Eugene Ballet Company – 1999

April 17, 1999

Frank Afrunti and Brett Mills dance Toni Pinble’s masterly Slipstream in Eugene Ballet’s spring season.
Photo by Steve Welsh, courtesy Eugene Ballet.

Eugene Ballet Company

Hult Center for the Performing Arts
April 17-18, 1999

Reviewed by Martha Ullman West

Eugene,OR-Conventional wisdom is that while there’s no lack of good dancers around the country, the quality of the choreography they perform is quite another matter.

This emphatically does not apply to Eugene Ballet, which ended its twenty-first season in April. Their well-danced repertory of new choreography ranged from promising (company member Eloy Barragan’s Danza, Danzon) to brilliant (artistic director Toni Pimble’s Slipstream), and ended with a long-overdue revival of the late Dennis Spaight’s Schéhérazade.

In this Schéhérazade, which premiered in Portland in 1990, it’s the details that count: the motifs taken from Persian miniatures by easel painter Henk Pander for the luminous set; the varied fabrics with which the late Ric Young’s opulent costumes are made-velvet, silk, jeweled mesh; the use of the hands, feet, torsos, and the costumes themselves in Spaight’s eclectic choreography; and the way the movement fits step-by-step, phrase-by- phrase with Rimsky-Korsakov’s lush, dynamic score-all come together in an enthralling forty-minute story ballet.

The choreographer, who was thirty-nine when he died in 1993, was appalled by the violence of the Arabian Nights story of the Sultan who kills off a hundred wives, but he was charmed by the musical suite that Rimsky-Korsakov was inspired to compose. Unfortunately, it was not performed live in Eugene. In Spaight’s version, the title character becomes part of her own story, sacrificing herself for her lover, the Golden Slave, and becoming a redemptive figure who symbolizes the staying power of art.

Jennifer Martin, whose technical facility and dramatic powers make her a dancer to be reckoned with, gave the title role everything she had. She moved easily between the role of the storyteller who distracts the Sultan with mime and the young woman who dances passionately to express her love and her fear, pawing the ground with a pointe, walking with eloquent pathos behind her own funeral procession.

Barragan, Frank Affrunti, Tamarin Kelly, and Jennifer McNamara were outstanding as Slaves and Odalisques, and the corps of harem ladies executed its musically complex movement seamlessly, giving the dancers’ billowing silk skirts the look of sea anemones as they surged across the stage.

Pimble’s sophisticated, postmodern Slipstream is driven by the contemporary rhythms of British composer Michael Nyman, and is astounding for its sure-handed, mature craftsmanship. Balletic port de bras is combined with highly athletic modern and pedestrian movement, taking the dancers into a new realm of abstract, musical dancing that eats up space, rearranges it, and maximizes the dancers’ talents, especially the last section’s opening solo for the fluidly tumbling Matthew Hope. The transitions are subtle, verging on invisible; the dancers inhabit the music as if it were their costumes. Lloyd Sobel’s lighting design works collaboratively with the infinitely varied movement, keeping the audience mesmerized throughout. Like Schéhérazade, Slipstream is a grand achievement.