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'Traditions! Traditions!'

Oregon Ballet Theatre's 'Emerald Retrospective' Program

by Dean Speer

October 10, 2009 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland

Oregon Ballet Theatre was created in 1989 by a merger of two professional companies, Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre.  In celebration of its twentieth anniversary season, OBT gave us a program that commemorates its accomplishments, pays tribute to contributing artists of the past, and addresses its continuing artistic mission – to build on the platform of classical ballet by performing earlier works of significance, maintaining and adding to a stable of contemporary ballets, and commissioning new works.

This mission was well represented with the OBT premiere of Balanchine's "Emeralds," part one of the triptych known as "Jewels," precisely staged by Elyse Borne and neatly danced by the cast.

It was fun seeing Yuka Iino in the role first created by the French ballerina Violette Verdy and Alison Roper in the role first created by Mimi Paul, particularly the "walking duet." Ronnie Underwood and Artur Sultanov were their respective partners. All of the men looked sharp, including Chauncey Parsons (in the trio with Candace Bouchard and Ansa Deguchi) whose long, clean lines and technique are outstanding.

Following intermission, the program continued with ten excerpts chosen to demonstrate the breadth and variety of works that have been created for OBT over the past 20 years. Regrettably, no works by Founding Artistic Director James Canfield were included.

One of the best excerpts was from former Associate Artistic Director Dennis Spaight's "Gloria," which set a standard of both artistic and technical expression that whet our appetite. This kind of excerpt format often lends itself to providing opportunities for dancers of lesser rank to show their stuff, and this was true with the solo opening, passionately danced in an appropriate liturgical style by Leta Biasucci. When Brian Simcoe came charging in on coupé jetés, we knew we were in for good time.

While historically interesting, the excerpt from Dennis Spaight's "Ellington Suite" seemed too much of a light morceaux and seemed oddly misplaced on the program. Perhaps I would have better enjoyed an excerpt from another of his works. Nevertheless, the work showed off the range and abilities of the three performers – Candace Bouchard, Steven Houser, and Grace Shibley – very nicely.

The most choreographically surprising work to me was Trey McIntyre's "Speak," in which the movement palette is derived from hip-hop culture. While I do tend to think of his work in contemporary terms, I hadn't known that he did a hip-hop piece. Anne Mueller and Lucas Threefoot were perfect for strutting their stuff around. This genre falls into what the great music comedienne and satirist Anna Russell used to call "The Angry Young Man School." My gaggle of friends liked the movement and its fine execution but not the words of the "song."

The evening's most exquisitely performed duet was Yuri Possokhov's "La Valse," set to the adagio movement from Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. Lovely and rightly paired were Gavin Larsen and Artur Sultanov, who were elegance and romance-at-arms-length personified.  This was the evening's only work performed to much-missed live music, nicely and strongly played by Carol Rich and Susan DeWitt Smith at two pianos, one taking the orchestral reduction and the other the piano solo.

One of Christopher Stowell's best pieces of showcase choreography that I have yet seen is his cleverly titled "Rose City Waltz" featuring oodles of young and beautifully trained talent from the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre. Clear in his assignment, Stowell smartly deployed the students, showing them off to best advantage. The older men were especially impressive – strong and clean with good elevation and no problems doing double tours en l'air and various beats. The women were also clean, energetic in their attack and the audience held no fear for them (a good thing).

Already a major artist when she migrated north from San Francisco Ballet, it's such a pleasure to see Kathi Martuza being given assignments that tap into her considerable experience and also expand her development. Paired with someone who also does not allow himself to be static, Ronnie Underwood, in James Kudelka's "Almost Mozart," was a lesson in the spare and understated. Kudelka had given himself the task of creating a ballet where the couple never lets go of each other. It's one of his most impressive and lovely pieces.

Stowell's other representative group creation was the scherzo from his full-length "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He demonstrates his ability to move large groups of dancers around effectively. This can be one of the most daunting things for ballet choreographers to master and some avoid it completely, taking the easy way out by mostly doing only solos, duets, and small ensemble works. Here he fearlessly tackles both moving the story line forward and making entertaining dances.

Yuka Iino and Chauncey Parsons as Titania and Oberon were equally effective. Parsons is technically on a par with Iino, and it was nice to see their characters – which naturally have a push/pull relationship – push each other to achieve more. Already impressing me as a "puckish" kind of good-natured person, Steven Houser was in his rightful element as the impish Puck. This young dancer has what it takes – pride, good technique, and an ability to easily immerse himself into his parts.

I’ve enjoyed Julia Adam’s work ever since I first saw one of her pieces for San Francisco Ballet. Her “Il Nodo” for OBT shows the kind of imagination and in this case, whimsy, that I associate with her canon. I believe we were treated to the last section of the work – I’d have to see the whole ballet again to be sure – which concludes with the image of a marionette being freed from his cords and floating off with two others, each holding balloons. Delightful was Brennan Boyer in the part made for Kester Cotton, along with the irrepressible Anne Mueller and Adrian Fry. Boyer has a similar build to Cotton – compact with super strong technique and in particular, a nice elevation and sense of “ballon.”

Very much in the modern dance vein is the selection from Bebe Miller’s “A Certain Depth of Heart, Also Love,” a work from the early ‘90s. I thought it was daring and a bit audacious to use two of OBT’s primo stars as the couple – Alison Roper and Artur Sultanov. Each handled their assignment quite well, again showing the range of which OBT’s dancers are capable.

Concluding the evening was the last section of what I consider to be Stowell’s “breakthrough” large-scale work, the Cole Porter song driven “Eyes On You.” Set to a medley based on the classic, “Anything Goes,” it’s an energetic romp where each featured couple – Mueller, Houser, Martuza, Underwood, Larsen, and Fry are backed up by eight more. When the single row of movie theatre seats is quickly rolled in and the cast flops in them as the backdrop projects “The End,” it’s truly a sigh that lets out from us as the evening finished all too quickly.

I must note that Linda Besant's lively, well-researched and thought-out pre-performance talks, combined with two video montages that were shown at the top of each half were especially informative, heart-felt and welcome. About 50 former OBT dancers were on hand, and hearing them react – cheering, clapping, and laughing during these was truly enjoyable for the rest of us.

Portland is a city that's going places. New streetcar lines downtown, restoration and use of historic trolleys, a new tram that connects the Willamette waterfront to the Oregon Health & Science University, and a ballet company that is celebrating a well-deserved milestone anniversary. Continuing to hold and rise to new artistic heights and standards each season, OBT, like so many, is challenged by these hard economic times, and one of the best ways for all to support it is to go to the shows. Buy tickets, perhaps a subscription [and maybe donate a little cash], and lend our hearts, eyes, and ears to these important organizations that, in the long-run, contribute so much.

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