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Doing The Ballet Hustle

Eugene Ballet's 'Swan Lake'

by Dean Speer

February 14 , 2009 -- Eugene, Oregon

One of the delights in taking Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Seattle, Washington to Eugene, Oregon is the train’s full-service dining car with its white, but now organic, tablecloths and yummy menu. It’s a chance to relax and visit with strangers, enjoying the view and company. My tablemates were a high school secretary and her husband of 40 years as well as a 15 year-old young con artist. I know this as the teen presented himself as a sleeping car passenger, yet at the end of the meal, he went the wrong way – opposite from where the sleeping car passengers would have come from and returned to. He also had trouble “remembering” his car number and the name of the staff member assigned to it, which he cleverly “prompted” the waiter to supply. A non-stop “Chatty Kathy,” he hustled up plenty of things to talk about over his barely eaten hamburger. I almost called him on his gimmick, tempted to point out to him, “Uh, the sleeping cars are the other way...” when he left, but I let it slide, not wanting to spoil the ride from Seattle to Eugene for me or my tablemates who were oblivious. The encounter was an unexpected preview to the performance I was soon to see.

One of ballet’s most formidable con artists is Odile, the Black Swan of Act III “Swan Lake” who mesmerizes hapless Prince Siegfried into believing she is actually the pure and innocent Odette with whom this noble has already pledged his love. The actual mechanics of this spell are the 32 fouettés that dazzle our hero during their pas de deux. Of course, this successful deception is only discovered after he swears eternal love to her, thus breaking his vow to Odette.

Fear not in this Soviet-era “happy” ending production. Using his birthday gift of a crossbow, Siegfried shoots Odile’s father, the magician sorcerer Rothbart, breaking Odette’s bird/woman curse and the two lovers get to live a storybook joyful conclusion.

The South African husband and wife team of Denise Schultze and Louis Godfrey staged this version of “Swan Lake” for Eugene Ballet. The Godfreys are known for the integrity of their work and productions, this one being no exception. I enjoyed an earlier iteration of this specific production staged for Ballet West many years ago. One of the neater touches is how the corps of swans rises out of the Act IV fog bank, seeming to come from nowhere.

Artistic Director Toni Pimble is to be praised for pulling a small ballet miracle, as this ballet is typically done by much larger companies, yet Eugene Ballet never seemed spare or bare – either in terms of numbers or of quality. I would only lobby for live music, perhaps accompanied by someone(s) at a grand piano if a full orchestra is not in the budget cards right now. I overheard some audience members behind and around me fuss that they felt “gypped” not having the orchestra they had enjoyed at Nutcracker time. Praising the advantages of having live music is a little like preaching to the choir, except to say that probably the most important thing is that it allows a ballet and its production to breathe, which is not possible when dancing to a fixed and unchanging tape. It also “warms” the house and lifts the production out of itself.

Principal Dancer Jennifer Martin as the dual Odette/Odile let her interpretation breathe as much as she could. An experienced senior member of the Eugene Ballet, and now also acting as the troupe’s ballet mistress, she has a wide range that’s reflected in EB’s repertory: ballets that go from the hip “Pink Martini” to those based on Northwest Indian legends, to “Dracula,” and to the classics such as this one.

Making his Siegfried debut was a new Cuban-trained company member, the elegant Leoannis Pupo-Guillen, whom I must note like so many of his male compatriots that I’ve seen, is a left-turner. He is also a very strong technician – double cabrioles to the back and multiple pirouettes being no problem. Shorter than Martin – but no less of stature – he had no trouble partnering her and was able to keep up artistically. Experience in this part, which he will gain through multiple performances over the course of years, will only abet his maturity.

Excellent and tight ensemble work cut through all levels – from the 12 corps and “big” swans of Act II’s lakeside scene to the character dances of the ballroom setting of Act III. One staging difference to note is the entrance of the swans. In many productions they come on in a limpid way, low hopping their arabesque, emboité motif but in this one, they employed a full-out flying sauté arabesque with a very vigorous jump for the emboité.

Speaking of the character dances of Act III, each were quite good and as authentically done as possible: character shoes for Spanish (hurray!) and a superb costume for the sole, female, Russian number. Too often dancers, who sometimes do not personally like having to do character dancing either fake their way through them or don’t look entirely under the skin of the dance. Here, Eugene Ballet’s dancers were robust and energetic, allowing this to show in their faces and carriage. These dancers looked comfortable.

Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero’s Jester was a fun “jinxter.” His elevation and many turns won the audience’s applause numerous times. My only suggestion is a costume one – to change the color of his character boots to match that of his tights. Many times, such as with his split sissonne jumps to the side, the “line” of his legs would seem to disappear and get cut off at his ankles rather than the eye continuing all the way to and beyond the ends of his toes. Having a single color/tone all along his leg would lengthen his line.

I enjoyed the many bits of acting that the company as a whole brought to each act. For instance, the many princesses who are brought to be considered for Siegfried’s hand in Act III’s ballroom scene, while being purposely dressed in nearly identical outfits to suggest their bland sameness, nevertheless showed some spark and individual personality as each was rejected by the prince and appalled when Odile made her very theatrical entrance. In a couple of cases, there was instant bonding and gossiping.

Sara Lombardi, from Eugene Ballet Academy, gave a nice turn as The Queen. “Swan Lake” is one of those classic ballets that allows for ranges of ages and experiences. In one of the traditions of the theatre, Lombardi, a former dancer with the company, has moved into character parts.

Worth the 700 mile round trip to see, Eugene Ballet is a 21-member company that is rightly and proudly celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The program book had the edges of many pages lined with historic photographs of productions past that gave everyone a nice perspective on the company’s history, providing an overview of its repertory and perhaps a glimpse of things to come in the next decade.


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