Stravinsky the hipster

By Martha Ullman West

So I put on my black leather jacket and my uncut corduroy black jeans, but balked at a nose ring, and attended the Dance Talks panel at the Pacific Northwest College of Art yesterday afternoon.  This outreach program for adults usually takes place at the Keller or the Newmark a week or so before Oregon Ballet Theatre opens a new concert series.

Stravinsky, by Picasso, 1920. Wikimedia Commons.This one, however,  was a panel discussion to introduce an audience that admittedly had more young people in it than usual to The Stravinsky Project, the middle piece on OBT’s all-Stravinsky evening opening at the Keller this coming Saturday night.

It’s a collaborative effort on the part of four choreographers with very different aesthetics and approaches to dance: Rachel Tess, Anne Mueller, and Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland of BodyVox.

Unfortunately, Hampton and Roland couldn’t be present (BodyVox is touring in Europe), but the two choreographers were joined by composer Heather Perkins, costume designer Morgan Walker, a painter who is on the faculty at PNCA; and OBT’s lighting designer Michael Mazzola.

Portland’s hipster-young-creatives were the marketing target for this chapter of Dance Talks, on the somewhat dubious grounds that all of Stravinsky’s most famous works were composed by the time he was 30.  (He lived to be nearly 90 and was scarcely a has-been composer when he created, for example, the music for Balanchine’s Agon between 1953 and 1956, but never mind.) I don’t think we were told what year the piano music being used for this collaboration was composed, but Tess and Mueller were both enthusiastic about their musical and soundscape choices. The score, some of which will be performed “straight” by a pianist whose name I didn’t catch, has been manipulated electronically by Perkins, who definitely knows what she’s doing and presented her work with charm and knowledge.

Mueller, who is the artistic coordinator for the project, and indeed for OBT in general, spoke first about process and scheduling, a huge hurdle since Roland and Hampton run a company of their own and Tess, who dances with the Kobborg Ballet in Sweden and also heads Rumpus Room, also has a busy schedule.  Tess, who danced many times on the stage of the Keller as a student in OBT’s School and briefly as a company member, spoke about the space itself and the difficulties for someone who does a great deal of site-specific work. She is starting her piece of the collaboration in the lobby, with students from OBT’s School, so it is essential that audience members leave their seats at the first intermission (after Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird), or they’re likely to be somewhat at sea when the solo begins on stage.  For this segment, Perkins has created sound with human voices speaking, aka lobby chatter, as I understood it. Tess elected to make a solo for Alison Roper, the central “character” so to speak, who will, along with the music, costumes and lighting design, unify the piece.  Tess demonstrated some of the movement vocabulary — improv based — that she created with the students from the school.

We saw a bit of Mueller’s section on film taken at Caldera, where OBT was given a week’s residency. It’s for seven dancers and looks athletic and neo-classical. What Hampton and Roland’s section will look like is a mystery at this point, although Perkins played part of their music, and judging from that it will be upbeat and cheerful.

Walker, who designed ballet costumes for the first time for this project, harked back to Diaghilev (as Stowell did when he introduced the panel) when he talked about his work, giving a mysterious and somewhat inaccurate history of ballet costume design. But of course, that’s not his field. The costumes are basically black and white with some touches of red, and I hope they are easier for the dancers to move in than it would appear from the sketches. A cautionary tale here: when Russian painter Tchelitchev designed the original costumes for Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (not a Stravinsky ballet; the  score is by Paul Hindemith) they were so unwieldy that Mr. B grabbed a pair of scissors at the dress rehearsal and started snipping away. Several seasons later, he gave up on them altogether and the ballet has been performed in black-and-white practice clothes ever since.

Having the same costumes for the three segments will unify the collaboration, as will Michael Mazzola’s lighting design and stage structures. Perkins told Mazzola it was a joy to work with a lighting designer who listens to the music, but any lighting designer for dance who’s worth  his salt (as Mazzola definitely is, and not just for OBT) is attentive to music as well as to the dancers themselves.

Without hearing from Roland and Hampton, or seeing a sample of their work, it’s still a little hard to know exactly how successful this collaboration will be when it gets on stage.  Nevertheless, after hearing the panel, seeing some visuals, and hearing some music, I’m not only intrigued, I’m looking forward to seeing it. The program ends with Stowell’s Rite of Spring.

An addendum here, since Clio, the Muse of History, was invoked nearly as often as Terpsichore, the Muse of  Dance: When questions were taken from the audience, a woman who said she hadn’t been alive in the Diaghilev era asked if this kind of collaboration of composer, choreographer, costume and lighting designer takes place very often today. Stowell laughed and said of course he’d invented it, but then said he was sure it happens in many other places around the world. I would add that under the directorship of James Canfield Oregon Ballet Theatre has done this kind of collaboration before, truly in the spirit of Diaghilev, with Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade. That production had magnificent sets designed by easel painter Henk Pander, costumes designed by the late Ric Young and lighting by Peter West, who recently designed the lights for Susan Banyas’s Hillsboro Story. Scheherazade is in the repertories of Nashville Ballet and the Eugene Ballet. It would be nice to see it again in the city of its birth.