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OBT Spring 2006 program


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I had the chance to see Oregon Ballet Theater in their spring program last week and wanted to make a few comments. I've seen the company off and on for several years and they seem to be making very steady progress in both technique and interpretation. Christopher Stowell has made some good repertory and casting choices, and these were the strongest performances I've seen from this group.

This show was a part of a Mozart festival including several Portland music, theater and dance ensembles -- as a programming “gimmick,” the single composer program can feel limiting, but Stowell managed to avoid that glitch by choosing a wide variety of styles. I imagine that he would have seriously considered Balanchine's “Divertimento 15” even if his mother wasn't available to stage it, but the ballet works extremely well as an opener. I know that the duets and variations can feel very exposed for the performers, but both casts I saw seemed confident and nuanced. Yuka Iino was especially fleet in the 6th variation, and to my eye there seemed to be a number of clear Petipa references (though I could be hallucinating a bit since she's scheduled to dance O/O in their upcoming “Swan Lake”)

Stowell worked with James Kudelka several times when he was still dancing with San Francisco Ballet, and said that the choreographer was his first thought when he was planning this lineup. “Almost Mozart” is Kudelka's first commission since leaving the artistic directorship of the National Ballet of Canada -- I don't know if this means that we'll see more of his work in the States, but this is a very powerful ballet whatever the circumstances. Stowell said that Kudelka was a bit miffed that the commission came with a pre-determined composer, which may be why he chose to use music very sparingly, and, for a ballet work, quite radically. He's working mostly with funeral music (excerpts from the Mauerische Trauermusik and the Piano Concerto #23) with a very direct emotional impact -- we know this is serious business by the end of the overture. Most of the dancing, a painstaking distillation of classical technique, happens in silence, with the rhythm and dynamic of the work coming directly from the movement rather than in combination with the score. The music is played in between the sections of dance, which had its awkward moments (sometimes the orchestra got overwhelmed by applause) I found myself listening very carefully to these entreacts, trying to identify any connections between the score and the dancing that followed. I don't think Kudelka was using any significantly post-modern structures (replicating harmonic or rhythmic patterns, reorganizing or re-ordering materials) but there were certainly evocative and emotional connections.

The work opens with a male duet that's all about testing how much you can do without really breaking your connection. The men are joined by a woman for a series of three trios, in each one she struggles to maintain her autonomy while they both help her extend her physical reach and seem to contain her. In a repeating theme the two men reach over her, hands clasped so that their arms are a circle. They “catch” her and release her, in a sequence that looks remarkably like double dutch jump rope. She climbs on them like a playground toy, spins around in the circle of their arms, and at the end of each trio, manages to separate the two men, breaking their hold on her and leaving her independent. The duet that follows is nominally more traditional since it's a man and a woman, but it stretches conventions as well (sometimes literally -- there is a strong push and pull structure involved) Kudelka tests our ability to sit still -- his use of sustained timing is intense, with a single develope taking up an entire phrase. The couple work more directly with the music, but their phrasing often extends beyond the shorter rhythmic patterns to make longer statements. The ballet ends with a solo that recapitulates some of the material from the earlier sections but the closing image, with a woman turning on pointe, arms wrapping and unwrapping around her torso, the flapping making a normally smooth turn into a syncopated action as the curtain comes down. The whole thing was beautiful, controlled and austere, with random wild moments, like the closing image, giving it an ominous feel. I saw this work twice and my second chance at it was richer than the first -- if I'd been able to see it again, I'm sure there would have been even more in it to learn.

Stowell closes the program with Lar Lubovitch's "Concerto Six Twenty-Two," an ensemble work that reflects the cheerful nature of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. OBT did a remarkably good job in what is essentially a modern dance work -- so often, when classically trained dancers perform the more weighted and swinging material in some modern dances they can't release their weight into the floor enough to get the dynamics right, but that wasn't the case here. The Lubovitch work is primarily known for its central duet, performed by two men, that is often pointed to as an example of two men dancing together in a supportive and tender fashion. It's the strongest section of the whole work -- it's flanked by two large group movements that are mostly about floor patterns and look very much like some of Paul Taylor's sunnier pieces. The duet is more challenging, both kinetically in its male/male partnering and in its emotional variations -- it's not just a “happy happy dancing” work. I saw Jon Drake and Ronnie Underwood in both performances and they've obviously worked hard to make the logistics of their partnering fluid -- they get far beyond the “hey, it's two guys” factor to a more direct kind of dancing with each other.

(tangentially, I thought it was interesting that there was two significant male duets on this program, and even more interesting that no one made much of a fuss about it)

Stowell seems to be working carefully to develop the company -- I'm not there often enough to know if these performances were the standard or a happy end of the run, but either way, they were excellent, and worth every minute of the 7+ hours I spent on the train to get there!

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Many thanks for your detailed review, sandik :clapping:

I wish I could have seen this program and the company. I agree that Stowell is doing a very impressive job of pairing repertoire and dancers and is growing his dancers through those choices.

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Seven and a half hours? That's dedication!

Thank you for supporting OBT, and thanks especially for that excellent description of the Spring program.

I saw three of the four performances, and I agree with your assessment of the program, the company, and the direction in which Christopher Stowell is taking it.

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