Tag Archives: Dance United

Martha Ullman West on Dance United: a personal take

Like so many great art forms, dance is a series of interlinked relationships and memories, a tradition that continually redefines and reinvents itself. It lives in the past, and the present, and the future, and its story is written in the memories and associations of open-hearted observers as well as the muscles of dancers and the patterns in choreographers’ minds.

Dance writer Martha Ullman West, one of our best observers, took in last Friday’s Dance United, and for her it was like biting into a madeleine: The reminiscences and connections just began to flow. Somehow, no matter how far-flung, they all looped back to Oregon Ballet Theatre, its history and successes, and this extraordinary event to keep the company alive and vital.

Here is the link to Martha’s review in The Oregonian of the performance. And here, below, is her more personal report on what it all meant:

Daniel Ulbright, New York City Ballet. Photo: BLAINE TRUITT COVERTReally, it was a cross between a potlatch and an Obama rally, a gathering of the clans.

Dancers came from Texas, Utah, Massachusetts, Canada, Washington state, California, Chicago, Idaho, and that other geographical location, in New York called Downtown, here designated as Portland’s modern and contemporary dance community.

The gifts they brought were generous: their talent and their time. And they were welcomed to Keller Auditorium with the same enthusiasm as Obama’s supporters do and did, reaching into their wallets with many relatively small donations to keep Oregon Ballet Theatre alive. On Tuesday, OBT had in hand $720,000 of the $750,000 it needs to make up THIS season’s deficit.

I’ve been watching dance in Portland and elsewhere for more decades that I wish to reveal, and professionally since 1979, when I wrote an essay on postmodern dance in New York for Dance Magazine. In so many ways, this gala triggered some Proustian moments, also making me think of all the ways that dance and dancers are connected to each other.

Linda Austin’s thoroughly postmodern “anybody-can-dance, any-movement-on-stage-is-valid” Boris & Natasha Dancers (on catnip) took me back to New York’s SoHo and a performance created by Karole Armitage consisting of a group of dancers on their hands and knees, painting stripes on the floor, in humorless silence. They were not skilled at either painting or dancing, but it was the same democratic approach to the art form as Austin’s new dance, which featured such pillars of the Portland community as two Bragdons (Peter and David), Scott Bricker, James Harrison and Peter Ames Carlin galumphing across the stage, one of them wearing red sneakers that I wondered if he’d borrowed from White Bird’s Paul King. (Armitage, you may remember, also made work on OBT’s dancers on James Canfield’s watch.)

Sarah Van Patten Damian Smith, SFBallet. Photo: BLAINE TRUITT COVERTThe Joffrey Ballet’s Aaron Rogers, performing Val Caniparoli’s Aria, recalled for me the profound pleasure of watching Val work with Portland dancers, first at OBT’s precursor Ballet Oregon, and then at OBT. Caniparoli’s kindness and courtesy in the studio turned out to be extremely productive when the company performed his Street Songs and other work. Rogers looked like he was enjoying himself, flirting with that mask, and certainly seduced the audience in the process.

And I thought about Mark Goldweber, ballet master at OBT under Canfield, then for some years at the Joffrey, and now at Ballet West. (He gave the only authentic performance in Robert Altman’s dance film The Company, in my view.) I wondered what Mark thinks about the way Adam Sklute, now Ballet West’s artistic director, staged this version of the White Swan pas de deux.

When I encountered this ballet’s real-life Prince Siegfried, Christopher Ruud, at OBT’s studios earlier in the week, I spoke with him about his father, who had helped Todd Bolender at Kansas City Ballet (Bolender is the subject of a book I’m working on). Ruud told me he had staged one of his father’s pieces on the company several years ago.

Continue reading Martha Ullman West on Dance United: a personal take

Not out of the woods yet: Arts groups in a fiscal thicket

Hansel and Gretel, illus. Arthur Rackham, 1909. Wikimedia CommonsThe smashing success of last Friday’s Dance United gala benefit notwithstanding, it’s a Grimm world out there right now for Portland’s arts organizations: There go Hansel and Gretel, trailing bread crumbs as they traipse into the thick of the woods, and here come the birds, pecking away at the crumbs so there’s no trail out again.

There must be some way out of here. What Hansel and Gretel and the Oregon Symphony and Oregon Ballet Theatre and all-classical radio and Portland Center Stage and the rest need is a financial GPS.

For arts groups here and elsewhere, the fissures of the global economic meltdown have become a chasm, a canyon carved by the raging River Deficit. Given the state of the financial union it’s astonishing that Oregon Ballet Theatre has managed to almost wipe out its $750,000 emergency shortfall in less than a month. Celebrate this as a victory, because a victory it surely is.

But the sobering truth is, it’s only the beginning. Now the hard, tough work begins. And it’s going to be extremely difficult keeping up the sort of adrenalin that has at least temporarily pulled OBT back from the brink.

This string of financial crises has predictably pulled out the trollers, the mocking wise guys who laugh and declare that if arts groups can’t survive in the marketplace, they deserve to die (presumably, like Bank of America and General Motors). These loudmouths understand nothing about the not-for-profit world, or if they do understand it, they despise it with every fiber in their rugged-individualist, social-Darwinist bodies. Ignore them. They are happiest when someone shouts back.

Even among arts people the current crisis has inspired a lot of hand-wringing about “dead art forms” and the possibility that in an age of radically new media and runaway-success popular art forms,  people just don’t care any more about things like dance and serious music.

I don’t buy it. In a way, the “traditional” arts have never been more popular. The Oregon Symphony, which has piled up a $1.5 million deficit in the just-ending fiscal year, sold more tickets in the just-past season than ever before. OBT is playing to packed, enthusiastic houses. Portland Center Stage keeps extending its Storm Large musical hit, Crazy Enough. Radio market share at KQAC, Portland’s all-classical station, is booming. As I make the rounds I see good-sized crowds at fringe events, too, from puppet shows to new vaudeville to cold readings of new play scripts. Dance and classical music, for all their financial woes, are undergoing a renaissance sparked by rigorously trained and exquisitely talented young performers — the very people who are supposed to have defected to American Idol and Twitter and “reality” TV. What’s more, they’re extending the boundaries of their art forms, reinterpreting them for today’s world even as they keep their heritages alive.

And audiences have responded. If there’s a crisis — and there is — it isn’t a lack of enthusiastic audiences, who are finding ways to continue to participate even in the midst of their own financial travails. The thirst for art is real, and our greatest hope for long-term optimism.

So what’s the problem?

Continue reading Not out of the woods yet: Arts groups in a fiscal thicket

Missing the ballet: Looks like it was a barn burner


I’ve been out of town but eagerly scanning for news on Dance United, Friday night’s gala benefit to help Oregon Ballet Theatre dig out of its financial hole. According to these front-line reports from Culture Jock at Culture Shock and Barry Johnson at Portland Arts Watch, it was boffo — an absolute night to remember.

And, they report, it was announced at the gala that OBT’s emergency fund drive had hit $690,000 of its $750,000 goal, which makes it highly likely that it will have hit the goal and, if all goes well, more by its June 30 deadline. That’s excellent news — and everyone needs to understand that this is just the beginning, the even-ing of the keel so the tough, unending work can begin of raising enough money on a consistent basis to provide the economic stability and means for growth that this excellent artistic organization needs and deserves. There’ll be lots more news out of OBT in the months to come.

I know that dance writer Martha Ullman West, a charter Friend of Art Scatter, will have extensive coverage of the Dance United gala in Monday’s editions of The Oregonian. Look for it then in print and online at Oregon Live.

In the meantime, Friday night was spectacular, as Blaine Truitt Covert’s photo above, from the grand finale curtain call (that’s OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell in the center with the dancers) attests. Those are some happy faces!

Congratulations to all. Thanks to all the big-time companies from across North America that sent dancers to perform. And many happier days to come.

Going native on the Oregon Coast: a hair-raising tale

Tonight is the gala Dance United in Portland, the all-star benefit to help get financially ailing Oregon Ballet Theatre out of its fiscal sinkhole, and under any other circumstances I would be there with bells, cheering the dancers on.

13733bBut on Wednesday the large smelly boys were paroled from a nine-month sentence in the Portland public school system, and Mrs. Scatter and I had a longstanding deal to whisk them to the Oregon coast to the four-way-split shared getaway we’ve been holding in our own tenuous economic grasp for close to 20 years. And on that subject, just one question: What sort of fool would pay actual money for a share of a piece of property in the shadow of a place called Cape Foulweather?

So here I sit, staring at the oddly quiescent cape (the sun is out, sort of), with a copy of Vince Kohler‘s Eldon Larkin mystery Rising Dog at hand, thinking about this shaggy stretch of oceanfront I’ve come to love. Not that I get out here very often. Regular readers may recall this post about Vince, a kind of forgotten hero of Oregon literature, and his shambling news-hound hero, Eldon, as introduced in the first Larkin mystery, Rainy North Woods.

Rising Dog (the title comes from the curious case of a mutt that’s been run down by a 14-wheeler on busy U.S. 101 and then seems to have risen from the dead) came in 1992, and like the late and lamented Mr. Kohler’s other mysteries, it really ought to be better-known.

Eldon’s stretch of the Oregon Coast, though mythical (there is no actual Nekaemas County), runs south of these parts, nearer Coos Bay territory, where life is less touristy and more hardscrabble, although Newport this week seems in desperate want of those recently disappearing city spenders. Wall Street has not been kind to small towns that rely on the whims of visitors.

Still, I feel I must pass on this description of life in the mythical Port Jerome on a rare day when the rains have ceased and the sun has come a-wandering in:

“The sun had drawn the town’s population from hiding. That was the worst thing about good weather. In the streets were women fifty to eighty pounds overweight, squeezed into blue jeans or blue or white knit polyester slacks. There were stringy, hard-faced men in grubby denims and crushed, grimy baseball caps. There were potbellied salesmen with long sideburns and lined, pouchy faces, and adolescents reveling unaware in their brief season of physical beauty before declining into the sleazy hardness of their elders.”

As I sit here I am wearing a pair of aged, faded jeans, gone stringy at the cuffs and with a hole in the pocket that encourages a trickle-down theory of fugitive pens and pennies. I have on a faded purple T-shirt, a little spongy at the collar, and a gray sweatshirt that is unaccountably my favorite piece of upper-body wear. My “Mo’s West” baseball cap, bearing the emblem of a favored chowder shack, is flung casually close to hand. I make no claims or excuses for the lazy paunch floating beneath my belt. My socks are semi-clean, and my hair has taken on that wild dry look of straw that’s been electrocuted in a summer storm. It does no good to brush or comb it. It’s gone native, and it ain’t comin’ back, not as long as I’m within spitting distance of the ocean. In certain ways, once a small-town boy, always a small-town boy.

Vince meant that description of coastal folk ruefully, but with a certain affection. Eldon’s no Adonis himself. I saw the Adonises, six of them, yesterday, in their black rubber bodysuits, drifting out from the beach by Otter Rock on their surf boards. I’m guessing none of them was a logger or a commercial fisherman or one of those incredible samurai-skilled women who so swiftly gut and clean the salmon and halibut coming in from the tourist fishing-excursion boats to the docks on the Newport waterfront.

One more thing I can’t resist passing along: Vince’s not-so-standard legal disclaimer from the beginning of the book:

Rising Dog is a work of fiction. The novel’s characters inhabit a stretch of the southern Oregon coast that is entirely a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to people, places, or institutions in the real world is an enormous and shocking coincidence. In particular, the Sons of Eiden Hall and its denizens are not intended to represent any actual Scandinavian group.

Skoal to all that.

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.

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

Time to pay it forward to Oregon Ballet Theatre

2007 Nutcracker. Photo: BLAINE TRUITT COVERTYou’ve read here and elsewhere about the deep financial hole Oregon Ballet Theatre has stumbled into. Scatter partner Barry Johnson broke the news in The Oregonian last week that the company needs $750,000, fast, to keep from going under. The problem isn’t getting customers in the seats — OBT’s concerts are extremely popular — but a precipitous 50 percent drop in individual contributions.

The arguments have been made. I believe the loss of this company would be devastating for Portland, even for people who have no interest in ballet. Now’s the time to help.

First: If you can, write a check or use your credit card to make a contribution. I’m doing that. Here‘s where to do it.

Second: Buy tickets to the season finale concert of ballets by Jerome Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon, June 5-7 at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Here‘s where to do it. Or call the ballet at 503-227-0977.

Third: Buy tickets for Dance United, the benefit performance June 12 at the Keller that will bring together dancers from major companies across North America, including New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Washington Ballet, Trey McIntyre Project, Ballet West, BodyVox, White Bird/Minh Tran & Company, Oslund+Co., Linda Austin Dance, and OBT. Program details are here. It’s an astonishing show of solidarity, and an astonishing array of talent. Here‘s where to do it.

Fourth: OBT is organizing an online auction to help raise money. Maybe you have something to donate, or maybe you’re in the market to buy. Here‘s where to get details.

Barry Johnson has been following the situation more closely than anyone else in the press. For more insights, see this and this from his Portland Arts Watch blog and column for The Oregonian.

All together, now. Let’s get this thing done.