OBT can dance

March 7, 2010

What a little scare will do. Last summer OBT was on the verge of collapse (financially) and had to call in favors for a gala fund-raiser to continue operations. They’ve been without their orchestra for all of this season. And yet through all this (and I’m starting to think because of it), they are dancing with more confidence and kick-ass joy than I’ve seen in the past two years I’ve been watching them.

Thursday night’s program included Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments set to music by Paul Hindemith and OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set to Mendelssohn. The evening truly had something for everyone.

Balanchine’s The Four T’s had its premiere in 1946 and the Hindemith score was commissioned specifically for it. I’m not a big fan of Balanchine’s ballets (heaven forfend, I know), but this ballet is one of my favorites, as is the Hindemith. It is witty and bold and endlessly inventive. And Thursday night’s casting was inspired. Adrian Fry, all long and languid he, and the rocket powered sprite, Javier Ubell, were standouts. Mr. Fry in particular, perfectly cast, for the first time seemed completely at home in his body and in the choreography. Fry is one of the tallest dancers in the company and Ubell one of the shortest, and in the final movement, they lift Alison Roper (always a rock star) between them like a cross: Ubell’s arms fully extend over his head to support Roper’s right arm, while Fry’s elbows are at his sides and his upturned hands support Roper’s left arm, suspending her between them, quite a picture. I’ve never seen such extreme composition in this ballet before, nor has it ever been more interesting. Kudos to the entire cast, and also to Martina Chavez (not someone I’ve needed to watch before, but in this piece on this night, I couldn’t take my eyes off her) and to Lucas Threefoot. Mr. Threefoot has really come into his own of late, especially in his partnering – in the Balanchine it was gorgeous, solid, yet wonderfully alive. He’s one to watch.

I have to say, the men of OBT have really come to the fore. In many smaller ballet companies the men are a liability. There seem to be plenty of technically proficient women to go around, but men, not so much. OBT rocks that boat. It’s wonderful to see.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Stowell’s Midsummer. And in a most welcomed return, the ballet orchestra, under Niel DePonte’s direction, played Mendelssohn’s score beautifully (also of note were the Pacific Youth Choir and soloists – the soprano was amazing.). Midsummer is a huge crowd pleaser and über family friendly. The audience seemed composed almost exclusively of families with little girls dressed like fairy princesses. (Why these little princesses were forced to sit through the Four T’s which they couldn’t have cared less for, is beyond me. With their fidgeting and chatter, any “gosh, aren’t they so cute in their little outfits” warmth I felt was used up within 5 minutes of the curtain’s rise. Switch the program order or someone’s going to shake one of those little dolls til her eyes pop out. Okay?) But back to Midsummer…

Stowell’s Midsummer is full-on children’s theater (and I’m not sure that’s a good thing). But the children (and, apparently, some of the adults) seemed to eat it up. They loved the simplistic, clichéd characterizations, they loved the fairy wings (who doesn’t love fairy wings?), they loved the children from OBT’s school (again, what’s not to love?), they loved the mugging and the light-brite bottoms and the wedding march. It’s an unqualified hit, and I could barely sit through it.

The opening scene with Bottom and the mechanicals (now nondescript waiters at a wedding) getting drunk with the wedding guests in silhouette behind a curtain, sets the refinement bar so low, my friend and I almost walked. The curtain parts and the guests arrive and it’s all just so tacky and cliché. Though there are moments of exceptional beauty throughout, the choreography over-all seems like an afterthought, as if Stowell were bored by the story and couldn’t be bothered to explore the themes or create specific characters. Midsummer is Shakespeare’s most produced play, and more often than not, it gets by on its familiarity, but when done with true insight and originality, it’s mesmerizing.

Only once did the choreography reach a level of complexity suitable to the emotional content of the scene. The pas de deux for Demetrius and Helena, danced beautifully by Brian Simcoe and Grace Shibley is wonderful. The choreography is fresh and specific and complete, feeding the character’s emotions; the phrasing pulls us in, the steps punctuating the dancer’s unspoken dialogue. A beautiful scene. There were also a couple of scene ending tableaux that were gorgeous, and bits and pieces of choreography here and there that pulled me out of my stupor, but mostly the steps seemed strung together willy nilly and very little seemed fresh or original. Yes, Sultanov got laughs and Deguchi had spunk, and I loved Andrea Cooper as Peaseblossum, but Steven Houser’s Puck (though seemingly an audience favorite) was the gayest gay that ever gayed (and he is forever being cast this way, much to his detriment). Ronnie Underwood, as Oberon, was dealt the worst choreography (and a truly unflattering costume) and it showed in his stolid dancing. Let’s see, he’s the king, so how about he just does a bunch of big king-like leaps and we call it a day. Done. And with Titania (Kathy Martuza), the choreography was a dull wash. Martuza looked dazzling and danced wonderfully but there was nothing majestic in the choreography itself, no beautiful linking steps or thrilling turns or leaps. She’s the queen for god’s sake. Crank it up a notch. And the acting, by the entire cast, was strictly provincial, all Hee Haw or ballet face with nothing in between.

But beyond all that, beyond the ridiculously loud squeaking platforms (carpentry 101), the unimaginative and disjointed set (are we in Milan or Miami?), and the bland choreography, it was the lack of character and textual investigation that was most off-putting. Why do a story ballet and ignore the story? There are themes to be had in Midsummer, many, but first and foremost is the creative imagination’s link to the supernatural. There is something extraordinary going on there, but this completely ordinary non-interpretation can’t seem to be bothered.

But then again, as I walked home alongside a mother and her dancing 6 yr old daughter (dressed in full-on fairy princess fabulousness), I asked the daughter what she thought of the evening. She stopped dancing, but just for that moment, and said, “It was pretty. I liked their wings. I want to dance,” then danced off down the street. I’d have to call that a success.

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