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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.

           

            

March 14, 2016 10:12 AM

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion shared an exquisite evening at the Newmark Theatre in Portland Saturday night, as part of Whitebird’s Uncaged series.

            Opening with “The Quiet Dance”, a quintet set to Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time”, this work built organically around simple gestures, from the swivel of knees and elbows side to side, to the slow descent of a head, alone, or against another. Abraham played with connection here, relating dancers to self and other, finding moments of counterpoint, without being heavy-handed or glossy. His organic style delved into lovely canonical structures without feeling artificial or contrived, as he boldly carved the stage space into two separate fields of vision.

            “Absent Matter” featured video design by Naima Ramos Chapman, with music ranging from Kendrick Lamar to Kanye West that brought to the fore images of racial injustice and our society’s cultural brutalities. Abraham himself danced in this piece, slipping seemingly effortlessly between a classical dance vernacular and the raw-selvage edge where hiphop meets it. His performance was electric.

            Soloist Tamisha Guy pulsed with energy throughout the piece, lending tremendous gravitas despite her gamine frame. An arresting moment came when two dancers, Matthew Baker and Jeremy “Jae” Neal faced upstage, disrobed from the waist up, under a series of footage of Eric Garner being killed. Abraham takes stillness, no movement at all, as the greatest commentary.

            In “The Gettin’”, set to Robert Glasper’s interpretation of Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, Abraham plows even more deeply into the roots of racism, exploring the similarities between Apartheid South Africa, and the U.S.

Jazzy and lyrical, yet pointed and gripping, this piece sings from a deep, guttural place.

            Throughout the evening’s work, Abraham feathers the accelerator and the brakes, finding just the right momentum to share his vision. His artistic voice is clarion and confident, and his dancers exceptional.   

March 2, 2016 05:45 AM

Jersey has taken over the Hult, and audiences are happy.

            Long-running Broadway hit “Jersey Boys” opened last night, and with its familiar tunes and Cinderella story – of four charming guys who make their way from singing under a streetlamp, to selling out shows across the country – how could it not appeal? People love this stuff.

            Aaron De Jesus has some big shoes to fill as Fankie Valli. How often does a voice like his come along? Still, De Jesus is game, with a rich falsetto and tons of energy.

            Matthew Dailey brings a wise guy charm to his role as Tommy DeVito, really nailing the Newark accent. (This reviewer lived in Staten Island for seven years, which might as well be New Jersey…)

            Keith Hines as Nick Massi possesses a thuggish charisma, and as the “baby” of the group – teen wonder Bob Gaudio – Drew Seeley has an ‘aw shucks’ sensibility that draws the audience in.

            All singers are first rate.

            Under direction by Des McAnuff, the production chugs along. One can see why it’s done so well – it asks little of the audience, with a cheery biographical story laid out through short vignettes, but mostly, it’s about the songs. There are just so many great songs. Even if you’re not of the generation that heard these songs on the radio when they aired for the first time, you can probably still appreciate the otherworldly hooks built into every single hit after hit. It’s quite a cannon.

            “Jersey Boys” touches on the group’s burgeoning appeal, by relating to the many popular groups at the time, and their penchant for imitation. The Coasters, the Four Tops, the Temptations… In a sense, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons owe a debt of gratitude to groups that pioneered a music and movement brand.  

            Choreographer Sergio Trujillo borrows a generous helping of the subtle unison movements that defined the era, but at times, there’s something almost too perfect, too strong, in their execution. Part of what made dance an integral part of these sixties quartets was its approachability – adding a little razzle-dazzle, but mostly, inviting audiences in. The quartet here executes their moves with polish and precision, but sometimes could have dialed back the crispness to find a little more sex appeal.

            The story of the meteoric rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons continues in Eugene for another week.

            Now if this reviewer could just get those darn songs out of her head… 

February 15, 2016 06:57 AM

The Eugene Ballet Company performed boldly Sunday afternoon, with a program that delighted the senses, starting with “White Noise” by choreographer Amy Seiwert.          

            Interweaving nuanced pairings and solo work, Seiwart’s visually arresting piece employed clever technology, infrared cameras trained on the dancers themselves, to paint the stage in a wash of color and light. Set to evocative music by Zoë Keating, the work captured the geometric artistry of the dancers, their lines in space, amplifying and clarifying their intention and abilities. The light itself almost seemed like another elusive, larger-than-life, company member, such was the seamlessness of dance/visual interaction.

            The EBC dancers seemed delighted to perform in this piece, energized and engaged – not merely bathing in static theatrical lighting – but reveling in creating visual art, live onstage.

            Credit for the lighting design goes to Kelly Baum and Brian Jones, with the overall visual design by Frieder Weiss. The staging of the piece was by Nicole White and Gabriel Williams, with simple and elegant costumes by Christine Darch.

            Unlike some works that rely heavily on technology, almost using it as a crutch, “White Noise” balanced spectacle with artistry, developing shape and form throughout its progression. A credit to the choreographer, I think the work would hold up, and be almost as engaging, in work lights and sweatpants. (But the lighting is too fabulous to miss.)

            The second half of the concert, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, pulled out all the stops in a tour de force collaboration between EBC, the Eugene Concert Choir (along with talented children from the Festival Choirs, under the direction of Chris Dobson) and Orchestra Next, all held together under the vigilant eye of conductor Brian McWhorter.

            Toni Pimble’s choreography shines here, interpreting liturgical text for a 21st Century audience. Pimble unfailingly gets at the heart of the songs, beloved and well known, there’s a risk of treading into the maudlin or pastiche. Not so, Pimble. She keeps the work fresh and vital, bringing ancient tropes into modern consciousness, reminding us that we’re not so far from the field or the tavern.

            There are too many standout moments to mention.

            Cory Betts in “O Fortuna” digs into the changeable nature of fate, flexing and arching, he frames the work with his physical pleas for mercy.

            In “First Spring”, Yoshie Oshima, Mark Tucker and Yamil Maldonado warm the stage like the melting snow itself. Soloist Anton Belov delivers a stirring rendition of “Omnia Sol Temperat”.

            Let’s take a moment to appreciate the Eugene Concert Choir. It’s wonderful, essential, to have live music – an orchestra! With tons of live singers! – And the choir delivers more here than mere singing. With clever staging from Pimble, and exuberant acting from the choristers, the Concert Choir is utilized to evoke the mysteries of medieval life.

            In their terrific costumes by Lynn Bowers, the choristers are transformed, from Gregorian monks, to peasants at the apex of glorious summer, in their wimples and doublets, to the ruling class. How pleased they all seem to be so much a part of the action, and Pimble has fully-utilized these performers, giving them simple but effective stage choreography, to add to the mood and mystery of the experience.

            “In the tavern” trains its indelible eye on one woeful swan, trussed on a spit in front of a multitude of hungry revelers. In “Olim Lacus Colueram”, Beth Maslinoff ‘s piteous portrayal might encourage a few in the audience to become vegetarians.

            It all comes together in the “Court of Love”, and soloist soprano Zulimar López-Hernández delights with her range and delivery.

            This is love in all its guises, and while every moment is a jewel, Antonio Anacan and Suzanne Haag’s duet, about being, er, happy in their coupling, justifies this offering for Valentine’s Day. Oh my.

            Thomas Coates’ clever stage design creates a Wheel of Fate onstage (pity the spinning dancer, hope he took his Dramamine), a bawdy tavern and an imaginative Court of Love fit for Cupid himself.

            The audience went wild for this effort, and rightly so. EBC has pulled off a terrific collaboration, dissolving barriers to language – suddenly, through Pimble’s able hands, we all understand Latin! – And creating a timeless connection between movement and music. Bravo. 

February 1, 2016 11:51 AM

A Masterwork for the New Century:

La Compagnie Hervé Koubi at WhiteBird Dance

 

A remarkable piece of movement, a triumph, really, Hervé Koubi’s Ce que le jour doit a la nuit, or in English, ‘What the day owes the night’ pulls together threads stretching into the past, the present and the future.

            With a seemingly effortless hand, Koubi weaves together an inexplicably organic, yet richly structured effort, one that satisfies the head and the heart in equal measures.

            Featuring twelve male dancers, all from Algiers, the 70-minute piece unfolds from a static, formless mass, to explore the sinew of the space, through changes in rhythm, shape and dynamics. Each dancer brings something unique to the cause, wearing on his body the familial memory, perhaps of war, of rebellion, of rule, a new generation of Algerian men, careening through the tapestry of time.

            Koubi traces on the backs of these dancers his origins, late discovered, of his own Algerian past. Yet this is not a political piece. This does not have an axe to grind, or a soapbox to stand on. If anything, Koubi softens the lens, and pulls it wider, allowing the audience to simply appreciate something humane: He offers a new idea of men, of nurturance, of interconnectedness and community.

            Koubi embraces the athletic mastery of these movers, adopting and utilizing their skills – acrobatic flips and falls, head spins, inversions, turns and lifts – and cannily transforms these movements from ‘street’ vernacular to something exquisite, almost formal, without putting on one whiff of pretention. It’s as if Koubi can regulate the expression of the dance, and temper it, always, with restraint and balance.

            Towards the end of the piece, the artists face the audience for the first time, and one realizes that rather than devolving into the kind of showy trickery that some overtly athletic dance can veer itself into – spiraling into a kind of egoic, “Hey, look at me!” childishness - this piece had the confidence, the vision, to say something more, something deeper, and that those questions could be seen and echoed in each and every movement.

            It’s hard to describe, and even harder to believe, but the alchemic reactions of these movers approached the depth and breadth of nature itself, at times moored and solid, and simultaneously flowing, like waves crashing on the rocks, or the bright wind rushing through the trees.

            There were a few moments like these, of such pronounced and arresting beauty, that this reviewer was actually brought to tears.

            I wish I could see it again. Bravo. 

November 21, 2015 07:20 AM

‘Seed’, at the Dougherty Dance Theatre on the U.O. Campus featured new works by the TRANSform, a collective of dance artists who are all graduates of the U.O. Dance Dept.’s M.F.A. program:

            Carrie Goodnight’s “It’s Quite Simple” developed the intricate physicality of parenting, exploring the monotony of quieting an infant, with humor and emotion. Goodnight’s use of space, her relationships among the dancers, the varying speed and rhythm, as well as a keen employment of focus, likely evoked memory for any parent. Goodnight’s soundscore supported the dance, adding balance and counterpoint, as the dancers seemed to coalesce into knowing, only to unravel again into the chaos that continual sleep-deprivation can bestow.

            Val Ifill and Eric Mullis’s “Capillary Power” also used spoken word overlaying the dance, as well as video projection. This piece pulled and tugged through the space, slowly, almost alien at first, like wading underwater. The words we were hearing carried quite a lot of strength and conviction, something I wanted to see more of in the accompanying movement.  I wanted to see the piece take flight – to build dynamically, but the work stayed rooted in a somewhat self-aware vernacular, suggestive, but not forceful. Maybe that was the intention.

            Marcie Mamura’s and Erinn Ernst’s “Parallels” explored shape and patterns in a trio that seemed to glissade through iconic movement, like the “strong arms” a body builder might make, a hip shimmy, a burlesque pose. The strongest moment was the last, as dancers punched through the 4th wall and stepped so far downstage they were practically touching the front row of the audience. This piece had some great ideas nestled within it, but seemed underdeveloped.

            A.T. Moffett’s “Wire/Less: Form, Figure, Movement” played with technology, literally, as the stage was strewn with, and dancers wore and moved with discarded wires. The piece was most successful when dancers explored a kind of synaptic, almost inhuman quick, sharp, almost robotic movement, gesturing swiftly with arms and faces. Still, with the introduction of any prop, the use of it needs to be edited to ensure that its use is adding to the work, not distracting from it.

            Alexandra Taylor’s “Enclosed” cut the space into two bisected paths, each redolent with one super-charged mover. This duet grew organically, exploring levels and relationship, to self, to the other dancers, and to the audience. 

            Gina Bolles Sorensen and Kyle Sorensen’s “quietly quickly” danced by the TRANSForm Collective members, rounded out the evening, with a fast-paced piece that slipped between hurtling duets and confident group unison. 

October 25, 2015 05:38 AM

Eugene Ballet Company opened its season with a dazzling production of choreographer Petipa and composer Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” 

What a treat to ease into a classical ballet – fairies! Good ones, one really bad one, garland dancers, dancing cats, dancing bluebirds (Question for Petipa: Why no scene where Puss in Boots chases the Bluebird? – but I digress) – the overall effect was pure magic, and the classic roots of the dancing showed off the sharp technique of the EBC dancers.

Yoshie Oshima and Hirofumi Kitazume were transportive as Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré. We don’t see them really strut their stuff until the hunting and wedding scenes after intermission, but it’s well worth the wait.  Oshima is doll-like, petite, but fiercely strong, too. Her movement is impeccable, and she’s perfectly matched with Kitazume, who eats up the stage, boldly pushing his way into solos that sail across the Silva hall, and then settling down for enchanting partner work. His versatility is commendable, as he clearly possesses that rare combination of balance, agility and showmanship.

The parade of gorgeous fairies is fun, and the three-year-old seated behind me loved all of them, her grandmother patiently whispering the virtues they represented. Danielle Tolmie as the Lilac Fairy holds it altogether, offering ideas and comfort to bereft parents, helping the Prince find Aurora, vanquishing the evil Carabosse; the Lilac Fairy has a heart of oak. Victoria Harvey as the Fairy of Generosity also has a quality that’s really compelling onstage, as does Suzanne Haag, as the Fairy of Eloquence. These dancers really shined, head to tow, their acting skills matched by strong footwork and unflagging energy.

Jennifer Martin, the company’s Ballet Mistress, plays the Bad Fairy Carabosse with delicious fervor. (Carabosse really holds a grudge, and serves as a lifelong lesson that you really want to double-check the guest list.)

Among the men, Mark Tucker, as the randy Puss in Boots was a fan favorite. This ballet – with the Petipa choreography – features women more than it does the male corps, but when they get a chance to open it up, the EBC fellas really turn it on. Cory Betts and Isaac Jones bring a lot to their roles, and Antonio Anacan invariably dances full out.

Let’s talk about the dog. As a special guest, the hunting scene in Act III featured a lovely Irish wolfhound onstage, named Drogo:

WC Fields once famously quipped, “Never go onstage with children or animals” and I’ll admit, throughout the hunting scene, my eye was trained on the adorable Drogo, whose choreography included sitting, staying, and raising his paw, repeatedly, so that his handler, a proud Cory Betts, would feed him more treats. Admittedly, I have no idea what was happening onstage while Drogo was on the boards, and I was shocked that Drogo himself didn’t receive an enormous bouquet of roses at the curtain call, or at least Milk Bones.

 Dancers from the Eugene Ballet Academy, as well as some of its teachers round out the cast ably. Everyone seems resplendent in vaguely 18th century white wigs and enormous crinolines. Costumes by Amy Panganiban and Sharla McAndrew shine, glowing with a sunny yellow and lavender color palette (well, except for Carabosse and her henchmen) and defining the artifice of the waning imperial world that Petipa and Tchaikovsky were adorning, back in the day.

Toni Pimble has accomplished something here that I’m not sure many in the audience realize. Taking a classical ballet, by one of the progenitors of the form, and carrying it off by a regional company? The feat is commendable, and Pimble’s understanding of the ballet’s historical significance, and her eye for making it relevant and modern enough to be appreciated by a media-rattled 2015 audience, who maybe don’t have the same patience levels as audiences did 100 years ago, is nothing short of a miracle. She makes the old new. I love this stuff; I could watch it all day. It’s a style – forward facing, much more presentational than our modern sensibilities might crave – but there’s something so relaxing about clean lines, themes and repetition, of the novelty of throwing in Fairy tale characters and dogs and kids. Why not? I love EBC for just going for it.

 Sets, too, by Russell Coburn, and lighting by Kelly Baum, envelope the stage in an almost Disney-like sweetness, providing illusory counterpoint to the confectionary costumes and the rich, classical dance.

A rewarding evening. Long live the Czar! 

October 24, 2015 04:00 PM

Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland consistently delivers up ancient texts in modern, fresh ways. Their Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, is no exception, delighting – and ultimately transcending – with an interpretation as fresh and relevant as anything on the contemporary stage.

First, the design: Oh, Ashland, how you court us with your twinkly parks and mellow deer, your dappled maples and dulcet rolling hills. This backdrop is a lulling, bewitching backdrop, and Scott Bradley’s gorgeous net of roses kisses the audience’s imagination from the get-go. But there’s a foreshadowing here, as a character, hooded, is wheeled onstage, the last moments of the play’s doubt laid bare, before a word is uttered.

That’s the trick here, the weight that Blain-Cruz discovers, even in between these funny, ribald lines. This is comedy, against the backdrop of war – Like “South Pacific” – the mood is elevated as soldiers return for leave, make connections, break hearts – But will they live to see their loves again?

 Beatrice is spot-on, played with powerful humor and great spirit by Chistiana Clark. Benedick – Beatrice emphasizes the ‘dick’ when they first meet – is also perfect, exuding a devil-may-care charm, coupled with an adorable insecurity. The chemistry between these two is palpable, and bless ‘em, even though these workhorses have performed the show umpteen times this season, their interplay felt vibrant and alive.

The entire cast shines here, knowing full well where they are and where they’re going – in agreement with the story they are telling.

 Cristofer Jean as Don Pedro, and Regan Linton, as his illegitimate sister Don John, are particularly strong.

Jean is also a central figure in Stan Lai’s “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land”, a very different tale, but equally well told.

I love a good play-with-a-play Pirandello-mix up, and “Secret Love” provides plenty of schtick within its form: (Two plays are booked in the same theater for rehearsal on the same night, challenges ensue.)

There’s a winning formula throughout OSF, a cozy rapport with the audience, in these shows that let their guard down a bit. The actors allow themselves to bounce off the audience, to reveal themselves, which is what it’s like to visit this small town: You might be walking down the street, and see Skye Masterson getting in his car, or Don Pedro himself, breezing by the bookstore. It’s exciting, and also very human, the way theater should be. 

October 21, 2015 08:19 AM

The Jayanthi Raman Company performed for a small but appreciative audience Saturday night, October 3. The performance featured choreography, design, costumes and lighting design by Raman, to varying effect.

         The strongest piece, Swagatham Krishna, choreographed and danced by Raman, explored classical and folk elements as it told the story of Lord Krishna, in the three ages of his life. The piece was gentle and lilting, evocatively communicative, and Raman’s exposition before the piece provided a helpful narrative guide, allowing greater accessibility into what is for many in the audience, likely an unfamiliar tale.

         Overall, the program could have benefited from a simple handheld program, with a bit of background information, the names of the dances and the dancers themselves. Without such written word, audience members were left scratching their heads a bit. (When I inquired about a program, I was told I could by Raman’s textbook on classical Indian dance, for upwards of $30…)

         Dancers Shradha Vinod, Soujanya Madhusudan, Sweta Ravishankar, Mugdha Vichare and Ramya Raman were all excellent, each demonstrating a strong technique and performance quality.

         Tillana, choreographed by Guru Adyar Lakshman performed by Jayanthi Raman Company dancers led by Raman, spoke to the dancers’ abilities. Colorful costumes enlivened the experience.

         Lighting added emotional resonance, but was in constant struggle with the projections of slides behind the dancers, which alternated between the same celestial image, translations of Vedic texts, and symbolic images from nature, such as a peacock. If Raman is going to incorporate visual elements such as these, as backdrops for her work, they need to be more finely tuned to the pieces themselves, or they threaten to take away from, rather than enhancing the experience.

         Raman is the recipient of numerous grants, including an Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Grant, and has received support from the Oregon Cultural Trust and the National Dance Project.

         Though Raman successfully articulates, in her marketing and in development, the need for more light to shine on this underrepresented art form, the company’s somewhat stilted presentational style could benefit from more polish in order to become more universally resonant. 

October 16, 2015 05:03 AM

How can one possibly review a great artist like Twyla Tharp? Her work spans fifty years – this is the 50th anniversary of her dance company – which deserves its own accolades in the arts-funding parched USA. 50 years of collaborations, discipline, technique, of musical explorations, theatrical endeavors, of making her mark, of being herself, of being a woman in a male-dominated field, and a strong, focused and no-nonsense woman at that. She’s a role model for creativity and the shrewd confidence needed to sustain growth over time and space. She is one of a kind.

            Tharp’s presentation at the Arlene Schnitzer Performance Hall, produced by Portland’s Whitebird Dance, spanned a juicy aesthetic arc, from the past to now.

            The show opened with “First Fanfare” with music by John Zorn. Taught and provocative, the piece explored time and shape with Tharp’s blend of highly-articulated and uncompromising technique, and the toss-away vernacular that looks deceptively easy, but is likely one of the hardest aspects of her choreography to master.

            “Yowzie” was a fan favorite, with vibrant costumes by Santo Loquasto. Tharp’s movement style - her uncanny juxtaposition between the reverent ballet and classically modern work her dancers are all capable, and the bouncy, multi-layered percolating juggernaut – were delectably redolent in this piece.

            Tharp’s company is remarkable, spanning ages and sizes, shorter/taller, younger/older - a bundle of personalities and uniformly delightful stage presences. John Selya is especially compelling – and hilarious in “Yowzie!”, as is Rika Okamoto, whose slight physique cannot possibly contain her seemingly boundless exuberance, and pitch-perfect sense of humor.

            Tharp’s “Preludes and Fugues”, set to J.S.Bach, featured delicious duets and trios that flitted in and out of range, reacting and catalyzing the piece, as if dancers were bubbling over with new ideas as they discovered them. Here, Tharp’s penchant for pushing into the vertical space, without any wasted or romantic effort, her artistic facility over gesture and emotion - which she always holds a the reigns on -was apparent. And her musicality! Oh, to create in the pockets between the notes, in the spaces between the beats… To make dance that not only shows the audience more of the music, but does so by allowing the dance to tug at it sometimes, to serve as counterpoint, the way nature will sometimes grow at an angle away from itself, and in so doing, finds the real beauty.

            When “Preludes and Fugues” came together, the entire company in a circle, moving in unison with the slightest lift of the leg, the arm, the chin, my soul was restored. There is not a whiff of mediocrity here, of extraneous noodlings or space fillers.  There’s a purity of intention, a powerful statement of humanity, and it had to be arrived at through the multitude of little moments it took to get there.

            In that moment, as in so many more, Tharp reminded me why I love dance.

            A Q&A followed, with Tharp, along with the suggestion of the possibility of her return in 2016, which was met with wild enthusiasm from the audience. If the company returns, I’ll make the trip up I-5 for sure. 

October 12, 2015 05:04 AM

Ballet Fantastique presented its season opener, Cirque de la Lune, in the Hult’s Soreng theater October 9-11. The closing show performed to a full, mostly rapt house.

            Tracing the experience of an innocent young gal, who joins a travelling depression-era circus, Cirque de la Lune played with color and light, weaving its narrative with stellar live accompaniment by Mood Area 52, Betty and the Boy and Troupe Carnivale.

            BFan’s collaborative spirit, and their insistence on live music always enriches the experience. The live music for Cirque was evocative and moody, carrying the shifts in emotional dynamic.

            Costumes and headpieces, too, by Jonna Hayden, Etain Wilday, Donna Marisa Bontrager and Mitra Chester were first rate. Clown-like in their vibrancy, they added a pop of brightness, perhaps suggesting the exotic allure of a circus to small-town America.

            The male dancers are consistent: Martino Sauter, Anthony Rosario stand out for their technique. Rosario is especially strong, dancing with his whole body, every moment he’s onstage. Jim Ballard may not have their ballet training, but he’s a terrific actor, bringing warmth and character to his role. And International Circus Artist Raymond Silos stole many moments with his gravity-defying trapeze, hoop and silks work.

            Among the women, technique is more variable. The dancers have a lot of heart, but for some, energy seems to drain out of their hands and feet, especially during any challenging petite allegro footwork. Timing is also an issue, as so much of the work demands precision in its unison, and a couple of the dancers are often at least one beat behind the others.

            Of the women, Hannah Bontrager has the strongest technique and the greatest stage presence. She is lovely onstage, emoting gracefully and delivering work that’s refined and passionate. But casting herself in a work she’s co-choreographing with Donna Marisa Bontrager may keep her from seeing the places where the corps work just needs more polish.

            Choreographically, Bfan feels comfortable. It’s easy to watch. But the accumulative effect, over the course of the full work, may be that we haven’t journeyed that far together.

            Multiple duets feel similar to one another, often at the same tempo, exploring relationships that seem almost like the partnering one would see in ballroom dance, rather than classical ballet. There aren’t a lot of ballet ‘tricks’ here –the pirouettes, the tour en l’airs, and the intricate movement across the floor or into the vertical space - that we love about ballet. It’s lovely. But it feels somehow safe.

            Unlike many BFan shows, this one did not have a narrator.

            Ballet is often meant to tell a story – it doesn’t have to, of course, in fact many dance-makers choose thoughtfully crafted exploration of line, shape and tempo over a plot - But relying on a narrator to thrust the plot forward seems incongruous somehow with the art form, that, in its elevation is ideally supposed to communicate volumes through movement and gesture only. 

            That said, without the program synopsis, this ballet would be challenging to follow. Easy on the eyes and enjoyable, but in terms of story perhaps a little thin. 

October 11, 2015 04:30 AM

The first-annual Northwest Screen Dance Exposition leapt onto the screen at the Bijou Cinemas Tuesday night (10/6), with a collection of short works that highlighted the burgeoning relationship between dance and film.

            Organized by producers John Watson and Dorene Carroll, the effort was sponsored by the UO and LCC Dance Programs, and served as a benefit for Danceability International.

            Dance and film have a long, intertwined history. A1896 film of Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine Danceby the pioneering film-makers Auguste and Louis Lumière, is a perfect example of that early marriage between dance – the most ancient, and most elusive of art forms – and film, a medium that artists are still experimenting with, more than a century later.

            “Working’ It” by writer/director Brad Burke was a crowd-pleaser. More like a short movie about a dancer, than a new dance work , the piece was nonetheless humorous and engaging. A great opener.

            Other standouts included choreographer/director and editor Shannon Mockli’s “Fluctuating Frequencies” - a tight, well-plotted, site-specific, interestingly choreographed, well-lighted piece - that placed dancers in an urban landscape, creating an effect of armature, with their spare, almost insect-like interconnected movement.

            Sarah Nemecek’s “In Here, Out There” explored local geography, contrasting artfully simple movement patterns in a variety of natural settings – the muddy beach, the forest floor, and a meadow, to strong effect.

            Other pieces had moments of arresting quality that I wanted to see more of: Mary Fitzgerald and Brad Garner’s “Nearby Far” featured one moment, when Garner tumbles down a sand dune, that was exquisite. Cinematographer Dmitri Von Klein captured the fluidity of the sand’s reflection, and the refreshingly human fall.

            In “Late Afternoon Sunshine”, filmmaker Antonio Anacan featured footage of choreographer and dancer Suzanne Haag’s feet. Haag is a ballet dancer, and here are these feet, the size of action heroes. I could have watched a piece that was only close-ups on feet –  with all the nuanced, varied and amazing things that a dancers foot can articulate. (And if s/he’s doing them well, we’ll likely lot notice.) 

            Likewise, choreographer Barbara Canal, Director Michele Manzini and Director of Photography Luciano Perbellini and Editor Valeria Lo Meo’s “Snags in Palladio” offered unusual settings (filming in Italy helps) and piquant relationship inquiries, like a chilling duet with one dancer facing away from the camera, her long hair obscuring her back, with the arm of another dancer reaching around her. Gives me willies just thinking about it. Evocative and moody. I liked it.

            This “screen dance” form asks a lot of the artist(s). In order to work, start to finish, a piece has to have stellar choreography, be well-lit and well-filmed, it has to have a sound component that enhances the experience, and then, probably most important, it has to be well-edited. In writing, we’d call it “killing our darlings” – the painful ritual of cutting extraneous words. (If it doesn’t develop the overall effect, it’s outta there. )

            Editing in dance is powerful. And it seems even more essential in this hybrid dance/film platform than it does three dimensional, live performance.

            As dance pioneer Doris Humphrey famously said, “Alldances are too long. Monotony is fatal; contrasts should be used.”

            All the pieces selected for this year’s Expo had merit. Each had a unique something to share, and moments of real clarity and interest.

            ButHumphrey’s advice may apply to the works that tended to pool into repetitive eddies, either with movement that lacked dynamic structure, or film techniques that started fresh, but became a little gimmicky.

            Perhaps these works may have benefitted from greater exploration of possibilities in speed, shape and relationships.