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Oregon Ballet Theatre

By Heather Wisner

Oregon Ballet Theatre
Keller Theater
Portland, OR
February 21–23, 2009
Reviewed by Heather Wisner

 

Photo by Blain Truitt Covert, courtesy OBT. Anne Mueller and company dancers in the world premiere of Christopher Stowell's Rite of Spring.

 

The choreographic desire to tackle Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—which sparked audience hysteria when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes debuted it in 1913—seems as perennial as spring itself. On the eve of spring, Oregon Ballet Theatre premiered its own version—one of more than 60 now in existence, the program noted. So the opening-night question was in which direction OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell would take it.


Propelled by a score that still has the power to unsettle, various Rites offer varying degrees of drama and menace, from Angelin Preljocaj’s clothes-shedding tussle between the sexes to Tero Saarinen’s multimedia battle with his own body. Set to the two-piano version of the music (played live by Carol Rich and Susan Dewitt Smith), Stowell’s Rite was an homage to the Ballets Russes’ centenary. The drama seemed to play out in a theater, or maybe a dance studio. Lighting and scenic designer Michael Mazzola’s stripped-down stage offered a long silver panel hung from the back wall; a bank of red, white, and blue lights upstage right; and a set of spring-green hanging panels that migrated slowly across the stage, expanding and contracting the space that surrounded or excluded the dancers.


Six women in red leotards danced the opening salvo within those panels, joined by six men in red trunks, as a second coterie of dancers in grey rehearsal garb slunk around the periphery. There were signature movements, including an arm flung out to the side then yanked back toward the body into a kind of claw, plus flashes of Balanchine, Nijinsky, and even Graham in steps and style. The choreography had a vintage patina but was still sharp and engaging.

 

Two pas de deux sliced through the controlled chaos of group activity. The women in particular deserve special mention: Anne Mueller (partnered by Adrian Fry) and Grace Shibley (partnered by Artur Sultanov) elongated their extensions and attacked the quick phrases with ferocity. The piece ended starkly. A mass of dancers piled into a writhing tower, and Mueller—seated onstage with her knees drawn to her chest—splayed her fingers fearfully in front of her face.


This wasn’t an easy piece to digest in just one sitting, but it’s a strong addition to the repertory and another sign that Stowell (who programmed Rite with Peter Martins’ speedy Ash and Val Caniparoli’s African-inflected Lambarena) is giving the company challenges to grow on.