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Masters & Moderns


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Masters & Moderns, the final program of Christopher Stowell’s inaugural season finished with a flourish. Beginning with Christopher Wheeldon’s ’s There Where She Loved thru Ashton’s Facade, the evening explored the couple or at times just plain coupling.

The Wheeldon had a well thought out series of quartets and pas and dissolving trios having in common a close partnering, the female lifted and twisted, hung and slung against and around the man’s torso, such intimate intricacies suddenly broken with huge swirling battements as if the woman’s body were both clinging to and at the same time yearning to break free. As to be expected, Wheeldon provided some stunningly creative moments such as a female suspended by four men, each pressing a single hand to her ribcage. What was missing for me in the dancing was the archetypal stillness, the gaze of wonder or sweet confusion that Wheeldon’s work requires. There’s a thoughtfulness, a conscious working out of some great puzzle. In another choreographer’s hands this might lead to cerebral dullness, but Wheeldon always seems to find a way to struggle through the thought process to a danced resolution- whatever that may be. In his dances we are creatures, but we are magnificent creatures.

Well danced by all, but especially Gavin Larsen, who alone seemed to project that stillness within movement that allows a piece like this to softly attain a deeper level.

While I appreciated the well played & sung songs of Chopin & Weill, the lyrics laid heavily on the dance. “Ich leibe dich soooo” was already being danced: we didn’t need to be told.

Every evening at OBT this year has had a pleasant surprise. This time it was Julia Adam’s dramatic black & white composition il nodo .

A short length of chain suddenly drops from hands: a foreshadowing of ropes, strings and other stretchy things which would become bracelets, necklaces, chess boards, harnesses, marionette strings, Kabbalistic stars, maypole ribbons, streamer forests, jump rope and even a noose. Sounds gimmicky doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. One never felt it was “playing with props” because the dance itself was propelled by an urgent need to meet, couple, dominate, gather, hold on and let go. All so refreshingly explored within an aesthetic of baroque hieroglyphs. Entertaining, intelligent and brave.

Duo Concertant: Ah, the happy, healthy couple: serene, secure, playful in their love and admiration for each other. In an evening that charted the skirmishes that make up the battle of the sexes this piece gave comfort midst the discomfort, ease midst the dis-ease. Every couple onstage prior to Duo were attempts to attain the mature serenity of the couple standing by the piano.

Duo was on TV a mere 4 days ago, not long enough to fade the memory of Boree & Boal’s extraordinary NYCB Gala performance. But Kathi Martuzza provided a fascinating contrast, displaying a coy grace belied by her innate physical power. Her line, extensions and speed are prodigious. Yvonne Boree made you believe the happiness by the piano was forever. One felt Martuzza‘s happiness, though equally authentic, would not last: that she is meant for greater things. Artur Sultanov suffered by contrast not only with Peter Boal (who woudn’t?) but also with Martuzza. He’s a very gifted but wildly coltish dancer.

Finally Façade: What a joy! Keep in mind that Alexander Grant and Margaret Barbieri, Ashton’s own, set this playful jewel on the company (See OBT thread: Revering Ashton) and it shows. I love Ashton’s character dances and that’s all this is: a pastiche of polkas. foxtrots, tangos, Ma Fille-like rusticana, Highland flings and just plain flings. Halcyon Salad days chaps in boaters, a giggly gaggle of confectionery schoolgirls. Everyone’s on vacation: so let’s fall in love! As always, beyond clever: Ashton’s caricatures even as you smile (or double over with laughter) vibrate with importance. In this case the title Façade hangs like a sword over the dance. These characters are false fronts; though carefully constructed to withstand the social wind, their identity is a kind of armor (an arm is a sword, crossed arms a castle wall). Sir Freddy has served the audience a big seven layer cake dripping with pink and white frosting, but as we greedily devour the whole lovely gooey thing, there’s a slightly sickening feeling: this is false, this is not real food; there’s nothing under the frosting but a rather cynical lesson in perceived persona. And yet you sit there smiling, frosting on your nose and chin. Loving every moment.

Danced exuberantly if not always cleanly. There’s literally a lot of wiggle room in the choreography. Karl Vakili & Kester Cotton stood out in a British Music Hall revue parody.

A brilliantly conceived evening of dance-making. so well balanced that Moderns Wheeldon and Adam seemed equals to Masters Balanchine & Ashton.. A bold, bright finish to Christopher Stowell’s first season..



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Anyone else go? I think I remember some SFB or PNB fans indicate they might make the trip to see the rarely performed Facade. Adam's il nodo will be a marvelous surprise: you'll have lots to talk about on the return trip!

For a company that's rising this fast, it's gettin' kinda lonely on this board...

De-lurking and disagreeing is cordially welcomed.

What did you think of Bob Hicks' Oregonian review? We certainly parted ways on the Wheeldon, but I agree with most of his other comments.


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I know there are Closet Oregonians here, Watermill. Eventually they'll come out.

Thank you for taking the time to write in such detail -- for those of us who are interested in this company, it's wonderful to be able to read about it.

COME ON, CLOSET OREGONIANS -- or Ballet Travelers. What did you think?

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I went to opening night (on a kind of busman's holiday). I'd only seen the company once before, but felt they were better served with this program, and in turn they served the dances well.

The Wheeldon felt a bit episodic to me, tick-tocking between Chopin and Weill. About a third of the way through he repeats a bit chunk of the choreography, including a very striking lift sequence -- what had been done to Chopin was now done to Weill. It's an interesting structural device, but this time around I don't think it showed anything different either about the music or about the movement, and since he didn't really follow up on it with anything similar I wondered why he made that choice.

Julia Adam's work was indeed very bright, with about 3 times more ideas than she had space and opportunity to work out. She could have cut the piece in half, and really explored just those elements or "tricks" for the whole of the time, and still had more to play with. Although it had a couple of ragged moments on opening night, it's a witty and stylish piece, and would certainly be worth seeing again. I hadn't seen her work before, so this was a welcome introduction.

"Facade" was the reason I made the trip, and I was so pleased to see it again. It's such a cheery pastiche of popular music and dance that it's easy to overlook the structure, but like Petipa, it has a kind of satisfying regularity to the phrasing and vocabulary -- it was a treat.

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THnaks for your posts --

it's VERY interesting, and such good news to hear that it's giong well artistifcally - -sounds like you've gotten some food for hte soul this season......

and of course, folks down here in SanFrancisco are eager to hear how Kath\leen Martuzza and Kester Cotton are doing, and how Adam's new piece is made, and how it went over.....

I'd love to hear more......

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I saw "Masters & Moderns" this afternoon. It was depressing to see how few people were in the theater. I don't think the orchestra of the small, jewel-box Newmark Theater was half full, and there were only about two dozen people in the 1st Balcony (middle level). I was horribly jealous that this program wasn't presented by PNB, so that I could see it another handful of times. I wonder if it was friends and family day, or if Company and school members were in the audience making a lot of noise, to distract from the empty theater.

Before the performance, Christopher Stowell came onstage, looking appropriately Pacific Northwest rumpled. He explained that he had chosen the Newmark Theatre over Keller Auditorium for this program because of the "intimate nature" of the ballets and the theater, and because there were "meaty, dramatic roles in the ballets." He announced that the Company has started to list casting a week in advance -- casting is on the OBT "News" page on their website (requires Adobe reader) -- and that showing proof of purchase to any performance, tickets to additional performances are 50% off for the rest of the run. (Ugh, why is Seattle hours away?) He suggested that audience members use the offer to see a different cast. He also mentioned the school performance -- this Tuesday and Wednesday -- and the choreographers on the program: Balanchine (Concerto Barocco), Robbins (Circus Polka), Mosley (When I Close My Eyes), himself (Rose City Waltz), and Lew Christensen (Con Amore). Quite an ambitious program. Stowell has definitely jumped straight into the deep end.

I've never seen a Christopher Wheeldon ballet, so I don't know if There Where She Loved was a repeat of his other ballets or an original response to the music, but in all but the second dance, Weill's "Surabaya-Johnny," it felt like the latter. My dislike of the movement was two-fold: the soprano soloist sang it like an opera singer; she sounded shrill and fake to me when she tried for the occasional Lotte Lenya affect, and the tone of the music and dance was unlike any of the other pieces, which were more or less in the same universe. To me, it stuck out like a sore thumb, compared to the three Chopin pieces, Weill's "Nana's Lied," which was sung and choreographed like a Schumann art song, and his "Je Ne T'Aime Pas," which sounded as if Edith Piaf was singing a French art song and looked like the great piano ballet role that Robbins never choreographed for Stephanie Saland. It was a nice stroke of casting, though, to bypass the obvious choice and to have the Chopin pieces sung by rich-voiced mezzo soprano Milagro Vargas, and the Weill pieces sung by bright-voiced soprano Brenda Baker.

The first dance, to Chopin's "The Wish," had a women suspended overhead among four men who came and went, which she remained aloft in various shapes for most of the movement. It had an occasional partnering glitch, as did the third dance, Chopin's "Spring." In the first Karl Vakili, a short dancer, was cast with three tall men, and height differential led to a couple of bobbles, as groups of three men passed Tracy Taylor among them. In "Spring" Vakili didn't seem to be quite where Hasstedt was expecting him. I don't think it's a matter of strength; forget about a "V;" Vakili is shaped like a "W." For a shorter man, he has neither fallen nor been pushed into the jester trap. While he has lightness, he also has gravity through the groundedness of his plie. It's nice that he was given "real" partnering roles, even if they weren't a complete success, because he dances with a wonderful balance of drama and lyricism. I think OTB would do well to find him a shorter partner (and not a soubrette).

I mention Robbins not because I think Wheeldon is copying Robbins, but because I felt like this ballet inhabits the same world. I found more resonance, inevitability, and satisfaction in There Where She Loved than in Robbins' Chopin piano ballets, from which I've always walked away thinking that there was something missing and/or contrived. I think Wheeldon's ballet built as it went along, and Gavin Larsen's performance in "Je Ne T'Aime Pas" may have been the most dramatic tour de force I've ever seen and for the very quality of stillness that Watermill described so beautifully. She was riveting. Poor Arthur Sultanov looked out of his league as her romantic partner, and he's a dancer whom I've seen have a lot of presence and character.

Julia Adam's il nodo was set to Renaissance dances (taped) by various composers, and the tone of the dancing was rather light and mostly social. I wish I could read more of the notes I scribbed in the dark about the ballet. I can't give a movement by movement description, but I'll try to describe those parts I can remember or decypher. The ballet opened with a eight dancers that were in faux "Commedia" costumes -- period-ish and updated -- holding small ropes. (If I remember correctly, mostly in black, white, and grey.) While the first piece didn't quite grab me -- a little too much in unison, maybe -- the second did. After the dancers toss their individual ropes into the orchestra pit, they then picked up a single, long piece of rope from upstage, which they, as a group, tied to form a giant loop. What was striking was how as each dancer in turn danced in and out of the circle they created with the loop, the movement was very controlled, with no fancy rope tricks. They then went from a circle into a square, and while keeping the integrity of the square, the dancers picked up the inventiveness of movement, yet did not become intertwined in the rope. They then repeated the pattern by making what I first expected: a series of complex cat's cradle type configurations, eventually paring down the partipants so that the entire rope was wrapped around one of the women. This is where the only noticeable glitch was; the man in the white Commedia outfit stood downstage center and, blocking the woman, bent over with his butt to the audience and made some awkward adjustments to the rope. I got the impression that this was the intention, but it looked sloppy to me. One part -- I can't remember which, but it was towards the beginning -- ended with an audience nightmare moment: one dancer was pushed off the stage apron! (onto a mattress in the orchestra pit). That the invisible border of the stage was trespassed took me by surprise.

On Thursday night I saw 33 Fainting Spells perform a piece called Our Little Sunbeam, so the theme of relationships and the glue that binds them or is missing was still spinning around in my thoughts. In one part of il nodo, there is a pas de deux in which the man's and woman's torsos are tied together with a mangled mess of rope or ribbon. The dance moved fluidly to actual holds and body contact between the dancers, and other times, the woman was held up by the ribbon attached to them both. Maybe because the theme was foremost in my mind it looked to me like a picture of how at any given moment a couple can be together because they are actively engaged with and intensely focused on one another, and a moment later, how they can separate a bit, yet be tied to one another by more delicate, but still binding, attachments.

One part had four long scarf-like ties coming from the flys to the stage. The male Commedia figure began as a marionette, but as he was freed from the ties --which were flown up offstage -- he went back and forth between the habitual movements he had done as a marionette to new, freer movement, all the while staying in a relatively confined space, despite no visible barriers to the rest of the stage. The last section had a series of similar hanging scarves and all of the dancers on stage, but I really don't remember much else about it.

I attended a seminar this past week in which Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz described basic conducting technique to a lay audience. After demonstrating hand movements, he then held a baton in an attentive about-to-start position, and he pointed out how he had to hold the "free" end of the baton with his other hand; otherwise, there would be a perceptible shake, which the orchestra would interpret as a signal to start. Anne Mueller, who danced Duo Concertante had a similar type of extraneous movement; there was a bit of "noise" around the movements in her legs as she went from position to position and shape to shape. I found this distracting. Her arms, too, are rather spiky, and this detracted from the last movement, when the spotlight is on her arms and face. It wasn't a bad or distorted intepretation, but I don't think she showed a lot of strength in this program. (I want PNB to get this ballet for Kaori Nakamura.) This was a wonderful role for Karl Vakili, her partner, who caught the rhythms and shapes beautifully, and who used his lovely arms to great effect, especially in the last movement. His height was a factor here only because I'm use to tall men being cast in the role. Violinist Margaret Bichteler played terrifically, although, to my dismay, she was miked. (When she turned the page, there was a big "crackle" sound.) Carol Rich was a fine partner on piano, as she was in Wheeldon's piece.

Facade closed the program. In "Scotch Rhapsody" Anne Mueller looked flawed dancing the same steps as Erika Cole; she had the same "buzz" around her limbs as in Duo Concertante, and she seemed rather sunk in at the waist. [Edited to add: (None of this was noticeable when she danced "There Where She Loves," in a long contemporary dress; she was fluid and lovely in that piece, which may be her core rep. I only realized that it was Mueller when I was logging the cast in my performance list.)] By comparison, Cole's movements were simple and pure, her turnout was lovely, she was beautifully lifted from the waist, and her upper body was soft, free, and here upper and lower body movements were perfectly in proportion to each other. (She struck me as a dancer who could dance Bournonville as well as Ashton.) I was so taken by her that I ignored Kester Cotton in his only role of the afternoon. "Swiss Jodelling Song" was clever and very funny, and Kathi Martuza was crisp, engaging, and generally marvellous in the "Polka" movement. I think the "Foxtrot" was where Facade kind of lost me; I didn't find any of the movement from then on compelling, nor the characters remotely interesting, with the exception of Artur Sultanov's amusingly oily gigolo in "Tango-Pasodouble." Even he couldn't bring me back in entirely, except to be glad it was over. I think I may be sense-of-humor impaired. [Edited to add:] Doug Fullington wrote an article called "Frederic Ashton and Facade" for the program.

But the program on the whole was well worth eight hours of train ride to see it, and if I didn't have a day job, I'd gladly do it again.

If anyone saw/will see any of Gavin Larsen's performances of Duo Concertante (with Artur Sultanov), I'd appreciate it if you'd post your impressions of it.

Edited by hockeyfan228
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Thank you for your detailed review, Helene. I braved the crowds on the early morning train to Portland (where I spotted Kent Stowell and Francia Russell on the long check-in line--coach, not even business class!) to take in the matinee yesterday afternoon. I found myself agreeing with much of what you had to say. In general, I don't think that OTB has yet found the dancers to live up to the ambitiousness of its programming, but here's hoping that the exposure to challenging choreography and good coaching helps them to grow. At present I feel that Gavin Larsen is the most accomplished artist in the company. I was also sad to see such poor attendance. I wasn't anticipating any difficulty in getting a ticket to the performance, but I rarely have seen a theatre so empty. And it wasn't exactly a gorgeous day outside either. The discount offer suggests that attendance hasn't been all that great. Have Portlanders been supporting the company this season?

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Nyala, Last weekend's houses were pretty good, and the previous programs have been quite well attended. Don't quite know how to account for it, except I have noticed that when the nice weather arrives, after 5 months of endless rain, Portlanders fairly burst out of the city to the coast and lakes and mountains.
Sorry that none of our visitors were able to see Yuka Iino... healing from an injury.
I heard that Mr. Stowell has let go six dancers, has taken a couple of apprentices up into company, and will be hiring. The company should improve with every year.

Helene & sandik: thanks for sharing. It deepens my own critical thinking to hear from other ballet goers with such tasteful insights. How wonderful of you all to have made the trip. Hope it was worth it, if only to compare with next year.
Now if we could only haul Paul Parish up here...

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