OBT’s ‘Rush + Robbins’: Some further thoughts

Fund drive as of Wednesday, June 10THE LATEST NEWS FROM OREGON BALLET THEATRE, which is struggling with a life-threatening deficit that has it feverishly trying to raise $750,000 by June 30 to keep from going out of business: The campaign hit the $524,000 mark by Wednesday. That morning OBT’s Erik Jones said 900 tickets were still available for Friday night’s gala benefit performance Dance United, which will bring star performers from across North America to raise money for OBT. Buy your tickets here — this could be the event on the season!

At Portland Arts Watch, meanwhile, Barry Johnson reports on the challenges OBT faces AFTER June 30.

And prominent national dance critic Martha Ullman West, who plies part of her trade (the pro bono part) here at Art Scatter, has some things to say below about last weekend’s season-ending program and how it revealed the necessity of keeping this company alive. She even took time to give her Scatter editor a scolding for something he posted on the subject: When you’re pro bono, you get to do that!


When I wrote on Monday in The Oregonian that the way Oregon Ballet Theatre‘s dancers performed The Concert last weekend clearly and painfully demonstrate how much we have to lose if the company folds, I didn’t mean the same assessment couldn’t be applied to the rest of what was a very difficult program.

Artur Sultanov in The Concert. Photo: BLAINE TRUITT COVERTOBT’s season-finale program was designed to accomplish several goals, one of which was to challenge the dancers. And there is no getting around the fact that the work those dancers had performed most often — Rush, Afternoon of a Faun and The Concert — was polished to the accomplished shine you see only in major companies: New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Houston Ballet and the like. These are troupes with far bigger budgets, many more dancers and far more opportunities to perform than OBT.

What Christopher Stowell, as artistic director, and Damara Bennett, as OBT School director, have accomplished in Portland in six years is truly remarkable. And it’s known throughout the country, which is why, when OBT announced its life-threatening financial emergency last month, so many artistic directors answered his call for help in the affirmative.

This company is extremely well-schooled. That was abundantly clear in Rush and in the second performance of The Cage on Saturday afternoon, as it was in the spring performances of William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, which OBT’s dancers will perform in Friday’s benefit gala. I was startled when I returned from Kansas City last spring, having seen Kansas City Ballet the night before, by the contrast. KCB celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, but it’s OBT that has a true company style.

That’s an achievement for which Stowell, Bennett and ballet mistress Lisa Kipp can take credit. Most of these dancers had quite different training. Sure, there’s a cadre that has been to the School of American Ballet that includes Gavin Larsen, Adrian Fry, Lucas Threefoot (summer program), Christian Squires and Javier Ubell. But a number were trained in OBT’s school, at PNB or SFB. And the excellent Ronnie Underwood trained in Tulsa, so is part of the Ballets Russes strand of American ballet style. Artur Sultanov’s schooling was Russian, at the Vaganova Academy, and Chauncey Parsons, who joined as a soloist last fall, trained at the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. Parsons will show us some bravura Kirov style dancing at the gala. Yuka Iino — hardly second string, Mr. Hicks, as the Novice in The Cage at the matinee (nor was Grace Shibley in Faun) — trained in her native Japan, as did Ansa Deguchi.

Yes, company members are ranked. There are seven principal dancers, including Iino, Larsen, Anne Mueller (whose Novice was terrifying), Alison Roper (back from maternity leave, though you’d never guess she’d had a long break from watching her in Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush and The Concert), Kathi Martuza, Sultanov and Underwood. And there are seven soloists and fourteen company artists.

But Stowell follows a Balanchinean principle of giving opportunities to all the dancers to perform major roles. Shibley, lovely in Faun and superb as the addled ballerina in The Concert, is an example. And Brian Simcoe was given the chance to be gruesomely murdered in The Cage on Saturday afternoon, surely a role to die for. Which is all by way of saying that this company works like a well-oiled machine, in the best sense, with its parts interchangeable.

The principal goal, of course, when putting a show together is to give pleasure to the audience — not, as some would have it (board members, the marketing department, funders) to sell tickets. (See Scatter’s post and comments on the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts!) And selling tickets has not been a problem for this company. But to say it once again, this is an expensive art form, and it can’t be supported by ticket sales alone.

Kathi Martuza (center) in The Cage. Photo: BLAINE TRUITT COVERTRush + Robbins clearly gave enormous pleasure to the audience. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to program The Concert as the closer twice a year until the recession is over. At both performances I attended the audience was howling with laughter — including, on opening night, the man from the Robbins Foundation, who was sitting next to me. Sophisticated New Yorker that he is, he was on his feet applauding at the end.

He was also impressed by the number of young people in the audience. And he thought the opening night casts of the Robbins works did a fine job, commenting about The Cage that the principals — Mueller as the Novice, Martuza as the Queen and Threefoot and Underwood as the Intruders — had done well and the corps would be better the next time they performed it. About that he was absolutely right.

Educating the audience as well as entertaining it is always a goal for a good artistic director, and Stowell is no exception. We should remember that the Portland audience had seen Robbins’ Broadway choreography, some of it anyway, but Faun was performed in Portland in February of 2008, and The Concert for the first time in fall of 2006, two days after the death of Todd Bolender, who originated the role of the Henpecked Husband in 1956. These works, along with The Cage, a company premiere, offer three different views of the ballerina and Robbins’ attitude toward her. Both Faun and The Concert were made for a ballerina he adored unequivocally (for a change), the tragically afflicted Tanaquil Le Clercq. Both ballets hold up well.

This may not be the case for The Cage, which, brilliant as it is, is definitely of its time, a period in New York when everyone and his dog (I’m sure including Robbins’ dog!) was undergoing analysis, and Philip Wylie had published his excoriating book on destructive mothers, A Generation of Vipers. The Cage is arguably Robbins’  Generation of Insects. It is a ballet to admire, with its fusion of Asian gesture and classical ballet. But decor, costumes, and especially the wigs date it badly, leading to the audience laughter I described in The Oregonian.

With this kind of programming, plus the schooling of the company, his eye for dancers, his insistence until now on live orchestra (the music at these concerts was excellently performed) and the intelligence of his approach generally, Stowell has the potential to be one of the great artistic directors.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. If we don’t support him and keep this fine company alive, it will be a true blot on Portland’s reputation. And what, for the love of God, is the shame in being known for our creativity rather than for sports palaces? It’s our artists as well as our geographical setting that make this city unique.