If you’re from this area, it’s probably not too far fetched of an assumption that you have witnessed a performance by the Eugene Ballet Company — whether it be the yearly rendition of The Nutcracker or newer performances like last year’s Mowgli. And, if you’ve lived here for a bit, there’s no doubt you have at least heard of the Portland-based musical act Pink Martini.
If you are a fan of either of these artistic endeavors, you might know that Pink Martini and the Eugene Ballet Company actually performed together back in 2006.
Now, 12 years later, the two groups are joining forces again Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 17 and 18, on the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall stage, with Pink Martini playing its eclectic mix of Latin, pop, jazz and classical, and the Eugene Ballet Company performing pieces choreographed by three main choreographers, with a special piece choreographed by members of the Eugene public.
As artistic mediums, dance and music are simultaneously very similar and worlds apart. The dueling art forms have the power to be complex and intricate or simple and minimalistic. Both music and dance can be filled with a sense of ferocious chaos or timid calm.
Yet, their individual genres and styles tend to get boxed up into specific complementary palettes — salsa dancing with Latin music, swing with big band and ballet with classical.
In this way, the stereotypically tranquil nature that accompanies a ballet performance might seem contradictory to the music of Pink Martini — a diverse genre mash-up and multilingual repertoire. But Eugene Ballet Artistic Director Toni Pimble hopes to bring in an audience who likes to think outside of that restrictive box.
“We’re hoping to attract an audience that not only likes ballet but also knows less about us and likes Pink Martini,” Pimble says. “So we’re hoping to cross-pollinate between those people who love Pink Martini and also those people who love dance.”
Originally from England, Pimble co-founded the Eugene Ballet Company in the late 1970s and has been the company’s artistic director and resident choreographer ever since. From the company’s inception, Pimble has choreographed more than 60 works.
“I guess we can’t quite decide when we truly started,” Pimble says. “I guess 1979, so next year is going to be our 40th anniversary.”
The Birth of the Little Orchestra
In 1994, 15 years after Eugene Ballet Company’s founding, Thomas Lauderdale created Pink Martini in the City of Roses. Although the band has released seven studio albums, performed internationally and been nominated for numerous awards, Lauderdale, the group’s pianist, had no intention of creating Pink Martini in the first place.
Lauderdale began playing piano when he was 6 years old, continuing to perform in ensembles, orchestras and other groups as he grew older. Although music has always been a part of his life, he eventually became involved in Oregon politics — some of the politicians he worked under at the time were Portland Mayor Bud Clark and Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt.
Both politically and musically inclined, Lauderdale arranged for the band Del Rubio Triplets, a variety act that found some fame in the 1980s, to come to Portland in 1994 and play a series of concerts including a “big community rights fundraising concert,” Lauderdale says.
At the concert, Del Rubio Triplets had no opening act, so Lauderdale decided to throw on a cocktail dress, jump on stage with a couple of other musicians and perform under the moniker Pink Martini — and thus the self-proclaimed “little orchestra” was born.
Shortly after, in keeping with Lauderdale’s civic inclinations, Pink Martini started playing “political fundraisers for causes such as civil rights, affordable housing, cleaning up the Willamette River, funding for libraries, public broadcasting, education and parks,” according to the group’s website.
“There was never a plan or a goal really, it just sort of unfolded,” Lauderdale says. A big part of that unfolding was bringing on one of Pink Martini’s main vocalists, China Forbes, in 1995.
“I went to Harvard with Thomas, and he called me in New York and asked me to come sing with his band,” Forbes says. “And so I flew from New York for this one weekend of shows, and then he had me come back the next month and the next month after that and I ended up singing on the first album, and then three years later I moved [to Portland] from New York.”
Forbes also had no expectation for the band to make it big. “At first I didn’t think it would be anything but a Portland band and definitely not last 23 years,” Forbes laughs.
Like Lauderdale, Forbes had an extensive background in music. Though she began self-taught, imitating her favorite singers — like Donna Summer, whom Forbes says she was obsessed with as an 8 year old — Forbes began dipping her toes into any musical opportunity she could find as a teenager and young adult.
“I started writing songs in my teens. I played piano and guitar and performed in high school. In college, I was in band and musical theater,” she says. “So I’ve been in choir and glee club and a cappella groups and musical theater and rock bands — every kind of music.”
In her 20s and 30s she began taking voice lessons and learning how to sing opera. All of these different techniques, Forbes says, have helped the way she performs and adapts to Pink Martini’s diverse repertoire.
The band’s varying genres obviously set it apart, but arguably the largest aspect that makes Pink Martini unique is that its music is extremely multilingual.
“We always had a global repertoire from the beginning,” Lauderdale says. “I always studied foreign languages. I liked the freedom to perform songs not in English. We do a lot of songs from different parts of the world so I wanted to keep them in those original languages.”
Forbes says she’s now sung in 20 different languages, though she wishes she had started to keep a list at the beginning.
“It is an adventure singing in all those languages, and a challenge. And usually there are certain languages where I think, ‘No way in hell,’ and then Thomas pushes me and pushes me and I just figure it out,” Forbes says.
The band usually features about 10 members — including its other lead singer Storm Large (who sometimes tours with the group instead of Forbes), violinists, cellists, horns and percussion — plus others if they are performing with backing ensembles or orchestras.
Coordinating with and composing for that many musicians, working with native speakers to write songs in different languages and touring pretty much constantly, it’s clear the members of Pink Martini find challenging performances fun — and that definitely transfers over to performing with live dancers.
“It’s always really amazing to work with dancers, because we express ourselves through words and melodies, and then to see that same expression through movement just adds an incredible third dimension,” Forbes says. “To see our songs be paired with movement is really gratifying.”
Both Forbes and Lauderdale say the biggest challenge of performing with dancers is making sure the music sounds as close to the recordings as possible. “So with dance, the tempos they practice the pieces to, have to be replicated on stage. It’s very, very precise,” Forbes says. “With musicians we can go with anything. If someone jumps a bar or makes a mistake, we just adapt, but that would throw off the dance completely. You can’t make mistakes like that.”
“It requires very deliberate planning,” Lauderdale says.
Movement and Music
For the dancers, a good chunk of that planning began last summer, at least for Suzanne Haag, a dancer and choreographer for Eugene Ballet Company and a co-founder of the nonprofit dance organization #InstaBallet. This is Haag’s 15th season with Eugene Ballet, and the Pink Martini performance will be the third production she’s helped choreograph.
Haag will be choreographing six pieces total for the production, including a jointly choreographed piece with the other two choreographers and an #InstaBallet performance that was created by members of the Eugene public back in July.
Haag and Antonio Anacan, another Eugene Ballet Company dancer, founded #InstaBallet in 2013. Composed of professional dancers, #InstaBallet crowd-sources choreography by letting audience members suggest movements for the dancers during live performances.
Haag recalls the moment she and Anacan came up with the idea for #InstaBallet: “We were probably sitting in Brails Espresso,” she says, “and we noticed everyone was on their phone and that’s how communication has sort of gone — digitally — and we also knew that art and ideas were being shared more instantly than they were in the past. … So we were thinking, how could we do that with dance?”
Haag compares the idea of #InstaBallet to the photo sharing app Instagram. “Like Instagram, you take a picture and instantly other people see it,” she says. “We wanted to be able to share dance as instantly as you could a photo, but not lose the live human interaction, which is what’s being taken away with our devices.”
She adds: “So we thought, what if we showed the audience a ballet as it’s being created … and then we just decided that we needed to make it more interesting — what if we just had the audience tell us what to do?”
Though it started as a one-time side project, #InstaBallet’s first 2013 performance was a success, and a lot of fun for dancers and audience alike, so Haag and Anacan decided to continue to do the performances regularly.
Now #InstaBallet often performs during the First Friday ArtWalk, around downtown Eugene, and at other events. During a performance last summer, Haag and Anacan asked the audience to help create a dance for a Pink Martini song to be used in the upcoming Hult Center performance.
“In July, we did an #InstaBallet performance to the Pink Martini song ‘Andalucía,’ and we asked the audience to choreograph and come up with ideas using the music, using the three dancers and their ideas of what they want to see and how they thought that music would affect the movement,” Haag says. “They knew going into it that this was then going to be turned around, polished up a bit and then performed live in this Pink Martini production, so it gave the audience sort of a special job, because usually, with our #InstaBallets, we output the performance at the end of the night and that’s it.”
She says that occasionally #InstaBallet will perform their crowd-sourced pieces a second time, “but rarely, and never on the Hult Center stage, and never with Pink Martini. So it’s very special.”
She adds: “To get to say that this particular song in this production was choreographed by the Eugene public is great.”
Outside of that special crowd-sourced performance, Haag says the pieces she’s working on by herself have been challenging, but a lot of fun.
“It’s challenging but in a very good way. … It’s been good because their music is so diverse that it’s forcing me to approach movement from a bunch of different angles,” Haag says. “As opposed to if I’ve created a piece in the past, it’s been one mood of music and I’ve sort of approached it in a linear way. And I’m allowing myself to approach each piece in a different way to help myself learn and to explore a little bit that way.”
Along with Haag’s choreography, a few pieces choreographed by Pimble from Pink Martini’s 2006 performance with the ballet will be updated for this new show. The program will also include pieces choreographed by Sarah Ebert, who has worked as a dance instructor at both Lane Community College and the University of Oregon.
“It will be a mix of three women choreographers,” Pimble says with pride.
Since the Pink Martini program lasts only about 50 minutes, the program will also offer an opening dance performance, Pimble says, choreographed by Val Caniparoli — an international choreographer and a resident choreographer of the San Francisco Ballet.
“This is the first time Val is restaging a work for the Eugene Ballet, and it is, I think, a mark of the level of the dancers in this company that he feels comfortable having a work staged with our company, because the companies that he’s going to are top-level companies like the San Francisco Ballet and Hong Kong Ballet,” Pimble says. “So it’s very exciting that we’ll be having one of his works.”
A “Ballet Insider” pre-show talk 45 minutes before the show will allow audience members to learn more about the dance pieces that will be performed.
With both Pink Martini and the Eugene Ballet Company, the seriousness of performing in a “little orchestra” or a ballet has seemed to fade away into fun, excitement and anticipation. And one thing’s for sure: The time, dedication and love both groups have put into perfecting their arts will be worth seeing combined.
“Certainly from the perspective of the dancers, and certainly the audience too, performing with live music brings a vitality that you just cannot replicate with recorded music,” Pimble says. “And, as a band, Pink Martini is a fabulous group of musicians, so for us it’s very exciting to perform with them.” ■
Pink Martini and the Eugene Ballet Company are performing together 7:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 17, and 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 18. Tickets are $15 to $66 at eugeneballet.org.