Belly-dancing on the Nile: Our far-flung correspondent hobnobs and returns

Martha Ullman West, Art Scatter’s chief correspondent, has been trotting the globe. She’s endured an evening of wretched belly-dancing on the Nile, chatted with a centenarian ballet dancer in Philadelphia, revisited the works of Jerome Robbins in New York, and returned home to Portland, where she found irritation with Random Dance and happiness with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Here’s her report:


Here are some scattered (no pun intended) thoughts about what I’ve been seeing in the world of performance, mostly dance, since I departed on February 1st for a glorious Metropolitan Museum of Art tour of Egypt with a postlude in Jordan, followed by 10 days in New York, where I ploughed through many clipping files in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center.

These endeavors were interrupted by snow and a day trip to Philadelphia to interview Yvonne Patterson. She is a former dancer in Balanchine’s first companies, now a whisker away from turning 100, still swimming every day and teaching the occasional master class in ballet, no kidding. There was also a fair amount of hobnobbing with my New York colleagues, during which the state of dance and dance writing was discussed with a certain amount of hand-wringing on both counts.

The River NileThe worst performance shall come first: an unspeakably godawful belly dance demonstration on board the Nile River boat on which I spent four otherwise glorious nights.

I’ve seen better at various restaurants in Portland, although the effects of her lackluster undulations, which bored even the men in the audience, were somewhat mitigated by the sufi dancer who followed, a very young man who was completely committed to spinning himself into a trance, and therefore pretty compelling.

In New York, I was taken to see a play called Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, oh so cleverly written by Douglas Carter Beane, at Second Stage Theatre, starring the suave John Lithgow as a gossip columnist running out of copy and Jennifer Ehle as his equally ambitious and rather more unethical wife. They invent a celebrity to write about, and despite such wonderful lines as “I swear on a stack of Susan Sontag‘s Against Interpretation” and the cast’s finely tuned delivery of the lines, the ethics practiced by the real-life press these days made it all rather less than funny for someone who still thinks journalism is an honorable profession, or at the very least that it should be.

Jenifer Ringer and Gonzalo Garcia in Dances at a Gathering, New York City Ballet. Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

A matinee performance of an all-Jerome Robbins program by New York City Ballet gave me far more pleasure; especially Dances at a Gathering, Robbins’ masterpiece of a Chopin ballet, with former San Francisco Ballet dancer Gonzalo Garcia in the pivotal role of the man in brown. The piece is slightly more than an hour long, but so deftly choreographed, with references to Eastern European folk dance as a part of seemingly endlessly innovative use of the classical vocabulary that you want more. Cameron Grant, who played the music, is a terrific musician and highly skilled at performing concert music as dance accompaniment, no mean trick. Maria Kowroski as the girl in green and Jenifer Ringer in pink combined impeccable technique with a spontaneity that seems to elude many City Ballet dancers these days, a crying pity in Balanchine and Robbins’ house.

West Side Story Suite completed the program. I don’t think this works very well as a ballet, and the men in particular were extremely unconvincing as Jets and Sharks, with the exception of Benjamin Millepied (whose choreography we saw performed here by Baryshnikov last fall) as Tony. Georgina Pazcoguin, however, was a truly fiery Anita, which was fun to see. Robbins did this arrangement of dances himself; nevertheless, taken out of the context of the entire show, I thought it looked cobbled together and randomly so.

Wayne McGregor/Random Dance at White Bird. Photo: Ravis DeepresSpeaking of random, I got back into the swim, so to speak, of Portland’s remarkably active dance pond with opening night of Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance last Thursday at the Newmark Theatre. And frankly I loathed Entity, like Dances at a Gathering an hour-long piece. It is extremely well-crafted, but about as coldly clinical a treatment of the dancers (who are wonderful) as I’ve seen in more than half a century of watching dance of all kinds.

Admittedly it was amusing from time to time to spot the references to classical ballet that McGregor, (who is resident choreographer at London’s Royal Ballet) was busily rendering spastic. One example was a supported pirouette that finishes with a tilt of the head that’s straight out of Frederick Ashton‘s Sleeping Beauty, which I suppose was meant to be funny. For me, however, movement that skews the dancers’ bodies to make many of them look as if they were battling scoliosis, even if McGregor is vividly rebelling against balletic spinal placement, is extremely unpleasant to watch.

Certainly McGregor knows how to move dancers around a stage, in solos, duets, trios and ensemble dances. And the high-tech set, commissioned score and superb lighting design made it a very well-integrated work, but with not a shred of emotional affect. It was billed as sensual and sexy. I was reminded of what Dorothy Parker once said about Beat writers: “They turn sex into the dreariest calisthenic imaginable.”

McGregor is a hot ticket in England for his use of technology, among other things. He’s not, in fact, doing anything new to Portland audiences, not those of us who have been watching Tere Mathern and Mary Oslund‘s work for lo these many years. Both are technically and visually sophisticated choreographers who manage nevertheless to convey the human qualities of the dancers, and tell us something about ourselves as people. Oslund’s work will be on White Bird‘s next season, when Uncaged returns to Portland State ‘s Lincoln Hall. I’m looking forward to it.

Javier Ubell as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Finally, on Saturday night, I saw for the first time Christopher Stowell‘s one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, its sophisticated opening wedding scene a soignee contrast to the forest action, Shakespeare’s mechanicals transformed into waiters and a bartender, Puck a Master of Ceremonies as well, reminding us that dreams are rooted in reality. Mr. Scatter is dead right: The return of Oregon Ballet Theatre‘s orchestra to play Mendelssohn’s sublime music, which they played brilliantly under the passionate directorship of Niel DePonte, contributed mightily to the delight of the performance.

Stowell’s one-act version of Dream is intensely musical, far more in tune with Mendelssohn’s score than with Shakespeare’s language, which my companion thought was a flaw. I don’t agree. Packed with humor that isn’t cute, romantic passion, a pas de deux of marital rage worthy of Edward Albee‘s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and an innovative use of the classical vocabulary, this Dream should become a staple of OBT’s repertory. And it’s clear from their performances that OBT’s dancers enjoy themselves just as much as the roaring audience does.

Adrian Fry and Gavin Larsen in The Four Temperaments at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt CovertThe program opener, Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, to Paul Hindemith’s difficult score (alas, not played live) was met with almost as much audience approval on Saturday night as Dream, for which I congratulate the dancers themselves — particularly Yuka Iino and Chauncey Parsons in the second variation, known as “Sanguinic”; Gavin Larsen and Adrian Fry in the opening and closing “Theme”; Artur Sultanov‘s “Phlegmatic,” and Kathi Martuza‘s furious “Choleric,” the fourth variation. To Francia Russell‘s staging, I think I owe this performance’s vitality and immediacy. It took me back to my youth, when I was a dedicated second \-balcony audience member at the time that City Ballet was still performing at City Center and the dancers still looked human, their individuality coming into play — no longer the case much of the time since the company became institutionalized at Lincoln Center.

It was a wonderful welcome home from New York, which will always be home to me as well.



— Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, New York City Ballet.
Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

— Map of the Nile River basin: belly dancer no, sufi dancer yes.

— Jenifer Ringer and Gonzalo Garcia in Dances at a Gathering, New York City Ballet. Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

— Wayne McGregor/Random Dance at White Bird. Photo: ©Ravi Deepres

— Javier Ubell as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at OBT. Photo: ©Blaine Truitt Covert

— Adrian Fry and Gavin Larsen in The Four Temperaments at OBT. Photo: ©Blaine Truitt Covert