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No Mistaking It...

Oregon Ballet Theatre's 'The Four Temperaments' Program

by Dean Speer

October 21, 2006 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

If every dancer’s nightmare is working with an impossible choreographer, then every choreographer’s nightmare is encapsulated in the “it’s-all-out-there” section of Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert” aptly titled ‘Mistake Waltz.’

It’s a dance that all choreographers – whether making a grand piece or a recital number – have lived through way too many times! It’s not just about dancers not dancing together, or one lovely cast member never quite getting it right:  it’s the “my version is correct and yours is not” that really hits home. Then the whole shebang dissolves into one big mess as everyone tries to correct themselves or others. One of my favorite moments is when the corps is upstage left making wavy port de bras – up, down, up, down – and then moves to downstage right; all except for one oblivious dancer who just keeps a wavin’ away. The real hoot comes when the corps goes back and joins her without Ms. Port de Bras missing a beat or  noticing that anything was ever amiss, like a puzzle piece fitting right back in.

While I had seen many photos from “The Concert,” ranging from its original 1956 cast to more contemporary ones,, I had never actually seen Robbins’ comedic essay on the foibles of ballet (and of people) using concert-going as his premise.

I knew in advance that the premise of the work was concert-going and what goes on in people’s heads while they are listening – or not! I was very curious to see how Robbins worked all of this out. It begins with the audience coming in carrying their own chairs and, of course, some are not seated correctly and have to have the usher check their tickets and move them around. One of the more original visual gags here is that our ditsy ballerina, who’s clearly inspired by the music, has fallen asleep exhausted, sitting down and leaning at the side of the piano. While the audience is trading chairs and seats, one angrily pulls out the chair from underneath this gal, yet she does not drop to the floor or budge at all.  Instead she continues to nod dreamily. There’s also the inevitable paper-rustler, the talkers (who are given “the look” by the other concert goers), and the late-comers.

My best friend growing up, Chris Arveson, while in high school used to like to go over to the original Bellevue Square Mall and stand on the corner sidewalk outside of the J.C. Penny store and look up at the sky just to see if and how many people would end up looking up with him. (Yes.) An umbrella section examines this kind of “group-think” as one person takes out his umbrella, then another does the same, then another, until the stage seems to be filled with a crowd with bumbershoots up.

The piece concludes with the whole cast as zany butterflies, the hapless pianist giving up, going off stage, getting a giant butterfly net and chasing the dancers as the curtain comes down. Brilliant!

This is a good ballet and comes to OBT at a propitious time in its development. It has real dancing, live music to Chopin, and challenges the cast to infuse comedic acting with perfect timing and delivery. OBT certainly fulfilled its part in this triune bargain on Saturday night. Alison Roper as The Ballerina, in a role first created by the last of Mr. Balanchine’s wives, was perfectly cast in this slightly goofy part which gave us a glimpse into her powers as a dancing comedienne.

Also on the program was Balanchine’s 1946 masterwork, “The Four Temperaments.”  Ever fresh, visceral and exciting, “The Four Temperaments” builds on its opening themes and concludes with several of the women being pushed up to an overhead lift where they have one leg extended to the ceiling and the other bent into attitude and pressed against their partner’s chest. This pattern cascades up as the curtain falls—a great ending to a great ballet.

In the ‘Fourth Variation,’ Roper was dancing at the other end of the choreographic spectrum in what I call the “Kah-wonck!” part—everything is attacked; sharp rond de jambes, very sharp pirouettes to the knee, arms swinging and finishing overhead in an iron cross. Not a part for the faint-of-heart or for those looking for a dainty ballerina.

Brennan Boyer has real technique, burnished by his training at Pacific Northwest Ballet School.  ‘First Variation – Melancholic’ features the most Martha Grahamesque deep contractions, falls to the floor, recoveries, and more quick drops, and concludes with a deep backbend with arms outstretched overhead and a backward walk offstage. Graham was just about at her career peak in 1946 when this ballet was first conceived, and I cannot help but think this piece is Mr. Balanchine’s response. Certainly, her work was more popular and well-known at that time, the wide-spread popularity of ballet taking off much later. (Now, sadly, it’s somewhat, “Who’s Martha Graham?!”) It’s good to see OBT is providing the talented Boyer with appropriate career opportunities.

Yuka Iino was equally fearless in the quick allegros of “Sanguinic,” partnered by Jon Drake. I really like the rond de jambes en l’air to piqué attitude – and done with such verve!

Artur Sultanov tapped into his Russian roots to achieve a fatalistic feeling in the third variation, “Phlegmatic,” which also had some contractions in it but these were more isolated through the torso—a shoulder inverted here, a knee sharply turned in there. Looks are deceptive, and his holding of his right heel in attitude front at the end certainly is a simple concept but takes an enormous amount of control, and Sultanov, to his credit, did not budge. I only would have liked perhaps a deeper attitude on both legs—more fondu plié and deeper turnout with the gesturing/held leg.

When I first wrote about Christopher Stowell’s “Adin” two years ago, I mused “Will there be a ‘dva?’” I’m pleased to report that, yes, Stowell has created additional works for OBT that have been successful, and this season brought back this, his first creation, for the company.

It could have been subtitled, “Songs without Words,” as it uses three Rachmaninoff songs that have been orchestrated and are performed with no vocalist. I think the piece has had time to season, and it sat better with me this round, including the use of the upstage draw and pull curtains in varying and moving configurations that allow the dancers ingress and egress but which also provide their own kind of set.

Stowell contrasts three increasingly long duets against each other. The first with Kathi Martuza and Paul DeStrooper I found to be vigorously lyric, while the next playful [Anne Mueller and Steven Houser], and the last the most “romantic,” with Gavin Larsen and Sultanov. In this movement, I thought Stowell used repetition too much as one of his development tools, and would have preferred that he added on other uses of other compositional devices. The effect was a feeling that the piece wanted to go somewhere—and it did—but not as far as we would have hoped. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant showcase for Larsen’s ability to etch out meaning in every phrase and step, sympathetically partnered and complimented by Sultanov.

We were thrilled that each work on the program was supported musically by the live accompaniment of the OBT Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Niel DePonte, its Music Director and Conductor. Special mention must be made of pianist Carol Rich who was the soloist for both “The Concert” (onstage) and in the pit for Hindemith’s “Four T’s” which is as near to actually being a piano concerto, without being titled such.

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