'Incidents and Accidents,' 'Slipstream,' 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Sense and sensibilities
by Dean Speer
October 23, 2004 -- Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene, Oregon
As I was settling into my seat on Amtrak's Coast Starlight, I thought, why a ballet company in Eugene, Oregon? How does this company distinguish itself? How did it get started? What's in its future? What does the company look like now? Is there a current or future relationship with Oregon Ballet Theatre? I know that touring fits big into Eugene Ballet's picture, so where does it usuallygo and what kind of ballets do they take and why?
I have not seen this company in many years and only then while they were on tour with that perennial favorite, "Nutcracker," to Auburn, Washington and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I was impressed then with Artistic Director Toni Pimble's fresh and charming look at Act I and the differences from typical "Nutcracker" fare. Ice skating couples for the Snow Scene, for example. I thought at the time how nice this was as it was not only different but gave the men more to do!
So it was with a sense of artistic anticipation that I boarded the loooong train to Eugene on an overcast Seattle morning. Their Fall opening bill was a triple program starting with a new work titled "Incidents and Accidents" by company member Melissa Nolan to a piano quartet by Brahms, and a revival of "Slipstream" by Pimble to music by Michael Nyman and concluding with her 1985 version of "Midsummer Night's Dream," using music by Mendelssohn, Rossini, and Bottesini. The press release quotes Pimble as choosing additional music to flesh out the emotional content of the relationships for the pairs of lovers and for the duet between Titania and the man-to-ass, Bottom.
With "Incidents and Accidents," Nolan set up visual and dramatic tension in her new work right away by having a group of dancers begin by themselves in downstage left, feet in a parallel second position, heads down, while a lonely female positioned in stage right, reaches yearningly toward them. Fingers laced and pulling the elbows sharply to corners, the group began their initial movement motif.
With pairings, comings and goings, Nolan built her ballet essentially following the structure of Brahms' musical score. It's clear that she works intelligently and with an intention of where she wants the work to go. Too many choreographers find themselves adrift in the middle of their works. Somewhat like what theatre people call "the second act problem." She concludes her ballet with the dancers having reversed their spatial positions and the lone dancer reaching out into space. Blackout. The work was heartily received and deservedly so.
My only choreographic suggestions for future works would include allowing her works to speak for themselves; to trust her eye and instincts, and to let the work build naturally. As an example, she could have let one or two sections of her ballet be longer and more developed. There were almost too many comings and goings and I would have liked to have seen one of her many, strong ideas linger longer on stage. My other comment speaks to the use of decor as props, in this case three white banners hung from the flys, which were neither fish nor fowl. I thought they were fine as decor only but if to be used also to interact with, then this aspect of their use needs to be explored and developed more. Any interaction was too brief and left us wondering what the use of them was to mean or say exactly, or why they were used at all. Don't tantalize us with an answer and not give us the question!
Pimble describes her "Slipstream" as a ballet for 8 dancers to a contemporary string quartet that allows her to explore her thematic "choreographic possibilities to the fullest extent." "Slipstream" made me think that while Pimble uses an extended ballet vocabulary, she really is a modern dance person at her creative and artistic heart. While not quite modern dance, "Slipstream" has a contemporary modern dance "feel" to it. And dare I say it's one that impresses me of having a UK and "continental" look. All of this is in Pimble's background -- first as a dancer growing up and being trained in England and then performing for several years in Germany. Hers is a style that's distinguished and different from most contemporary balletic fare seen in the U.S.
She shows experience and maturity in her understanding and implementation of compositional tools. I like how she began after the music started and used a single male dancer to begin declaiming her movement motifs. Smart choreographers will have learned that for the most part, dance is best begun NOT on 1 but either before or after the music begins. It's stronger, as it makes us watch and focuses us in on the dance. (Of course, yes, there are times when dance and music must begin together and then this is dead on.) Both Pimble and Nolan make good use of the men of the Company (8 men and 9 women), which does my beating heart and artistic eye good. It's so great these days to see men in ballet really being used as dancers, and not merely as porteurs.
Both ballets had an abundance of partnering and some fresh and inventive moves and shapes at that. I liked how in "Slipstream," Pimble has a women do a tour jeté up into a lift, suspended between two men.
Programming is a huge challenge for any director and it's been known to turn many a hair gray (and to have been perhaps the cause of much discourse, once or twice in the history of the world), so I'm not sure what the exact answer is to having, what to me, were two ballets from a similar palette next to each other on the same bill. In an ideal world, it might have been nice to have put "Midsummer Night's Dream" in the middle or to have found some other way to have broken this up for us. Pimble has worked hard for over 25 years to build a ballet company -- and an audience for her work, so I'd trust this and take what I would hope to be only a small risk and not worry too much about the possibility of audience members not staying for all three ballets unless the story ballet is last. And if a few might slip out before the end of the evening, this is a confession on their part and not a criticism.
"Midsummer Night's Dream" clearly has audience appeal on many fronts. Using narrative story structure, it combines this with pointe work (the only one on the bill en pointe), and what audiences have come to think of as traditional and expected ballet elements: costumes that look balletic such as tutus and headpieces and dance patterns and steps, plus a heap of humor. Other fun ingredients include the mixed-up lovers, the "Rustics" whose main character, Bottom, is turned into an ass, and the sprightly Puck, and of course, the lovely music.
Pimble works her experience and masterful eye here plus the charm I remember from her Nutcracker. It's clear the dancers are having enjoying themselves. Jennifer Martin as Titania and Hyuk-Ku Kwon as Oberon were well matched and have the breeding and experience to carry these dance parts to their fullest. Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero was amazing as Puck. (I think Eugene Ballet has their own version of Pacific Northwest Ballet's amazing Jonathan Porretta.)
I had a really fun time seeing and assessing this company again. From its roots of a collective of 6 dancers in 1978, Pimble and long-time Managing Director Riley Grannan, the Eugene Ballet Board and community have built a solid and artistically viable ballet company in the beautiful southern Willamette Valley and is worth a trip to see and support, whether by train, plane, or automobile.
Note: In Oregon, the company operates under the Eugene Ballet name. In Idaho, it's known as Ballet Idaho, and while on some tours, Western Ballet Theatre.
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