I trust her that this is what she felt she needed to do at the moment of performance.

She and Porretta are well suited for each other as a dance team pair. Mr. Porretta was making his debut in this role and I know he felt privileged to work with her again, as he has publically stated.

The Czardas was also essentially good but came across as average and not as exciting as it could have been. It also needed to "break loose" when the music calls for this. I don't know if Sultlanov helped with this piece or not, but if not, perhaps tapping into the in-house resources of one of this Russian-trained and bred dancer who, I should think, have thorough training in national character dances might be helpful.

Stowell impresses me as somewhat inhibited choreographically and I think with time and more experience, he'll be able to more easily flesh out his work, and find composing an easier, or at least, less daunting task. I know how hard composing can be and he has my entire support and sympathy. He may want to take a page from his prolific and inventive father whose work comes across as fresh and fully utilizing the talents of his support team -- and who is so full of choreographic inspiration that once or twice in the history of the world, he has occasionally over choreographed something.

Whew! Now that I got that out, Stowell's setting of Act III of Swan Lake DOES represent a big step forward for this mid-sized and growing ballet company. Each program demonstrably shows OBT to be on an upward trajectory. The fact that I feel there are some things that can be improved upon or require more effort also points to this growth and is a good thing.

In one year, Oregon Ballet Theatre has come a long way and the size of the audiences, the wonderful ballet orchestra (yes!) and even that many members came to this opening night more dressed up than they did last year, all show how much we've come in this time and to how eagerly Portland-area ballet fans are supporting the work of the Company and how hungry we all are for more! We've gone from insufferable programming and my "group" not wanting to subscribe to our being happy subscribers for the second year and to adding one more subscriber to our batch. A happy effect for all and this is more than a metaphor for OBT's future.

Edited by Jeff.

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