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Oregon Ballet Theatre - Germanic Lands Program

Dancing at the Speed Of...

by Dean Spper

October 20, 2007 -- Portland, Oregon

When the dancers took off from the musical launchpad of Schubert in William Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” speed and danger took on a whole new meaning.  So much so, that I felt compelled to look up the title in the handy-dandy dictionary.  “Vertiginous” is related to ‘vertigo’ and suggests extreme steepness or height, while “exactitude” is “making great demands on one’s endurance or skill.”

Both were quite clear – and indeed just as thrilling as the title modestly suggests.  It begins with two men – Brennan Boyer and Artur Sultanov – who engage in a kind of shadow-play and with the women entering singly in what I might call “dinner-plate” bright green tutus.  Steps like double (or more) en de dans pirouette ending in rélevé fourth position, and mixtures of other exceedingly fast turns, jumps and very quick poses, left the audience appreciating these dancers for the superb artist/athletes they are.  As mentioned earlier, there was a sense of risk and danger – of being purposely off balance and then righting oneself.

It’s often said that singers need to do Mozart for their voices.  It might be said that dancers need to do Balanchine for their dancing and, in this case, Schubert/Forsythe for their fortitude.  Benefiting from this was Sultanov who looked stronger, more energetic and on top of his game than he had been this past season.  This was great to see.

Christopher Stowell cast company artists Candace Bouchard and Holly Tolbert along with veteran Principal Dancer Kathi Martuza.  What a nice opportunity to showcase what they can do, alongside a more experienced artist.  All three have length of line, nice attack and seem to relish deploying their considerable technique.

This piece is now 21 years old, premiering in Frankfurt by Forysthe’s company in 1986.  It would be interesting to go back and find out why he chose the final movement from this glorious Ninth Symphony.  It would be fun for him to “complete” the ballet and use the first three movements in addition to the fourth – perhaps his own Schubertian “Symphony in C.”  The “Allegro vivace” from Schubert’s 9th Symphony is considered the weakest of the four movements, so I’m curious why he chose it.  We’ll probably never know, but in any case, as edgy as it may have been for the dancers, it was indeed thrilling for the audience – one that left us wanting more and a good opener that heightened our anticipation for the other two ballets of the evening.

Titan Too

To the “Three Bs” of Germanic composers [Bach, Beethoven, Brahms] I’d choose to add Mozart as one the titans.  James Kudelka took an adventurous artistic risk [speaking of making demands on one’s skills] with his made for OBT work from last season, “Almost Mozart.”  The third section, a duet, is the only one that has musical accompaniment all the way through.  For the rest, it’s either fragments or tacet.  Quite daring – and very accepted by the audience.  The other risk that he took is the premise of having the dancers stay and be in constant contact with each other.

As with “Vertiginous,” it starts with two men who make grand battements and other quick, sharp moves.  Then comes a triptych of trios with the same gentlemen – Damian Drake and new company artist Ilir Shtylla who are joined by Alison Roper.  Some of the fun of these trios is in the partnering and how they get in – and out – of grouping – such as the men falling to the stage floor while Roper stays vertical above the, or how in a similar way, Roper, who is up in a lift, is “jiggled” down.

Martuza was paired with Principal Ronnie Underwood for a long, interactive duet.

The ballet concludes with a solo for Roper that taps into her reserve of technical control, such as slides en pointe that end in solid, stationary balances.

Fall’s Midsummer

While I like to believe – and do fondly hope – that the general public came to the ballet solely on the merits on the first two pieces, the driver for many may have been the last work on the bill: the premiere of Stowell’s new one-act story ballet “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” 

The costumes and scenic designs are by Sandra Woodall and are inspired by a July trip to Opal Creek which is an old-growth preserve east of the state’s capitol of Salem.  OBT Dance Historian and Lecturer Linda Besant showed us slides of this trip and of the renderings that Woodall did as a result.  Very beautiful and impressive – and amazing to see how these drawings are then translated into something we see on stage.

The music that Mendelssohn wrote with “Midsummer” in mind fills only about 30 minutes, so OBT Music Director and Conductor Neil DePonte made an arrangement and orchestrated some bridge pieces connecting the parts.

Stowell begins with the wedding of the human couples and uses the flashback technique to get to the fairies and all of the silly mix-ups and fix-ups that ensue.  But for it to resolve satisfactorily, he needs to come back – albeit briefly – to this wedding scene.  Concluding with just Oberon spinning Titania around in attitude surrounded by Fairies, wasn’t conclusive enough.  We needed to be reminded too that in the human world, “all is well” as the Mendelssohn song goes. [Flashback works best only if it brings us back to where we started.]  He could, for example, have the wedding scene return just before ringing in the curtain – although this would mean a very fast costume change/solution for the main couple; perhaps using cloaks or capes?

The strengths of the work are beyond the original costumes and set properties – it’s in the dancing, particularly in the ensemble work. Oberon’s section, with him leading the men and Titania doing the same for the ladies, were quite good, showing off the clean work of the corps.  Each of the Fairy male corps had the same long length of line that complimented Underwood’s: Steven Houser; Matthew Pippin; Brian Simcoe; and Lucas Threefoot.

I enjoyed Ansa Deguchi and Javier Ubell’s delightful bits as Peaseblossom and Puck, respectively.  Bottom’s tango with Titania was also fun but didn’t go quite as far as it could have with its premise.  There was a good beginning but not enough development taking it to a strong conclusion.

Alison Roper as the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, and Ronnie Underwood as the King of the Fairies, Oberon, are well matched.  Both have technique to burn.  This ballet also gives them a chance to change characters from Hippolyta and Theseus at the wedding to head-of-state fairies.  Stowell’s choreography reveals all this and more as they work through several short duets and interactions as the King Fairy vies for the control of the Changeling Boy [Lucas Pitts].  I must note here Woodall’s wings for their costumes are just right – large, believable yet functional so that they move with the dancers.

Principal Dancers Gavin Larsen, Anne Mueller, and Artur Sultanov were joined by Company Artist Adrian Fry all of whom got a chance to romp through the vicissitudes of love and of Puck’s inability to keep their identities straight, ably assisted by wee Jamesmichael Sherman-Lewis as Cupid.  There wasn’t a whole lot of dancing for them to do; mostly portraying the love tangle and several fun chase scenes – all neatly done.

The students from the OBT School used in the production are well trained and each had a good sense of purpose and of ensemble.

Having the mighty OBT Orchestra play for each ballet on the program added so much to the proceedings – elevating the sense of occasion and import and also giving Keller Auditorium an immediate feel of being “there” and alive.

I was pleased to learn through my ever-scientific mole sources [I read it on a backstage board], that OBT was exceeding their ticket sales expectation with this run.  While this program took off from a launch pad provided by Schubert, OBT as a whole has been following an upward artistic trajectory ever since launching Christopher Stowell as its, then, new Artistic Director – he who is beginning his fifth season already.

“Germanic Lands” was the first installment in OBT’s worldwide season tour.  Next after Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” Vive la France!

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