Thoroughly modern Rachel Clara Marie

Martha Ullman West, Art Scatter’s chief correspondent, shares some modern and classical moments with dancer/choreographer Rachel Tess and rediscovers that the distance between old and new is often whisker-thin.

Dancer Rachel Tess. Photo: Christa Mariottini

By Martha Ullman West

I took thoroughly modern choreographer Rachel Tess to the opening matinee of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker with me on opening day last Saturday, the day after seeing her compelling tour de force of a solo show, Once a Fool…

Dressed in bright blue cotton trousers, running shoes, and a couple of layers of sweaters and tops, backed by an installation of glass canning jars, Tess in a half hour of a capella movement took us in Once a Fool through a soliloquy of rage and regret, gaiety and bemusement, sometimes using jagged angular movement, other times movement as rhythmic and insouciant as an old-time hoofer.

nutcracker_1Whatever and wherever Tess is performing, whether it is in her friend Paige Prendergast’s Breeze Block Gallery last Thursday and Friday, or at Disjecta during a heat wave the summer before last, she has the presence and confidence of modern/contemporary dancers and choreographers who are far more experienced than she.

Or are they? Tess is a Portland girl, who as a child danced Clara in James Canfield’s first Nutcracker for what was then Pacific Ballet Theatre. She danced other roles in his second version for Oregon Ballet Theatre (in which Clara becomes Marie, as she is in Balanchine’s version, and in Canfield’s later, beautiful take, in which she’s performed by a small-sized company member, such as Vanessa Thiessen).

Then Tess went to Juilliard, where she studied ballet and modern dance, and after that she performed with ballet companies in Canada and Sweden.

When the lights went up after Act One on Saturday, the party scene over, the tree having grown with Marie running, running around the stage to Tchaikovsky’s lilting, lovely music, the battle of toy soldiers and mice having been won with the help of Marie’s thrown shoe, the snow having fallen, Tess turned to me and said, “You know, I remember every bit of that role, and I did it when I was eight.”

This says two things, at the very least. One: Balanchine really did create the template for American Nutcrackers, with that growing Christmas tree, original to him, and the musically running child. Two: for the truly creative artist, everything is grist for the mill.

I saw no turnout, no pas de chats, no fifth position in Once a Fool, but I saw an ease with the space, with her own body and the way it moved that I think she has had since her days of dancing in The Nutcracker.

Tess is one of the choreographers for The Stravinsky Project in OBT’s next show the end of February.  I’m fascinated to see what she does, this young dance maker who has worked in two seemingly antithetical worlds.


PHOTOS, from top:

  • Dancer Rachel Tess in her “Once a Fool …” Photo: Christa Mariottini.
  • Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.