Keller Auditorium, Portland, OR
October 10, 2015

Dean Speer

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, Thomas Baker and Chauncey Parsons in Sub Rosa Photo Yi Yin

Michael Linsmeier, Jordan Kindell, Thomas Baker and Chauncey Parsons in Sub Rosa
Photo Yi Yin

Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its 26th season with a double bill of works inspired by very different views of the Italian aesthetic.

The first was the world premiere of Sub Rosa, a work commissioned from Canadian choreographer James Kudelka and set to a collection of madrigals by Italian nobleman and composer Carlo Gesualdo dating from 1610.

Kudelka has an affinity for works with dark themes and Sub Rosa is reminiscent of Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane, wherein the central character murders his wife in a jealous rage. Kudelka had originally planned to use music by Luigi Boccherini for this commission, but changed direction radically when he was apprised that his new work would share a program with Napoli Act III. He settled on the music of Gesualdo, whose life is reflected in the choreography. The work is atmospheric as opposed to narrative or pictorial, but it does depict over several sections scenes of court life, its intrigues and power struggles, which ultimately end in tragedy.

Gesualdo was held immune from prosecution for the murders of his wife and her lover. It is difficult to imagine how he was able to live with himself. Sections in the ballet include an entrance for the courtiers; a pas de quatre for the characters of “the presence of death,” the wife, her lover, and the prince (Gesualdo); the women caught up in this web, who want to escape this life but cannot; their men who both use and punish them for perceived infidelities; a pas de quatre for the men who display their power; and finally, a scene where Gesualdo dispatches his wife and her lover, he bent over in anguish, as the curtain falls. Very dramatic and theatrical stuff.

Composer, prince and murderer Gesualdo and his wife were powerfully portrayed by new OBT soloist Peter Franc, and guest dancer from Royal Danish Ballet, Amy Watson; with also excellent performances by Colby Parsons as his wife’s lover and Sarah Griffin as the presence of death.

The problems come with the pace at which the choreography unfolds. There is a lack of differentiation in the music; everything is of a similar tempo and character. Moreover, the music is used as a sound score with the steps rarely tied to it. As dramatic as the story outline seems to be, the lack of contrasting musical and movement dynamics ultimately grows wearying and tedious. The piece starts well enough, but the lack of a dramatic arc flattens the overall effect. A reason is needed if we are to care about characters. who in turn need to come alive – and clocking in at nearly one hour, the piece is far too long. Sub Rosa is a challenging work for an audience and I suspect opinions on it will be sharply divided.

Oregon Ballet Theatre in Napoli Photo Blaine Truitt Covert

Oregon Ballet Theatre in Napoli
Photo Blaine Truitt Covert

Of a different order altogether was the terrific staging of August Bournonville’s 1842, Act III of Napoli, set by Frank Andersen. From start to finish, this is energetic, joy-filled dancing for the entire village, celebrating the wedding of one of its daughters. I was, though, hoping for some sort of adagio pas de deux as an antidote to the relentless joy-filled allegro that characterizes the work.

OBT produced some of the best dancing I’ve seen in a long while – technical, challenging, varied, happy. Not just in the pas de deux, but right from the opening pas de six (really a double trio), and in a trio for women. There’s plenty to show off the men’s prowess too.

Xuan Cheng was radiant as the bride, Teresina, ably supported by Avery Reiners as Gennaro, her husband-to-be and Tracey Sartorio as Veronika, Teresina’s Mother

Napoli is a huge and very rewarding undertaking for OBT that has included building their own sets (by Gene Dent) and costumes (Christine Myers). Kudos to both. Additional praise goes to Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter who assisted Andersen in teaching the steps and coaching the Bournonville style.

There is a longtime tradition of placing generations of dancers on the stage for the work. Ballet school students line the set’s bridge that overlooks the action of the stage, students who have graduated to become company dancers, and then those who “graduate” to become beloved character dancers, filling out the ranks. Pre-performance speaker, Linda Besant, who was acting as “substitute teacher,” told us that there were 150 cast members involved (I counted 88 in the program). Congratulations to all.

Kevin Irving, OBT’s Artistic Director also did something very smart and charming as a part of his curtain-warmer welcome – inviting two adult audience members to go backstage during intermission and make their Napoli debuts as extras. One man and one woman volunteered and it was enjoyable to see their faces – particularly the woman’s – delight during their time as part of the cast.

I continue to push for the inclusion of live music for dance. Sub Rosa would definitely have benefitted if local singers could have been used for the madrigals. Recorded music always has a pasted-on quality that does not have the resonance and immediacy of a live orchestra, and Napoli too deserves live music as much as it deserves new costumes and sets. Hopefully, we will have live music when it is revived in a future season.

In the evening’s only live music, the program opened with Aaron Meyer, an excellent violinist who is making a career and name for himself in the music world as a “concert rock violinist.” He and his five-piece band warmed everyone up with rock-inflected works from the Italian masters, including Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and a short teaser from this coming Spring’s full-length new work by Nicolo Fonte, Beautiful Decay.