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Oregon Ballet Theatre

New Beginnings: 'Rubies,' 'Twilight,' 'Duo Fantasy' and 'Company B'


by Dean Speer

October 11, 2003 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

I find myself disagreeing with the premise of a local reviewer who seems to believe that (1) the direction and ballets that Artistic Director Christopher Stowell has programmed are not from the "gut" and (2) the dancers' personalities are somehow potentially threatened by having to perform works that were either not created especially for them or that are too cerebral.

I keep going back to the wise observations that former New York City Ballet principal dancer Edward Villella once made (overheard by yours truly and also seen in press/print), "That absolute discipline brings absolute freedom" and "Slower is faster." Stowell has at once been conservative and bold in his choices. Paul Taylor's "Company B" is the opportunity to show off the "personalities" of the dancers, while Balanchine's "Rubies" demonstrates classicism that's cool, jazzy, and solidly based on tradition yet infused with lots of invention and an incorporation of the personalities of the original cast that includes Patricia McBride and Mr. Villella. If the question is really whether or not and how dancers are allowed to interpret roles created first on others, I would say this is a resounding, "YES!" In fact this is one of the issues that stager Colleen Neary (what a thrill to see and hear her) addressed during the pre-performance talk. The right person matched to the right part is allowed to interpret within the context of the ballet, of course.

There is more (and welcomed!) sophistication here along with a strong artistic sensibility. This is smart programming that will build OBT: build the dancers technicially and artistically, build the taste and support of the audience and ultimately attract more and more support; a snowball effect. One way that this program echoes that of Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB, where Stowell's parents are artistic directors) is the well-thought-out programming. For example, always having at least one "tutu and crown" ballet (so the audience can see and feel, "Ah, I saw real ballet!), one fun, lighter piece (Paul Taylor's "Company B"), and the new or newly seen. The Taylor piece is also (shh! Don't tell anyone!) a Modern Dance work. Yes, but it is performed by many ballet companies and is a good example of feeding the audience something they might not think they were ready for (good heaven's! Modern Dance at the ballet!) and allowing them to enjoy it, and then get behind it.

This is SMART programming all the way around. Congratulations, Mr. Stowell!

Dancer notes: The dancers looked strong, ready, and like they were having fun but seemed slightly careful on opening night. It was a thorough pleasure seeing Gavin Larsen again (please don't EVER stop dancing, my dear!). And as I had seen Yuka Iino in class many times, and actually got to know her a little bit, it was satisfying to see her on stage for the first time. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Crab department: Okay, Mr. Stowell (and Ballet Board!), start with the live music! This was more than a little disappointing -- to sit through ballets that could have been done live (Kent Stowell's "Duo Fantasy" was the only work on the program accompanied by live music). If the excuse is "money," then get over it! I say this because the danger is, as I see it, that if you allow everyone to get used to having no music for even awhile due to the dollar excuse, this may be a slippery slope that devolves to, "Well, we've gotten by for X years without it, why start now?" even when they can afford it. My stong belief is that you cannot afford to be without the music. The live music component needs to build in tandem and parallel along with all other aspects of the ballet; technical, artistic, audience expectations, how the house "feels" when the audience comes in, and more. The lighting, costumes, and dancing are done live; how much more important then is music that is the springboard for the dancing in the first place?

After waiting over twenty years for something truly artistic to happen balletically in Portland, that seed has now been planted -- a big statement of change has been made. We can hardly wait to see where OBT will be in the future, now, and in 5, 10, and 20 years!


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