28 March 2014

Appending to what came before it

I forgot to mention that the Tea variation in the OBT Nutcracker had been revised from "tea Chinese tea" to "tea Siamese tea", headdresses, flared shoulders, and all. The costuming is marginally more "authentic", but I'm not sure why the revision is deemed to be any less stereotypical than what had come before it.

17 March 2014

Oregon Ballet Theatre, 22 December 2013: George Balanchine's the Nutcracker

[This post was edited to correct a huge casting mistake with regard to Dewdrop.]

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
Oregon Ballet Theatre
Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon
22 December 2013
Orchestra Center, Row X, Seat 6

Without realizing it, Nutcrackers have snuck into my Christmas routine just as surely as have Chinese-food-and-a-movie. It was particularly welcome this year after a cross-continental move. The landscape changes, but by gum, the story won't, even if we can't decide if our heroine is Clara or Marie. I caught the Sunday matinee and was greeted by confused glances when I plunked my lonesome down between several populations of little girls and their adult attendants.

Oregon Ballet Theatre promised live music in select performances. Unfortunately Keller Auditorium is not ideal for music. The richness of tone suppresses any semblance of texture at any volume greater than piano, overexposes tuning problems in the brass, and turns the whole thing into soup by the time sound reaches the balconies. However, the conductor gave a brisk performance despite acoustic limitations, never falling into melodrama even when there were moments that threatened to dive headfirst into tubercular French novel territory.

This Nutcracker was rife with sartorial confusion and uneven in the quality of its dancing, all in all having a better time with the first act than with the second. Frau Stahlbaum's bustle and hobble skirt read as late Victorian (1880s) while her guests wore circular hooped styles from the early 1860s. Guests were comfortable enough to mix day and evening dress, enough that some came in dark plaids and calicos more suited for rough work.  On the fantastical side, the Kingdom of Sweets was rebranded as a Kingdom of Pastels, with a very pink Sugar Plum Fairy presiding over a menagerie of pretty but anonymous feature dancers, including Candy Cane in a photo negative of Tron Legacy battle suit.

The children were the highlight here, having an excellent time playing with each other on stage under the eyes of indulgent parents. Marie (Jenny White) is clearly the queen bee of her social set, dolls included, and Noah Hug made me feel sorry for his Fritz. While he could be played as just a pest, Fritz wandered the stage looking lost, kitted out in an unusual peach-colored sailor suit among a sea of velvet suits. His mischief looked like that of a lonely little boy convinced that he could make a place for himself, if he ran at one fast enough.

In contrasts, the adults were a great deal less memorable. Luckily, the choreography provides sufficient detail so that they were not wholly homogenous. Drosselmeyer (Brett Bauer) was a benevolent guest who seemed determined to play down his mysteriousness. I wanted him and his cape to have more flair than dutifulness. Even the mice seemed similarly functional, sufficient to move Clara from the familiar to the fantastical with the smallest amount of dramatic impact needed to be seen under dim lighting. Granted, the dancers were likely very tired from a long performance season, but I wish the whole house sequence seemed less perfunctory. It shouldn't be just a placeholder until the good bits start.

Luckily, good triumphed over evil, and a beautifully turned out Nutcracker (Wyatt McConville-McCoy), and led Marie into the forest and the start of the "good" dancing. The Waltz of the Snowflakes is a sentimental favorite, and I have discounted many productions after seeing their treatment of this sequence. While the OBT is not a Balanchinean company, its corps de ballet responded beautifully to the choreography. Most of all, they looked like they enjoyed dancing it and were hungry for more of the same. This was the only place where I wished that the tempi could have been more dramatic (another 10-15 ticks on the metronome wouldn't have gone amiss), but for smaller favors, I would settle for a more human-like and less shrill choral sample.

Act II drags everyone into the Kingdom of Sweets, or in a desperate search for more appropriate descriptors, the Pastel Boudoir Kingdom Situated in an Enchanted Forest Glade. Given that this was Portland, I shouldn't be surprised that Clara and the Nutcracker weren't given sweets for feasting, but the odd costumes and sets seemed determined to break any mental connection between the plot in progress and Nutritionally Empty Items.

Some blurriness in the footwork was inevitable given that the company does not specialize in Balanchine, but in general the soloists danced them well. My only disappointment was Dewdrop (Xuan Cheng Haiyan Wu [Sorry for the incorrect attribution]), whose dancing shrank as the Waltz of the Flowers proceeded. Cheng had lovely clarity in her footwork, but it came in such tiny dancing that the effort seemed wasted. By contrast, Haiyan Wu, formerly with the Miami City Ballet, gave an orthodox interpretation of Coffee, though Exoticism in her costuming seemed to have been mostly transmuted into suggestions of Harem instead. It seemed too obvious a turn into sexpot territory, and I was rather uncomfortable with the wiggling.

Luckily, the Sugar Plum Fairy (Ansa Deguchi) and her cavalier (Michael Linsmeier) rescued the fizzle with a truly grand pas de deux. It was perhaps not true to style, but I couldn't mind a slight detour into Ballet Russe ardor if the dancers were absolutely sincere in their dancing. Deguchi is a small woman, but on the shoulders of her cavalier, she glowed with loveliness and triumph as she whipped the entire auditorium into a screaming frenzy.

I staggered to the theater wondering whether the OBT could become my new "home" company. In December and even now, I'm glad that I went, but given my limited resources and my absolute need to see my "home company" (now on the opposite side of the country), I'm not likely to attend again unless multiple factors (read: ticket prices/dancing/sartorial decisions) improved.

[Edited minutely on 20140730 for Drosselmeyer's grammar and sexpot wiggling.]