Monday, April 25, 2011

Dance review: OBT does a little 'Song and Dance'

 Olga Krochik and Julia Rowe do NOT do-si-do/Blaine Truitt Covert
By Barry Johnson

When I was in college, someone (I forget just who) suggested that the closest equivalent to Elizabethan speech, the language of Shakespeare, existing in the world  was spoken in the hollers of Appalachia. I was skeptical.  One branch of my family had abandoned the tough living available in western Kentucky for the coal country of eastern Kentucky, and though I seldom visited, my memory of their accent didn't immediately bring to mind any Shakespeare I'd ever heard.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand the comparison -- it's not their accent, it's the structure of their sentences, strangely old-fashioned at times, and certain anachronisms (I heard my mother say, "Donchee know," just yesterday, for "Don't you know" -- and in that ee, I think Elizabethan English endures). 

When I saw Balanchine's Square Dance on Oregon Ballet Theatre's program, Song and Dance,  this weekend, I had a similar response to the one I had in my college days. What does Balanchine have to do with square dance?  But this time it only took me a few minutes to get it.

It's possible that the dance form closest to the old court dancing from which ballet developed is the modern square dance, which arrived in Appalachia via Scots and English folk dance. At least that's the line my speculations took. Again, it's structure more than vocabulary -- the couples promenading, taking their turns in center, dancing in unison, showing off the "ladies," executing some complex partnering maneuvers and developing everything from a set of basic instructions.

Once I made that leap, I happily watched OBT's dancers take on the demanding positions of Balanchine's Square Dance, which contains no cornpone, no comic mimicry and nary a do-si-do. In fact, the only bow to real square dancing is the caller, you know, the guy in the cowboy hat who tells the dancers what to do with clever patter. Yes, Balanchine included a caller in his original design of the dance, and OBT enlisted Tylor Neist to play the role of a caller in its version.

Anne Mueller, we'll miss you!
Of course, the caller isn't the choreographer -- he's more of a describer, and Balanchine's only instruction to the caller, according to the program notes, was that they couldn't use ballet terms. So, no "arabesque left" or "releve right." Neist's call was fun and took some of the edge off of the sharp angles of Square Dance, which otherwise would be pretty severe. "Here comes Chauncey, dancing fauncy..., he says, when principal Chauncey Parsons volleys fort, and his rhymes with "Julia" were truly groan-worthy, though that was part of the shtick. At least he didn't reduce Julia Rowe's first name to "Jules" and rhyme her with "mules."

Balanchine choreographed to music by Vivaldi and Corelli (played by a live chamber group for OBT), not the Soggy Bottom Boys, and the positions and movement are strictly neo-classical. The presence of a Balanchine dance on Oregon Ballet Theatre's program is always an invitation to talk about the idea of "perfection," and Square Dance could lead us in the direction, though we won't indulge. Let's just say that the dance's rewards are in those delicately arranged hands and arms and the precise movement, whether skipped or deliberate, each amplified individually by the dancers and by the group dancing in unison. Before I started to type this morning, I took a quick tour through Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique, just to remind myself of those Balanchine angles and his careful placements of feet and fingers. And yes, the idea of perfection is afoot.

Just for the record, I enjoyed seeing OBT's Square Dance. Artistic director Christopher Stowell is dedicated to including Balanchine in the company's repertoire, and this one will sharpen their technique. I liked the good cheer of Rowe and Parsons in the lead roles almost as much as I liked the way they moved together: They knew that Neist was having some fun with his calling, and they joined in. Perfect.

I'll talk more briefly about the other three dances on the program, each of which OBT has performed before. They also featured Anne Mueller, who is retiring from the company's list of active dancers and leaves with a stage personality that will be impossible to replace.

Speak: Mueller didn't invent the tough-minded female character in Trey McIntyre's duet from 1998 (that was Vanessa Thiessen), but she has the aggression (and the abs) down as though she had. McIntyre's play with hip-hop is ingenious and in the right spirit, and after Square Dance, it gave our muscle groups a chance to relax from those difficult Balanchine positions -- well, the muscle groups in our head, anyway.  Lucas Threefoot was an excellent foil for Mueller. And no Vivaldi in earshot.

Left Unsaid: Three women, three men, three chairs and smart dancing.
Left Unsaid: OBT danced Nicolo Fonte's dance for six dancers and three chairs for the first time two years ago, and I liked it a lot then. Danced to selections from two Bach compositions, it manages to be both "classical" and expressive at the same time, working best through its duets. OBT's Alison Roper, Anne Mueller, Kathi Martuza, Artur Sultanov, Brian Simcoe and Steven Houser danced it with such assurance that I appreciated the choreography, which builds up classical positions and then tears them down, even more this time around.

Eyes on You: Speaking of Roper, when she gets swaying in Stowell's take on a medley Cole Porter songs, she leaves the earlier high-school hi-jinx of the piece in her dust. This is appropriate to the material, really. Porter was an "adult" song-writer, after all, sophisticated and sly, and Roper channels him perfectly. Mueller gets several of the solo spots, too, and yes, we'll miss her.

Alison Roper and Brett Bauer

The concert is at the Newmark Theatre, which is a de-lovely place to see the company perform. The program runs through May 1; check the website for ticket availability. Really, there are no bad seats in the Newmark -- I even like the second balcony.

Here's Bob Hicks' take on Art Scatter. I agree with him that Square Dance is one of those dances that will improve during this run as the dancers get more comfortable with its shapes. And I really liked his descriptions of Mueller.

And Grant Butler will miss Mueller, too, as he says in his review for The Oregonian. He was harder on the Cole Porter medley, and I understand his point of view.

I'm still skeptical that growing up in Appalachia would have given me a leg up in understanding Shakespeare.  The origins of square dancing are generally considered to be the quadrille and English morris and folk dancing.

All photos courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre. Blaine Truitt Covert is the photographer.


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