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Oregon Ballet Theatre

Mom, Apple Pie, and Art -- OBT's American Program

by Dean Speer

April 26, 2008 -- Portland, Oregon 

I used to jokingly refer to units of art as coming in “hunks.”  Not all hunks of art fit in the same space or should be seen in the same setting or from the same perspective.  It was so nice to have a more intimate perspective from which to enjoy Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “American” program.  Previously shown at the opera house-sized stage of Keller Auditorium, the first two works – “Through Eden’s Gates” and “Just” – played better in the smaller Newmark Theatre on Portland’s Broadway.  The concluding work, the 1968 excerpted revival of George Balanchine’s 1936 “ballet within a play” from “On Your Toes,” could work in either space.

The set for Kent Stowell’s “Through Eden’s Gates” was inspired by his remembrance of the facade of a movie theatre in his home town of Saint George, Utah where he was first introduced to show business through the silver screen.  It pays tribute to old-time Vaudeville by paralleling acts that might have been found then – precision dancing, a magic act, a “class act” duet.

The first section, “The Serpent’s Kiss,” is for an ensemble and uses patterns and motifs such as relevé développé arabesque, beginning with the women and echoed by the men.  Alison Roper and Ronnie Underwood’s duet plays tribute to the “adagio” Vaudeville acts where a strong man would lift his female partner into various poses, although in this case, the talented Underwood certainly got to do more than just lift, lean, and lunge (the infamous three “L’s” of male dancing).

Yuka Iino got to unleash her prodigious technique – speed, precision, turns – in two sections made especially for her: a solo, “Fast, Furious,” and partnered by five “Chorus Boys” in “Rag Infernal.” Anne Mueller and Brian Simcoe’s classic and classy pas de deux gave nod to the romantic.  Simcoe’s lanky line is well matched with Mueller’s, and both are dance artists who are always interesting – and I find myself keenly fascinated by what they’re going to do next.

Trey McIntyre’s title, “Just,” for his ballet is a little inscrutable, but I take it to mean that what he’s given us and what we see is just the dancing – no portent, no pretentiousness, just the beautiful dancing.  And this is what we get for the two couples, Anne Mueller and Alison Roper with Jon Drake and Artur Sultanov. The men get special commendation medals for courage in wearing virtually nothing for their costume except designed trunks.  Both the women’s and the men’s costumes were designed based on how women tie the ribbons on their pointe shoes. The choreography, while relatively simple in design, also impressed me as technically hard.  It’s a strong piece that is a good addition to OBT’s repertoire and one that was enjoyable in the smaller venue.

Special commendation and mention must go to Artur Sultanov who has clearly whipped himself into shape after seeming to have some difficulty with stamina a couple of years ago.  He looked really, really strong and in control of his game.  As hard as “Just” is, even though he was sweating profusely (one of advantages/disadvantages, depending on your point of view, of being so close to the performers) – he appeared to have energy to burn.  It’s very pleasing to see his already beautiful line and technique supported by this.  As the narcissistic “Morrosine, premier danseur noble” – with the double entendre of having to speak in a “bad” Russian accent, he really had fun with his overdone and rather silly part: knowing glances, entrechat sixes, and lingering arabesques.  The re-energized power he’s demonstrated makes us really look forward to how his dancing will be in next season’s “Swan Lake.”

While I did enjoy the first two pieces very much, I was pleased to see Balanchine’s historic reconstruction of “On Your Toes” that he did for Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell in 1968, based on the 1936 original for one of his first wives, Tamara Geva, and the great hoofer, Ray Bolger.  It has many of the Balanchine hallmarks associated with his high art ballets – inventive use of ensemble, a tutti finale, wit, and a sense of where he’s going with the dance.

In this case, he’s telling a story within a story – of gangsters, a speakeasy (the place clears fast when they know they’re about to be raided), and a happy ending.  While it’s a novelty piece, he does fully use the dancers’ ballet training and technique, showing off beautiful lines and having the women make arabesque, and making a balletic duet for the Striptease Girl and the Hoofer, complete with supported promenades and arabesque penché.

Principal Dancer Jon Drake has really found his stride in the past couple of seasons, particularly in works like this (he was the Hoofer) and Christopher Stowell’s “Eyes on You.”  Kathi Martuza is a great ballerina and also a great dancing actress – as the Striptease Girl.  Fabulous gams put to good use – fun, funny, steamy, touching.  Martuza really seemed to be enjoying herself, getting into the dancing shoes and under the skin of her character.

Both “Through Eden’s Gates” and “Just” enjoyed the musicianship of pianist Carol Rich, with Susan Smith on piano number two for the first and violinist Lorely Zgonc and percussionist Gordon Rencher for the second.

Once again Stowell has put on a good show, as Oregon Ballet Theatre continues to gain momentum and support, partly demonstrated by the sold-out house of the show I attended.

As OBT’s World Tour continues, I look forward to having my passport stamped “Russia” in June.

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