Hue Upon Hue
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Chromatic Quartet
Newmark Theatre, 21 April 2012
by Dean Speer
As the curtain rang down on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s 1972 creation, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” one of my seatmates turned to me and said, “That was terrific!”...and it was.
There is not one moment in the ballet that is not interesting, nor, in this case, very very well performed. My own history with this work goes back to the mid-1980s when I was directing a ballet school and company 90 miles north of Portland in Chehalis – the Chehalis Ballet Center -- and annually we would have a couple down from Pacific Northwest Ballet to perform on our Spring student recital program. One year they brought with them the second pas de deux, ‘Aria II’ from this ballet. We were thrilled. I was thrilled...and felt very honored. Yet, I had to ask myself, how would a very contemporary Balanchine piece to Stravinsky play in conservative, rural and sometimes reactionary Lewis County? Accompanied on the piano by one of our most talented students, Elizabeth Tausch and by a violinist from the Seattle Symphony, I needn’t have worried – everyone was quite smitten with this unusual work and by the terrific dancing of Alejandra Bronfman and Benjamin Houk – who generously gave an extra run-through just for the students to see them. It was quite a coup for us and is also a coup for Oregon Ballet Theatre and its adoring public.
Beginning and ending as a full-company work, its middle two sections are successive pas de deux – the first is more playful and the second a little more serious in tone, longer and extended in its unusual shapes. I was most pleased to be reminded that this ballet has plenty for the men to do, as well. Lots of exciting leaps – especially a flying variation on the saut de chat which was repeated several time, with four men changing facing and direction.
Alison Roper and Yang Zou were tantalizing in ‘Aria I’ and demonstrated what might be a new partnership. Zou does not appear to be as tall as Roper’s typical partners, such as Artur Sultanov, but never the less delivered the goods. He certainly is on par with her technically and in artistic sentiment.
Grace Shibley made a superb debut with partner Brett Bauer in ‘Aria II.’ The man’s running lunge to the knee, touching Shibley’s turned-in ones launches this visually captivating pas de deux with its surprising motifs.
I also think to myself just how brave Mr. Balanchine must have been to have made such ballets that, to me, demonstrate courage – taking it to the edge and pushing the envelope of the vocabulary. He probably could have played it safe and made only symmetrical, pretty ballets and still have done well for a living, but how the greatness of great art would have been lost to the world. Crossed arms, “Aladdin-style” with quick ball-changes and a leg that brushes parallel up to the knee, all done in very quick succession, turned-in feet, supported under the arms wheelbarrow walks. He extends but manages to keep it looking like a ballet, and an exciting one, throughout.
“The Lost Dance” found its footing with its seven-member cast of Michael Linsmeier, Lucas Threefoot, Javier Ubell, and women Makino Hayashi, Yuka Iino, Kate Oderkirk, and Roper. The movement motifs were heavily port de bras-dependent with a kind of “faux Madonna” feel to the era. Twirling fingers and rhythmic sways side-to-side with pause plus the dresses for the women and white shirts, tie, and black slacks for the men, suggested that, as the Brits say, they all were out “clubbing” which even the program note with the choreographer, Canadian Matjash Mrozewski infers, and indeed, the work has as a patina, the feel of Toronto to it. A detailed work with lots of filigree, my only qualm was the commissioned sound score which I felt weakened what might otherwise be a very strong ballet. Filled with “musique concrete” – actual sounds such as someone biting into an apple [a distinct crunching], this kind of atmospheric setup is interesting for a while but doesn’t hold interest, nor, importantly, can it sustain an important ballet. Mrozewski, commended for providing work for contemporary composers, would be better off, in this case, insisting on acoustic music. The only time the piece really picked up was toward its conclusion when the music shifted to something jazzy and energetic – at this point, the dancing and lighting lifted up. The rest of the time, the score was pretty flat. I’d go even so far as to suggest that the dance might be better off without its score. A composer friend who has worked quite a lot with choreographers cautions that, in her words, music can become a trap and has to be ‘countered.’
Christopher Wheeldon’s career has been marked by inventive and visually interesting work. His “Liturgy” is no exception and it begins with Haiyan Wu and Brian Simcoe standing upstage center undulating and waving their arms by their sides in opposite sides, creating an opening visual tension. Mostly a “lift, lean, and lunge” part for Simcoe, it never the less provides a good dancing opportunity and a chance for Wu to explore extended technique available only through partnering. The program notes that it “...has the aura of a spiritual journey...”and I would agree with this assessment. Very pleasant to watch and enjoy, with enough suggestion of the serious but without being weighted by gravitas.
Carol Rich, piano, and Margaret Bichteler, violin, were the most welcome musicians of the Arvo Pärt The edge of having live music only enhances the experience for both the performers – something to respond to and breath with, and makes it for a more immediate, aural and visceral time for those on the other side of the footlights.
Kathi Martuza made a long anticipated and very welcome return to the dancing stage as the lead in Val Caniparoli’s “Lambarena.” I’ve enjoyed “Lambarena” many times and OBT gave it one of its best renditions – clear and clean with the right amount of body sweeping and whipping of the back. The infectious joy that permeates this work’s fusion of ballet and African dance is fun and uplifting and the ending with the women shaking and the men upstage swaying makes this dance always welcome.