Oregon Ballet Theatre recently returned to the Joyce Theater in a program of New York premieres under the blanket title of "James Canfield Signatures." James Canfield has been OBT's artistic director since founding the company in 1989. It can be said of him that, now in his final year with the organization, he is certainly going out in a blaze of glory with "Up," created in honor of the Richard Rodgers centenary.
"Up" consisted of seven variations on the Rodgers and Hart song, "Blue Moon." It commenced with five lithe ladies seen in silhouette—Larke Hasstedt, Anne Mueller, Katarina Svetlova, Tracy Taylor, and Vanessa Thiessen—all of whom proved spectacular in smooth combinations of jazz and ballet that immediately reflected their versatility.
Christopher DeMellier followed in a solo that was so completely airborne that he seldom seemed to touch the floor. And it wasn't just a case of grande tours en l'air; there were tours aplenty, but they were all approached in clever modernistic flourishes. His pirouettes, in the few times that he touched the ground, were also amazing.
Katarina Svetlova's subsequent solo, accompanied by the voice of Billie Holiday, changed pace to interpret the song in a somber version.
That the OBT dancers technically can bend in all directions was illustrated further in the electrifying pas de deux performed by Tracy Taylor and Scott Trumbo, as well as in a second pas de deux from Anne Mueller and Louis-Philippe Dionne.
In the final solo to "Blue Moon," Vanessa Thiessen was the driven one whose vibes reached the far corners of the Joyce Theater. "Up" then concluded as it began, with the female ensemble again outlined in silhouette, leaving indentations of their strong personalities.
There is no way anyone can state that the ladies outshone the men. This is a regional company where it can definitely be stated that the men are on a par with the women.
If additional proof was needed of the Canfield reach, further aspects of his versatility were seen in the pas de deux from his "Degas Impressions," which was performed with old-world elegance by Kristin Bacon and Christopher DeMellier in a flawless picture of the Romantic era. Both dancers not only suggested the essence of Degas' ballet paintings, but, as they courted, Bacon's utter delicacy and DeMellier's firm support and gentlemanly ardor were reminiscent of the best in a bygone era.
Canfield reverted to modernism in the pas de deux, "Neon Glass," performed to a Philip Glass score. With choreography sharply etched between angularity and symmetry, there was no end of surprises to the piece, which Tracy Taylor and Matthew Boyes performed with communicable relish.
The "Alta Cienega" pas de deux tended to remind us of a Parisian apache dance. You know the one, where the man is constantly hauling his gal around and wiping the floor with her. But here, there seemed to be a reversal of roles. The gal, in the person of Vanessa Thiessen, launched a mighty potent assault on James Thompson, which resulted in a most welcome lighthearted spectacle.
Thiessen began with some well-aimed blows and then ended up jumping on Thompson, climbing up his back and other parts of his anatomy, all the while giving the impression of an attacking feline. She actually began to appear like a constantly leaping cat. We could almost swear that her eyes, cat-like, seemed to change in color. This pas de deux was all the more rib-tickling because Thiessen is so tiny and Thompson so tall. Thiessen turned out to be a little demon of a performer, while Thompson was heroic in withstanding her attack.
To bring off a ballet about prominent designer Coco Chanel to accompaniments of the vocals of Edith Piaf was certainly a clever idea, because both women went through many a tragedy in their lives. While Piaf's life was short, Chanel seemed to come out almost unscathed as she created her designing empire. Men may have used her as they used Piaf, but Chanel also used them toward her own ends.
But how "Coco" works out as a ballet may be questioned. We found it satisfactory, but far from flawless.
Chanel, in the person of Katarina Svetlova, was constantly borne aloft by men, who served both as her lovers and as dressers of the designer's dummies, which displayed Chanel's designs. In some scenes, the men even managed some comic pas de deux with the lifeless forms by twirling them about all over the stage.
The ballet concluded in a dramatic scene where Chanel falls to the ground in a deep sleep. In the background we see her dream, performed in a sort of Dali-esque setting. We are then left to figure out what the figures, mainly in repose, represent. A puzzlement, but one that is bound to result in a bit of controversy, which is what a contemporary ballet company thrives on.
There can be little questioning of the effervescent performances of Svetlova in the title role and Matthew Boyes, Christopher DeMellier, Scott Trumbo, James Thompson, and Paul Gilliam or Louis-Philippe Dionne as the lovers/dressers.
Some New Yorkers tend to look down on regional companies. Let it be known that Oregon Ballet Theatre's performers can certainly compare favorably with those seen in our own city.