An ‘Emerald’ out of the rough: second thoughts on OBT

Balanchine's Emeralds at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Once again Art Scatter is pleased to have the considerations of dance critic Martha Ullman West appear in our august corner of virtual space. Martha, who also reviews ballet for The Oregonian, is working on a biography of dancer and choreographer Todd Bolender. Plus, she’s a charter member of Friends of Art Scatter and the League of Tough-Guy Arts Observers. Her thoughts after seeing the first two performances of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Emerald Retrospective:


The critic was wrong, and she admits it. After filing my review of Saturday night’s opening performance for The Oregonian, I went to the Sunday matinee performance of Oregon Ballet Theatre‘s Terpsichorean relay race known as the Emerald Retrospective and was moved to tears by Artur Sultanov’s and Alison Roper’s rendering of the pas de deux from James Kudelka’s Almost Mozart.

I still think it’s gimmicky –the dancers never let go of each other as they wend their way through Kudelka’s sinuous and steely choreography; and the costumes, as a friend said, look like an ad for bodybuilder Charles Atlas. However, these dancers’ commitment to Mozart’s mournful music and the anguish expressed by their bodies made me relive some profound personal losses.

Is that good? Yes. Great performances heal; the Greeks called it catharsis.

One of those losses (to the art form I love, and tend to take personally,) was Dennis Spaight, who died of AIDS in 1993, not yet forty. Once a tribute program had been performed in 1994, his work got buried with him, at least as far as OBT was concerned. I hope the bits from Gloria on this program are a trailer if you will for mounting the whole, and soon.

Or perhaps Frauenlieben leben, or Theatre Dances, or Rhapsody in Blue — or, if the money can be raised for live orchestral accompaniment, Scheherazade, that luscious, lavish deeply moving re-telling of the Arabian Nights story that has sets designed by Henk Pander, elegantly louche costumes designed by the late Ric Young, and lighting designed by Peter West, whose lighting for Gloria was handsomely reproduced by Michael Mazzola.

The Eugene Ballet and Nashville Ballet have performed Scheherazade in recent years. Crayola, parts of Gloria, and Irish Suite have been done by schools around the country. It’s a shame not to have Spaight’s work where some of it was made, and where some of it was polished and changed by the choreographer for specific dancers.

On Sunday, the men were electrifying in Gloria — they made me gasp as they exploded onto the stage as true acrobats of God — but Ansa Deguchi, who gave a splendid performance in Emeralds on Saturday night, gave a mechanical, flawed rendering of the solo that Leta Biasucci had done so well the previous evening. Deguchi may, of course, have been tired: This show is incredibly demanding, requiring the dancers to shift moods, styles, energy (and their their shoes!) with all due speed.

Which made me start thinking about why Roper and Sultanov managed to change my mind and heart about Mostly Mozart. They’d had plenty to do on Saturday night, after all — they danced in Emeralds; and in Yuri Possokhov’s La Valse, Sultanov partnered Gavin Larsen with the mournful soulfulness I associate with Russian culture (remember the Russian wolfhound in Lady and the Tramp?). One reason for Roper and Sultanov’s success in Mostly Mozart is that Kudelka made that pas de deux on them, as we say in ballet. The other is a matter of interpretation: theirs, and mine.

On Sunday, dancing the role in Emeralds originally made for Violette Verdy, whom Balanchine called the “Cartesian of the ballet,” Larsen perhaps felt the weight of responsibility too heavily. Larsen is one of OBT’s most insightful interpreters of Balanchine — she was trained at the School of American Ballet and is wicked-smart. Her Sunday performance was technically terrific, her musicality spot on, but she took few risks, and Balanchine loved American dancers because they are willing to try anything — for example, Anne Mueller break-dancing in Trey McIntyre’s Speak.

Interesting that Yuka Iino, who never came within a mile of Balanchine’s school and as a Japanese citizen has been denied a green card by U.S. immigration officials at least twice, seems to own this role. Kathi Martuza was lovely in the second ballerina role, however and I look forward to seeing Larsen and Chauncey Parsons, who partnered her with considerable elegance, dance together again.

Emerald Retrospective is about OBT’s twentieth anniversary, to be sure. The past is  represented by some of the rep (founding artistic director James Canfield’s only on film, as has been discussed in the comment section here, and I would have loved to have seen the Money section from his Go Ask Alice performed live, given the times we live in) and the future is represented by the School performing Rose City Waltz.

However, as artistic director Christopher Stowell said in opening night’s pre-curtain speech (there was none, deo gratia, at the matinee) the dancers symbolize the present and this show was ALL about them. Stowell gives every dancer in the company huge opportunities to grow, and it shows in performance.

Go see them — there are two more opportunities to do so next weekend, and of course The Nutcracker (don’t moan, please) is coming up in December. Also the rest of the season, and the always-worth-seeing OBT School show.