Keller Auditorium, Portland, OR; March 1, 2014

Dean Speer

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Michael Linsmeier, Xuan Cheng, and Brian Simcoe in Nicolo Fonte’s 'Bolero'.  Photo © Blaine Truitt Covert

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Michael Linsmeier, Xuan Cheng, and Brian Simcoe in Nicolo Fonte’s ‘Bolero’.
Photo © Blaine Truitt Covert

A mix of lasts and firsts, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Reveal” program premiered one ballet by its previous Artistic Director, Christopher Stowell, revived a couple of gems, and brought retired-way-too-young Artur Sultanov back to the stage, pairing him with soon much to be missed principal dancer Alison Roper.

“A Second Front” takes as its premise a ballroom scene but suggests through the artifice of recorded whispers, that the dance is more than about steps – that the interactions contained discourse, perhaps both political and social. Indeed, historically, court social dance was a means to advance one’s position and to whisper intrigue and to bend someone’s ear –publicly seen yet hidden amid the swirl of jigs and minuets. Then, as now, people sometimes spoke while they danced.

Set to orchestral music by Shostakovich with succeeding group and duet scenes, it works for the most part but doesn’t follow through as much as it could with showing us the layer(s) underneath the dancing, relying too much on the recorded whispers played in between some of the sections. The concluding section would be stronger if, instead of dancers being arranged in symmetrical lines, Stowell had made more use of interesting patterns, perhaps the iconic ‘ballet circle’, and then used the layered lines to build to a rousing tutti finale.

On the plus side, Stowell has a gift of making lovely and strong pas de deux, as he did here for Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe. He can also get people moving and the separate sections for the men really showcase them, as indeed they do the women.

“A Second Front” is a keeper but I’d like to see the ending re-worked.

A character in the wonderful children’s book, “Holes”, is named Hardy but he’s so small that the boys mockingly call him ‘Hardly.’ I really liked and enjoyed James Kudelka’s aptly named “Almost Mozart” at its premiere in 2006 and found myself looking forward to seeing it again. Overall, it could perhaps be re-titled “Hardly”. Like the Holes character, it’s stronger, tougher, and more sinewy than it might first appear – and blessed perhaps by the mystic and mysterious.

Spare and cleansed of all non-essential elements – including parts of its Mozart score, “Almost Mozart” is a ballet that’s highly athletic and, unusually, lets the effort show mostly through quick intakes or exhaling of breath. Roper and Brett Bauer’s duet is edgy and sharp, Kudelka’s motifs are given to short flowing phrases, punctuated by sudden and held all-stop freezes. Haunting and slightly disturbing was the trio of Xuan Cheng, Jordan Kindell, and Michael Linsmeier, who seem to threaten Cheng as they surround her as she turns and turns perched on one leg, the other in passé, clutching and clinging to the men, pushing herself around, perhaps desperately and in a quiet panic, seeking an escape.

Like the other Christopher, one of Christopher Wheeldon’s choreographic strengths is in the making of duets, as seen in his “Liturgy”, deeply and strongly danced by Haiyan Wu and Simcoe. It begins and ends with the dancers in ballet’s iconic foot-and-leg crossed fifth position, the movement itself initiating with lateral and reaching port de bras which builds to a break out Simcoe holding Wu behind her at the waist as she does a quick, marcato forced-arch relevé in second position. The structure and feel of “Liturgy” impress me as being much like a Japanese haiku – something happens in the middle that alters its state of being and its conclusion.

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 'Bolero' with Artur Sultanov and Alison Roper.  Photo © Blaine Truitt Covert

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s ‘Bolero’ with Artur Sultanov and Alison Roper.
Photo © Blaine Truitt Covert

There are “Boleros” and then there are “Boleros”. When I previously reviewed OBT’s premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s version to the well-known Ravel score, I briefly relayed the sad story of going to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, B.C., where I saw a former ballet classmate, now the director of Pennsylvania Ballet, having to be the hapless male performer that I ended up being embarrassed for, in a version that could conservatively be described as ridiculous. What the choreographer had the local ballet students do who were extras, which included shuffling in and around in silver-colored unitards – prompting Francia Russell to utter aloud the immortal words, “If this is what they like in Vancouver, I give up!” – was plain silly.

Fortunately, nobody had to give up anything with Fonte’s excellent and well-conceived outcome.

The scenic design suggests the Industrial Age or perhaps the gritty blue-collar world of those who work in the trades. Before the curtain rang up, it began with the whoosh of wind and recorded industrial sounds which gave way to the Ravel score, played over the loudspeakers.

Roper and Sultanov tore into their pas de deux. These two are dancers who are made for each other. It was exciting to see and to be part of a great balletic performance, also bittersweet in that it was their last together, he returning to teaching at his new ballet studio and she leaving the stage in a few short months.

Missing in action was live music. I might suggest that the Ravel, for example, could have been played in its four-hands piano version and been as successful…or more. Cost is not an excuse. The mighty OBT Orchestra is always preferred, but if you cannot afford them, please use piano. I feel like I’m turning on my soapbox recording when I say that, particularly for dance, how important the music is and if it’s really honestly true how it’s the catalyst for creativity, then just as the costumes, sets, and dancers are live, how much more should the music be as well. Additionally, acoustic music allows dances to breathe, and also has the wonderful effect of ‘warming’ the house, providing that cozy welcoming feeling…and imbuing the sense that we all are about to be part of something great.

“Reveal” indeed revealed a lot about the current and future OBT – a company that’s in good hands with its new director Kevin Irving. It was a program that showcased its core of amazing dancers, considerable and talented production abilities, and left us wanting more.