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Oregon Ballet Theatre

New Beginnings: 'Rubies,' 'Twilight,' 'Duo Fantasy' and 'Company B'

by Azlan Ezaddin

October 11, 2003 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

Much has been and will be written about the impact of Christopher Stowell's San Francisco Ballet pedigree and Pacific Northwest Ballet heritage on Oregon Ballet Theatre, but a profound effect of his appointment as Artistic Director may be the influence of Portland on the performing arts scenes in San Francisco and Seattle. With the convergence of ballet glitterati from these two cities descending upon Keller Auditorium to fete their favorite son -- both figuratively and literally -- it is hard not to be impressed by the intermingling of talents and the osmosis of thoughts and ideas between north and south. Portland could very well become the genesis and the center of a new US West Coast axis. The opening night festivities are only a glimpse of more to come.

None of the excitement will translate into an explosion of the arts scene, of course, without a bold and astute director with a sense of programming that not only impresses visiting ballet dignitaries but also challenges the local audience. If Portland balletomanes of... both shades... didn't know what to expect before Saturday night, they certainly do now. In one fell swoop, using works by four diverse legends of ballet and dance -- George Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Helgi Tomasson, and his father, Kent Stowell -- the younger Stowell has announced the beginning of a new era, with an emphasis on ballet aesthetics and strong choreographic content. Ticket sales grew forty percent, perhaps a sign of approval from the community.

As if to underline acceptance of the new beginnings, the house rose in standing ovation and heartfelt approval at the conclusion of the evening. It helped, of course, that the end of the program was anchored by Taylor’s "Company B," which was perfomed with a verve and a degree of enthusiasm that may rival that of the best performances of this popular ballet set to the famous WWII era songs sung by the Andrew Sisters. "Company B" is a masterwork by a master choreographer, but for its exhilaration to be projected into the audience, the dancers must have the stamina and the energy to "let it all out" and keep going back for more. It can be happily reported the artists of OBT did very well in this department, with Karl Vakili and Kester Cotton prime examples in their respective solos, "Tico-Tico" and the title section, "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)."

As always with the first-time setting of a work, there were some rough edges and some of the subtle expressions were lost in the translation (but then again some of us are a little too picky). However, former Taylor protege Rachel Berman must have worked hard with both the dancers and the choreography, as the two fit like a glove. In particular, Gavin Larsen, formerly of Alberta Ballet and Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and Christopher Brough were allowed to express their artistry in the haunting "There Will Never Be Another You" (To fans of this work, the "Rum and Coca-Cola" girl opening night was Larke Hasstedt, who was a delicious tease).

The anchor for the opposite end of the program was another masterpiece by arguably the most celebrated neoclassical choreographer of ballet, George Balanchine's sassy "Rubies," danced to a jazzy-classical score by Igor Stravinsky. The leads shone, with Yuka Iino and PNB guest dancer Jonathan Porretta as the playful couple and a stunning Alison Roper in the "tall girl" role. Porretta -- who is always on fire -- exuded flirty confidence and swagger in bold steps. Roper had just about the right degree of haughtiness to demand the attention of the corps men.

As with the other ballets in the "Jewels" series, the corps work is paramount in "Rubies." While high in quality overall, it was a little disconcerting to see a differential grade in performance and styles. Cotton's manner, for example, was more audacious and precise than the other corps men, and Erika Cole's sassy "cool" was in contrast to a sassy "bubbly" Hasstedt (or maybe it was the other way around). It will be interesting to see the company perform this ballet again in the future to observe if further coaching and experience will smooth out the corps.

There is one bona-fide complaint of this performance, however, and it has nothing to do with the dancers. It is understandable that the focus of the company is to build a troupe of quality dancers first, and it is understood that the live music will eventually come, but seeing a performance of "Rubies" danced to canned music is somewhat disconcerting.

The only live music of the evening was Pacific Northwest composer William Bolcom's "Duo Fantasy," performed by pianist Carol A. Rich and violinist Margaret Bichteler in a ballet by the senior Stowell. Caught in between a subtle but yet sexually powerful contest between Roper and Tracy Taylor is Artur Sultanov, a towering but yet submissive figure. The intricate movements signifying tension and passion, and attraction and repulsion, dangerously confined -- literally -- within a boxed environment are delightfully teased out by the dancers in concert with the musicians. This is a Stowell work to be cherished, even if a tad long.

In a similar vein, Tomasson's "Twilight" explores the relationship between man and woman. While Tomasson gives us lyrical movements to follow, he also leaves much to the imagination, with the help of a subtle lighting design by Lisa J. Pinkham. Larsen and Paul De Strooper, as if in a real life relationship that grows, exchange and borrow phrases from each other, bringing each back in a modified form. Larsen's artistry once again is not allowed to be confined, with De Strooper an equal partner.

The dancers of OBT gave the impression of enjoying themselves on stage and giving every ounce to the company and its new artistic director on Saturday night. And that exuberance surely reached the audience. Ballet can now have a passionate and educated following in Portland.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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