Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “All Mozart Program”
Saturday, 22 April 2006
Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon
by Dean Speer
I’ve began following the fortunes of Oregon Ballet Theatre prior to its inception as the merged product of two ballet companies and have been particularly watchful during these past three seasons under the tutelage of its current artistic director, Christopher Stowell.
It feels good to happily report that OBT’s latest outing on the boards is probably its strongest and one of its best to date. I mean this both in terms of what was on stage and also how it was presented by the company. As the material given them as gotten better so thus has gone the dancing. I find myself compelled to quote from OBT’s program feature, “Who’s Your Dancer?” where Gavin Larsen responds to the question, “Tell us something you love about your job.” In part she says, ... “I love OBT’s repertoire...is what keeps me engaged here...In three seasons I’ve been able to perform at least half-a-dozen dream roles.”
We’d have to rank Francia Russell’s staging of Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15" as one of those dream ballets – for both the audience and the dancers. It’s a full-company work with many opportunities for every level of the ranks and is filled with a kaleidoscope of inventive patterns. Certainly a bon-bon ballet that bears and invites repeat viewings.
Yuka Iino, Larsen, Kathi Martuza, Anne Mueller, and Alison Roper were in the principal ballerina roles with Iino as the central figure and Russell cast to the strengths of each. Men were Brennan Boyer, Artur Sultanov, and Ronnie Underwood. Boyer was particularly outstanding, perhaps due to his PNB upbringing.
I’m hazarding a guess that’s it’s entirely coincidental, but not only was each ballet on the bill set to Mozart, each also had a male duet. The “theme” of “Divertimento” for example, which was given by Boyer and Underwood. The second ballet on the program, “Almost Mozart” by James Kudelka opens with a duo in silence and the concluding work, Lar Lubovitch’s “Concerto Six Twenty-Two” – which dates from 1985 – has a sweet, long adagio for two men.
Speaking of Kudelka’s “Almost Mozart,” it would be both tempting and accurate to call it “Almost Ballet.” I found it to be more of an extended study. Kudelka gave himself the “restriction” (his word) of having the dancers hold hands and be connected during each of the four segments. This was certainly interesting and yielded some movement that was very sculptural and it provided a jumping off place for him to see how far he could go with inventing and developing this idea. For me, he really got to the heart of his ballet in two places – the opening Duo with Damian Drake and Paul DeStrooper and during the exception to this physical connection to another dancer where he had the ever amazing and impressive Alison Roper explore new pointe work places with slides, assemblés shooting through the air, twists, and other movement that seemed to have Roper pulling herself out of her skin. Perhaps Roper’s “connection” is with extended and extreme pointe techniques.
I believe the choreographer’s choice of title for his piece really refers to his choice of the sparing use of the music: a Masonic funeral piece and one movement of a piano concerto but with the piano line taken out and only “references” made by the players. Generally, the music was performed in between dancer segments, as a sort of bridge from section to section. Unfortunately on opening night, the conductor didn’t wait long enough after the conclusion of each dance section and lifted his baton well before the applause had died down, thereby losing much of what we were supposed to hear. Being a world premiere, I don’t think they were prepared for the timing of the robust applause that erupted after each section. Hopefully, this situation was rectified in subsequent shows.
The audience really got behind this new work and I heard much good buzz in the foyers from those who really found it exciting and different. Certainly an interesting addition to OBT’s canon and one that I wouldn’t mind seeing again.
Refreshing, fun, and beautiful would be one phrase to describe Lubovitch’s work to a clarinet concerto. His is a large-scale, inventive work that divides the first movement between four couples: Ansa Deguchi and Anne Mueller; Steven Houser and Brennan Boyer; Daniela Deloe and Kathi Martuza; and Artur Sultanov with Brian Simcoe; the touching second movement duet featuring Jon Drake and Ronnie Underwood; and the third movement into a trio with Mia Leimkuhler, Valerie Limbrunner, and Kester Cotton, soloists Martuza, Mueller, and Sultanov and the whole lively scheme finishing with the entire cast.
The adagio has the men begin on opposite sides of the upstage, come together in center stage, take hands and rarely come out of contact until the conclusion where they reverse retrograde the opening sequence, heading back to upstage. I particularly liked the oval they made with their connected inside arms which echoed by their outside arms en bas. Their partnering included weight-sharing, counterbalancing, and some lifts.
“Concerto Six Twenty-Two” a bouncy, aerobic and very kinetic piece where the dancers delighted in every shape, mix of pairings and moment, deploying their balletic craft in the modern style of Lubovitch.
Certainly one of the elements that made for a heavenly evening at the ballet was the live music – all three works were accompanied by the OBT orchestra, Niel DePonte, conductor. Hurray for Stowell’s leadership in this regard and for the funding support of patrons.
OBT’s program opened on a glorious, sun-suffused Northwest Spring evening. A lovely reminder of why we treasure this part of the country, delight in Portland, and of why OBT’s glory days are waxing.