The Right of Stravinsky
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “The Stravinsky Project”
5 March 2011, Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon
by Dean Speer
Back in high school Russian language classes, I got this neat button that said (in Russian), “The Russians Are Coming!” I thought it was pretty cool at the time and proudly wore it. Only two words – there is no definite article, “the,” and the verb “to be” is used only in reference to God – in the Cyrillic lettering, what could be better?
Well, for one, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s neat all-Stravinsky program entitled with the word, “project.” There is a trend, perhaps it’s a fad, to call things projects these days. Seattle Dance Project, Northwest Dance Project, etc. What is meant by this, I believe, is a discrete, one-time event, rather than a “season.” We used to use “concert” or “recital” to designate the same idea. My only objection is to the word itself which, to me, has no emotional appeal – it’s rather clinical. Nevertheless, we know that these various geographically- and time-scattered projects are labors of love.
“The Stravinsky Project” was not only this repertory program’s theme, it’s also the title of the second work on the bill. Co-choreographed by Rachel Tess, Anne Mueller, and dually by Jamey Hampton/Ashley Roland, costume designer Morgan Walker, quoted in the playbill, sums up what are to me some of the strengths and pitfalls of consensus art-making, “With a collaboration like this, essentially nobody was in charge, so there was no one artistic director who would say yay or nay,” he says. “Every single decision had to be vetted to the whole group. I think it ultimately made the piece stronger.”
Yes and no. Products of a consensus model tend to be very creative, as was the case here, but they can also pull into making decisions and a product that’s at the same time, conservative. As is “The Stravinsky Project.” While perhaps risk-taking for the process and its collaborators, what was presented to the audience was okay, interesting to a point but ultimately not that daring or exciting, yet pleasant and fun.
Tess also made structured-improvisation dance for OBT students that was on a platform near the auditorium house doors. It was fun to see these students work through what I’d call “Modern Dance & Acting 101" exercises – laughing out loud for no apparent reason and quick changes of mood, making plastique sculptures out of each other and taking turns doing so, weight-sharing, and the building of token gestural themes. My only suggestion to have strengthened this would be to have taken this and literally moved it from the foyer to the stage, having the dancers move through the house concluding intermission and up onto the stage, perhaps then blending with the company dancers briefly as they take over.
Piano soloist Susan Dewitt Smith’s excellent keyboard work was supplemented and overlayed simultaneously by electronic musician Heather Perkins. This added a very contemporary edge to music that’s still of our time.
“Project” was beautifully and precisely danced by each cast member – principal protagonist Alison Roper, Candace Bouchard, a quartet of men – Steven Houser, Brian Simcoe, Christian Squires, and Lucas Threefoot, backed by the corps work of Scott Bebell, Leta Biasucci, Brennan Boyer, Martina Chavez, and Mia Leimkuhler.
OBT School students who presented themselves in the foyer were Thomas Baker, Hannah Fritz, Adam Hartley, Jordan Kindell, Katherine Minor, Gracie Morton, Olivia Ornelas, Hanh Pham, Emily Pihlaja, Crystal Serrano, Payton Smith, and Charlotte Taylor.
The program opened with Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird, “ first commissioned by OBT and presented in 2004 and revised by the choreographer after staging it on San Francisco Ballet, changing out using students as the “monsters” to company members. My only fuss is the costume for Ivan, the prince, who is dressed essentially only in a baby bird’s egg blue while the rest of the cast, while costumed simply, look their part. Ivan looks dropped out of nowhere; no context. Simple character boots and a tunic and cap would have helped. One of the famous bits of this ballet, included in the original Fokine version is the princesses playing in their gated garden with oranges (a rarity, with the oranges symbolizing wealth and status). Here, I liked how they dropped from the back of painted hung flats after the princesses pushed on them.
OBT is most fortunate to have superb dancers in the cast – the ever delightful queen of turns, Yuka Iino as the Firebird, Ivan danced by relative-newcomer Brett Bauer, Kathi Martuza as the head princess who falls for Ivan, and as the evil Kaschei, the amazing Chauncey Parsons, who with his hair gelled up and back and long, long fingernails, looked like a character out of a contemporary Twilight movie.
Closing was a reiteration from OBT’s 2009 premiere of ‘The Rite of Spring,” with choreography by Artistic Director Christopher Stowell, with assistance from Anne Mueller. Playing the original duo-piano version were Carol Rich and Susan Dewitt Smith.
I find it interesting that while the creative team’s stated intent was to not follow the original scenario, ending with peasant villagers sacrificing a virgin [who dances to death] to appease winter and bring forth spring, the various scenes ended up in the aggregate doing just that, except for a depiction of someone dancing herself to death. In this case, the ever-wonderful and dramatically intense Anne Mueller quickly and sharply lunges at the audience. Blackout. I loved it.
A large cast, along the way it pretty much uses the entire company as groups move on and off, as do the set pieces of the stage decor and dressing. Notable in featured roles were Mueller, Lucas Threefoot, Grace Shibley and Artur Sultanov, who has moved into the category of guest artist, and so good to see again.
At Oregon Ballet Theatre, the Russians indeed have arrived via this popular and lively program that was a mix of story ballet, the abstract and experimental, and the primal that had us talking at intervals, at dinner, and for days following.