Portland Ballet: an invitation to the dance

“There are more good dancers in the world right now than there have ever been,” Christopher Stowell told me soon after he arrived in Portland a few years ago to take over Oregon Ballet Theatre.

He wasn’t talking about great dancers — those streaks of lightning and passion who come along every now and then and rearrange our assumptions about the possibilities of the human body. He meant good dancers: well-trained, devoted, flexible, athletic, intelligent, capable of realizing the complexities of a choreographic mind. And he was right.

God knows why. You don’t strike it rich as a dancer — in fact, even if you work for a modest-sized professional company, chances are you’re waiting tables or slinging drinks in your off-hours to help pay the rent. But dancing, which like acting was once considered not much more than a variation on the world’s oldest profession, has become an honorable goal, even a noble one. And even as dance companies are struggling to keep their audiences and pay their bills, they are flooded with aspiring young dancers eager to join their ranks.

You can see the evidence all over town — and all over most towns of any size. Something important and time-honored is going on, something that feels like the best parts of the old medieval guild system: Those who have mastered the skills are passing them along to the next generation of artisans.

Stowell brought Damara Bennett from San Francisco to run OBT’s school, which does triple duty: developing new dancers for the company, preparing dancers to go on to other companies and schools, providing training for amateurs who will become the backbone of the future’s dance audience. Sarah Slipper has once again brought together several leading choreographers and young dance professionals for her summer intensive Northwest Professional Dance Project. The highly competitive Jefferson Dancers high school company continues to scatter alumni into professional companies and elite college programs across the country.

And in a small but handsome studio in Portland’s Hillsdale neighborhood, tucked between the farmers’ market and the feisty Three Square Grill, home of the flourishing Picklopolis culinary empire, The Portland Ballet continues to put its own spin on the city’s dance personality, quietly sending forth young dancers into the larger world. Founded under the name Pacific Artists Ballet in 2001 by husband-and-wife Nancy Davis and Jim Lane, Portland Ballet attaches “Academy and Youth Company” to the end of its name, and that’s a precise description: This is a school for young people who want to make dancing their profession.

This summer the company has 31 young dancers ages 14 to 20 — most from Oregon, but a few from as far away as Miami, Mexico and New Zealand — in town for a two-week masters workshop that will culminate in a performance at 7:30 Saturday, Aug. 23, in Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University. Get your dancing shoes on now: You won’t have access to this fine dance space again for the next two years, while it undergoes extensive renovations.

I dropped in to Portland Ballet’s Hillsdale studios one day last week when all three of this summer’s major guest teachers were on hand.

John Clifford is a onetime principal dancer for George Balanchine at New York City Ballet and the founder and artistic director of the original Los Angeles Ballet.

Evelyn Cisneros spent 23 years at San Francisco Ballet, where she was a principal dancer (and colleague of OBT’s Stowell) in a major company that balances Balanchine with a broader repertory. And she’s no slouch with a word processor: She also wrote the iconic A-B-C guide Ballet for Dummies with Scott Speck, former conductor of the San Francisco Ballet orchestra.

Carter Alexander is a former principal and soloist for Kansas City Ballet, where he worked with the late Balanchine legend Todd Bolender, and is now a principal teacher at the school of Miami City Ballet, another major Balanchine-steeped company.

The three are preparing three pieces for the young dancers’ showcase performance: Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations, Val Caniparoli‘s Street Songs and Clifford’s own Sonata.

If Cisneros, Clifford and Alexander are master craftsmen — and they are; you can see from the way they stand and move that the dance is in their bones — it pays to listen to the things they say. That’s how the knowledge is passed on: that, and by the way they demonstrate with their bodies the moves they want the younger dancers to learn. As Cisneros puts it, “So much is body memory.”

Sometimes it’s a matter of keeping the beat. “Down-up-up-tap-cross-up-up-tap!” shouts Clifford as he rehearses Raimonda. “Down-up-up-push! Down-up-up-RUN!”

“Better not to look into the mirror,” he tells an aspiring ballerina who is too aware of herself and the mistakes she’s sure she’s making. “You know what I mean? Because you lose your concentration. Keep your brain in your ankles.”

Alexander, a trim boyish fellow who like OBT’s Stowell looks as if he could still be on the stage and dancing up a storm, works with the women’s corps on the importance of full arm motion: move not just from the wrists, but from the whole arm. A fluid movement, not an awkward flap. Ballet is a discipline that every day deals with the basics, and mastery of the basics is what allows the self-assurance of a gifted, seasoned performer.

Cisneros is at her fifth teaching session of the summer (she spent three weeks with the school of Boston Ballet, and has just three days in Portland to set Caniparoli’s Street Dance, a vigorous 1980 piece set to the booming music of Carl Orff). What does she see in her travels around the country?

“I see a wonderful new crop of youth who are gaining passion for the art form,” she says.

At the same time, she points out, companies are shrinking and even disappearing because of money troubles and disappearing audiences: “My fear for the young dancers is that the opportunities for them in the companies are getting fewer.”

Cisneros is smart and quick and funny — attributes that endeared her to audiences in San Francisco, where she was so beloved that the mayor declared a week in her honor when she retired in 1999 — and those things are lessons, too. It’s not enough to have technique. You also need personality.

I asked her how important it was to have live music rather than recorded during a performance. The difference is huge, she replied: Dance and music are “a marriage. One doesn’t exist without another.”

Of course, sometimes live music also makes things unpredictable.

She laughed wryly and said, “Do you want to hear a story about that?”

The company was in Paris, it was opening night, she was dancing Odette in Swan Lake.

It was an adagio — slow, lyrical, exquisite as she bobbed lower and lower in her swan bow.


“The harpist was on cocaine, apparently,” she laughed.

Halfway through her scene, he’d sped through the entire passage and stopped playing.

She glanced into the pit. The conductor was apoplectic — so upset that he was waving his baton wildly in the direction of the harpist.

So wildly that the baton flipped out of his hand and flew off.

She finished her moves, unaccompanied, and the performance went on.

“And we got a good review!”

Young dancers need to learn stories, too. And old dancers have them.


The Portland Ballet’s summer master class performs The Raimonda Variations, Street Song and Sonata at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23, at Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University. Tickets are $10-$15 through the PSU box office (503-725-3307) or Ticketmaster, www.ticketmaster.com