Oregon Ballet Theatre’s GIANTS Program
Saturday Evening, October 8, 2016
Keller Auditorium, Portland


Dean Speer

There are programs and then there are programs that move you and have a degree of profundity, depth, joy and fun that make you more than who you are and more than we are collectively.

Such is the case with Oregon Ballet Theatre’s recent opening of its Fall 2016-17 season with GIANTS, featuring three enormous ballets, ranging from one that was created over 70 years ago to one that had its world premiere.

Eva Burton and Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in George Balanchine’s "Serenade" Photo James McGrew

Eva Burton and Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers
in George Balanchine’s “Serenade”
Photo James McGrew

For some, Balanchine’s historic and much-storied Serenade is just a lovely ballet, but for others, it’s religion. Guess which camp I fall into? With just the short opening motif of a few, now iconic gestures and steps, and the reach of the upper back into a backbend cambré and stretch with the arms overturned to the heavens, the choreographer tells us all we need to know and nearly reveals the entire ballet, its raison d’etre, its reason for being. Developed with multiple use of patterns, formations, walking and interweaving ideas, the four movements pass all too quickly, and when the principal ballerina is lifted and carried, standing upright but arching into that backbend at the end, it passes from art into the profound experience of religion.

New principal dancer Jacqueline Straughan, who hails most recently from Ballet West, fits rights in, and I predict will be a joy to follow during her tenure at OBT, one that I hope will last a long time. In my mind, she’s the needed replacement for the much missed Alison Roper.

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, and Jacqueline Straughan (l-r) of Oregon Ballet Theatre in George Balanchine’s "Serenade" Photo Yi Yin

Martina Chavez, Candace Bouchard, Thomas Baker, and Jacqueline Straughan (l-r)
of Oregon Ballet Theatre
in George Balanchine’s “Serenade”
Photo Yi Yin

Soloists Candace Bouchard and Martina Chavez were equally terrific, as were the male cavaliers Brian Simcoe and Thomas Baker.

The entire ensemble looked very well rehearsed and ready to tackle this important ballet.

For Serenade, the mighty OBT Orchestra was in the pit, conducted by maestro Niel DePonte.

Being able to add William Forsythe’s 1987 milestone work, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, tells us a lot about the significant growth that OBT has enjoyed over the last dozen years, beginning with its former Artistic Director Christopher Stowell and now continuing with Kevin Irving. Middle was originally done for the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) — the oldest and one of the most revered companies in the world. The technical abilities of its dancers are virtually unmatched as are its vast production resources. This ballet is hard. Its unbelievable technical challenges masked by a faux casualness more than hint at the competiveness at POB that includes a formal annual competition whereby promotions amongst its ranks are decided. Off-balance shapes, turns, and partnering are some of the visual hallmarks of this work (not to mention the two golden apples suspended over the center of the stage, hence its title.)

Eva Burton and Adam Hartley with Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in William Forsythe’s "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" Photo JingziZhao.

Eva Burton and Adam Hartley
with Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers
in William Forsythe’s
“In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”
Photo JingziZhao.

Importantly, having this ballet — and doing it as well as they did, tells me that OBT is now at the technical, if not the artistic level of POB, which is an awesome thing to note and to which to pay attention.

Nailing their respective roles were principal dancers Xuan Cheng, Peter Franc, and company artist Eva Burton. Needing mention and included in this very strong mix are Kelsie Nobriga, Emily Parker, Brian Simcoe, Thomas Baker with Jessica Lind and Kimberly Nobriga.

Peter Franc and Xuan Cheng of Oregon Ballet Theatre in William Forsythe’s "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" Photo Yi Yin

Peter Franc and Xuan Cheng
of Oregon Ballet Theatre
in William Forsythe’s
“In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”
Photo Yi Yin

Middle is of its era — the ’80s — and has the look and feel of this time. The electronic sound score gives us a strong flavor of “industrial.” No frills or geegaw on this building. Just fast, sharp dancing.

Nicolo Fonte’s Giants Before Us had its world premiere at the show I saw — and it’s too short. That’s a compliment. The great American modern dance pioneer and choreographer Doris Humphrey wrote in her primer, The Art of Choreography, that “All dances are too long.” Sometimes that’s not the case, as here. (What she means is that sometimes the choreographic idea plays itself out well before the dance itself concludes, and we’re left with filler — what I call dance hamburger-helper.)

Adam Hartley (center) with Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in Nicolo Fonte’s "Giants Before Us" Photo Emily Nash.

Adam Hartley (center) with Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers
in Nicolo Fonte’s “Giants Before Us”
Photo Emily Nash.

Fonte was very smart in choosing great music from a great composer, Liszt, and having it played live on stage was another good move. Pianist Hunter Noack is a brilliant young and award-winning talent and a coup to have him accompany this new dance. OBT should not let him go.

I mentioned that I thought the overall length of the work too short. I yearned for at least one more movement or piano piece. One that would have said, “This is the end goal of this ballet and its logical and natural conclusion.” Fonte did have the men —  well done I might add — show us that the ballet was over during the last selection of music by collectively sighing and reaching one of their respective arms down to the stage floor, palms up. Yet I wanted more.

The Liszt was always profound, and alternatively poetic, sometimes quick, sometimes dreamy. We’ve long needed a ballet to showcase men and here it is! Created on 9 of OBT’s men, it showcases their technical strengths and perhaps, even more importantly, their individual and collective interpretive abilities. Also, when you have 9 in a cast, you can make shapes and patterns and take risks that are not possible with smaller numbers. I enjoyed how Fonte pulled the cast together, broke them apart, and remixed and varied the numbers. The solo, for I believe Franc, helped give the work focus and calm at a moment when the audience needed it.

How Fonte introduced the lone, single female — Straughan, was done cleverly through the use of a backdrop reverse projection where only an outline of someone, clearly female, making shadow shapes, was seen. This was done with a secondary female, Paige Wilkey, and as she reduced “her” former giant size to normal and something resembling that of the men, out was brought Straughan. Fonte used this section to interject some light and good-natured humor into the mix by having the collective men sigh and make lugubrious sounds; all rather droll.

Giants is a keeper.

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in George Balanchine’s "Serenade" Photo Emily Nash.

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in George Balanchine’s “Serenade”
Photo Emily Nash.

OBT continues to go and grow and this GIANTS program is definitely one to see. I had a happy evening at the ballet and enjoyed a great show with excellent programming, timing, and a spirit that reached its very appreciative audience. It’s one that I’d be happy to see again, too.