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Eugene Ballet - 'Pink Martini'

Signature Drink -- Designer Ballet

by Dean Speer

May 7, 2006 -- Hult Center for the Performing Arts Center, Eugene, Oregon

Eugene Ballet, resident ballet company of Track City (aka, Eugene, Oregon), pulled a magic ballet out of the dance hat during their successful run of Artistic Director and choreographer Toni Pimble’s collaborative effort with the popular Portland-based music ensemble, Pink Martini.

The energy was palatable in the sold-out house – 2,488 seats – for each of the two shows, the second of which I was able to catch. The audience was really “with” the ballet from the top of the show. This hour-long new ballet just seemed to fly by, with the enthusiastic audience members eating it up. The show left us wanting more.

Pink Martini has been described as “somewhere between a 1930s Cuban dance orchestra, a classical chamber music ensemble, a Brazilian marching street band...part language-lesson, part Hollywood musical.” It was formed by its pianist and arranger, Thomas M. Lauderdale “to play at political fundraisers for progressive causes...”

Pink Martini has a huge following and was one of the draws for this show. Pimble and Gillmer Duran (who made the section to Villa-Lobos’ great “Bachianas Brasileiras #5") clearly knew they had a gift handed to them and they more than rose to the occasion, neatly matching the ensemble’s blend of music with an equal blend of ballet-based and clever dances. As a dancer teacher once intoned, “Don’t forget the show business part!” Certainly “Pink Martini” delivered show business and more.

We were ready to cheer from the beginning and Pimble was smart to begin by showcasing the strong male dancers in “Amado Mio.” It’s great when men are featured and they got to show off their technique and specialty steps of leaps and amazing turns: double saut de basque, double assemble, grand jeté with fouetté, and amazing flexibility and attendant extension. The men followed China Forbes out on to stage –who wouldn’t – and led her around in a number that paid tribute to the best show business razz-ma-tazz.

This led into the richly-colored tutus and snappy dancing of principal dancers Jennifer Martin and Aline Schürger and of the corps in the high-energy “Andalucia.” I liked how Pimble created twirling patterns for the ensemble; sharp legwork for Martin and strong poses for Schürger.

I was thrilled that the collaboration included one of the best pieces of music on the planet and one with which I’ve long been smitten, the beautifully haunting “Bachianas Brasileiras #5" of Villa Lobos. Sung “for real” in the original of Portuguese by Pink Martini’s principal vocalist, China Forbes, I liked seeing how Lauderdale adapted the music (scored for 8 ‘cellos and soprano, plus there is a piano-only and soprano version) for his ensemble. My only disappointment was that Forbes didn’t extend the “mmm” at the end which I always find so chillingly haunting. Duran’s choreographic voice is new to me and his response to the music was creative and often inspired. He shows good promise for his future works. Set for four couples and soloist Heather Wallace, Duran gave us motifs that seemed to have their roots in modern dance, fused on top of ballet technique. The black dance skirts for the women (except for Wallace who is in a leotard) and matching black trunks for the men added to this effect – somber, moving, alluring – always when Latin poetry evokes images of the moon. You know when they are singing about the moon, they are not REALLY singing about it! Wallace’s slow extension in écarté helped set the choreographic tone: impressive and expressive. I liked the visual surprise of her picking up a huge cape from downstage and running off with it over her head – it flying behind her as she passionately ran stage left.

“Flying Squirrel” was the closest to a “Big Band” number with the women costumed as exotic birds, the men echoing the look – and all of them making high-energy variations on the Cha-Cha. This extends into a “Capoeira” middle section for the men to again show off.

Memorable also was the most traditional and balletic section, “Eine Leben In Walde,” a contemporary ballet and lyric pas de deux for Hyoung-Il Joung and Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti. He was an effective and sympathetic partner and Affrunti has a beautiful line to show off which Pimble deployed well – costumed in white unitard for Affrunti and tights for Joung. Filled with reaching and turning, it creates a romantic mood and a style of duet for which Pimble seems to have ease in creating.

Visually arresting was the opening with Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero; à terre solo for the Croatian “U Plavu Zoru” with ensemble of Suzanne Haag, Hyoung-Il Joung, Hyuk-Ku Kwon, Martin, and Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti. Amy-Cordero’s energy, total absorption into what he’s doing with high level of technical finesse.

Pink Martini built to a full ensemble number with the French “Dansez-Vous,” and Pimble then gave us what we all wanted – more! – as we were on our feet even before the built-in encore to “Brazil.”

Also effective was breaking up the dancing numbers with three instrumental/vocal-only numbers: the Overture using Ravel’s “Bolero,” “Anna” (El Negro Zumbon), and the well-known and beloved “Malaguena” right before “Dansez-Vous.”

A true collaboration during the performance, the performers “breathed” with each other which was clear in all sections, with Lauderdale leading from his piano. Martini is an exciting, lively, and satisfying new signature ballet for Eugene Ballet that taps into a full range of the dancers’ talents and of a spectrum of kinds of “show” dancing that was fun, beautiful, and one that left me and the audience looking forward to seeing it return to the Hult stage in the not-too-distant future.

The buzz in the crowded foyer and aisles was fun to overhear. Many suggested Eugene Ballet take this show in the road, that they liked the venue, the draw and energy of the live music and how they’d like to see it again. [It did tour to Boise, when the company performed there a week later under its Ballet Idaho moniker.]

It was a treat to be able to see Eugene Ballet. It’s a mid-sized ensemble of strongly trained, dedicated, and talented dancers, under mindful and creative leadership and support of people who genuinely care for and love dance and ballet.

Next year’s season holds much excitement and promise: a new rehearsal home and a good range of ballets to bring to its audiences in Oregon and Idaho with “Carmina Burana,” two one-act ‘story’ ballets: “Carnival of the Animals” and “Pulcinella,” and concluding with a new work to be set to gospel music, “American Spirit.” For more information about their season, go to: http://www.eugeneballet.org/

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