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Mountain Climbing

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Body Beautiful program

by Dean Speer

October 13, 2012 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, OR

There is something about the allure of rock and mountain climbing that particularly appeals to the populace of the greater Pacific Northwest. Not one but at least two ballet teacher friends used to seriously engage in this recreational hobby – so much so that one of them, a studio owner, actually missed one of her recitals as she got very delayed returning from one of these adventures.

Gods and goddesses have long led the way for modeling this activity. Just think of all the reported times in classic and ancient literature and myth they both came and went, interacting with us mere mortals or just playing upon the Earth.

Depicted in art and dance, artists have captured telling moments of these legends.

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Fall venture onto the Keller Auditorium stage is based upon – and done in collaboration with the Portland Art Museum – this art. The first on the mixed bill was the iconic “Apollo” made by George Balanchine in 1928 and staged here to include the birth and concluding ascension scenes by Balanchine authority Francia Russell.

Chauncey Parsons as the title character infused the role with the range that it demands – from new born god and literally finding his legs like a colt to commanding three muses to ascend with him up to Mount Parnassus. Makino Hayashi’s turn as Apollo’s mother, Leto, was perfect with its Graham-like contractions and dramatic, sweeping gestures. The Handmaidens who first unwrap the swaddling Apollo were neatly danced by Martina Chavez and Olga Krochik.

The “A” team muses were led by lithe and light Yuka Iino as Calliope, the tensile Polyhymnia of Candace Bouchard, and finally the length and depth of Alison Roper’s Terpischore. Leading all of them was the mighty Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra, under the baton of maestro Niel DePonte.

Based on another legend, Kent Stowell’s “Orpheus Portrait” [1990] depicts in an encapsulated form, this Greek myth culling from the lush, Romantic depths of its Liszt score/recording. In its 1990 form, the backdrop featured changing close-up photographs of the two dancers I most strongly recall and whom, I believe, were its first cast – Benjamin Houk and Deborah Hadley and now uses a single backcloth that uses several images from classic sculpture or paintings such as a head or bust.

Haiyan Wu and Yang Zou, a real-life couple, portrayed the doomed devoted lovers of Orpheus and Eurydice. I love the theatricality of how Eurydice’s now again lifeless form is placed on a cloth river and is pulled/floated off back to the Underworld. New to OBT last season, it was great seeing this talented pair reach into their artistry and considerable technique to convey the sense of loss, love, and tragedy.

Kent Stowell’s version is fairly soft in its depiction. Some other balletic versions have taken it further and show Orpheus’ additional punishment for turning his head to look back at Eurydice as he’s leading her earthward – not only losing her but being torn apart by jackals. Ah, those charming Greek myths; perfect bedtime stories.

The direct collaboration with Portland Art Museum arrived in the form of Christopher Stowell’s premiered ballet, “Ekho” set to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Gluck, with a stage set comprised of several paper trees, hung from the rafters – made by an army of volunteers. At various junctures these were raised, lowered, encompassed single dancers, turned and were lit from the inside. Clearly making a forest for which Narcissus [Brian Simcoe] enters and meanders and in which separate corps groups of men and women frolic, gleaned from which is Echo herself [Xuan Cheng] and the Reflection [Lucas Threefoot] that Narcissus sees of himself, falling in love and being obsessed with.

To strengthen the ballet, I’d suggest re-ordering the middle scenes and to have the story line introduced earlier, rather than having it pick up and carry forward, as it is now, about two-thirds of the way through. Show the introduction of Narcissus to his Reflection, the distress of Echo [in love with Narcissus] then to have them freeze-frame or go off while the respective corps of men and women do their thing, then finally to have all on stage to conclude the story and ballet. This is kind of what we had collectively expected. You know you’re in trouble when the audience applauds before the ballet is done and then pauses too long at the actual end to begin clapping, whether out of uncertainty or polite confusion.

“Ekho” is a good ballet that could be an important addition with some minor reworking.

Showing us many bodies beautiful, the program ended with William Forsythe’s 1991 “The Second Detail,” to an unfortunate sound score by Thom Willems. The problem with dances or works of art that yearn and consciously try to be contemporary is that they almost invariably inadvertently achieve just the opposite effect and appear dated almost immediately and impress as more of a fad than a fact. Choreographically, "The Second Detail" is a terrific dance but is saddled by an albatross of a sound score. I’d rather see the dance to no music than to suffer through Willems' rendition of what makes the ballet seem like it is set in a industrial warehouse. It stops short of the factory whistle. One of my seat mates loved it, but it's really not my cup of tea, aurally.

Stager Christopher Roman – who spent part of his earlier dancing career at Pacific Northwest Ballet – did a great job of teaching a complex ballet and this showed in the clarity of its execution. Roman is paraphrased as stating that this complexity requires him – or at least it feels this way – to teach the ballet 14 times to each of the 14 dancers. From this I had expected to see literally 14 mini-independent dances sharing the stage but what Forsythe really does is take traditional ballet hierarchy and replace [literally] with where and when [unison, small and large groupings, solos, and duets] into what seem to be random places in the time sequence and spatially. It’s true that there is a lot going on but we are also used to seeing this kind of complexity in many other ballets, notably those of Balanchine, so it was actually rather enjoyable, not at all inscrutable.

The level of technical ability and athleticism on display was exciting, fun, and representative of the kind of dance that dancers like doing – and that audiences enjoy too. OBT’s stars such as Roper, Iino and Threefoot were showcased and equally on display were Bouchard, Cheng, Hayashi, Kate Oderkirk, Julie Rowe, Adam Hartley, Jordan Kindell, Ye Li, Michael Linsmeier, and Simcoe. “The Second Detail” is a keeper; my only dream that the score could be changed out for real music.

One overall production fuss. There was only live music for the Stravinsky. I’m tired of listening to recordings. Surely, a piano reduction could have been used for both the Lizst and Bach/Gluck [with a flutist adding in the famous wind part].

Thank-you and Farewell Department. Someone who instantly became one of my OBT “faves” and who garnered a lot of deserved praise for her tireless work, retired from the stage over the summer – Kathi Martuza. I’ll miss looking forward to seeing her performances and hope that she finds the kind of grace she brought to the stage will imbue every aspect of her future career and life. Mille mercis.


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