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Oregon Ballet Theatre

By Heather Wisner

American Music Festival

Portland, Oregon

April 18–27, 2013

 

From left: Brian Simcoe, Julia Rowe and Lucas Threefoot in Pontus Lidberg’s Stream
Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT


Energy, optimism, and dreaminess—all qualities that have been ascribed to the American character—marked the American Music Festival, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s spring show. It offered Portland viewers three new works, all set to different styles of American music.

 

Swedish-born choreographer Pontus Lidberg’s world premiere Stream was a meditative movement study, set to an ethereal composition for electronics and strings by Portland composer Ryan Francis. Costume designer Reid Bartelme’s blue-gray unisex tunics rippled beautifully throughout the work, suggestive of its title. There was a constant stream of movement swirling across the stage: The women rolled across the men’s backs in slow-motion arcs, swooned forward into their waiting arms (a recurring motif with leads Alison Roper and Lucas Threefoot) or dipped lusciously into penchées. It was pure dance, and a pure pleasure to sink into.

 

Trey McIntyre's Robust American Love, by Blaine Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng and Michael Linsmeier in Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love
Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT

 

The pace picked up with Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love, the evening’s second world premiere. Just as he did with the Peter Paul and Mary folk songs of 2008’s Leatherwing Bat, McIntyre distilled the emotional essence of Seattle’s rootsy Fleet Foxes to create an effective, and affecting, dancescape. The idea here was pre Civil -War America and an open-hearted sense of adventure. It began with the ensemble in brief repose (sans pointe shoes and wearing denim tailcoats over nude unitards). Then soloist Javier Ubell, who had a very strong night overall, set things in motion with a jump so sudden and unexpected that I didn’t entirely catch what it was—it shot up, sideways and down very quickly.

 

The work as a whole was packed with the kind of memorable movement for which McIntyre has become known. The best bits included Michael Linsmeier gently hoisting a cross-legged  Xuan Cheng under the armpits and rocking her gently from side to side just above the stage floor, or Roper, in a vulnerable solo, bent over double, her upper body obscured by her costume, pivoting sideways as the singer moaned about turning into a ghost.

 

Matthew Neenan's At the Border, by Blaine Truitt Covert

Haiyan Wu and Yang Zou in Matthew Neenan’s At the Border
Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT

 

Matthew Neenan’s At the Border, which debuted at Pennsylvania Ballet in 2009, brought the evening to a brisk close. Set to John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction, it opened with lines of dancers sprinting across the stage. Tempo-wise, it never really let up, from wiggly bourrées to frog-like jumps and a dancer who exited by flinging himself off the stage, only to be thrown back on in a crumpled heap. To the sound of the score’s dueling pianos, the pace intensified and the dancers flung themselves into grand battements and jétes; the piece culminated with a rising up and then a group collapse. It was a surprising—and invigorating—end.

 

Having three strong works to add to its repertoire is good news for OBT, which has faced an uncertain future since December, when artistic director Christopher Stowell left. Former principal dancer Anne Mueller has served as interim artistic director since then; whether she will become permanent remains to be seen. At the very least, this program gave viewers the impression that a capable guide has been leading the way forward.