Doing Well in a Rainy Climate: Ballet in the Pacific Northwest

By Martha Ullman West, guest contributor

A recent National Endowment for the Arts survey shows that per capita attendance at the ballet in Oregon is fourth in the nation; in Washington State it is even higher. Could this be because we have decent-to-excellent ballet in a part of the country better known for the bounty of its rivers, the height of its trees, and the beauty of its scenery?

Lord knows, ballet attendance in the United States as a whole is woefully small (at best four percent of the population, surveys show), and the three major companies in this region–Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre, and the Eugene Ballet Company–are in a constant struggle for financial survival. Nevertheless, they are managing to produce pretty much the same array of story ballets as the big guns in New York and San Francisco, including, not surprisingly, The Nutcracker, in three different versions. OBT is the only west coast company performing Balanchine’s; PNB does Kent Stowell’s, with Maurice Sendak’s sets and costumes; EBC performs artistic director Toni Pimble’s pirate-themed rendition.
This season, the Seattle and Eugene companies will present Cinderella; PNB will perform Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and OBT opened on October 9 with its first evening length Sleeping Beauty, staged, after Petipa, by artistic director Christopher Stowell. With a company of 32 dancers and apprentices, the challenge is the ensemble dances, not the principal roles or divertissements, although many roles will be double and triple cast. Three company ballerinas are capable of a fine, nuanced Aurora: Alison Roper, Yuka Iino, and Kathi Martuza, and I look forward to seeing them partnered by principals Artur Sultanov, Chauncey Parsons, and such upcoming soloists as Brennan Boyer.
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Alison Roper and Kevin Poe in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of artistic director Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

When Stowell took over OBT’s directorship in the fall of 2003, following the departure of founding artistic director James Canfield, the last thing I expected was a traditional, program-length Beauty seven years later, or for that matter, in June 2006, a complete Swan Lake. Canfield, well trained in the classical tradition by Mary Day, had mounted Beauty’s Act III early in his tenure, which began in 1989, and his own Nutcracker, in a gorgeous Campbell Baird production, emphasized 19th-century classicism. The repertory did contain several Balanchine ballets, a decent version of Giselle thanks to then ballet master Mark Goldweber, and, while he was still alive, the neo-classical ballets of associate artistic director Dennis Spaight. Canfield commissioned work from Donald Byrd, Bebe Miller, and Karole Armitage, and, to his credit, from Portland’s modern-dance choreographers.

However, in part for financial reasons, the emphasis at the end of Canfield’s tenure was on his own work, which had increasingly moved away from traditional and neo-classical ballet. Let it be said that Canfield, who had a short but stellar performing career with the Joffrey Ballet and continued to dance for nearly a decade with OBT, is an extremely good teacher, and insisted on strong classical technique at all times; he just stopped using it in his choreography.

Stowell, the son of Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, PNB’s founding artistic directors, trained by his parents and the School of American Ballet, enjoyed a lengthy dancing career (16 years) with the San Francisco Ballet, performing in a wide array of choreographic styles, from Balanchine’s to Mark Morris’s. The minute he hit town in July of 2003, he drew on his contacts with choreographers in whose work he had performed, not to mention the Balanchine Trust. His first season, which happened to be Balanchine’s centennial, included his Rubies; The Nutcracker, alas in a dreary second-hand production; Serenade, already in the rep; and Duo Concertant. The opening program told Portland precisely where he came from, adding to the curtain-raising Rubies a Helgi Tomasson pas de deux, his father’s Duo Fantasy, and Paul Taylor’s Company B.

The rest of the season was a clear indication of where Stowell was headed. February concerts included the premiere of a new Firebird by Yuri Possokhov in a charming production with children from OBT’s school cast as monsters, and the premiere of Stowell’s own Adin, a modest work to Shostakovich. In the concluding concerts, Christopher Wheeldon’s There Where She Loved received its American premiere, programmed with Julia Adam’s new Il Nodo, danced to medieval music, and, to my joy, Ashton’s Façade, staged by Alexander Grant. It was, after all, Ashton’s centennial as well as Balanchine’s.

In subsequent years, Stowell added works by Jerome Robbins, James Kudelka, Trey McIntyre, Twyla Tharp (the “Junk” duet from Known by Heart, not, thankfully, yet another Sinatra Suite), and Wheeldon’s Rush. He also commissioned two ballets from Nicolo Fonte. Bolero, which premiered on a French program in 2008 and was seen again at the conclusion of last season, could well become a signature piece for the company. While it is marked by the style du jour–relentless high-energy dancing–Fonte, unlike Jorma Elo and Stanton Welch, among others, understands that just as comedy underscores tragedy, stillness and breath highlight speed. For me, last season’s best program was February’s pairing of The Four Temperaments with Stowell’s one-act A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a delicious, sophisticated take on Mendelssohn’s music. Stowell’s choreography in general is marked, as was his dancing, by intense musicality, intelligence, and wit.

A hundred miles south of Portland, the Eugene Ballet is directed by Toni Pimble, one of the very few women now heading a ballet company. She and Riley Grannan, who is the managing director, founded the company in 1978, using their state retirement money from their years of dancing in German opera ballet companies. Grannan grew up outside Eugene; Pimble is British and received her training at the Elmhurst School. Like most artistic directors, she brings her experience as a dancer to the job, and her sensibility remains quite British, particularly as expressed in her Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. Over the years, however, she has learned about her new country by making some very interesting ballets based on Native American culture–Children of the Raven and The Skinwalkers, the latter inspired by the paintings of the Native American artist Helen Hardin. For Skinwalkers, she invented a movement vocabulary that completely avoids stereotype and is appropriate to Pueblo dancing without trying to replicate it.
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Jennifer Martin and Hyuk-Ku Kwon in Still Falls the Rain, choreographed for Eugene Ballet Company by its artistic director Toni Pimble

Photo: Ari Denison

Pimble is a versatile choreographer, who created a well-received neo-classical ballet, Two’s Company, for the New York City Ballet’s first Diamond Project in 1992. She has also made work on the Atlanta Ballet, Nevada Dance Theatre, and, most recently, Kansas City Ballet. A feminist–and why wouldn’t she be?–Pimble has made two ballets that are highly political: Columba Aspexit, only five minutes long, which premiered on a program of work by women choreographers to music by women composers in 1992, and in 1997 the stunning Still Falls the Rain, an abstract indictment of fundamentalist religion, based on a Taliban incident in Afghanistan, created long before 9/11 took us to war there.

While there are only four concert seasons a year in Eugene, the company tours extensively throughout the region, and with more than The Nutcracker, taking its 21 dancers, who are an international bunch–Grannan spends a lot of time filling out immigration forms–to communities as small as Florence, on the south Oregon coast. The upcoming season starts with Cinderella on October 16 and the traditional family-oriented February show contains Pimble’s Alice in Wonderland, which has a smashing corps de ballet of flamingos, coupled with a new piece by Jessica Lang. The season ends with Maurico Wainrot’s Anne Frank and a new piece by company member Gilmer Duran.

PNB did not open its 2010-2011 season with a story ballet, though Peter Boal, who took over from founding artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell in 2005, following his retirement as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, is ending it with the company’s first Giselle. Boal, like Janet Reed (who founded PNB’s School in 1974), Russell, and both Stowells could be categorized as part of the Kirstein-Balanchine diaspora, and he has, to be sure, both maintained and added to the company’s extensive Balanchine repertory, but in his five-year tenure he seems to be shifting the paradigm.

This season, the only Balanchine programmed is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, judging from the opening program as well as an all-Tharp evening scheduled for early November and a Contemporary evening in the spring that includes a world premiere by Marco Goecke, one can justifiably speculate that this neo-classically trained dancer is de-emphasizing what one might call the mother tongue. Under the umbrella title of Director’s Choice, he opens with two ballets by Jírí Kylían, Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze (a company premiere); Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces, another PNB premiere; and a longtime PNB standard, Nacho Duato’s Jardi Tancat. Only Glass Pieces reflects his own past with NYCB, which, to his credit, he has used to add quite a bit of Robbins’s work to PNB’s rep. The Duato, which he seems to trot out whenever the company goes on tour, a pleasant enough piece that shows the dancers can perform ersatz Graham, he owes to Stowell and Russell, who also added a great deal of contemporary work to the rep, particularly in the company’s 25th anniversary season.
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Carla Korbes and Lucien Postlewaite in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo and Juliette

Photo: Angela Sterling

Boal is determinedly not himself a choreographer; what he wants to do is bring work to the Seattle audience that it hasn’t seen before, and to challenge PNB’s fine-tuned, classically trained dancers to perform in new ways. Perhaps his most successful attempt at that was when he presented Jean Christophe Maillot’s Romeo and Juliet a couple of years ago, giving Louise Nadeau an extraordinary role as a seductive Lady Capulet and Olivier Wevers a highly sinister one as Friar Laurence. Commissioning Twyla Tharp to make two new pieces on the company was something of a coup as well. PNB remains a major company under his direction, and he and his regional colleagues are providing audiences with plenty to see. That may have something to do with comparatively high attendance at the ballet. And it certainly makes me happy.

© 2010 Martha Ullman West

Martha Ullman West grew up in New York and is now based in Portland. She has been writing about dance for Dance Magazine, Ballet Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review and many other publications since 1980. At present she is under contract with University Press of Florida for a book titled Making Ballet American: Todd Bolender and Janet Reed.

3 responses to “Doing Well in a Rainy Climate: Ballet in the Pacific Northwest”

  1. I grew up in Oregon and am now in New York with a daughter who dances and was fascinated to read about developments in the Northwest. Thank you!

  2. Reports on the dance life in different parts of the country and the world used to be a staple feature in dance magazines and even some general newspapers. Instead in recent years we’ve been getting detailed analyses of the latest premiere or debut. That’s fine, except there’s no follow up. The new work may or may not last in the repertory and the promising dancer may or may not be promoted but we’ll never know because there are no overview reports. I was coming to feel that sort of writing had become a lost art. Thank you, therefore, for issuing “Doing Well in a Rainy Climate: Ballet in the Pacific Northwest”! Martha Ullman West’s cogent and compact overview is valuable if one is simply curious about what’s happening elsewhere in dance and very practical for those planning to visit.

    Thank you George; writing the essay enabled me to clarify my thinking about these three companies.
    I have now seen OBT’s new “Sleeping Beauty” twice. As it happens, Artur Sultanov, who has been a frequent partner of Alison Roper, is dancing part-time this season while he gets a new ballet school going, teaching Russian style. So Roper was partnered last night by Brett Bauer, a new soloist who danced for eight years with the San Francisco Ballet. He is a careful, considerate partner and a fine technician whom I’d like to see take more chances on stage.
    Roper was lovely, convincing me that she was still asleep in the Vision scene, infusing her Act I dancing with the sheer joy of moving, elegant in the Grand Pas in Act III. While I’d thought Brennan Boyer might be partnering an Aurora, he did fine as a one of Aurora suitors and as a Fairy Cavalier.
    In all, this is quite a lovely “Sleeping Beauty” and I look forward to taking my grandson the next time they do it. He should particularly like the “Puss in Boots” divertissement, as I did.