Oregon Ballet Theatre
Oct. 8–15, 2011
Performance reviewed: Oct. 8
By Heather Wisner
Bravery and passion dominated an ambitious season opener at Oregon Ballet Theatre this October. The company presented two world premieres on one bill: Nicolo Fonte’s radical reinvention of the Ballets Russes classic Petrouchka and OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell’s vision of Carmen. Along the way, the program introduced Portland viewers to nearly a dozen new dancers that OBT has added to its roster.
The themes, and the music—played live by the OBT orchestra—were familiar, but these were not the old ballets. In Fonte’s Petrouchka, the Shrovetide Fair and its colorful Russian characters have been replaced by men and women in midnight-blue uniforms, their faces hidden by white masks—more Kurt Jooss than Fokine. The action unfolds under the watchful eye of The Conjurer, who could just as easily be the Factory Boss, given the ballet’s setting, a dark and mostly bare stage, save for a large, rotating silver set piece that transforms into claustrophobic rooms and a shiny metal floor. The ballet’s original love triangle is now among The Girl, The Friend (formerly The Moor), and Petrouchka, although the costumes and masks sometimes make it difficult to tell who’s who.
By placing his characters in this utilitarian setting and obscuring their identities, Fonte underscores the menace in Stravinsky’s music and puts greater emphasis on the struggle between individuality and authority. It’s not so much a story ballet as a ballet with a message, delivered with a classical vocabulary that makes occasional reference to the original choreography. The Conjurer snaps his fingers to control others and rages when the knock-kneed Petrouchka summons the courage to defy him. That moment sets off a chain reaction—the masks come off and the dancers seem to see their own bodies for the first time. Despite an anticlimactic ending, the ballet leaves a lasting impression.
Stowell, meanwhile, eschews the red-and-black costuming that has traditionally served as balletic shorthand for Spain in favor of pale blues, browns, oranges and pinks. It’s Carmen via Santa Fe, but at least it’s not status quo. The set pieces here are brown wooden wedges that serve as hills (when they are horizontal) or tavern walls (when they are tipped vertically and hung with flickering red lanterns).
Alison Roper danced a sultry Carmen on opening night, and two new company dancers—Yang Zou and Xuan Cheng—made solid debuts, he as a snappy, efficient Captain of the Guard and she as Don José’s adoring but justifiably worried fiancée. Stowell’s version of the ballet has some memorable flourishes: OBT students, dressed as village children, beat out a rhythm on the wooden boards as the soldiers march, while Carmen and Don José kick up their back heels like bulls before charging full bore at one another. This Carmen also has plenty of dramatic tension, and viewers responded to that. The program was not for devout traditionalists, but in his pre-show introduction, Stowell noted that one of his goals is to stage adventurous work, and this night clearly marked a step in that direction.
Photos, top to bottom: Alison Roper and Chauncey Parsons in Stowell’s Carmen. Yuko Iino as The Doll in Fonte’s reinvention of Petrouchka. By Blaine Truitt Covert, courtesy OBT.