Pinter & OBT dance the night away

Yuka Iino as the girl in the mirror in Niolo Fonte's "Petrouchka" at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert Blaine Truitt Covert/OBT

By Bob Hicks

Last weekend I went to two dances and a play. The dances were Petrouchka and No Man’s Land. The play was Carmen.

This was odd, because No Man’s Land, a sort-of-comic psychic tussle at Artists Repertory Theatre, is by the revered British playwright Harold Pinter, whose brand of rhythmically menacing theater has been rewarded with its own descriptor, “Pinteresque.” And Carmen, although most noted as a rousingly crowd-pleasing opera by Georges Bizet, was in this case a freshly choreographed ballet version, by Christopher Stowell, premiered at Oregon Ballet Theatre along with the premiere of choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s new Petrouchka, a ballet made famous in 1911 by the fortuitous teaming of the young choreographer Michel Fokine, the young composer Igor Stravinsky and the young star Vaslav Nijinsky for the slightly older  impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Tim True (background) and William Hurt in "No Man's Land" at Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Owen CareyStill. Of course No Man’s Land is a play, but in its distillation of psychological and philosophical themes and its virtual abandonment of plot, which seems to have been dropped unceremoniously through a trap door in the stage floor, it takes on the musically suggestive qualities of dance. And of course Carmen is a ballet. But as Bizet and his opera librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Havely, devised it (they were working from an earlier novella by Prosper Merimee, who in turn may have been working from a narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin) the story is indisputably theatrical, a twisting and exciting tale of action and big moments leading thrillingly to tragedy. Stowell chose to keep those elements — indeed, Bizet’s music almost demands it — creating an uncompromisingly theatrical ballet. Fonte, working with Stravinsky’s jagged and compellingly modern score and incorporating a good deal of Fokine’s original movement style, took an opposite approach, distilling almost to the point of pure dance Petrouchka’s sad folk tale of a puppet who comes to life, falls in love, and is murdered. (It’s a tough fate: all Pinocchio got was a long nose and a short stint in a whale’s belly.)

At Artists Rep the dance that is No Man’s Land includes four performers: the successful but dried-out poet Hirst (Allen Nause), the shabby but juicy maybe-poet Spooner (movie star William Hurt, in his fourth performance with the company), and Hirst’s factotums-slash-bodyguards Foster (Alex Hurt, William’s son) and Briggs (the suitably truculent and sometimes brilliantly funny Tim True).

The elder Hurt takes the lead in establishing the  production’s physical momentum, twisting, arching, shuffling and stalking in a manner that says much more than his actual words,  which at any rate are characteristically slurred, often to the point that the audience has to strain to understand what he’s saying. Hurt seems to approach language as essentially rhythmic and musical, and he uses it and his assertive body language to establish not the facts but the essence of a character: He plays the language like a jazz improviser, like John Coltrane redefining a song. It’d be nice to have that and good diction, too, but you take what you get. And what we get in this performance is a suggestive dance, a threat but also a softness, a picture of failure that is also, in its contained self-awareness, a kind of success — a survival, a refusal to give in. And that, in turn, is a mortal challenge to Hirst, whose apparent success has come to feel hollow and constraining, like a sham. All of this is insinuated, pumped into this architectural rendering of a play by director John Dillon and the actors. In this production, at least, Hurt puts the menace into Pinter’s theater of menace, and his co-stars ably dance in contrast and collusion with him.

No Man’s Land strikes me as a kind of dance of death to the drawing-room comedy and drama that had preceded Pinter and the other young British playwrights haphazardly lumped together as the Angry Young Men (one of the most important of whom, Sheelagh Delaney, was a woman). There seems to be a lot here about British class distinctions that flows past American audiences, and there is also theatrical history to the thing: Pinter takes the shell of a standard mid-20th century drawing room drama, a Terence Rattigan sort of show, and leaves it empty inside. All that’s left is the four quizzical characters themselves, as they are (or, as the play famously begins, “As it is?” the Brit way of describing a drink served neat) — four characters in search not just of an author but also of any sense of meaning, of structure, of continuity. They exist in a vacuum that may describe contemporary Western life: shorn of belief, of ritual (or, where ritual persists, of the meaning behind the ritual), of direction; teetering above the precipice that divides despair from a tough  existential freedom. It’s a slow dance to nowhere. Wherever that might be.

Chauncey Parsons as Don Jose and Xuan Cheng as Micaela in Christopher Stowell's "Carmen" at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt CovertSaturday’s opening-night ballet crowd appeared to love Carmen unreservedly and put up with the more restrained and smoothly integrated Petrouchka, which pointedly lacked Carmen’s fireworks. I found myself appreciating Petrouchka far more than the crowd: I loved its efficiency, its unity of vision, its sterling design, and its suggestiveness. The story elements seemed subsumed in the dance itself, like small road signs or turning points that didn’t really matter because the engine was percolating along so smoothly. The dance has its stars — Brian Simcoe as the unfortunate puppet, Yuka Iino as the girl who can’t see his qualities, Lucas Threefoot as the double-dealing friend, Artur Sultanov as the dastardly conjurer — but Fonte choreographs for the whole company, and by doing so shows off what a skilled corps this has become. Watching the grace with which the company performs (and listening to the precision and joy that the orchestra brings to Stravinsky’s prickly score) was a pleasure.

By contrast, Stowell’s Carmen came out with bells and whistles, and probably more flamenco-like foot-stomping than was truly necessary: at times you weren’t sure whether you were in the village plaza or a Cossack beer hall. But fireworks are what Carmen is about. And this production provided two bravura performances to match Hurt’s. Company newcomer Xuan Cheng was a revelation as Micaela, the innocent fiancee who gets tossed aside when Don Jose foolishly and fatally falls for Carmen: Her dancing is swift, light and impeccably turned, and like Iino she has an indefinable but undeniable stage personality. And Alison Roper, as Carmen, revealed once again that she is an artist of imperial depth. Watching Roper move through space is an act of delayed astonishment. If Cheng and Iino anticipate the beat, pushing it forward, Roper delays it. It’s a technique that some great blues singers employ, always staying a breath behind the beat, making the rush of the song hold on for just a moment, because a freight train’s about to move through. When it comes — when Roper catches up, as she always does — it’s emphatic and inevitable. This is what we were waiting for. This moment, which is its own, and the entire dance’s, reward. It’s dance, it’s theater, it’s life. No wonder the audience roared.

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PHOTOS, from top:

  • Yuka Iino as the girl in the mirror in Niolo Fonte’s “Petrouchka” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert
  • Tim True (background) and William Hurt in “No Man’s Land” at Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Owen Carey
  • Chauncey Parsons as Don Jose and Xuan Cheng as Micaela in Christopher Stowell’s “Carmen” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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