April 20th, 2009 | by KELLY CLARKE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Live Review: Oregon Ballet Theatre's Left Unsaid.

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Chairs are more than set dressing to choreographer Nicolo Fonte. They're stilts, barriers and fainting couches. Their legs are extra limbs for busy dancers and their seats new territory to be conquered. Those chairs, three simple black wooden fold-ups, figure largely in the dance-maker's Left Unsaid, a truly wonderful 2003 work for six dancers that Oregon Ballet Theatre presented for the first time last Friday, April 17, at the Newmark Theatre as part of its spring show.

It's an uneven evening of dance, both in vibe and execution—Left Unsaid is buttressed between two solid, entertaining pieces: William Forsythe's technical double-dare The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and Balanchine's cheeky Tarantella (another company premiere). But Hush, the new piece choreographer James Kudelka made just for OBT is a genuine bummer.

But back to those chairs. Fonte, whose big, ballsy take on Bolero was an OBT hit last season, uses human bodies in as many unexpected ways as he uses furniture. His contemporary take on ballet is silky and muscular, and he delights in finding new ways to use people as launch pads. His dancers are constantly pushing off from at each other at surprising starting points—a foot from a chest, a back from a head—and, just as suddenly, rushing back at one another, for both comfort and confrontation. As Left Unsaid, opens, the audience finds the athletic duo of Artur Sultanov and Brian Simcoe dressed in black suits and chasing each others movements up atop those chairs and back down to a Bach violin solo. Later the men add Steven Houser to their ranks for an intricate pas de, well, four with fabulously sharp-edged Anne Mueller—twisting her body like origami, finding handholds at her elbows and knees only to launch her in the air or cradle her like a human sofa. Daniela DeLoe and Yuka Iino, clad in clean, ice blue leotards, also thrive in Fonte's intricate puzzles.

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There's no storyline here, but there's palatable emotion as the dancers clash and collide. It's sexy and affecting—with a sense of excitement and melancholy that constantly builds as Unsaid's series of vignettes progress. It's tough to figure out what makes this work so appealing, but I think its the balance of precision and abandon. At one point Iino and Houser primly sits down across from each other in a pair of chairs. Slowly each one stretches up and back, their heads and arms lolling over the edge of their chair, legs splayed out in front of them like a pair of drunk starfish. And then, suddenly, they flex their heels. And in a moment the whole picture shifts and sharpens. It mutates to something different. And that moment happens again and again as Left Unsaid progresses—the dancers shifting from lovely to grotesque and back again. It's often mentioned how markedly OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell has improved the technical chops of this company over the past few years—which is true, and great—but what emerges in this piece is the precision and passion of all six dancers—a balance that has been tough for the company to find in the past. It's truly a joy to watch.

That passion also shines in Vertiginous (aside from some truly distracting lime green tutus that look like foam flying saucers) and in Tarantella, Balanchine's short, snarky ode to the frenzied Italian peasant dance. In reality, it's a classical ballet duet, complete with a flouncy tutu for Ansa DeGuchi and white stockings for Chauncey Parsons—whose movements becomes increasingly bold and flirty as the song takes hold. It's tough to downshift from Left Unsaid's sleek modern moves to formal pirouettes and leaps, but the duo makes it work. Parsons steals the show as the gleeful, goofy suitor, shaking and banging his tambourine with manic flair and tossing off the kind of sky high leaps and quick turns the Blazers could have used against the Rockets Saturday night.

It's too bad that the low point of the night came at the end, with Hush. The droning mish-mosh of live harp, headless angels and fluttering girls in toe shoes could have been subtitled "a particularly boring day in heaven."

obt1The set is bold—with dark curtains dividing the background into three golden sections, the first two each highlighting a pair of harps and the last, at stage left, containing a huge, gleaming, very cool looking angel on loan from the National Ballet of Canada. But the grand design stops short of the choreography, which starts at a languid pace with a childlike solo waltz from Javier Ubell attended by a pack of schoolgirlish maids, and never really heats up from there.

According to choreographer James Kudelka, the abstract piece takes on "an arc that goes from childhood through adulthood to the end of life" using Canadian composer Rodney Sharman's etudes for Celtic harp as a through line. But after an evening spent soaking up the imaginative body connections of Left Unsaid and Balanchine's gleeful classicism, the piece actually felt as if it lasted a lifetime, filled with mushy choreography and unimaginative staging.

The harp, played live ably by Rita Costanzi and Auna Selberg, turns out to be a difficult choice for live accompaniment. At times the clattering of toe shoes and even the labored breathing of dancers overshadowed the discordant, often melody-free etudes. Every member of the company was put to use at one point or another during the piece, as Kudelka's morose youth matured into a morose adolescent, adult and, finally, corpse—meeting playmates, lovers and even shrouded wraiths (who a seatmate mentioned looked oddly like the sirens from the '80s video game Kid Icarus as they glided back and forth across the stage interminably) along the way. For a piece about an emotional journey, it was quite difficult to connect with any one dancer as they waltzed, swayed and shuffled though swaths of group work and a few pas de deux. It's mentioned in the program that Kudelka wanted to Hush's mood to be "meditative" but on stage, that translated to a look more akin to unfinished and monotonous.

Hush wouldn't come as such a disappointment were it not for the fact that Kudelka has made many great works in the past, and in particular for OBT. His 2006 piece Almost Mozart cleverly paired sharp, inventive dancing with moments of pure silence (I found a short clip of OBT performing it here). It's one of the company's signature works. I'll be excited to see his next piece return to that level.

That said, one problematic piece doesn't ruin a whole evening. Having a chance to watch this sharp, hard-working company tackle new and more difficult work is a genuine pleasure. In terms of growing sophistication and artistry, the company is only getting better and better, even as its budget shrinks (OBT is facing two million dollars in budget cuts next season). The spring program is certainly worth your time. It's just up to you whether you wanna leave early to preserve your dance buzz.



Oregon Ballet Theatre performs their spring program, Left Unsaid, at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway., 248-4335. 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, April 25-26. 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday, April 23-26. $15-$122. All ages. Visit obt.org or ticketmaster.com for tickets.

Images of OBT's spring program by Blaine Truitt Covert courtesy of OBT.
 
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