Oregon Ballet Theatre
Newmark Theatre
Portland, OR

April 6, 2024, evening
“Wooden Dimes” Program: Three Preludes, Just Above the Surface, Wooden Dimes

Dean Speer

I and my subscription kaffeeklatsch of long-standing were excited to see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s latest foray onto the boards with their first program of Spring 2024, a mixed bill program entitled, “Wooden Dimes,” which premiered at Portland’s downtown mid-sized theatre complex, the Newmark.

Oregon Ballet Theatre in Dani Rowe’s “Wooden Dimes”
Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

It began with Eva Burton and Isaac Lee reprising (OBT first did it in 2021) Ben Stevenson’s 1969, set in a ballet class pas de deux, Three Preludes, made to the romantic piano music of Rachmaninoff, excellently played onstage by Monica Ohuchi. The duet builds somewhat along the lines of a regular ballet class – at the ballet barre for the first two sections and then in the center, sans barre. It’s special in that it uses suggestions of some classic exercises as its opening theme but almost immediately morphs them into an interaction between the two dancers, with a lot of partnering  – simple touches, gazing to and away from each other reflected often in their bodies changing directions, then more extended techniques, such as Lee lifting Burton up onto the barre, under over, and then finally with the barre away and their relationship established, more of a traditional duet using grand and petit allegro steps and sequences.

Three Preludes is sweet, choreographically creative, and easy on the eyes. It was a welcome opener, easing us into and preparing us for the rest of the evening’s dances.

Oregon Ballet Theatre in Yue Yin’s “Just Above the Surface”
Photo by Jingzi Photography

Choreographer Yue Yin is new to me. I was curious about her movement palette, one that she developed on herself. Called “FoCo,the movement is partly a fusion of Asian and Western styles, synthesized through the matrix of her experiences as a student and dancer. She used an electronic sound score and chose the title of one of the works, Erik “Clyde Dimension” Debono’s Just Above the Surface. Staged by Grace Whitworth, the 8 dancers were really into the palette and danced brilliantly throughout this very kinetic dance, working their through way through tutti sections, smaller groups, and one or two duets (at least as I counted). Bravo to Hannah Davis, Lauren Flower, Gavin Hounslaw, Kangmi Kim, Zuzu Metzler, Nicholas Sakai, Benjamin Simoens, and Ben Youngstone. There were lots of well-deserved cheers and a standing “O” at its conclusion.

Separating the dancers from the dance, from a compositional standpoint, I found Yin’s choreography, while her motifs were basically solid, could have used some judicious revisions and development. There was enough thematic material for more than one dance. Yin gave us quite a bit of new, thematic ideas, when it might have been stronger to have taken a couple only and developed them, using additional compositional tools such as variation, reversing, fragmentation, and/or transference. She relied on repetition and tutti work a little too much. She did vary her dance with use of how she moved groups around – some on the floor, some up and running and weaving, for example. Her use of ensemble was good and gave us some powerful images. The other bit of feedback that I might offer, and that my informal straw poll agreed with, is that the overall dance was too long. Perhaps some tightening. Doris Humphrey in her primer on choreography wrote something fairly astonishing, coming from a dancer/choreographer – that “…all dances are too long.” I think what she meant by this is that dances sometimes continue long after their idea has played itself out. Know when it’s time to wrap up the dance – give us an ending and not just stop the dance. Another nugget that Humphrey gave us is “Never leave the ending to the end.” Balanchine himself once described his process as beginning with the end, which to paraphrase him, gave him a direction and told him how the dance should go.

(l-r) Benjamin Simoens and Kangmi Kim
in Yue Yin’s “Just Above the Surface”
Photo by Jingzi Photography

Just Above the Surface gave us an abundance of very strong and exciting dancing, a creative voice new to us, and lots to discuss.

The titular Wooden Dimes gave its stage world premiere the night before the show I saw. It was first done as a film during the pandemic for San Francisco Ballet and was transmogrified by its creator-choreographer, OBT’s Artistic Director, Dani Rowe. It features a commissioned musical score by James M. Stephenson, played by members of the OBT Orchestra, conducted by the composer himself. It’s a ballet with a light 1920s vaudevillian story about an up-and-coming chorus girl’s rise to stardom and its impact on her marriage to someone who has a dull and repetitive office job. The title is a play on the American phrase, “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” in-other-words, don’t allow yourself to be scammed.

Carly Wheaton (front) and Oregon Ballet Theatre
in Dani Rowe’s “Wooden Dimes”
Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

It’s a great “closer” piece. I was happy to see and enjoy yet another of Rowe’s dances, becoming more familiar with her oeuvre and creative voice. Rowe knows how to keep things moving and gives her audience the right amount of time for each of the several scenes that include a production number for “Betty” (Carly Wheaton) and a bevy of chorusters, a duet that depicts the loving relationship of Betty and her husband, Robert (Brian Simcoe) and the overbearing “Director,” Michael Linsmeier, whose character, giving Betty an unwelcome kiss, is the catalyst for the fraying of Betty and Robert’s marriage. Rowe uses “Bright Young Things” (Lauren Flower and Isaac Lee) and “Dark Angels” (Hannah Davis and Nicholas Sakai) as a Greek Chorus, functioning as harbingers and commenters on the action and of things to come. Also depicted is Eva Burton as Betty’s “Dresser.” It was fun to see this backstage function shown by a couple of onstage, but behind a curtain, costume changes. It’s also clear that these two are colleagues and friends.

Staged by Luke Ingham and Sarah Van Patten, Wooden Dimes is a keeper and one that will be welcomed again, back perhaps on a future repertory OBT program.

OBT continues its season with a repeat of this program and future Spring shows – www.OBT.ORG