Little about ballet is American. Poised, practiced and, to many, pretentious, it's antithetical to the unbridled passion of a country built on freedom, manifest destiny and tea parties.
But it's not entirely uncommon for ballet companies to expand their relationship with whatever makes America unique, like Oregon Ballet Theatre does with its American Music Festival. With three impressive works, two of them world premieres, the show is exciting not only for the skill involved, but for its originality.
The scores are by Americans: Portland-born experimental composer Ryan Francis, opera minimalist John Adams and Seattle indie-folk band Fleet Foxes. But the choreography isn't all homegrown. One piece is by a Swede, Pontus Lidberg—and it definitely feels Swedish.
Set to Francis' score, essentially a blend of strings and electronics, Lidberg's Stream is metaphysical stimulation. Dancers move fluidly, sheer aqua fabric billowing behind them. They weave in and out of partnerships, then break away in counterbalance. They never stop moving, yet they never go anywhere. As Lidberg said on OBT's blog, "Dance is more intelligent than us having to have a narrative," which he demonstrates in a piece that is nothing more than dance. Even the dancers' faces are emotionless, as if they're human-form jellyfish.
Trey McIntyre, a former OBT choreographer-in-residence, sets Robust American Love to Fleet Foxes tracks. Named after a Walt Whitman poem, McIntyre's piece explores the excitement of the American pioneer. The dancers wear colonial-style denim jackets, which they twist and pull to create new shapes and characters. Noteworthy is soloist Javier Ubell, who also partners with principal dancer Alison Roper for a gender-bending duet in which Roper does the lifting.
At the Border, by Matthew Neenan, premiered in 2009. Chaotic in comparison to the other pieces, dancers run across the stage and leap into lifts to Adams' piano-driven Hallelujah Junction. The energy is right for a finale, but the movement can be disorderly and prone to mistakes. Still, the dancers shine, particularly principal Xuan Cheng, who's tossed about as if she weighs nothing and stands one-legged on someone's back with the grace of a queen on a throne.
Such displays of majesty are what the scrappy American spirit aims to achieve, and the show beams with a palpable sense of accomplishment. It's a pride not jingoistic but homespun.
SEE IT: American Music Festival is at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 222-5538. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, April 24 & 26-27. $27-$148.