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Tulsa Ballet - Celebrate Oklahoma!

'Nine Lives: Songs of Lyle Lovett', 'Rodeo', 'Oklahoma! Suite'

by Gretchen Collins

November 12, 2006 -- Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma

November in Oklahoma is always a beautiful month, but this one is especially so because it marks the start of a yearlong celebration of the state’s centennial. Tulsa Ballet was chosen as one of the organizations to kick-off premier events. Artistic director, Marcello Angelini, rose to the occasion, offering the world premiere of “Oklahoma! Suite.”

Created as a Broadway musical, “Oklahoma!” has never been done as a ballet, but during our interview Angelini stated that he thought the centennial a golden opportunity to create something special for the state. 

Although the musical included dance, it couldn’t stand by itself because the story line didn’t thread its way through the dance portion. Angelini believes the choreography of Agnes de Mille strong enough to stand up as a ballet. Then remained only the problem of telling the story.

Angelini’s next stop was the offices of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. In New York, he spoke with President Ted Chapin and other principals from the group. Also included was legendary dancer and choreographer, Gemze de Lappe, who was one of de Mille’s leading female dancers. De Lappe has staged de Mille’s repertoire throughout the world and assisted in writing her biography.

De Lapp traveled to Tulsa and began working with TB to create “Oklahoma! Suite”,  assisted by Randall Graham. Orchestrations were provided by Robert Russell Bennett. The finished product contains original scores not used in the movie version.

The first few notes of the “Overture” drew applause from a nearly sold-out Chapman Music Hall. Megan Keough, whose growth as a dancer since coming to TB in 2002 has been a pleasure to watch, danced the role of Laurey. Ricardo Graziano played Jud, with Alfonso Martin in the role of Curly.

“Oklahoma! Suite” didn’t quite pull off telling the story, but most of the audience likely had some knowledge of the narrative. Nor did it have the oomph of “Rodeo,” also on this triple bill. What it did have was high stepping, flying leaps and spirited Western dance embraced by those in attendance. It also had that award-winning Rodgers and Hammerstein music including “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “I Cain’t Say No” and “People Will Say We’re In Love.”

In the finale, Martin carried the sky blue Oklahoma flag around the stage, as TB dancers–none of whom were from the state but hail from around the world—sang “Oklahoma!” Nathan Fifield, (formerly of Houston Ballet) TB’s new music director, conducted the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra. During his on-stage bows, he joined in as everyone sang it one more time. It was an exhilarating debut for Fifield, whose conducting has an energy and enthusiasm that is contagious. “Oklahoma! Suite” was fun--and it was definitely celebratory!          

Perennial favorite, “Rodeo,” kept demi-soloist Keough hopping as she played the role of The Cowgirl with plenty of pluck and spunk. As the dejected Cowgirl, she tried to entertain herself while everyone else was at the dance. Of course, she eventually determined they were having all the fun. Keough’s comical discomfort in a dress and petticoat was charming to watch.

Soloist Wang Yi danced the role of The Head Wrangler. New to TB this year, he is a gifted dancer with stage presence. Yi is from China and most recently danced with the Universal Ballet of Korea. He has already demonstrated his talent at both classical and modern dance this season. He is one to watch.

Michael Eaton portrayed The Champion Roper who finally lassoes The Cowgirl’s heart. The soloist is a Tulsa favorite and has been getting increasingly more dance time that’s well deserved.

It was delightful to see Ashley Blade-Martin back on the Chapman stage after a year with Boston Ballet. She did a lovely turn as The Rancher’s Daughter.

Alexandra Bergman was charming as Ado Annie in a too small role.

Musically, Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” didn’t have quite the fullness one would have liked due to the abbreviated Tulsa Symphony Orchestra. Although somewhat small in number on this occasion, the Tulsa arts community is glad to have a live professional orchestra in the pit once again.

The final offering of TB’s fall trilogy was Daniel Pelzig’s “Nine Lives.” First performed in the 2003/2004 season, Angelini stated in our interview that he chose it because it fit artistically and stylistically with the other two productions. Set to the music of Lyle Lovett, he was said to have been “flattered beyond description” to have his songs set to dance.

Principal dancer, Ma Cong, was to have danced “Hot to Go,” but sat out the performance because of an injury. There was a collective groan from the audience at word he wouldn’t perform. His replacement, Mugen Kazama, a new member of the corps de ballet, comes to TB from the John Cranko Ballet School and the Tokyo Ballet School.

Kazama gave it his all: Leaps, floor rolls and airborne turns. This expressive dancer obviously enjoyed his work. His happiness as he danced this piece was unmistakable–true leaps of joy!  The next couple of seasons are likely to show this dancer moving up.

The partnering in “All My Love is Gone” between Alexandra Bergman and Ricardo Graziano, was splendid. The shadowing was absolute. This was the best performance of the afternoon.

All in all, “Celebrate Oklahoma!” was a rousing success with just the right amount of Broadway, Wild West and urban cowboy.

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