Oregon Ballet Theatre's All-Russian Program: 'Tolstoy's Waltz'
by Dean Speer
7 June 2008 -- Portland, Oregon
I was very intrigued by a program that was to feature a ballet created by Oregon Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Christopher Stowell to music composed by Russians we normally don’t think of as having been composers all. Among these are the boy, Julian Scriabin (three preludes); George Balanchine (“Valse Lente”); and the eponymous Leo Tolstoy himself. Balanchine is not so surprising, I suppose, given his legendary mastery of the keyboard and his music reading abilities. I was more surprised and charmed by the rest.
The first few sections are made around the talents of Anne Mueller, partnered by various gentlemen. Mueller is one of the brightest and most intelligent movers on the planet, and it was satisfying to enjoy a ballet that showcases her.
Kathi Martuza and Artur Sultanov’s first duet is to the Balanchine. When this couple comes back, it’s to a very theatrical Romance by Georgy Sviridov. Martuza, in a dress with a very long train, dances a character who is blind and tormented by a male (Sultanov). It’s somewhat gothic, and my first impression was that of La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), secondly of the mad Lucia di Lammermoor, and lastly of Tamara Geva, Balanchine’s second wife – loose hair, dramatic gestures and all.
Excerpted from Balanchine’s 1967 full evening length ballet, “Jewels,” Rubies is a blast of cool, hot energy. It’s playful yet sophisticated, lively and fun. Its joy belies how technically hard the steps are and how arty the patterns. Simple, everyday gestures such as the male principal’s “Come guys, let’s dance” evolve into grand and intricate things.
Yuka Iino had all the right stuff in the part created on Patricia McBride, as did Alison Roper in the part of the “tall girl” first made on another “Pat” – Patricia Neary. My only fuss would be that I felt each, particularly Roper, was hampered by not being able to interpret to live music – that they were itching to break loose. If not using an orchestra due to financial constraints, then I would heavily lobby for doing it to the piano reduction that’s used in rehearsals elsewhere – as I dimly recall, one for the solo pianist and one for the other “parts.” Ditto this sentiment for the concluding “Raymonda.” Copies of the piano reduction are available. I got mine at Portland’s dandy Sheet Music Service many years ago.
Soloist Steven Houser very ably danced the male role first made for Edward Villella. He gathered and expended the right kind of energy for his exit pattern from downstage left into the downstage right wing: increasingly faster emboîtés – which was exciting.
“Raymonda” contains one of the more well-known female variations that is taught to aspiring dancers, as well as having one of the most familiar and peppy scores for a male variation.
Many choreographers have been attracted to this ballet over the years and have made their own iterations including “Raymonda Variations” and Balanchine’s “Cortège Hongrois” made as a tribute to Melissa Hayden on the occasion of her retirement from the New York City Ballet in 1973, with Ms. Hayden in the principal ballerina part.
Choreographer Yuri Possokhov was prudent in making it a ballet on the grand scale but not so it would over-tax OBT’s resources. His version is set for eight couples and one principal pair.
Due to an injury, we missed seeing Jon Drake’s farewell performances with the Company, but got to enjoy one of next season’s new dancers early – Chauncey Parsons who was called in as a last-minute replacement. His very clean technique and buoyant elevation – I’m thinking of the male quartet where they execute coupé sauté en attitude – bodes well for his future.
Possokhov concludes with an exciting Hungarian Czardas, filled with precise footwork. In an ideal and fully-funded ballet world, this would be done by a character corps in appropriate character boots and costumes, but the tutu-and-tights corps were thrilling nevertheless.
Possokhov has said that his intent was to feature a corps of soloists – all working together tightly as an ensemble but all at the level of a soloist; in fact, several get to do a solo variation. Four of the men – Brennan Boyer, Chauncey Parsons, Ilir Shtylla, and Lucas Threefoot get a male pas de quatre for the ‘Sixth Variation,’ with the seventh being the famous one going to Roper and the last one done to the peppy male music mentioned above with Principal Dancer Ronnie Underwood.
OBT’s Russian Program provides a lively visual feast – sometimes purposefully spare as in “Tolstoy’s Waltz,” sometimes spiced up as in the red-hot pepper of “Rubies,” and sometimes cooly elegant and tastefully presented as with the energetic “Raymonda.”
As a side note, this was the OBT costume shop’s first full construct of their own tutus, a process that began six months ago and produced stunning results – Hermitage blue tutus, with male ensembles to match. The length of tulle used for each tutu, if unraveled, would be more than the length of a football field. In addition, there was a white tutu for the opening pas de deux – to suggest the wedding scene from the story of “Raymonda.”