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EW! A Blog.

December 19, 2016 05:42 AM

According to German folklore, nutcrackers were given as symbols of good luck and protection. And who couldn’t use a little of that right about now?

Inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ lighter adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story, the ballet was set to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, for its 1892 Moscow premier.

Though critically well received, The Moscow Imperial Theatre’s Nutcracker didn’t enjoy great success at first, and the acrimonious dynamic between the composer, and his Sugar Plum[p] Fairy, Antonietta Dell'Era, is legendary.

But the fantastical story of Marie (here Clara), her battle with the Mouse King and her journey to the Land of Sweets, endures.

The ballet’s ascendency, to a place of such beloved recognition and lore, is a testament to this music, and to the power of this incredible, indelible story.

After hopping the pond in ’44, with a performance by the San Francisco Ballet, and in ’54, with George Balanchine’s version in New York City, this ballet has delighted generations. The Nutcracker has become a no-miss holiday tradition for many, and as keepers of the torch, the Eugene Ballet Company’s sturdy production twinkles and delights as ever: There is much to love about EBC.

What a delight to enjoy live music.

Brian McWhorter’s Orchestra NEXT and the Cantible Collective, under direction of Chris Dobson, elevate the effort from enjoyable to resplendent.

Live music feels a salve these days, and McWhorter is clearly enjoying bringing terrific live music to audiences. He makes the work approachable, connected, inspiring audience members not to distance themselves from the music, but to enjoy it as though they are taking part in the making of it, through McWhorter’s irrepressible energy and spirit.

And not enough can be said about Toni Pimble’s choreography.

Have I seen this Nutcracker before? Sure, more times than I can count. But it works, and watching it, all I could think was “generous.” There is something inherently humane in Pimble’s eye for detail. Her deep passion for technique and perfection is there, and exacted by her dancers, but Pimble creates something so much more than that. This work is an invitation to audience members to access dance, many for the first time, or for the only time all year. Pimble stewards this art form, holds it, keeps it, with each moment of comic timing, every lush pathway or relationship, every lift, nod, gesture.

Pimble’s artistic acumen and vision stands shoulder to shoulder with giants.

Hats off to the production design team, sets, costumes, props, and lighting: They successfully create Clara’s mysterious and ever-changing world. This show is pure fantasy, yet it’s rooted in glorious, rich detail. The dance shines against an immersive and thorough backdrop.

On to the performances:

Isaac Jones lends a mischievous zip to Drosselmeyer, a character who can come off as a little scary to the younger set. Not Jones’ interpretation, though: His uncle is fresh and lively, with a bouncy, impish quality.

As Hans/the Nutcracker, Reed Souther lends cartoon pilot good looks, and tremendous energy and technique. Souther’s a pleasure to watch, strong and relatable, with terrific acting chops.

As Clara, Yoshie Oshima shines, an incandescent depiction of youth on the cusp of maturity, of hope, and strength. Clara’s a tough cookie! She has a really weird night! And Oshima is up for it: Infusing each step, each gesture, with meaning and connection. She seems fragile and doll-like one moment, and achingly sanguine the next. In her hands, we don’t love Clara. We are Clara.

Yuki Beppu as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Hirofumi Kitazume as her Cavalier, are compelling and vibrant. They come along in act two as a kind of tonic, a pure, powerful expression of beauty. Even the tiny kids seated next to me couldn’t look away: They were simply transfixed. It’s like watching real damn fairies.

Children from the Eugene Ballet Academy add an element of genuine “Aw” to the effort, from baby mice to angels to Bon Bons and Party Goers: This show is special because there are so many kids involved.

And as an ensemble, EBC glows. Too many shout outs to mention, but the whole smorgasbord in the Land of Sweets – coffee, tea, cocoa, etc - delights. 

Can it be “Nutcracker” season again next week? Please?





December 11, 2016 03:55 PM

Ballet Fantastique warmed up a cold, rainy winter’s evening with its latest offering, “The Book of Esther: A Rock Gospel Ballet”, featuring the UO Gospel Singers and live original Persian rock music led by Gerry Rempel and band.

The design team shines here, with rich, illustrative costumes by Donna Marisa Bontrager and Allison Ditson, which transport, from the first moment the dancers enter from the back of the house, carrying warmly lit lanterns.

The gospel music is a soothing and stirring undercurrent, and the choreographers, Donna Marisa and Hannah Bontrager conceive of using these performers artfully, arranging their entrance and spacing cleverly, seamlessly, so that the singers become an integral part of the whole.

Hats off to Andiel Brown, UO Gospel Choir director, as Mordecai in this production. Brown’s voice is compelling and clear, his gestures relatable and connected. He even has a couple of lifts! Bravo.

As Esther, Leanne Mizzoni dances with a precise, yet earnest approach. Her delicate, lyrical quality is tempered by her strength, and as Esther traverses through this narrative, we see Mizzoni’s determination grow. 

A strong duet ends Act One, danced to music by Byron Cage: The pairing exudes a longing, a sinuous connection between Mizzoni and King Xerxes, played here by Justin Feimster.

Feimster anchors the men’s roles. He is physically grounded, convincing, with great acting chops.

As the antagonizing Haman, Gustavo Ramirez throws out a ton of passion, but one wonders if choreographically, there wasn’t something left in his back pocket. (Ramirez dances the hell out of what he’s been given, I just would have liked him to be a bit more of a baddie.)

The ensemble works together nicely, and as a narrative, this classic tale delights, especially with BFan’s musical choices, and a thoughtful and judiciously interwoven narration adding dimension.

At times, group dance work has a predictable rhythmic and patterning cadence, leaning heavily on the 4/4 power of gospel. Set to jazz, BFan’s choreography slips and slides and works over and under the beat, but here, especially in Act Two, the movement at times sacrifices organic dynamic intensity for adherence to the musical phrase.

But we quibble. Will most notice the technical dance structures, and see them repeating? Probably not.

 BFan sets a remarkable course here: Taking an ancient story, making it new and fresh, and presenting it for all audiences.

“The Book of Esther” is a story for the ages, and a timely one at that. 

November 18, 2016 09:32 AM

In Moses(es) last night at White Bird Dance in Portland, Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group took the audience on a journey across time and space, exploring the intricacies and indelible spirit of culture and people, through movement and song.          

            “Why do we lead? How do we lead?” asked Wilson in the post-show talkback. “ And why do we follow?”

            I have to admit, weary from the post-election sobriety and facing an uncertain future, I was ready to live for the next four years in the lobby of PSU’s Lincoln Hall, as the cheerful dance audience assembled there represented the joyful diversity that I think the world should embrace.       

            I’ve followed reviews, and seen snippets of this work on video, but what a glorious opportunity to see it in real life. And timely.

            There was something prescient and cathartic in the telling, something crystal clear. Through his work, with a big heart, keen intelligence and pitch-perfect study, Wilson offers solace, sojourn, and a way forward:

            Exploring the African diaspora and the human global diaspora, Moses(es) interweaves popular religious iconography and storytelling, about Moses himself, with a bedrock narrative about the African American experience.

            The stage opens with the curtain pulled back, seeing the skeleton of the theater for what it is. Project into that rigging a timelessness, a place that isn’t presentational or artistic, but raw, and everywhere. The hollow scaffolds and dangling ropes, the bins and boxes: This could be a ship, a plantation, a city or a citadel.

            Crumpled Mylar tinsel is strewn about the stage in wild ellipses, and Wilson himself stuffs it into a big, red suitcase, as dancers move to their places.

            At one moment, dancers create a low level shape, nestled downstage, their heads facing the audience, they’re packed together in a crowded, comforting tangle that seems regimented and prescribed. My mind leaps to the etchings I’ve seen of the slave ships, with human beings commoditized for expedient shipping, like cargo.

            Later, dancers move with a hieroglyphic precision, delving into the shapes and stasis of stained glass, or reliefs. They seem like superheroes, bigger than life, projecting outwards an image of transparency and hope.

            Wilson transforms dishtowels – dishtowels – into a riveting depiction of slavery itself, repeating the patterns and rhythm of the folding, brushing, snapping of endless labor.

            A large cloth cracks like a whip.

            At another moment, the dancers move in downstage diagonals, creating a parted line for one dancer to leap through, briskly, in a moment of faith.

            In Wilson’s choreography, we see a tremendous development of language and reason, but there’s ease to the telling of this story, too. His facility draws on a deep methodology into modern dance, but his effervescent structure lends a tip of the hat to the postmodernists.

            One of the most stirring moments finds a reimagining of “Wading in the Water” – made famous by Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations’ – but within its slow, aching tempo, Wilson explores violence, and accountability.

            Wilson is never overt or ham-fisted. And his company, stellar performers all, bring a lush and exquisite range to the effort, compounding every alchemic reaction with their own humanity.

            The piece builds, warmly, with invitation to project into it our own thoughts and dreams.

            Wilson says he was inspired by mathematical fractals, “The way something looks at a small scale is the same as at the larger scale,” he says.

            It’s a perfect metaphor for the cutting up of culture, the scattering of home and peoples, all over the world.

            In the post-show conversation, Wilson takes us to a salient moment in the Moses myth:

            “Moses parted the seas, and his followers found themselves walking through the sand, with walls of water on either side.”  

            What must that have felt like?

            Maybe we’re all still finding out.   

October 31, 2016 07:37 AM

Featuring haunting music by Adolphe Adam, and original staging by Louis Godfrey after Marius Petipa, Eugene Ballet’s Giselle stands shoulder to shoulder with any production I’ve seen.

            Set against the backdrop of autumnal, pastoral repose - the harvest is finally in, the latest vintage is ready to be poured, the Rhineland has never looked prettier than it does this fall - Giselle plumbs this bucolic moment for all its gothic glory. Giselle is a ghost story, after all. Boo!

            In the title role, dancer Yoshie Oshima is exquisite, possessing an effortless quality, like spun sugar, she dances with lightness and grace. But underpinning her work is a steel cage of emotion, as Oshima delves fully into the character’s transformative emotional range, from giddy peasant girl, to jilted girlfriend, to ultimate redeemer. Oshima finds the perfect, compelling balance for the role.

            Hirofumi Kitazume, as Giselle’s beloved Count Albrecht, is equally riveting. He moves like a coiled spring, synaptic and powerful, packing tremendous force, and yet he also possesses a nuanced tenderness, and an easy, approachable manner. These roles demand acting, as well as dance, and could easy tip over into the maudlin. But Kitazume never indulges in such frivolity, instead displaying genuine feelings: Ardor, shock, grief and fear. He carries the narrative for the audience, from inciting incident, to the last sad moments. (Newsflash: It’s a tragedy.)

            Reed Souther as Hilarion, Albrecht’s counterpart and another of Giselle’s suitors, also anchors the production. He has an earthier quality to his work, a grounded, sensible approach that offers an alternative to the flashy Albrecht. Spoiler alert: Things don’t end well for him, and throughout, Souther astonishes with his physical conviction and emotional conveyance.

            As a whole, this ballet really shows off Toni Pimble’s pitch-perfect musicality, and the ensemble’s flawless timing. Throughout, there’s little for the audience to do but sit back, relax, and take this mesmerizing journey. Pimble’s approach is precise, but always humane. Somehow, she never loses sight of the relational storytelling the dance is meant to convey, even as she dishes out technique that shines.

            The corps in Act One explores pleasing configurations and the geometric shapes, that harken back to the simpler time, and perhaps its folk dances, that this romantic ballet epitomizes. The pas de quatre towards the end of Act One exemplifies the versatility and strength of the dancers, with Victoria Harvey, Suzanne Haag, Mark Tucker and Colton West, all turning in terrific performances.

            And Act Two is all about the ladies: Danielle Tolmie as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, sets a gold standard for the corps, dancing with ferocity and a blithe fragility. Tolmie is a wonder, almost weightless, her technique extraordinary, and the faceless, blank stares of the Wilis that surround her create a sensation of coolness and reproach.  Has your man done you wrong? The ultimate squad, these punishing gals have your back. (Just wait until dark.)

            Costumes by Amy Panganiban and sets by Russell Coburn, lend magic, transporting the viewer from the warmth and conviviality of a Bruegel painting, to the cold, clear twilight of lost love.

            Happy Halloween.





October 23, 2016 03:06 PM

White Bird Dance presented Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company’s Wallflower, Oct 22, at Lincon Hall on the Portland State University campus.

            A richly luxuriant piece, Wallflower investigates relational connections in and around a contrived space, a two-sided wall, hard-sided and sturdy, that dancers can slide up and across.

            The performers are uniformly strong and committed, wearing brightly colored knit bodysuits, they move with a collective pulse and rhythm through ambient music by Unitaro Abe, Mayu Gonto and Hirofumi Nakamura.

            The piece has a methodical, somber quality, with mysteries and inventions providing some accent from the staid work. At times, the structures of the dance veer into the predictable, as canons and crossings give way not to variation, but simply repetition.

            Would the piece be as effective without these darn cool unitards? It’s hard to say. There is something overly wrought in the characters presented. Zvi Fishvon wears an enormous knitted costume, and seems to swallow other dancers whole, transforming into a monstrous, grub-like visage.

            Other moments, too, churn and crackle like verdant insects munching, and have a quality of unrest, of dis-ease.

            Jeremy Alberge is compelling, crisp and clean, his technique and expression in perfect harmony. Oz Mulay, too, has an intriguing presence, heartfelt, open. Cordelia Lange is also compelling, somehow raw yet elegant, a mover with broad and encompass capacity to communicate. All the dancers have an ethereal, yet earthy quality, stripped bare when the knitwear comes off, to reveal a universal: tank tops and men’s underwear for all.

            Clocking in at one hour, the piece generates more heat in its last ten minutes than  in the first fifty. It finds its legs and creates dynamic, gorgeous pathways and level changes, careening through space with a celestial cadence.  A fascinating meditation.

            This company is one to watch. 

October 17, 2016 05:24 AM

Ballet Fantastique delivered a warm and lovely confection in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a Parisian Jazz Ballet.

            Set in jazzy 1920’s Paris, the performance swept through Austen’s enduring story with a breezy, yet thoughtful, pace. The Regency Era is a tough time to be single, and as the five “Bennette” sisters express varying degrees of ardor and rancor, at their potential suitors, BFan really comes alive.

            Hats off to the Gerry Rempel Jazz Syndicate, whose live music was an integral part of the production. Vocalists Amy LeSage and Susanna Meyer were especially transporting, evoking the unmistakable ennui, affection and joy that decades of Jazz produced. Their voices were like a time machine. Just delightful.

            BFan’s choreography is first-rate throughout, enjoyable, moody, lively and fun. Their work is accessible and approachable, and they utilize what they have to great effect. Ashley Bontrager as Lizzy sails, but all the sisters bring impish, devoted energy to their work.

            Natanael Leal is stunning as outsider George Wickham. Gustavo Ramirez retains a suitably haughty air as Darcy, and Justin Feimster has fun as Bingley.

            As character tropes, the five sisters and their paramours are progenitors of so many works that followed them, and they’re each quite distinct, in the way Austen writes them. To the degree that they can within the confines of ballet, BFan explores the subtleties between and among their stylistic approaches, though group numbers rely on unison.

            The dance looks polished and complete, and dances are uniformly confident and danced with great enthusiasm and rich, decorative detailing in the arms and footwork. BFan’s aesthetic doesn’t push across the space aggressively, it doesn’t shout or shock, but relies on consistently interesting relational connections, intricate pathways and nuanced characterization.

            Adam Goldthwaite narrates as Vicar Collins, and even gets into the action. Goldthwaite is clearly having a ball in his role, and carries the narrative forward for those who are unfamiliar. Still, there is room in Goldthwaite’s delivery for more modulation, a softening, especially when he’s speaking not his own character’s lines, but Austen’s precious narrative prose. This Austen-ite (named my firstborn daughter Jane!) could have used a tad more sincerity from Goldthwaite as the piece drew to a close.

            Costumes designed by Donna Marisa Bontrager and constructed by Allison Ditson fit the bill, as bright and full of hope as a box of macarons from the finest Parisian pastry shop.

            Genevieve Speer and Deborah Speer have helped to shape the libretto, no small task, surely.

            The set and backdrop were a darling diversion from the bleak rain outside, a ribald expression of dopey, adoring love. And why not?

            BFan has a good thing going. They received a standing ovation, richly deserved. They’re making an austere art form accessible to new audiences. I saw people of all ages in the audience, having a great time with movement and theater that they could relate to.

            A BFan supporter spoke before the show about their work to bring children from the Jasper Mountain treatment center to see BFan productions. Hats off to these types of efforts. We should all find ways to make dance a part of everyone’s lives.  

October 15, 2016 10:00 AM

The Northwest Screendance Exposition’s second annual presentation drew a variety of engaging short films, both elaborately creative endeavors and interesting documentaries, from around the world.

            What a rich endeavor! We’re fortunate for the Northwest Screendance’s effort to bring new, thought-provoking, international art right to our doorstep.

            In the documentary category, contributions train a light on the art of Screendance itself, with a fascinating look behind the scenes on how dance and film conjoin to create new vistas. Artists explore boundaries of shape and form, relational dimensions between and among dancers, as they connect with spaces, props, and places. These efforts push into new exciting territory, engaging whole cities and cultures with contemporary art.

            The Screendance short film category is equally compelling.

            Damien Smith’s Arrellah provides arresting imagery, both textural and strong. Wake by Holly Wilder and Duncan Wilder explores auditory impulses, and a deep inquiry into gesture.

            In Between, by Blake Horn and Liilian Stamey, is set in a beautiful natural setting, but the jerky filmic technique and repetitive movement led one to wonder: Would the dance be interesting if you saw it on a bare stage?

            That’s an overall question about this art form that walks a tense line between film and dance.

            In some instances, the medium enhances the human expression, brightening the filter, narrowing the focus.

            Such is the case with 1180+More, by Riccardo de Simone. This playful musing on line drawings that morph and transform in keen animation brings out new ideas, without taking itself too seriously.

            Another highlight is My “Best” Friend, According to Him, by Josh Anderson and Logan Hall. The piece thrusts movers into everyday situations, with physical comedy and full-contact gaffs, at the office, the gym, the grocery store. Is it more shtick than dance? Maybe, but it’s not trying to be more than what it presents.

            Another piece that balances dance effort with what film can do is Dance of the Neurons by Jody Oberfelder and Eric Siegel. The piece explores shape and form in whimsical ways, but loses itself at times in editing gimmicks.

            Some pieces seem like cool sketches that could evolve into completed works. Many feature nature, or decrepit buildings, as their settings.

            Mitchell Rose and Bebe Miller have collaborated on an ambitious international piece, Globe Trot that carries simple movement from one person to another, all around the world. Though ambitious, and artfully put together, there’s not much that’s new about this idea, as versions in music and dance have bubbled up and gone viral for the last decade or so. 

            Promenade by Cirila Luz Ferron, Florencia Olivieri and Manislla Pons plays with effects, close-ups, focus, filters, with a disembodied, dramatic edge.

            Eclipse, by Linda Arkelian and David Cooper, offers a meditation on the male dancer, in a well lit, slow motion exploration.

            As a viewer, a question arises throughout the program: Would I want to watch this, if it were just a dance? Is the movement itself interesting, or does the production rely on editing, camera angles, or setting, to create and suspend the effort? What do I get from the movement alone?

            One example is Without Boundaries, by Cara Hagan and Robert Gelber. Great location, fun movers – I just wanted to see dance that was more compelling in its own right, without the trappings of the film.

            It is a treat to see effort from all around the world, right in Eugene. Kudos to the Northwest Screendance producers for their vision and fortitude. We’re fortunate that they see the value of bringing something new to our shores.

            As a student of dance history, I’m fascinated by this new space that dance and multimedia artists are collaborating within. It taps into a current that reminds me of the modernists and post-modernists, and I’m enjoying seeing the further blurring between once-distinct art forms.

            Thank you to the Northwest Screendance folks: Parched for new work, this expo was a tall drink of water. 

October 8, 2016 06:59 AM

Xcape Dance Company presented X last night, at the Hult Center’s Soreng Theatre. Artistic director and choreographer Vanessa Fuller offered a high-energy evening, with her own company, and visiting guests.

            The first half of the program’s highlights included a salsa number, well-executed by Jenna Trotter and her partner. Nathan Boozer’s Work Dance Company made a splash with Pitbull, featuring Boozer himself on a leash. Ari Zreliak-Hoban and Cindy Zreliak’s ZAPP offered a cheeky entrée to HipHop. And the Dance Factory had fun with their tribute to Michael Jackson, with choreography by Roshny Bhakta.

            Fuller’s work is confident and stylish, as evidenced in Candy, and All About Dat Booty. Her dancers, of varying ability and technique, all work hard for her, expressing exuberance and joy of movement.

            Pieces, a group number featuring singer Isaac Turner and a projected film, suffered a bit from staging issues, as the various components fought for primacy.

            Singer Shelby Trotter brought the exciting element of live music to the stage for Latch,and while her performance took a few pitches, it was earnest and complimentary to the dancer’s freestyle explorations.

            Mason King’s solo was the standout in the first half. Thoughtful, compelling, and with an inherent structure.

            After intermission, Fuller offered her version of Cell block Tango, from the 1975 musical Chicago. Bob Fosse left some pretty big shoes to fill, and the question is: Do we imitate his unmistakable style, or do our own thing? Well-danced, this piece somehow felt disjointed, like a combination of sexy pedestrian movement, and dance tricks.  

            Drops of Jupiter, along with Say Something in the first half, expressed a more lyrical side for Fuller, with younger dancers gamely delving into the balance, extension and form required.

            Flex offered Urchin by Angela Dunham, a meditation on shape and relationships.

             And throughout the second act, Fuller’s work expressed a variety of moods.  Her solo for a young dancer in Hot Note was lively and appropriate, for the dancer’s age, and abilities.

            (Note: Individual dancers have not been credited in the program, except where they were also choreographers.)

            Aesthetically, Fuller’s work is vibrant and fun, but throughout a whole evening, one sees the same recurring lexicon of moves that she relies on.

            And the overall effort seems to focus on creating a multitude of shorter pieces, rather than on developing any one piece beyond the length of a piece of popular music. Throughout, dancers mouth the lyrics to songs.

            Most pieces are in unison, which is difficult to pull off with a variety of technical levels, and front facing.

            Izikuala Huntley presented a solo last night that underscores his technical artistry, and strong musicality. It would be interesting to see what he would do with a group work. 

June 30, 2016 03:15 PM

Beall Hall is a great place to hear chamber music and especially to hear very small ensembles: The room is so lively and sensitive it's like sitting inside a giant musical instrument. The air rings like a bell with the slightest touch from the musicians, and last night's string trio made the most of it.

The short opening Haydn trio had great thoughtfulness and just the right amount of whimsy. The musicians gave each section of each movement its own distinct voice, like a series of characters jumping onstage, each with his or her own costume and personality. Violinist Ida Kavafian played with great command, without sacrificing buoyancy and fun.

In the D-major Beethoven, the trio showed audacious rhythmic skill, giving listeners that pleasingly headlong feeling of almost but not quite stretching it too far. This was especially true in the Andante quasi allegretto, where the the musicians maintained a confident pulse while shifting speed within a phrase or even a single bar.

The effect was a little like the fun of being on a thrill ride at the County fair: you know you're safe, so you can just sit back and enjoy the wonderfully delirious momentum.

Somehow, Beethoven can make a violin, a cello and a viola sound like a whole orchestra. The trio's fortissimos in this piece didn't sound like three strings hitting a chord together, but rather like the big, oceanic swells of one of the composer’s symphonies.

The six-movement Mozart Divertimento that made up the second half of the concert gave many opportunities to hear each instrument shine on its own, as delicious Mozart melodies bounced from one to another.  What a treat to hear Peter Wiley, cellist of the Guarneri String Quartet, here in Eugene. He played with a mesmerising, silky tone and hypnotic composure.  And violist Steven Tenenbom--especially in the Allegro--seized the audience’s attention with his playing, completely free while completely assured, delightfully filling the hall with music.

Accenting the Divertimento, a less-enthralled patron in front of us decided to contribute to the performance by taking out her glowing smartphone, and plainly scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, rearranging her personal contacts, and sending a few emails, as the music played. (A thought: Would Mozart have written anything if there'd been Snapchat or Vine in the 1700's? Would we have his oeuvre of miraculous work if he’d had access to an endless supply of distracting baby panda videos? Discuss.)

After finishing with her mid-concert online foray, the audience member pulled out her checkbook, and during the softest, most achingly beautiful part of the andante, made a big show of writing a check -- even accounting for it in her checkbook ledger.

I know they wouldn't accept it, but... let’s hope it was a tip for the musicians.

June 24, 2016 03:33 PM

Bach's masterful B-minor Mass was much beloved and often programmed by Bach Festival co-founder and longtime Artistic Director Helmuth Rilling. So, when Artistic Director Matthew Halls opened the Festival with the piece last night, he was both brave and wise to give an extraordinarily different, non-Rilling performance in 'historically informed' style. Halls led the Berwick Chorus, OBF Baroque Orchestra, and soloists, in offering us a B-minor Mass that was bound to challenge the OBF audience, but rewarded listeners with exquisite musicianship and a deep meditation on Bach's musical genius.

For a listener used to hearing modern orchestras playing modern instruments, it takes a good long time--maybe the better part of an hour--for the ear to adjust to period instruments and style. During this acclimatization, the effect can be frustrating, even aggravating, like someone kissing you gently when you want them to kiss you...less gently, or like eating a lovely meal that, you think, would be really delicious if only you could put some more salt on it. Once your attention adapts, though, the experience dramatically shifts. That gentle kiss is full of tender nuance and sensation. The food reveals marvellous flavors you just didn't notice at first.

To heighten the challenge, while last night's quiet instruments may have been of period 18th-century style, the Silva Hall is decidedly not. Bach's music would have been performed in lively, even echoing spaces, where one note could hang in the air and blend into the next one. The Silva, on the other hand, is famously sound-absorbent. What to do? Halls responded to the acoustic challenge with a tour de force of precision and clarity, giving the evening the virtuosic intimacy of a chamber music concert. For those willing to make the aural adjustment, Halls' direction offered breathtaking feats of texture and color, and gave artful structure to each chorus, aria and duet with the most subtle dynamic shaping.

Through a kind of creative alchemy, Halls pours the sounds of the OBF Baroque Orchestra and the Berwick Chorus into one another in a way that modern instrumentation cannot allow.

For singers, 'historically informed' performance means trading broad vibrato for a purer tone, which allows Bach's harmonies to ring with celestial perfection seemingly right inside your brain. Baritone Morgan Smith was particularly fine in the Quoniam tu solus sanctus, accompanied adroitly by Andrew Clark on corno da caccia (an ancestor of the modern French Horn.) Also noteworthy were the otherworldly trio between tenor, cello and flute in the Benedictus and the delightful, confection-like violin/soprano duet in the Laudamus te. The Berwick Chorus displayed astonishing dynamic control throughout the Mass. At the burial of Christ, for example, the singers sustained a pianissimo so delicate and pure you weren't sure whether you were hearing it or just feeling it like a gentle breath of air.

The B-minor Mass is a perfect fit for this year's Festival theme, "Take the Journey." It creates a musical universe encompassing intricate fugues and dreamlike melodies, heavens-bursting trumpet blasts and delicate duets and trios. The journey has a meditative end, not a showy one: The final aria, a haunting Agnus Dei (sung beautifully last night by countertenor Christopher Ainslie) fades into the gentle swelling and transcendent peace of the closing Dona Nobis. We are left to contemplate the message Bach has left us at end of a very long, visionary life of searching deeply into beauty, and into God.

Music nerds would have appreciated being able to follow a listing of all twenty-seven choruses and arias in the program rather than just the eight sections of the mass. Also, the program lists the obbligati and continuo instrumentalists by name, while the rest of the orchestra is credited as "OBF Baroque Orchestra." The members of the Berwick Chorus are listed by name later in the program, but this reviewer could not locate a similar list of the Baroque Orchestra musicians. Having dedicated their lives to the perfection of their art, and having played like a veritable band of angels in the Silva Hall last night, they deserve to be clearly credited.

June 18, 2016 06:54 AM

GARNERDANCES premiered Strings! An Evening of Dance, at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, June 17.

            The evening’s length work featured dancers Shannon Mockli, Laura Katzmann, Mariah Melson, Suzanne Haag, Antonio Anacan, and Cory Betts, with choreography, costumes and lighting design by Brad Garner.

            The first standout to mention is the space itself: This was our first time seeing OCT adapted for dance, and it works, and works beautifully.

            The simple black Marley dance floor visually stretches the stage, hurling dancers practically into the front row of the audience. The exquisite, thoughtful lighting plot allows for moments of genuine intimacy, and total exuberance.

            Eugene has needed a venue to see dance that is this shape and size. It’s perfect for contemporary pieces, dance and performance art, that could be drowned out, or lost in a cavernous concert hall.

            And there’s something exciting about seeing work that’s nestled into an audience on three sides, instead of the dreary proscenium. For some reason, it feels more awake and alive, like the audience is almost a participant.

            To OCT, a challenge: More, more, more dance, please. And to Garner: Bravo for choosing this space. Great spot to premier your work.

            The evening’s work played with strings, starting with a strong ensemble set to Vivaldi, entitled “Flora”. Bold, florid, the piece interweaves traveling patterns and relational patterns, a delightful confection. (The post-performance Q&A confirmed this dance history buff’s running thoughts while watching the lush work, which borrows heavily from titans of 20th century dance.)

            But who cares? It works. Playing with signature riffs and static shapes, the piece is a vibrant, fresh hook: Inviting the viewer into the experience.

            Mariah Melson dances a keening solo in “Shrine”, and Mockli and Garner share a duet in “Sanctum” that is simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.

            Garner uses the space smartly, allowing for entrances and exits not only from the upstage wings, but also from the theater’s two voms. Costume changes accompany every piece, and at times, he has the dancers themselves provide the light source.

            Suzanne Haag, Antonio Anacan, and Cory Betts explore weight and rhythm in “Pendulum”.

            Garner incorporates animation by Eric Toucheleaume in “Anatomy of a Tropical Home”, playing with the resonance between and among the architectural shaping that dancers create, and the riveting process of building structures.

            Dynamically, Garner’s work is approachable and easy to watch. He has a confident hand, but clearly allows for dancers to exude their own swag, their own mastery and to make their own contributions. As a viewer, that’s exciting. That is what makes dance live.

            “Torch (for Orlando)” was a crowd favorite, an ensemble piece about the simple connections made in moments of flirtation.

            As an ensemble, the GARNERDANCE Company melds well. Though they may have differing professional backgrounds, the “ballet” dancers and “modern” dancers in Garner’s company mesh and balance each other.



April 23, 2016 06:19 AM

Eugene audiences were treated last night to “Nufonia Must Fall”, a multi-disciplinary collaboration between turntablist/graphic novelist Kid Koala (aka Eric San) and filmmaker KK Barrett, featuring the stunning Afiara String quartet, and a host of puppeteers, camera operators, sound and technical directors. (More on them later.)

            Before the performance in the Silva hall began, audience members were down front, taking a peek at what was to unfold: Tiny sets, like little shoebox-sized dollhouse rooms, littered the stage, with cameras and lights set up around them. Here and there, little puppets could be spotted, one to ten inches high. A full deejay kit loomed next to four music stands and accompanying chairs. Above, a movie screen. What the heck is going to happen?

            After a brief game of Nufonia bingo as a warm-up, Sans chatted with the crowd about the origin of the word “Nufonia” – Essentially, it’s a city of “No Fun.” (“That’s not Eugene though, right?” Sans quipped to wild applause.)

            “So we’re gonna do this movie now, in one take,” Sans says.

            “Nufonia Must Fall” is a full-length film, in three acts, performed live, with live accompaniment. That would be tricky enough, and it’s been done. But what’s happening here is something altogether new: A bevy of ninja puppeteers zoom to the set for the next film shot, light it, get their puppet in place, the camera rolls, and voila: A little scene unfolds, and the movie gets projected on the big screen.

            The narrative follows the life of a little earphone-wearing robot, who looks like a stack of marshmallows, as he tries his robot hand at a series of dead end jobs. (He’s continually being sacked, replaced by the faster, more efficient HexBot 9000…)

            But the robot meets a girl, Malorie, and the film takes a different path. It’s a simple love story, after all, and with its monochromatic set and characters, is reminiscent of the great romantic movies of the 1930’s and 40’s. (I wished my grandparents could have seen it. They would have loved it.)

            If you’re lucky enough to sit up close to the stage, you can see the artistic tricks that translate onto the screen transpiring in real time: A revolving carousel of mini storefronts, for example, transforms on camera, giving the illusion that the robot is walking down the street. Snow falls from a sifter; rain is a sheet of plastic with raindrops etched into it.

            “Nufonia” creates an intersection between classical music – the Afiara quartet is a wonder, not only providing gorgeous, lush music, but voicing the movement of the robot himself, all his squeaks and whirs – and the dj booth, between live performance, and film.

            Gesturally, the robot and his love interest communicate everything, with the tilt of a head, the fall of a chest, or the proud swagger of a robot on a mission to deliver a mixed tape to his new girlfriend.

            We learn these cues before we ever learn words: the visual representation of the face and the body clues us into the full range of human emotion, and here Sans, Barrett - and their incredibly talented team - have taken the leap between our earliest and most vital understanding of feelings, and embodied them in this tiny world made of paper and resin and ink.

            The results are nothing short of magical.


April 11, 2016 10:47 AM

Eugene audiences were treated to two world premieres yesterday, as the Eugene Ballet Company presented Suzanne Haag’s Look and Toni Pimble’s The Great Gatsby.

            Haag’s work dove into the stark new reality of mass choreography – the dance we’re all (perhaps unwittingly) enthralled with as we tune into mobile devices, rather than each other. Set to charging music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, and featuring lush solos by Kaori Fukui, the ensemble rose to the occasion for this piece, finding subtlety and nuance within the sometimes-dissonant range of movement. Haag plays with themes around relationship and communication by breaking the classical ballet lines, by tweaking the angles or skipping the beat – she demonstrates the discord that arrests people in their tracks as they pan over the latest viral video, or stop to take a group selfie.

            Haag is one of the founders of Instaballet – an exciting, boundary-breaking improv group that seeks to demystify dance. We hope to see more of her work in the future, and to see how she continues to develop as an artist.

            Look made an interesting companion to Gatsby, since the famous jazz-age novella expresses contempt for the decadence of that era’s excesses, even underneath all the glitz and glamour.

            (Are there parallels that could be made between posting a picture of the perfect brunch to Instagram, and hosting a massive party on your West Egg estate? Discuss.)

            Pimble’s choreography shimmers, finding precise bearings and powerful energy within the loose, drunken atmosphere. She plays with swing, Charleston and partner work that echoes the innovation of the creative times.

            Set to music by Wynton Marsalis, the full-length work pulses like a pot on simmer, that slowly comes to a rolling boil, heating up with intrigue and the omnipresent humidity of an inescapable (pre air conditioning) New York summer.         The music is like its own character here, a voice from a different time and place, played to perfection by Orchestra Next, under the direction of the inimitable Brian McWhorter, who serves double duty on trumpet.

            How much fun is Mr. McWhorter having? By the looks of it, a lot, and the band, along with the dance, had a transformative quality, rendering the formalism of the Silva Concert hall to a kind of speakeasy, to a bathtub gin party we were all invited to.

            Lighting design by Michael Peterson, and sets by Josh Neckels and Barry Rodgers, set the mood. 

            Costume design by Toni Pimble, coordinated by Shauna Durham, burnished the story, evoking the pearlescent heyday, and enhancing character and plot.

            And hats off to the creative team that brought a 1929 Mercedes Benz onstage. Let us heretofore give up our economy cars and go back to driving only roadsters.

            The lead dancers embody their roles with panache, from Mark Tucker as the stoic Gatsby, to Cory Betts as Nick Carraway, to Isaac Jones as Tom Buchanan, and Reed Souther as George Wilson, the dancers elevate every gesture, every look, with an actorly commitment that matches their physical verve.

            The women, too, are hard to forget: Victoria Harvey as Daisy Buchanan, Beth Maslinoff as Jordan Baker and Danielle Tolmie as Myrtle Wilson, imbue every scene with passion and a kind of doomed frivolity.

            Pimble finds opportunities for other dancers to stretch out: As guests at the party, Yoshie Oshima and Hirofumi Kitazume pretty much steal the show.

            As a complete concert, these two pieces – though quite different – are thoughtfully complementary, with Haag’s soloist almost serving as a set of oculist eyes, looking down on our moment in history, and its excesses, as we drive by unawares. 

April 7, 2016 11:00 PM

The capacity crowd at Beall Hall Friday night was only satisfied after not one, but two standing ovations for Joan Szymko’s new work “Shadow & Light”, performed beautifully by the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble, the Eugene Concert Orchestra and soloists Marietta Simpson, Sarah Joanne Davis and Brendan Tuohy, under the direction of artistic director and conductor Diane Retallack. 

            Portland-based Szymko has created something tangibly warm and accessible, giving voice to the duality between caretaking and caregiving, between receiving support, and losing a loved one, to Alzheimer’s or dementia.

            Subtly, with dignity, the artist combs through dialogue and poems, disparate threads that tie together thematically into three distinct phases of the disease and its effects:

            Part I: The Cloud of Forgetting, explores the brash realization that something is amiss, as patient delves into the cacophony of the diagnostic whorl, and is confronted with the cold realization that Alzheimer’s has settled into his or her life.

            Spoken dialogue, voiced by Lexy Wellman and Robert Killen, is cached within the lush score. These lines, trapped in amber, arrest the listener with their honesty. Bassist Milo Fultz offers counterpoint to the language, humanizing and elevating it with a kind of approachability and ease.

            In “Memory Aids”, Mezzo-soprano Mariette Simpson’s haunting, reserved portrayal of a woman who clings to the routines of daily life in order to appear normal, enough, is unforgettable.

            Part 2: Uncontainable Night, delves into the pain of losing, slowly, bit by bit, memory, relationships, independence. It’s about fear, yes, and the exquisite strength it takes to hang on every single day. And in “Sundowning” – a section about the fears and challenges of looking after someone when they have begun to need greater care, when they’ve begun to wander restless in the night, confused, is heart wrenching, with tenor Brendan Tuohy and soprano Sarah Davis voicing the caregiver’s desperate plea for just a little respite.

            Szymko has created a work here that is more than a piece of music. It has a theatrical quality, as it weaves together, seemingly effortlessly, language ranging from quotes from patients and their loved ones, to poems by Emily Dickinson, Ranier Maria Rilke, to Corinthians.   

            Part III: I and Thou transcends, richly exposing the warm embrace within the not knowing, within the stillness of love that persists without words, without cognitive networks.

            In “Love Bears All Things”, cellist David Straka is a triumph in a solo that brings everything home.

            Musically, the work is cinematic and lush, enjoyable. For average audiences, our access to contemporary classical music is through film scores, and “Shadow & Light” bears that rewarding countenance that draws us in.

            Szymko has captured here the deep, persistent love a mother feels for her child, and translates it to the shifting, gravelly terrain of coping with a loved one’s unraveling brain.

            Underneath that work, the day-to-day, the challenges, there is hope, and real beauty: What’s left behind, she finds, is the purity of connection, the elegant, elusive parasympathetic offerings between people who simply love each other, even if they can’t remember who, what, where or why.


            This piece should be played everywhere.