Ballet in do-si-do; Mueller flies high

Anne Mueller in Christopher Stowell's "Eyes on You" at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.Anne Mueller in Eyes on You. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

By Bob Hicks

“Oh, look!” Mr. Scatter said, glancing up from his program. “The music is by Wiwaldi and Corelli. You’ll like that.”

The Small Large Smelly Boy snickered. “Why do you always say ‘Wiwaldi’ for ‘Vivaldi‘?” he asked.

“Because sometimes you need to do things just for the fun of it.”

One works small life lessons into the conversation when one sees the opportunity.

Julia Rowe (foreground) and Olga Krochik in George Balanchine's "Square Dance." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.When George Balanchine created Square Dance for New York City Ballet in 1957, he must have done it at least partly just for the fun of it. What a mashup! — the measured musical courtliness of two Baroque master composers, a stage filled with neoclassically trained ballet dancers, a small Baroque-style orchestra about the size and sonic configuration of an acoustic hillbilly band, and off in the corner, resplendent in Western shirt, bolo tie and cowboy hat, a 20th century American square-dance caller shouting out the do-si-do’s. It took a brilliant creative leap, on a much higher level than the whimsical substituting of a few “w”s for “v”s, to make these cross-century connections, and to make them seem so obvious after the fact: the balanced regularity of Baroque music and country-dance music; virtuoso turns on the 18th century violin and the 20th century fiddle; the stylized courtship patterns in both Baroque and modern country dance; the easy back-and-forth between high and popular art; the backward glance, from the modern ballet stage, to the more rudimentary yet charming forms of the art in Corelli’s and Vivaldi’s times. The incongruities work because, underneath, they really aren’t incongruous at all.

And here we were, Mr. Scatter and the SLSB, on a Thursday night more than a half-century later, sitting in the audience at the Newmark Theatre for the company-premiere performance of Square Dance by Oregon Ballet Theatre. The evening was special, too, as a kind of love letter from artistic director Christopher Stowell to the talented principal dancer Anne Mueller, who is retiring from the stage after this program (the final show is May 1); more on that below.

For all its surface simplicity, Square Dance is a tricky little devil to pull off, not just for its complex patterns but also for the implied necessity to play fast and loose with the thing — to unsquare the dance, in a sense, while keeping the four corners of its structure in sight. Truth to tell, Thursday’s performance was a little hesitant at times, as if the dancers were still a little unsure about the shape of the thing. It should get better as they gain more confidence.

Square Dance set a tone for the program, a four-piece sampler that comes under the collective title of Song & Dance. The evening was about wit, lightness (with a little shading from Nicolo Fonte‘s Left Unsaid), and crossover appeal. It’s good to remember that for all of his grounding in European high art, Balanchine also loved the brashness and flashiness of American popular culture, and drew a lot of inspiration from it. He didn’t see crossover so much as a contradiction as an opportunity.


A good share of the evening’s wit and crossover were supplied by Mueller, a technically gifted dancer who has also been one of the company’s leading personalities. With the body type of Olive Oyl and the energy of Popeye on a fresh can of spinach, she exudes the kind of antic comic appeal of a Fred Astaire amped up with a shot of Danny Kaye. One of just two remaining holdovers from the company’s James Canfield days — fellow principal dancer Alison Roper is the other — she’s flourished under Stowell’s administration, and he’s designed a program to give both her and her audience a loving farewell.Vanessa Thiessen originated the female role in Trey McIntyre‘s 1998 hip-hop inspired Speak, which is the closest thing to a pop piece remaining in the company’s repertory. Mueller, who inherited it and is partnered this time around by Lucas Threefoot, seems as fresh and cheeky in it now as Thiessen was 13 years ago. On Thursday we saw the entire dance — Mueller’s solo to Tracie Morris’s Project Princess as well as the duet to Bloodhound Gang’s Shut Up — and it was a good reminder that the sometimes-dropped Princess sets up the sass in Shut Up. As you laugh at the comic duel and feel the energy of the beat, also take note of the purity of Mueller’s line. Speak is a hip-hop dance, but it’s also got classical chops. As it was for Thiessen, this has become a signature piece for Mueller. Who will take it over, and what will it be like without her? Tough to say. But it’s bound to change radically.

Mueller is also one of the six dancers in Fonte’s lyrical Left Unsaid, partnered this time by Brian Simcoe. This is a good, spare, moody ballet, the sort of dance that can make you stop thinking and just enter the moment. According to the choreographer, it includes quotations from various yoga positions (speaking of crossover appeal), and it’s strongly cast, with Kathi Martuza partnered by Steven Houser and Roper by Artur Sultanov. It’s good to see Sultanov, who’s been largely absent this season, back on stage: He has both the physical size and emotional dynamic to match Roper’s formidable depth and grace. (And it’s a shame to miss principal dancer Yuka Iino, who is out with an injury.) Left Unsaid is danced to a pair of J.S. Bach violin pieces, but that didn’t fool the SLSB, who spotted its more contemporary movement sensibilities. “It seemed very modern,” he said, not entirely approvingly (he is very much a classicist, which made his general enjoyment of Speak remarkable). And it is — within a classical context.

The program closed with Eyes on You, Stowell’s 2005 suite to 10 songs by Cole Porter, which has become one of OBT’s brightest repertory pieces, sleek and vivid and funny, and in its own way as successful a Broadway/Hollywood salute as any by Twyla Tharp. Some of the best songs may be 80 years old, but this is still crossover: intelligent classical dance meets intelligent popular song. Mueller is every bit the catalyst of this witty and beautifully formed romp, the Puck who girdles its globe and sprinkles magic dust in everyone’s eyes. Porter’s songs bounce between light and dark, and Mueller and Roper provide the perfect dramatic weight for each: Roper anchors In the Still of the Night, Begin the Beguine, and So in Love; Mueller takes flight with De-Lovely, My Heart Belongs to Daddy, and the aptly titled I Get a Kick Out of You. There was light and dark for the audience, too: for all the joy of the performance, we knew that with Mueller’s departure it will never be like this again.

The SLSB emerged with a smile. It was a given he’d like the dancing. But given his classical predilections, even a popular genius like Porter was a chancy encounter. “I liked the songs a lot,” he said.

As Wiwaldi might have put it: Vunderbar.

From left: Alison Roper, Anne Mueller and Kathi Martuza in Nicolo Fonte's "Left Unsaid." The men are Brian Simcoe, Artur Sultanov and Steven Houser. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

PHOTOS, from top:

  • Anne Mueller, who retires after this show, in the spotlight of Christopher Stowell’s “Eyes on You” for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
  • Julia Rowe (foreground) and Olga Krochik in George Balanchine’s “Square Dance.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
  • Anne Mueller in Trey McIntyre’s “Speak” at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
  • From left: Alison Roper, Anne Mueller and Kathi Martuza in Nicolo Fonte’s “Left Unsaid.” The men are Brian Simcoe, Artur Sultanov and Steven Houser. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.