"Terra" Is One Intense Ballet

The new piece by choreographer Helen Pickett is high-adrenaline and bizarre.

(James McGrew)

Terra looks more like a battle than a ballet. In the new piece by New York choreographer Helen Pickett, the dancers take wide side stances, form ritualistic circles, slap their chests and yell in unison. It has a kind of Dune-like sci-fi vibe: Maybe it's the intense, cinematic score created by House of Cards composer Jeff Beal, or maybe it's the futuristic leotards with claw-like cutouts worn by Oregon Ballet Theatre's dancers—but Terra is definitely high-adrenaline and bizarre.

Terra's premiere is the headliner for OBT's spring show which also includes Petal, another work of Pickett's that OBT staged back in 2014. Fervent and upbeat, Petal looks like a more vibrant "Hotline Bling"—white sheets that box off the stage's three sides are illuminated with sunset pastels.

Terra and Petal bookend two pieces by Nacho Duato. A big name in the world of modern ballet (he's currently the artistic director of the Berlin State Ballet), Duato is far more staid in his choreography than Pickett. Still, El Naranjo and Jardi Tancat create subtly vivid scenes. El Naranjo is only a short excerpt from Gnawa, but it's a warm, fluid duet danced by Jacqueline Straughan and Peter Franc. Jardi Tancat depicts rural quiet desperation: the six dancers bend like rag dolls and drag their hands across the stage as if plowing a field.

Next to Duato's work, Pickett's pieces definitely seem over-the-top, but they don't lack detail. Particularly when it comes to duets, Pickett has an astonishing ability to create nameless characters. In Terra, there's a recurring duet danced by Xuan Cheng and Michael Linsmeier that's extremely delicate. When Linsmeier lifts her into the air, Cheng pulses her legs and arms in sync with strings plucked in the score. Rather than being dipped by Linsmeier, Cheng appears to fall backwards into his arms. But then there's Jacqueline Straughan and Peter Franc's duet that's like a fight over who leads: Franc twirls Straughan, but Straughan also lifts Franc's leg over her head, shoves his shoulders and spins him around.

Pickett's range isn't just aesthetic: What brings Terra to life even more than its dramatic staging is Pickett's sense for the individual, and her ability to contain a wide spectrum of human emotions in a single piece.

SEE IT: Terra plays at Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, obt.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, through April 22. $29-$102.

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