I hope you'll excuse the gushing, but I was just bowled over by White Bird Dance's "4x4 The Ballet Project" last weekend at Portland's Schnitzer Hall.
There is a lot to praise, so let's get the bad news out of the way quickly. The quality of dancing and dancemaking on display in "4x4" was too often variable, and occasionally dipped below a certain expected regional level. I'm not convinced that each company brought its best A-game to the stage, and I wish that live musicians had been used instead of canned stuff.
Much of the rest of "4x4" went wonderfully right; spectacularly so in the case of San Francisco Ballet's deeply impressive showing in Helgi Tomasson's Concerto Grosso. There were many other highlights. To cap their ambitious tenth season of presenting modern dance in Portland, the indefatigable White Bird founders Walter Jaffe and Paul King had the bright idea to bring together the West Coast's four major classical dance companies to share a bill for two consecutive nights in Portland. The amazing thing was that nobody had thought of this sooner, but here it was: the first time all four companies had shared a stage, and a long overdue Portland homecoming for the three non-resident companies.
It might be easy to compare the companies, but it wouldn't be fair. Each of them - Eugene Ballet Company, Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Portland's Oregon Ballet Theatre - is at a different stage of maturity, and each has strengths and a unique signature.
Eugene Ballet Company's offering was a work from 1997, artistic director Toni Pimble's Still Falls the Rain, a dance which Pimble describes as "about religious intolerance." It was influenced, the choreographer writes, by a young Afghanistan couple's being stoned to death by The Taliban. The music is by neo-Baroque Boston composer Patricia Van Ness.
Pimble's context, while helpful, ultimately seems beside the point when the dance itself begins. We are confronted with a starkly lit and draped stage, with blocks of orange (a sunrise or sunset?) peeking through. Three chimes ring out and what sounds like a Baroque viol consort begins a plaintive slow fugue. First one, then two and three dancers, and finally all ten, in dark fitted tops and simple skirts, rise from the stage in a sun-salute gesture then fall again, arms spread in a very tender movement, a veneration. In its barren and elemental way, it was unspeakably moving.
That Pimble's delicate ballet becomes derivative by about the third of eight movements may be due in equal parts to the dancemaker's limited vocabulary (cruciform lifts, windmill arms, angular jutting leaps, and a wacky wilting flower dance that sticks in the mind) and the limited technical abilities of her young company. Pimble is working with green dancers and wisely keeps them within a comfortably safe movement zone.
After seeing Christopher Wheeldon's Rush I immediately longed to see it again. Wheeldon, perhaps contemporary American ballet's "it" choreographer of the moment, loads so much detail into a small canvas that the effect is wild and explosive, like Kandinsky's fragmented hypercolor Composition paintings bursting at the frame. In Wheeldon's work, you don't remember the lift, you remember the sly shoulder roll on the lift's descent. You recognize the classical ballet vocabulary - arabesque, battement, grand jete - but Wheeldon has deconstructed the language. Put another way, he's shattered it on the sidewalk and reassembled it as little shards of movement with plenty of cut and shine.
The music for the work is Bohuslav Martinu's Sinfonietta La Jolla for chamber orchestra and piano, a little heard early-mid 20th century work full of bold colors and unique combinations of instruments. The choreographer moved against the grain of the music instead of merely mickey-mousing it: a lyrical leg set to a rumbling piano, or a spiraling series of arms interrupted by a battery of percussion. It is fresh, eye-popping stuff, and deeply musical, but not in that sometimes overslick Mark Morris manner.
Originally set on the members of the San Francisco Ballet, Portland's Oregon Ballet Theatre, 16 company members strong, took up the dance and performed it with high gloss, secure technique, and obvious affection for the work. I wasn't in Portland during James Canfield's tenure as OBT founding director, but the word is that under Christopher Stowell's direction the company has improved all out of recognition. They debut next month in a special Kennedy Center festival appearance.
Seattle choreographer and Pacific Northwest Ballet company member Olivier Wevers is another dancemaker on the ascendant, and his new Shindig is a dizzying six-part Technicolor romp, mashing up three centuries of music (Schubert to Leroy Anderson) and tipping his hat to at least a half-dozen music-theater choreographers. There's a coquettish pas de deux, a trippy trio in green, and a quirky commentary on dizzy ballerinas. All of it is charming and uniquely assembled, and the PNB dancers offered carefully calibrated comic dancing of the best order.
Under the maverick leadership of artistic director Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet has become a monster US classical company. They brought five men to dance Tomasson's 2003 Concerto Grosso, set to a Corelli concerto, and their performance made the biggest splash of the night. What starts as a simple Baroque minuet for quartet-plus-one builds steadily into a virtuoso showcase, with huge leaps and staggering air-time, sending the audience into waves of frenzied applause. Pascal Molat, a deeply impressive dancer, was joined by Garrett Anderson, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Rory Hohenstein, and Hansuke Yamamoto, and all five were greeted with a roar from the crowd.