Dance in Portland: The kids are alright

Portland Ballet Academy, Concerto in F/BLAINE COVERT

Dance passes from generation to generation: style, technique, muscle memory, handed down from experienced dancers to those just learning the art and craft. In Portland, no one’s observed this process more carefully than Art Scatter’s friend and associate Martha Ullman West, a distinguished national dance critic who has recently been keeping her eye on the spring spate of performances showing off the skills of young dancers at several of the city’s dance schools. Here is her report:

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“Twas in the merry month of May, when green buds they were showing,” begins that lovely folk song Barbara Allen, referring to the kind of verdant spring we are finally enjoying in Portland.

But green buds showing also applies to young dancers — the students who show what they can do in school performances designed to showcase their talents and their training — and I’ve been a happy member of the audience at three of them in the last couple of weeks.

My first stop was an open dress rehearsal at Portland Ballet Academy, out on Capitol Highway, on April 30. The school, founded in 2001 by Nancy Davis and Jim Lane, both former dancers who trained at the School of American Ballet and elsewhere, provides professional training for ballet dancers, and some of their former students are now performing with such companies as Pacific Northwest Ballet and Houston Ballet. Like everything else, PBA has been hit by the recession, but few people are more creatively resourceful than dancers in hard times, and they converted their main studio into a perfectly respectable black box theater to showcase their students as professionally as possible.

I am invariably impressed by how well trained PBA’s male students are, and this year was no exception.  In a Cliff Notes version of Act I of Don Quixote, adapted by faculty member Jason Davis, the enthusiasm of all the dancers was infectious and the dancing of Henry Cotton and Skye Stouber, both headed this year to the School of American Ballet’s summer program on full scholarship, was exuberant and correct.  Generally speaking I would rather watch Dick Cheney sneer than have to sit through this swaybacked, spavined war horse again in any version, yet I enjoyed this performance mightily because — and here’s the test for very young dancers — the performers were having a blast.

Nancy Davis, who is the artistic director of the school’s youth company, opened the show with a revised version of the third movement of John Clifford’s Concerto in F, set to Gershwin’s eponymous score, in which she originated the ballerina role.  Christine Matthews, who possesses Davis’s sort of leggy stretched-out body, revealed genuine stage presence as well as technique that’s on its way to authoritave ease — no surprise, since she is a veteran of summer intensives at PNB, Ballet Austin and American Ballet Theatre.

Alexandrous Ballard’s non-traditional Winter Mute, to a sound collage of contemporary music, challenged these young dancers in different ways.  Performing in slippers rather than point shoes, the cast of seven male and female dancers danced rather cautiously at the dress rehearsal.  I hope they felt secure enough in subsequent performances to find some joy in dancing it.  Ballard is very largely responsible for the fine training the boys at PBA receive; watching them perform the virtuoso steps in Don Q, he was justifiably beaming with pride.

Students from the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre had their annual showcase at the Newmark Theatre May 2 and 3 in a lengthy program consisting of works by Balanchine, Ashton, Lew Christensen, Robbins, Bruce Wells, Josie Moseley and OBT principal Ronnie Underwood, works that reflect the background and training not only of OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell, but also of school director Damara Bennett and the rest of the faculty. I saw the Sunday afternoon performance.

Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante opened the program, an excellent choice for students since it contains everything, Balanchine once said, that he knew about classical ballet.  It does, indeed, contain a digest of his steps to music by Tchaikovsky, and SOBT’s  students danced it with more authority, attack and panache than some professional companies I’ve seen.

SOBT is a professional training ground, intended to feed OBT as well as other companies, and Bruce Wells’ Snow White in relatively short order gives the students opportunities to learn what they need to know to perform in story ballets, including mime, character development (Snow White’s evil stepmother was wickedly danced by Nicole Nienow Birch), how to be a corps member (in this case, represented by Tree Spirits dressed as cedar branches — don’t ask), comedy  (represented not terribly successfully by the seven dwarves, dressed as happy farmers) and a truncated traditional pas de deux, which Katherine Minor as Snow White and Ian Buchanan as the Prince did quite nicely.  The piece was done originally for PNB; it’s the second time SOBT has danced it, and I’m inclined to hope next year will see the return of Christopher Stowell’s charming Peter and the Wolf.

I wish as well that if they’re going to repeat every year Jerome Robbins’ Circus Polka, which premiered in 1972 at New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival with Robbins as the ringmaster, the cracking of the whip would either be adjusted or eliminated: Every time Michael Davis aimed it at a small, pink-clad dancer, I thought of Robbins’ really terrible reputation for mistreating dancers.  It’s a terrific showcase for the the lower level students, and they mostly look like they’re having a good time, finding satisfaction in doing it well.  This is also true of the intricacies of the Maypole Dance from Ashton’s Fille Mal Gardee, with the flying cow at the end that always makes me wonder if they could get sponsorship from Alpenrose.

Josie Moseley has been teaching traditional modern dance at SOBT since before Damara Bennett took over the directorship, and several of her students have gone on to Juilliard in recent years.  In Life Goes On, which included a reworking for a group of students of the Ob-La-Di solo from her 2008 concert presented by White Bird, the dancers demonstrated their ability to shed their tiaras and point shoes with considerable emotional resonance.  I thought the piece was marred visually by the costumes, leg-revealing unisex shorts and jersey tops in an unbecoming yellow. Moseley’s swooping, curved movement for women to my mind screams for the draping of skirts.

It was fun to see Jamesmichael Sherman-Lewis, who has shone in the role of the Nutcracker Prince, zestily doing a military drill with three other boys in Militarischer Tanz, and as usual these excellently trained young dancers did a fine job with Christensen’s illusory Il Distratto. The SOBT annual show always offers good value and plenty of promise. This year was no exception, promising an ongoing supply of dancers for OBT and other companies.

Last, but absolutely not least for different reasons, was Da Vinci Arts Middle School’s Spring Dance Concert, which I attended last Saturday afternoonin the company of Portland choreographer Gregg Bielemeier. Kristen Brayson, once a Jefferson Dancer, and Claire Olberding direct a program that offers no less than a dozen dance classes to around 300 students. Resident guest artist is Julana Torres, daughter of Julane Stites, who now directs the dance program at the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy in Beaverton. Tracey Durbin, a  longtime Portland contemporary choreographer and dancer, teaches at Da Vinci and choreographed one of the — count them, fifteen — pieces on the program.

Olberding and Brayson do a phenomenal job of moving the young dancers on the stage, filling the space with energy and delight harnessed to musicality and timing.  This was particularly true of the pieces created for tap dancers, but in the opening show there were no discernible mishaps of any kind, and everyone on stage looked as if they were having the time of their lives.

Many of the students in this program take dance outside the school, mostly ballet,  which is lacking in the curriculum.  Modern, jazz, contemporary and tap are the techniques taught here to students not necessarily thinking of committing economic suicide in the wonderful world of professional dance.  Not that they couldn’t — if she wants to, coltish Paige Moreland, who definitely gladdened my dance-loving heart in Olberding’s Challenge of the Love Warrior, has what it takes to light up any stage she might choose.  And Austin Moholt-Siebert, dancing a take-off on either Dracula or Von Rothbart or both in Torres’ Dawn of the Ballerinas, is clearly headed for a theatrical career.

It’s good to know that a variety of dance training is available in Portland, including the public schools.  How long it will last is another matter, but surely it is as worthy of support as anything else in the curriculum that teaches students a language in which to express themselves without words — and with the awareness of others that performing on a small stage with many people demands.

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