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Oregon Ballet Theatre - 'Ash,' 'The Rite of Spring,' 'Lambarena'

by Dean Speer

February 28, 2009 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

The concluding message from a recent letter, addressing current economic issues, by the president of my alma mater states in part, “ experience the artistic promise of the next generation is not only healing...but inspiring.” I might have reversed that to say that this promise is not only inspiring but healing, which is certainly a comforting message in today’s climes.

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s recent program provided that much needed balm. Never the less, I should note that in the interest of full disclosure and support, both the pre-performance presenter and then later in a curtain-warmer welcome speech by OBT’s board chair and its artistic head, each emphasized that now is the time to financially support and bolster OBT – the message being to act now, rather than to hear down the road that the ballet had suffered or closed down because help didn’t come in time since nobody knew.

Back to the healing message of its product – the ballets themselves. The heart of the bill was a new production of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” with choreography by Christopher Stowell, with the assistance of Anne Mueller who was also one of its central figures.

While touted as not following the original narrative structure, it never the less does follow the structure of the music and clearly shows ritual, perhaps not one of literally dancing a sacrificial victim to their demise, but one that’s obvious in its primal intentions and source. Masses swirl around and seem to worship (?) each of the two central couples: Mueller partnered by Adrian Fry and later Grace Shibley paired with Artur Sultanov.

This music, along with the composer’s “Firebird” are both what I’d call “problem” ballets leftover from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. I have seen the original Fokine choreography to “Firebird” along with many subsequent iterations and a handful of choreographic versions of “Rite,” yet I’ve found none that are completely satisfying, and I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps the music doesn’t need visuals; just the music itself is all that is required to suggest a narrative or perfume the atmosphere. It’s ironic that the most satisfying version of “Rite” to date for me is Disney’s “Fantasia” movie – of the volatile geographic spasms of the earth itself and of the dying dinosaurs. This may be a ballet that’s impossible to realize one hundred percent on the live stage.

Yet “Rite” is an exciting and strong choreographic showcase for the company. It’s one of Stowell’s best. An added bonus was being able to enjoy the original two piano version played by Carol Rich and Susan Dewitt Smith.

“Rite” was bookended by Peter Martins’ expansive “Ash” and another ritual-rich dance – “Lambarena” by Northwest native son Val Caniparoli. Each were well received by an adoring and informed audience who filled Keller Auditorium. Presumably they, like me, are attracted by OBT’s increasingly lofty and artistic programs, interpreted by beautiful and dedicated dancers, and enabled by a talented staff of artists.

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