News
Kelsie Nobriga and Matthew Pawlicki Sinclair in rehearsal for August Bournonville's "Napoli." Photo by Yi Yin, Courtesy OBT.

This week marks a milestone achievement for Oregon Ballet Theatre: October 6–13, the company will unveil Danish choreographer August Bournonville's full-length Napoli. OBT is only the second American company to perform the full-length version (Ballet Arizona was the first, in 2015), and it is the first to build a production of Bournonville's 1842 ballet from scratch by investing in its own sets and costumes. In addition, a "dream team" of stagers with deep Royal Danish Ballet roots has come to Portland to stage the work.

Artistic director Kevin Irving notes that OBT currently only owns two full-length productions: Nutcracker and Swan Lake. He felt Napoli, which follows the love story between Teresina and Gennaro, a young fisherman, would make a popular addition to the repertoire. "It's a simple journey to a culmination that celebrates coming together in a community, and I think that's what makes it timeless," he says.

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Boston Ballet in Bournonville's "La Sylphide." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


Wayne McGregor Makes His ABT Choreographic Debut

Ever since Vaslav Nijinsky shocked Paris audiences in 1913 with his Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes, dancemakers from Sir Kenneth MacMillan to Pina Bausch have tried their hands at choreographing to Igor Stravinsky's infamous score. This spring, Wayne McGregor will be added to that list. The Royal Ballet resident choreographer's first work for American Ballet Theatre, titled AFTERITE, will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on May 21. Known for his grounded and experimental movement style, McGregor's work will feature video designs by innovative filmmaker Ravi Deepres and sets and costumes by designer Vicki Mortimer, both longtime collaborators. Alessandra Ferri, who has collaborated with McGregor in the past, will join ABT as a guest artist.

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Views

Dancers know that practice makes...room for more practice. We spend our entire lives working to refine our technique, and what non-dancers see as perfection we see as a work in progress. But with dedication and discipline, that work-in-progress starts to change and grow, and that's the beauty of our art form: constant opportunity to push ourselves further.

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Everything Nutcracker
Tulsa Ballet's Jennifer Grace. Photo Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Six pros reveal their most creative tricks for making it through everyone's favorite holiday marathon.


Alana Griffith: Artist, Milwaukee Ballet

Griffith in rehearsal for Milwaukee Ballet's "Waltz of the Flowers." Photo by Timothy O'Donnell, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet.

Favorite role: Clara

"Clara was my first soloist role and the first role I did where my character danced through the entire ballet. I liked playing with different ways of making her sweet and lovable or bratty and funny. Switching from Clara to the corps to divertissements makes the rehearsal process exciting and challenging."

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Ballet Careers
Irving in the studio with OBT's Candace Bouchard. Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover, Courtesy Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Kevin Irving is a man of eclectic tastes. It showed in Oregon Ballet Theatre's 2015–16 season, which opened with Napoli Act III, the company's first turn with Bournonville, followed by Balanchine's Nutcracker. Then came Romeo & Juliet, as envisioned by OBT founding artistic director James Canfield. The season closed with Beautiful Decay, an OBT premiere that Irving's partner, contemporary choreographer Nicolo Fonte, created featuring local contemporary dancers.

“A salient fact is that I'm very much a mongrel," says the 55-year-old OBT artistic director. As a Long Island teen, Irving aspired to be a jazz dancer, studying at The Ailey School and performing with Elisa Monte Dance before leaping seriously into ballet at 24. He joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and was promoted to soloist, then principal. He finished his performing days with Twyla Tharp, then moved on to European posts, including associate director at the Madrid-based Compañía Nacional de Danza, artistic director of Sweden's Göteborgs Operans Danskompani and guest ballet master for the Royal Danish Ballet. His ever-changing circumstances taught him to adapt quickly, he says.

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News

The lack of female choreographers in the ballet world has come under recent scrutiny. Why are so few women given opportunities to create for major companies—especially when they're out there, steadily making work? How can companies, schools, patrons and mentors cultivate emerging choreographers? Many companies have addressed the dearth through deliberate programming, like the English National Ballet's "She Said" program, while institutions like New York University's Center for Ballet and the Arts has created a specific fellowship for women.

Oregon Ballet Theatre in George Balanchine's "Apollo" (photo by Blaine Truitt Covert)

Now, Oregon Ballet Theatre has a choreographic competition for female choreographers. Three winners of Choreography XX will have the chance to create a new ballet, which will premiere in the summer of 2017, for OBT.

The application details for the competition can be found here. Keep in mind that entrants must be at least 21 years old, and a citizen of either the U.S. or Canada. The deadline to submit is March 31. Good luck!

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

 

News

Royal Danish Ballet star Amy Watson will perform as a guest artist in Oregon Ballet Theatre's fall production of Amore Italiano, which will include Act III of the Bournonville ballet Napoli, and the world premiere of Sub Rosa by James Kudelka.

OBT has gone to great lengths to study the Bournonville style in preparation for this production. Frank Andersen, a Bournonville expert and the former artistic director of the RDB, set Napoli on the company and helped organize a sponsored trip for six OBT dancers to study at the Bournonville Summer Academy in Copenhagen. The dancers spent a week intensively studying Bournonville repertoire and technique.

This year alone, New York City Ballet premiered its production of La Sylphide and Bournonville Divertissments, Ballet Arizona performed Napoli in its entirety (a rarity) and principals and soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet toured to the Joyce Theater in NYC. It's safe to say the U.S. is experiencing a Bournonville boom, with dancers dedicated to studying the master's subtle and buoyant style.

Ballet Careers
Candace Bouchard as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. Photo by Blaine Covert, Courtesy OBT.

Portland's popular Wonder Ballroom, an indie music club, was packed wall to wall. A sea of hipster 20-somethings crowded in for the headline act: the locally famous band Horse Feathers and half a dozen Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers, united for the night under the name Uprising. High-energy choreography embodied the stirring lyrics, making this untraditional collaboration feel perfectly natural.

Uprising, the brainchild of OBT soloist Candace Bouchard, was born in 2009 when, facing a midseason layoff due to budget cuts, Bouchard decided to start her own project. Since high school, and while training at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Ballet Academy East, the St. Louis native held side jobs to feel connected to the non-dance world. While bartending in Portland, she discovered she loved sharing her world with people her own age. “Friends I met came to the ballet and said, 'I can't believe I never did this!' so I knew it was just getting them in the door the first time," she says. With more perspective on what they were looking for, she knew familiar spots and popular bands would be a big draw.

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Ballet Stars
Leta Biasucci photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

This is Pointe's October/November 2014 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

In a company known for its tall women, Pacific Northwest Ballet's Leta Biasucci doesn't fit the mold. At 5' 3", she seems petite next to several of the company's willowy principals. But her height is far from all that stands out.

Last spring she charmed audiences in Giselle's peasant pas de deux, flying through impeccable batterie with grace and precision. The role seemed made for her, but so does nearly every one that she's danced, a tribute to the broad spectrum of her talent. She's stepped in last minute as Swanilda in Coppélia. She's conquered Clara in PNB's Nutcracker. She's been featured in work by Christopher Wheeldon and Twyla Tharp. And last winter, shortly after her 24th birthday, she made her debut as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. “It's odd to see someone fit so naturally in a full-length ballerina role," says PNB artistic director Peter Boal. “That's the hardest thing to do, and she got there first." Biasucci has been a star in PNB's corps de ballet for only three years. This fall marks her promotion to soloist, and she is well on her way to expanding the definition of a PNB ballerina.

Even her background is different. Unlike most PNB corps dancers, Biasucci did not come through the company's professional division or the School of American Ballet, where Boal keeps close ties. A Pennsylvania native, Biasucci began dancing as a 5-year-old in a ballet-tap combo class. After three years, her teacher suggested she might like the more rigorous training at Marcia Dale Weary's Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, noted for turning out technically strong, versatile performers. Her years there laid the foundation for her entire career. At 16, she became a trainee at San Francisco Ballet School. At 18, she landed her first professional job with Oregon Ballet Theatre under Christopher Stowell. OBT's small size, she says, gave her “a good place to grow, feel nurtured and have opportunities to be presented," but she was hesitant to let her roots grow deep. “I had dreams of dancing in a larger company," she says.

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Ballet Stars

With a name like Grace, long legs, flexible hips and an innate elegance, Grace Shibley seems to have been destined for ballet. But when asked what comes easily for her, a smile breaks out on her pretty, heart-shaped face: “I don’t feel like anything comes easily!”

Her teachers might put it differently, citing Shibley’s work ethic, her ability to listen closely and her habit of taking every opportunity to learn as factors in her success. “Jumping is hard for me, turning is not a strong point,” continues Shibley, and then she pauses again as though the list goes on and on. “I was one of those girls whose limbs flailed around.”

There’s no flailing these days. Shibley dances in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s corps with a beautiful specificity. She understands shape and line, tension and release, and she exhibits a refined sense of musical phrasing. She opens herself up to the audience with the quiet glow of someone who used to be shy. Whether she’s dancing with the dreamy grace of Afternoon of a Faun or the swanky sass of Ellington Suite, the movement seems a natural expression of her inner being.


Afternoon of a Faun was one of the first pieces Shibley learned when she joined OBT in 2007. Third cast, in a four-performance run, the chances that she would get to dance it onstage were pretty slim. But dance it she did.


That season, Shibley was also cast as the female lead in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and the following season she danced four principal roles. Each has come as a surprise to Shibley—and, in some ways, to OBT’s Artistic Director Christopher Stowell. He sometimes gives dancers an opportunity to learn a role that might be suitable for them later in their careers. But Shibley, Stowell says, “is good at pulling the performance together without help. If working in the corner she can turn it into a full interpretation, she should get an opportunity to do it. Nobody has to explain to Grace what something’s about, or where to make an effect, or what impact this dance is supposed to have. Those big ideas are clear to her.”


At 20 years old, Portland-born Shibley is actually the same age as OBT. In some ways, they’ve grown up together. She transferred to OBT’s school shortly before Stowell came to the company in 2003. She never left. Summer intensives elsewhere didn’t make sense to her, professionally or economically. She had an offer of a traineeship at San Francisco Ballet, but turned it down when OBT offered her a company contract that same year.


What’s in store for this delicate-looking ballerina who reminds people of Suzanne Farrell, Tanaquil Le Clercq and Audrey Hepburn? She seems to enjoy herself, whether she’s dancing lead roles or corps ones. “I like being part of something bigger,” says Shibley, “like being a corps swan in Swan Lake. It feels good standing with everybody in our matching tutus. It kills your feet, but the music is beautiful and you feel like there’s moonlight on your neck. You’re part of making this exquisite ballet happen. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than that.”

 

At a Glance

 
Name: Grace Shibley
Age: 20
Company: Oregon Ballet Theatre
Training: Portland Metro Performing Arts Center and School, and School of Oregon Ballet Theatre
Favorite role performed: The Ballerina in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert
Dream role: Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo

Oregon Ballet Theatre is back from the brink, thanks in no small part to its many friends in the ballet community. On June 12, the company—facing severe financial difficulties that left it scrambling to raise $750,000 by the end of that month—held a fundraising gala dubbed Dance United. Dancers from all over North America, including members of New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada and The Joffrey Ballet, performed together to save OBT.

 

“Dancers have a bond that transcends time and distance, and that was really apparent to me that evening,” says OBT principal Gavin Larsen, who also performed in the gala.

 

Dance United raised $330,000 and lent the fundraising campaign much-needed momentum. The company ultimately exceeded its goal, pulling together $907,747 by the end of June. “The enthusiasm for this gala reassured me that art is not a dispensable item and that people won't let it leave their lives,” says Larsen.


On a rainy spring evening in the studios of Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre, in front of an audience of company supporters and members of the press, Chairman of the Board John Bernard shot dancer Alison Roper and everyone applauded.


Roper, clad in the fishnet stockings and three-inch heels demanded by the role of The Stripper in George Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, rose to her feet with help from Jon Drake as The Hoofer, and Bernard, filling in for the murderous Big Boss, breathed a sigh of relief.


Not every ballet company allows the board’s Big Boss to shoot a ballerina, but this is one way Artistic Director Christopher Stowell is sharing ownership of the 18-year-old company he took over in July 2003.


In several respects, Stowell is building on what founding Artistic Director James Canfield began in 1989, when Pacific Ballet Theatre and Ballet Oregon merged to become the present company. Stowell is continuing to stress community outreach and rigorous classical training. The artistic vision, however, has shifted from Canfield’s melding of popular culture with classical technique in works like his Go Ask Alice, set to the music of Pink Floyd with a story line based on several films, to Stowell’s much greater emphasis on classical and neo-classical ballet danced to classical music—played by live musicians whenever possible. 


The 2007-08 season, announced at the event where Roper was “gunned down,” reflects that fundamental change. Entitled “A Grand Tour,” in honor of the tradition of sending young people abroad to finish their educations, each program is keyed to the nationality of its composers, beginning in October with the Germanic lands and ending in Russia in June.


When Stowell programs a season he keeps in mind the dancers and the audience, but uppermost is what he says he would like to see on the stage: “That takes into account that I want to see audiences engaged and excited and dancers fulfilling their potential. My point is that it comes down to my taste and my expectations of myself. I want to feel good about our performances being a reflection of our artistic aspirations and values, which range everywhere from challenging to entertaining.”


To display that range, Stowell has added, among other company premières, the challenge of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and the fun of Jerome Robbins’s The Concert and Sir Frederick Ashton’s Façade, as well as his own Eyes on You to music by Cole Porter. In December of 2003, he replaced Canfield’s elegant Nutcracker, in which Wizard of Oz–inspired characters accompanied Marie on her journey, with George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, making OBT the only West Coast company to perform it.
Stowell brings his personal taste, which he characterizes as eclectic, as well as his experience as a dancer into play when choosing repertoire. Accordingly, other OBT repertoire choices include choreography by his father, Kent Stowell, as well as Julia Adam, Christopher Wheeldon (OBT will perform his Rush at the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America Festival in June 2008), James Kudelka and Yuri Possokhov. Stowell has also brought in ballets by Helgi Tomasson, under whose direction he danced for 16 years at San Francisco Ballet. Meanwhile, choreographer Trey McIntyre continues his extended relationship with the company.


With board support Stowell has had the opportunity to commission several premières. The fall season opens with Stowell’s one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Mendelssohn’s incidental music in a new orchestration by longtime company music director Niel DePonte. A new Bolero choreographed by Nicolo Fonte is scheduled for later in the season.


Going into its fifth year under Stowell’s leadership, OBT is as much about the dancers as the repertoire that attracts them. He’s instituted ranking for the first time in company history and, to build community interest in the company, Stowell has authorized an advertising campaign that shows the dancers as individuals with personal lives: Anne Mueller, who lives on a “farm” with her goat; a pointe shoe–clad Kathi Martuza painting a wall; a pregnant Daniela DeLoe on pointe; a poker-playing Gavin Larsen. “Making dancers celebrities,” Stowell says, “keeps OBT in people’s minds.” 


Stowell has created a repertoire that gives dancers numerous opportunities, even those who are inexperienced. Company artist Adrian Fry, who joined OBT last season, knows exactly why he chose a contract with OBT over an apprenticeship with the Joffrey. “It came down to the repertoire, where it was and where C. S. was taking it,” he says. “Also because of the energy of people coming together for a common goal.” His choice paid off last season when he danced three performances of Apollo after Artur Sultanov was injured.


More experienced dancers also flourish under Stowell’s direction. Principal Ronnie Underwood came to OBT in 2005 from Fort Worth, TX, where he had been dancing with Texas Ballet Theater. OBT’s repertoire, as well as the desire to dance more Balanchine and something other than story ballets, attracted him.


“These are great programs—the Kudelka, Kent Stowell—and not many companies do Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” he says about the “America” program coming up in the spring. Underwood came to appreciate “the ease C. S. brings to the studio; he tells you something and then it happens. He’s a fabulous mentor and coach. This will be a great place to dance for a long time.”
Just- announced principal Martuza, who joined the company in 2003, after six years dancing in the corps at SFB, is another seasoned dancer enjoying working for this company. She and her husband, Kester Cotton, also a former dancer with SFB, took a considerable pay cut to dance with OBT, but for 28-year-old Martuza, a self-styled “quirky dancer,” it has been worth the financial loss. With OBT, she has found the opportunities she was seeking, dancing an elegantly lyrical Princess in The Firebird and a thoroughly demanding role in Kudelka’s Almost Mozart.


“OBT is a good fit for me,” says  Martuza. “I feel fortunate to have it; lots of dancers don’t find it ever.” Martuza and Cotton, who has recently retired from performing but teaches in OBT’s school, took class with Canfield at OBT when they first arrived in Portland.


“James is a fantastic teacher, and Christopher was fortunate to come into a situation with the incredible work ethic he had created here,” says Martuza.


For Roper, whom Canfield took into the company at age 21 in 1996 and is one of eight newly announced principals, the change in artistic emphasis came at just the right time. She credits Canfield for carefully, “patiently,” nurturing her technique and talent and “shaping her into a solid professional dancer.” Nonetheless, she was ready for a new approach to her career and a greater challenge.


Roper says, “Christopher has provided both more classical work and a higher caliber of choreographers and répétiteurs. [Stowell’s mother, Francia Russell, has been staging some of the Balanchine works.] I had no idea how much I would love dancing Swan Lake, and Aurora was a career highlight for me.

“I only wish we could dance the full ballet very soon, as I relish sinking my teeth into Act One,” she continues. “That statement alone expresses the change that I’ve undergone with Christopher at the helm of OBT. I’ve taken all the tools that James gave me, and I can set them free and be excited and unafraid to meet the next challenge.”

Martha Ullman West has been covering dance in Portland and other cities since 1979. She is a senior advisory editor at Dance Magazine and a former
co-chair of the Dance Critics Association.

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