Rising Above It
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Nutcracker”
Opening Matinée Performance, 2:00 p.m., 8 December 2012
by Dean Speer
Portlanders and Oregonians experienced an event of seismic proportions recently with the announced resignation of Artistic Director Christopher Stowell, effective December 31, 2012. It will be the end of a golden era, marked by much artistic and organizational growth, which attracted national attention.
For the time being, what carries on is the perennial ballet “Nutcracker” – the legendary George Balanchine version that has been presented by OBT since Stowell’s tenure began in 2003. While not the first, full-length “Nutcracker” in America – that honor goes to the 1944 Willam Christensen production for San Francisco Ballet -- it is legendary because it was the first version to hit the national air waves of television, which so popularized this ballet that just about every burg and hamlet now has its own production of some kind.
While a bit uneven choreographically, but not conceptually, this production is wait-worthy for, in my mind – the Waltz of the Flowers with a lead character of Dewdrop, the Grand Pas de deux, Hot Chocolate/Spanish, Mother Ginger [really gussied up and portrayed as a humorous riot by Kevin Poe ], and the Snow Scene that concludes Act I.
I like its good cheer and overall sense that it’s really a sweet story ballet with a zest of magic and mice tossed into Act I for spice and flavor, but it’s not sticky sweet -- just the right mixture for a bon-bon.
I wrote about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Opening Night “Nutcracker” the evening before that the show belonged to Carrie Imler’s Flora and I’d have to say that the parallel here was the revelation of Julia Rowe as Dewdrop. Certainly, as a whole, the afternoon belonged to OBT but Rowe’s interpretation of this role was perfect and her dancing equally so. Flawless, just flawless in every way – technical, musical, and filigreed. One of those thrilling and satisfying performances that just lifts you out of your seat.
Also outstanding was Javier Ubell whose Act I Soldier was sharp, clean, and with excellent high entrechats [beats] and his Act II Chinese exciting for his ballon and elevation, combined with witty charm.
Yuko Iino and Brian Simcoe were paired as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. The Act II Pas de deux is difficult with hard balances and promenades. Simcoe, an attentive partner, nearly caught his leg around Iino’s during one balance where she is in a deep backbend and turning her around while walking around the circumference of her supporting leg. Fortunately for us and them he quickly picked up his leg and got untangled.
Leading into this duet is what is probably in the top ten of everyone’s favorite ballet waltz play list – The Waltz of the Flowers, lead by a Dewdrop (Rowe) and the two lead long-stemmed fleurs, Candace Bouchard and Martina Chavez were radiant throughout. I thoroughly enjoy the kaleidoscope patterns that Balanchine inserts and deploys throughout – it’s very theatrical and visually interesting and quite perfect for a large venue such as Keller.
Instead of a Russian Character dance, Balanchine installs a Candy Cane dance done with a bevy of beauties each deploying hoops. The lead “hooper” – Chauncey Parsons – gets to show his considerable elevation and beautiful line with split leaps in second position and by whirling his own hoop under his legs and feet while midair. It’s exciting and elicited many cheers. I only wished that the conductor had relaxed the tempo just a bit for Parsons’ solo as it felt a little rushed and I believe Mr. Parsons could have used some more “hang” time.
Everyone was thrilled to have the mighty OBT Orchestra performing live and they received much deserved recognition and appreciation from the audience. I do believe that OBT would be better off having live music for all of its Nutcrackers, rather than the current half dozen. I don’t know about the rest of the audience but I come just about as much to hear and enjoy the music as I do the dancing and production. Recorded music, no matter how loudly or well played, is just not the same feel as a live orchestra. A recording cannot “warm” the house the same way live, acoustic music does. I’d rather listen to a pianist accompany from the piano score. There are other ways of making attendance “affordable” without going to the extreme of not having the orchestra – I do believe it’s counterproductive at the box office not to have this attraction.
OBT has challenges to address in its future, but with the level and quality of art that its “Nutcracker” and other repertory ballets demonstrate, it deserves to receive the kind of support [audiences filling seats at performances and enhanced donor contributions] that will ensure its future and what it brings to our lives, our spirits, and our communities.
Bravo to Stowell, his artistic and staff teams, the dancers, donors, volunteers, and to everyone who has worked so hard and put themselves and their hearts into what we get to enjoy.