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Oregon Ballet Theatre -- 'Left Unsaid,' 'Tarantella,' 'Hush' and 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude'

by Dean Speer

25 April 2009 -- Newmark Theatre, Portland

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s latest program left me in a conundrum – how to write a fair review that’s supportive yet expresses clearly my impression of an evening that had fabulous dancing and some good pieces but constituted a challenging programming that didn’t always show off each element to its best advantage.

Selecting ballets to be performed is one important step in the process but just as important is when, how, and in what order to present them. James Kudelka’s premiere of “Hush” suffered by being on the tail end. It may be that he specifically requested it go there or was given this prestige slot in deference to his choreographic oeuvre, but given its length of about over 30 minutes and its kinetic style, it ended up being a hard work to sit through. Artistic Director Christopher Stowell didn’t really have any one work this time that could be categorized as a “closer” with perhaps the opening work by William Forsythe, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” being an exception.

Overall, the Forsythe piece and a newly acquired Nicolo Fonte work – the second work on the bill – were the strongest.

“Left Unsaid” by Fonte, to a tape of unaccompanied Bach violin works, was impressive in its very inventive and creative partnerings in various numbers. My only fuss would be, that even in this current economic downturn climate, it would have been much better to have had this work accompanied by the lone violinist it would have required. In terms of his musical selection, Fonte too would have strengthened his piece more by selecting fewer adagio/legato movements from the Bach works and inserting more allegro. The pacing ended up dull when it didn’t need to. This piece did take off but needed a better landing pad.

“Vertiginous” is a thrill partly because Forsythe had the good sense not to tamper with the music, which then naturally informed choreographic structure and pacing. The adoring public was easily able to follow the line of the choreography and we all knowingly and happily sighed when the cast each “took” fifth position for its conclusion.

I surprised myself by finding that Balanchine’s duet morceau, “Tarantella,” never totally took off for me. Several times I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is going to be great!” and then not getting the goose bumps I was hoping for. Why? Perhaps it was the recording that, maybe through adjustments for tempi, pauses, and cues, or age was so distorted that it was way off pitch [shouldn’t the music director listen to these things first?] that it was very hard to listen to. Even if it’s the “official” recording from the Balanchine Trust, it needs to be chucked. Again, I find myself advising, please use the piano rehearsal version of the score – with someone at the keyboard. We can live without a full orchestra but suffering through a poor recording is not my idea of a good time.

I’m all for giving company artists opportunities – we all need them, definitely – but have to wonder if the piece might have had more “Wow!” if it had been danced by senior company members. The cast – Julia Rowe and Javier Ubell – did a very good job; smiling hard, dancing even harder and expending lots of energy and faithfully executing the steps. Yet for all of that (and it’s considerable), it somehow never quite jelled.

“Hush” had all the elements of a really good ballet – live new music by a Canadian composer for two different kinds of harps (one Celtic and the other pedal), an inspired heavenly theme, the stars of the company, a big cast, and movement made by one of Canada’s most famous contemporary choreographers.

Yet Kudelka’s kinetic movement palette was too evenly paced – mostly at a ‘walking’ tempo. We are advised that he was trying to show the arch of human life, and that’s a fine hook. The weakest section was the one for the men who are joined by three veiled women and basically all the men are given to do are endless sideways grapevine and tombé, pas de bourée patterns with essentially the only variation being whether they were facing upstage or down and moving stage left or right. Oh, dear.

He concludes with the entire cast coming on from upstage left and making three columned lines to the front, with the middle one receding to the back, fed by the two outside lines until all have passed through.

I keep finding myself saying that what choreographers need probably beyond anything else – other than divine inspiration and the ability of craft – are mentors who will provide compositional feedback. Composers and playwrights benefit and enjoy this and it’s a process that is expected nearly every time through readings, informal workshop performances, and subsequent rewrites and edits. Perhaps dance doesn’t have that luxury of time, but it sure would be nice to be able to tweak pieces as they are actually seen on stage. I know from personal experience it’s very hard to envision what your work will look like on stage...and sometimes you don’t truly know until it’s actually up on the boards.

Outstanding were the entire cast of “Vertiginous” – Candace Bouchard, Daniela DeLoe, Kathi Martuza, Brennan Boyer, and Adrian Fry. Each performance with aplomb and just the right amount of gusto this exciting work demands. Ditto for “Left Unsaid’s” cast of DeLoe, powerhouse Anne Mueller, Yuka Iino, Artur Sultanov (who just keeps getting better), Brian Simcoe, and Steven Houser.

Gavin Larsen and Chauncey Parsons brought their respective grace and elegance to the second section of “Hush.” Larsen is a class act and I believe that Parsons is a very good match for her, and perhaps this delightful pairing will be done more frequently in the future.

One of the most arresting moments of the evening occurred when Fry and Mueller came in front of the curtain to make an “ask” of the audience. From a few gasps, it was apparent that some had not yet heard that OBT is facing difficult financial times – even as subscriptions are on the rise as is its artistic standard – and has made a planned, deep budget cut for its 2009-10 season, principally cutting the OBT Orchestra from the run of “Nutcracker,” among other measures.

Both were well spoken and prepared, Mueller being particularly sharp-witted, engaging and fun. They enumerated ways in which the public can support OBT – by being vocal advocates, by subscribing, and by making a financial commitment. Hopefully, through a combination of these, OBT will not only ride the economic waves but rise above them to ascendancy that will bring calm to its future, vibrancy to its cluster of constituents, and bolster its important contribution to Portland’s cultural life.

“Left Unsaid” was a program danced beautifully and one that caused spirited discourse and discussion, which can be an important outcome of the arts. And in this, OBT’s April repertory bill was very successful, which leaves me looking forward to returning in June for its “Rush and Robbins” concluding offering of this season.

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