Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon; June 15, 2013

Dean Speer

Seeing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artists perform Aria II from the Balanchine “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” brought back fond memories. Each year I’d ask Pacific Northwest Ballet for a couple to guest perform on our Spring recital for the Chehalis Ballet Center where we used what was then a 169 seat venue at Centralia College. The theatre had a good sized stage with ample wings and backstage area. Each time, they brought a different and contrasting pas de deux with them – to which we were fortunate to have our students and their families exposed – to the ballet itself and to the standard these lovely dancers brought, which we always did with a good, local accompanist, often making use of a piano reduction. Bournonville’s “Flower Festival” was one. Another was one of the duets from “Chaconne” and, then to my great delight and surprise, Aria II.

We felt so honored to be the lucky recipients of this gift. The timing was ripe as PNB had been rehearsing and preparing for its own premiere of this monumental work, and one aspect of our gift was that the actual NW premiere of this duet occurred, not on the great stages of Europe or Seattle, but on a modest stage in rural Lewis County, Washington with a very appreciative audience.

I was initially a little concerned that it might be a little too contemporary for our audience but they ate it up instead, responding to the impressive blend of choreography, music, and performances of Alejandra Bronfman and Benjamin Houk – who generously also gave an extra run-through just so the students themselves could sit out in the house and see it.

I was just as impressed — and then some — with Oregon Ballet Theatre’s recent June All-Balanchine program at Keller Auditorium in Portland. A big year of change for OBT on many fronts, this wonderful and memorable program told me how far OBT has come in the last decade and gave us much hope for its future. It opened with what I consider to be Mr. Balanchine’s sunniest creation, his 1957 “Square Dance,” this time done without the caller, as they had when OBT first did it in 2011. Not having the caller gives the ballet a different feel and look, a bit like comparing apples and oranges as aptly put by pre-performance Perspective lecturer Linda Besant [whom we will greatly miss in this role, as she steps down to focus solely on archiving and chronicling OBT’s first quarter decade].

It was a joy seeing Julia Rowe and Chauncey Parsons in the same lead parts they did two years ago. If anything, Rowe in particular has grown not just in technical ability (hers is always superb) but with phrasing each bit and truly happily commanding the stage. Parsons has beautiful line, carriage, and the speed of flight with which this part demands from the get go.

The middle work was one of Balanchine’s few narrative ballets, his 1929 “Prodigal Son” set to a score written especially for it by Prokofiev. I truly enjoy this ballet – and how its ending is just perfect; the opposite of what’s stated in The Bible. In this case, the Prodigal crawls across the stage on his knees – in repentance/remorse – and goes to his father and up into his arms, the father then caresses him and taking him back into their home. Always a great theatrical moment and one that is very moving. In complete contrast to his part in the previous ballet, Parsons as the Prodigal showed us how well and deeply he can act, going from young and naive to beaten, broken, and desolate, seeking home and peace and the love only a family can provide.

Alison Roper as The Siren was eerily effective as a femme fatale who initially shows great reluctance to engage [kneeling and beating herself on the back and chest] but who is ultimately pulled into the same web she uses to ensnare the Prodigal as he’s seduced and robbed, and more or less left for dead.

Created as one of the many new ballets done for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” is a tart and visually interesting ballet that has fast, intricate footwork and steps and complex partnering. Here it was Roper’s turn to show contrast from siren to contemporary ballerina. She and Grace Shibley shared the two lead female parts, along with their male counterparts, Lucas Threefoot and Brett Bauer. It was great seeing Bauer dancing fully back from hiatus. He and Shibley were well-paired – one of Shibley’s best performances at OBT and, along with Threefoot, she will be missed as they each go off to other companies next season.

The entire Company looked great, fully tuned, “seasoned” and ready to tackle anything. My only fuss is really two-fold. Perhaps the Balanchine Trust won’t allow large-scale subscription public performances to piano scores; but they do exist and it would have preferable from my point of view to have had live music. The Stravinsky, for example, we performed in Chehalis with piano and solo violin and it was very exciting and effective. Much better and acoustic than the juke box [you can tell I’m not at all a fan of using recorded music]. Live is so much better for so many reasons and should be deployed, unless it’s just not possible – such as with an electronic score or as with songs recorded by a singular artist like Frank Sinatra.

My other fuss is for the greater and potential OBT fan base. More people should have been enjoying what was truly a great bill of choreographic inventions and exciting dancing. Why were there not more people filling the hall?

Two but related sided notes: the new Artistic Director, Kevin Irving, was publicly introduced at the Friday night show – but not at the Saturday evening performance that I attended [just a slide of his headshot was projected on a screen]. Mr. Irving should have been briefly introduced by the board president at each show; not doing so was a missed opportunity. One of the things they could and should have said was that he’d be in the lobby to meet and greet during intermission with the board president at his side to affect introductions and regulate. Of one thing I’m confident: the public wants is to rub shoulders with a bit of show business glamor, and this would have been the perfect opportunity. Instead, there was a strangely vacant feel to this aspect of the evening.

Lastly, while washing my hands, I overhead two men talking about the season and one said in the 11 years he’s been coming, no one has never thanked him for coming and welcomed him back. This is important feedback, folks. An example of when and how this can work: When McCaw Hall in Seattle reopened I was SO impressed at the PNB subscription show I attended that the artistic directors – Kent Stowell and Francia Russell – each were at the front doors personally greeting and thanking everyone who walked in.

While I like to think that people attend performances or are attracted to do so because of the quality of the art being offered, it’s also clear that they look to the top for leadership and guidance. The artistic leadership sets the tone. If they are excited about something, it follows that others will be too.

While leadership and stars do have to protect themselves, my observation has been that those at the top are all too often busy backstage and need to learn to extricate themselves and get out and meet and greet more.

OBT has had a nearly 25-year history and as it goes and grows toward its next decade, all of us are eager to cheer on what this growth will look like and mean.
Thank you, Christopher Stowell and Anne Mueller for your dedicated service and devotion to this art.