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Portland Packs Them In

Oregon Ballet Theater performs premieres by Martins, Tomasson and Stowell

by Dean Speer

March 10, 2007 -- Portland, Oregon

There is nothing compared to the energy and excitement of a full theatre and group “karma” of anticipation of the curtain – and this was the case for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s final showing of the “All Premiere” program on 10 March. Their subscription base has increased markedly since the arrival of Artistic Director Christopher Stowell, now in his fourth year at the helm. OBT’s largest performance venue, the venerable Keller Auditorium, has three seating levels and at times in the not-too-distant past, the top balcony has been closed, but not this time. Several days before, it was reported that there were only four tickets left in the entire house. 

Stowell has worked hard to build a better artistic mousetrap and ballet fans – both old and new – have responded accordingly. This program was based on the premise of presenting ballets by persons who had been largely influential in Stowell’s own career: Helgi Tomasson, for whom he danced during his 16 years at San Francisco Ballet; Peter Martins, who is not only “Ballet Master-in-Chief” at New York City Ballet but who is also head of the faculty at the School of American Ballet where Stowell trained; and his own father, Kent Stowell, longtime Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. It’s also interesting to note that all three had also performed with NYCB. 

Of the three premieres, Stowell’s “Through the Gates of Eden” was a world premiere, receiving its gestation and birth entirely at OBT. Stowell began work at OBT’s studios on 5 February and completed this new ballet quickly, with its premiere about a month out. He worked with one of the duo pianists to piece together a score of William Balcom piano pieces; costumes were designed by PNB’s Larae Theige Hascall, with lighting and set design by Randall Chiarelli –Stowell has collaborated with each many times. At the pre-performance talk, given by the well-organized OBT Historian and Lecturer Linda Besant, a PowerPoint slide of Balcom’s score gave us curious audience members a sense of the whimsy in this creative composer’s mind and oeuvre. This particular sheet of music was to be followed like a labyrinth maze and where you were to play next depended upon how the previous or current section was completed or encountered. Stowell and the pianist, Carol Rich, finalized an order for consistency. 

Watching the piece, I had the sense that even though he began work only a few weeks prior to its premiere, Stowell was relaxed and without the pressure of having to create something for his own subscription audience. And for those of us who have seen every piece he ever made for PNB, he also took from himself – a common practice of composers and artists. For example, about two-thirds of the way through we were presented with a brief magic act whereby “a lovely assistant” was bifurcated after being placed into a box that was then separated by a large metal blade and the two halves twisted to a 45-degree angle. I’ve seen this bit before in one of Kent’s earlier works, and in other contexts, and it’s more fun when the “magician” who takes the blade has “trouble” pushing it in [tries putting it in, there’s some resistance, so he gives it a larger shove, whereupon it goes through just fine] – this might be my only performance suggestion for improvement, as the blade went in way too smoothly. 

Stowell, drawing on the dancers’ strengths, always makes them look good, and this was the case for the entire ballet. It’s a ballet that filled out this program well, being the only one with a large cast (23) and made for a solid “closer.” The strongest sections were the opening’s “The Serpent’s Kiss” which was also, later, the ballet’s ending, a pas de deux for Alison Roper and Ronnie Underwood, Yuka Iino’s “Fast, furious” solo, and a “Nocturne” duet for Gavin Larsen and Paul De Strooper. 

Larsen is a very centered and focused dancer and De Strooper a very good and experienced dance partner.  For their combined talents, Stowell made a kinetic yet serene mini-ballet that was a standout for its lyricism. 

At the other end of the dance wave spectrum was the solo created for Iino. Fast and furious it certainly was and neatly exploited her ability to turn like a top, adding to that quick footwork and sharp changes of direction. 

A good “opener” was Tomasson’s “Blue Rose” set to music by Elena Kats-Chernin. Essentially a series of 10 rags, “Blue Rose” is an upbeat, lively composition that appeals to the audience and that shows off the dancers’ abilities to move big and to act like they’re having fun – which they are. A highlight was Anne Mueller and Steven Houser for their duet (in blue) to the title work. The angular expression was particularly well suited to her. Houser is a bright, young and fresh-faced talented dancer who in his brief tenure with OBT is already being given increasingly well-deserved responsibilities. 

Martins’ “Ash” was the protein in the middle of the sandwich. Very kinetic right from the get-go, this is 15 minutes of non-stop ballet action. Meticulously set by former New York City Ballet dancer,  now one of their ballet masters and stagers, and NW native (grew up in Federal Way, Washington, a suburb south of Seattle) Russell Kaiser, “Ash” was a favorite of the audience. 

Probably the most technically demanding work ever performed by OBT, it provides a strong statement of the company’s growth in technical prowess and performing stamina – even though it’s “merely” 15 minutes in length.

Alison Roper and Artur Sultanov as the lead couple gave it sharp definition and energetic, clean attack. Strong and notable performance were also given by apprentice dancers Ashley Muangmaithong, who was brought in to replace an injured dancer, and former PNB apprentice Brennan Boyer who has a refined and an honest technique.

“All Premieres” was a pleasant evening at the ballet and one that demonstrated OBT’s continued trajectory as one of the City of Roses’ premier arts companies.

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