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A Puppet of Fate

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Premiere of 'Petrouchka' and 'Carmen'

by Dean Speer

October 8, 2011 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

Iconic in the ballet canon, the Fokine/Diagheliev/Stravinsky 1911 production of Petrouchka is the one I’m familiar with and so had to re-tool my thinking in viewing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s newly-conceptualized production with choreography by Nicolo Fonte, as I found myself in my seat at intermission pausing and realizing I had virtually no reaction to it at all. This is not what I had expected of myself, so went back to the program notes, Linda Besant’s excellent pre-performance lecture, pondered, engaged in discussions amongst friends and colleagues, and recalled what the buzz was in the crowded foyer and vestibules at intermission.

Christopher Stowell’s “Carmen” on the other hand, elicited immediate reactions on several fronts – visceral, intellectual, and emotional.

Fonte’s premise was to have all the dancers wear masks, thereby frustrating audience members, some of whom had a difficult time trying to figure out who was dancing, but proving his point that anonymity is not a cool thing but that being and expressing one’s individual self is. [Actually, I could tell who was dancing what role, partly from having become familiar with individual dancers and how they move, but for some audience members, identity was lost.]

There are philosophers, writers, and other observers of the times who believe that we all wear masks in real life to some degree. In my own experience, I observed those with whom I grew up begin to assume these about the time we collectively went through junior high. Some stayed true to their selves, while many others began to hold their faces in neutral and spoke with only their lips; only by their blinking could you know that their facial muscles were still functioning. Perhaps they felt this was a road to maturity. I certainly found it to be not only a little disconcerting but maybe even a little creepy. Too many adults I find, do this. I used to refer to it as “The New York Mask,” whereby you could not tell what people were thinking or feeling.

In this regard, Fonte hit it right on the mark. I also liked how Fonte paid homage to the original by having the scene changes occur as they did before – during the percussive snare drum and trumpet duo where the drum beats out a rapid rhythm and the brass calls out Petrouchka’s theme. Having Petrouchka trapped in his own room and then visited by each of his friends made dramatic sense.

Brian Simcoe, who demonstrated an amazing and near-perfect arabesque penché, was the pioneer who led the troops to mutiny by pulling off their own masks, too. This pushed his Friend, Lucas Threefoot, to the end of his rope and who reverted, I believe, back to what was safe and then tattling to The Conjurer. Caught somewhat in the middle was The Girl, danced by Yuka Iino.

Guest artist Artur Sultanov assumed the role of The Conjurer. The Group was danced by seven couples, backed up by 8 corps members.

“Carmen” on the other hand, even stripped down to the bare bones of the story, was the tried and true and was very successful. Stowell made each scene clear and provided plenty of opportunity throughout the ranks for dancing. My only fusses would be two: just titling Escamillo as merely “his rival” when I believe he should be titled “Toreador,” particularly when Bizet’s character-specific music is used and most of us can not only hum along with the tune but know the words – at least call him “Bullfighter.” Perhaps “Bullfighter and Rival” would be the right mix.

The other, as already noted by someone else in a published review, was a choreographic one – let’s leave out or modify the foot-stamping and hand-clapping, unless you’re going to make the choreographic style – its essence – truly Flamenco or Spanish. My principal qualm with it is that it seems to come out of nowhere – there’s no motif to set it up, and secondly was too rudimentary for professional dancers to be asked to perform, so it ended up having the unintended effect of almost being parody. It was embarrassing to watch. Either make it more [professional-level character dancing] and develop it or delete it.

In preparing for the trip south to Portland to see this opening night program, I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of Alison Roper as a femme fatale, but she made a believer out of me. This girl was serious trouble. Don José, as danced by Chauncey Parsons was an innocent soldier driven to murder his inamorata by a pique of raging jealousy in a moment of losing control. Parsons was groomed and dressed in a somewhat gritty way, suggesting his lower-class status as a green soldier of non-important rank.

Representing “pure” love was Micaëla, beautifully danced by newcomer Principal dancer, Xuan Cheng, whose clean arabesques, crisp technique and interpretation brought poignancy to her two duets with Parsons.

The regiment of fine dancing soldiers were lead by newcomers Yang Zou (Captain of the Guard) with his Liuetenants, Ye Li and Michael Linsmeier. Zou looked particularly good and happy to be there, dancing strongly and cleaning with no muss or fuss to either execution or characterization.

In terms of a pure dance set, the Tavern scene provided a pas de deux by Julia Rowe and Javier Ubell, whose bravura was exciting and enraptured our viewing.

OBT’s Music Director and Conductor Niel DePonte made a musical arrangement for “Carmen,” drawing from Bizet but also from Rodion Shchedrin, who created his own score for his wife, the great Bolshoi ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. Both this new hybrid score and the Stravinsky were exciting to hear, particularly “Petrouchka” which is all too rarely performed as a sonic symphonic programed venture.

Costume designs for both productions were created by Mark Zappone, with scenic creations each by Mimi Lien.

Artistic Director Christopher Stowell and Executive Director Diane Syrcle, who gave the pre-performance welcome and pep talk, were heralded by an orchestral prelude to “Carmen,” the orchestra lively led by Mr. DePonte.


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