Eugene Art Talk

Bob Keefer on art and music around Eugene, Oregon

Category: Dance (page 1 of 2)

The Snow Queen premieres this weekend!

 

Company dancer Victoria Harvey at a Snow Queen rehearsal

Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen is just about ready to freeze our hearts. The costumes are sewn. The set has been constructed. Lighting is being devised. And Toni Pimble, the ballet’s long-time artistic director, has completed her original choreography for the show, which makes its world premiere in two performances Saturday and Sunday (April 8 and 9) at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is a big deal arts event for a town like Eugene.

Starting perhaps three years ago, the ballet pulled together more than a quarter million dollars in grants to create an all-new version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (which, much simplified, forms the basis of Frozen).

In the story, the evil Snow Queen kidnaps the young boy Kay, who is later rescued, after much adventure, by the girl Gerda, his friend.

The grant money assembled by the ballet has gone for everything from the new sets and costumes, being designed and created here by Nadya Geras-Carson and Jonna Hayden, to the luscious score, by which is composed by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and is to be performed by Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter.

At 90 minutes in length, the score, the ballet says, is the largest piece of orchestral music ever composed in Oregon.

 

Artistic director and choreographer Toni Pimble

We checked in with Pimble last week as she rehearsed her dancers and finished off the last bits of Snow Queen choreography with them. A co-founder with Riley Grannan of Eugene Ballet 39 years ago, Pimble has been working with her dancers as often as six days a week the last few months.

She was determined to get the choreography nailed down, she said, by a full week before opening night.

“The dancers need a chance to grow into their roles,” Pimble explained. “So for the last week we can be refining it.”

Choreographing a new ballet to the original score the ballet commissioned from Bunch has been hard work — and that was on purpose, Pimble said. She didn’t want to create her new ballet to easy music.

“The music has been pretty challenging, which is what we wanted,” she said. “At the same time it has to be accessible to the audience. The dancers are used to working with difficult music. ‘Rite of Spring’ (which the ballet performed in 2012) is a great example of difficult music, and they are used to working with that.”

Pimble’s first step with her choreography was working with the dancers to create a crow scene (friendly crows are the allies of Gerda in her search for Kay). Pimble said she picked that one to start with because Bunch’s music for it was so complex.

She played me a bit of the music for that scene from the recording of the score by Orchestra Next. To be honest, I never could figure out where the beat was. Bunch, she said, had done research on crows while writing the music; he discovered they make two different calls at the same time. Bunch’s music is layered in complex ways, she said.

“I started with that scene because I was so worried about that music. I mean, I told him to make it hard. But oh, god…”

But the dancers quickly got it. “It doesn’t sound random to us anymore,” Pimble said.

 

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie practices her Snow Queen moves in the studio.

 

Untypically for classical ballet, which tends to open softly and quietly, Pimble’s Snow Queen starts with a bit of a bang — a big production number with lots of dancers filling the stage.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie, who has the icy role of the Snow Queen herself, said that first scene involves a great deal of sheer physical work as the dancers race around the stage. “It’s like the chase at the beginning of a James Bond movie,” she said.

“That first scene is going to be very tiring. But to get to act evil is a fun experience.”

This is Tolmie’s ninth season dancing with the ballet. She started as an apprentice dancer, then put in four seasons in the corps before becoming a principal last season.

Dark, evil characters, the dancer said, are seldom portrayed in the ballet world by women. So Tolmie’s very happy to dance the Snow Queen, who steals and freezes the little boy Kay in this dark tale of love conquering evil.

“Most of the evil characters always go to men,” she said. “For a woman to get one is fun!”

The Snow Queen will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall. Tickets at EugeneBallet.com.

Snow Queen 6: Recording the new show’s soundtrack album

Recording engineer Lance Miller runs the sound board at the Snow Queen recording session.

Something that most people don’t realize about orchestral music is this: It’s very hard for composers ever to hear what their compositions actually sound like.

I’m the first to admit I didn’t fully understand this until recently. Having been fascinated by the idea of computer music ever since I bought an Amiga 1000 computer back in the Bronze Age, I’ve always assumed that all you have to do is lay down MIDI tracks for all your instruments, hit a button, and then the computer plays your new symphony for you.

The occasional dissenting voice I’d hear from people who knew anything about music, I managed to dismiss as elite audiophile grumbling.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

This all came to light this week, when Eugene’s OrchestraNext sat down in a spacious studio at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance to play – for the first time it’s ever been performed – and record Kenji Bunch’s brand-new score for Eugene Ballet’s brand-new production of “The Snow Queen.”

Composer Kenji Bunch listens as OrchestraNext performs his new composition for the ballet.

As OrchestraNext’s Brian McWhorter conducted 23 musicians from the student/professional orchestra, I sat in a small control booth, which was dominated by an enormous sound board that could have come from any rockumentary you’ve ever seen on MTV. UO recording engineer Lance Miller presided at the board, watching the orchestra through a glass window, and said things like “Take 47!” into a microphone as McWhorter and his forces launched into sections of the hour and forty minute composition.

Behind him, in chairs along one wall, Bunch and Eugene Ballet artistic director Toni Pimble sat side by side, scribbling notes and, in Bunch’s case, occasionally offering suggestions to Miller and to UO music professor Bob Ponto, the producer for the session.

The recording they were making will have two uses. First off, Pimble will use it in rehearsal for choreographing the ballet with her dancers when rehearsals start in January.

Second, perhaps 70 minutes of the music will be put on a CD, which will be available for sale at the Hult Center when the ballet opens there in April.

Back to my original point about sound quality: I had heard a brief MIDI extract of Bunch’s composition last summer, when I visited him at his Portland home for an interview. To be honest, he didn’t really want to play it for me, and I understood why as soon as the music started coming out of the computer and speakers.

I could tell that it was music, but the sound was all electronica and no orchestra. I couldn’t even tell what instruments were being simulated. I listened and thought – well, I’m not sure what I thought.

When I heard the same music played on real instruments this week, the sound was dazzling and wonderful, lush, dark and lyrical, with layers of interest and meaning that not only invite but demand further listening.

Here’s how Pimble put it when I asked for her impressions after one of the UO recording sessions this week:

“The opening of the ballet – which sounded like an ambulance siren on the MIDI recording – is actually a beautiful mysterious and icy sound that in no way resembles the MIDI sounds,” she said. “I have been listening to a MIDI recording for months now. It is less than ideal when trying to get a sense of the overall instrumentation of Kenji’s music. His unique blend of the usual and unusual pairings of instruments creates wonderful color to the sound of the music.”

Artistic director Toni Pimble offers a suggestion.

She went on to talk about the complexity of the composition.

“I think that this has been a challenging commission for Kenji. I have asked him to write a cohesive score, but the scenes of the story are very different. The Snow Queen’s palace, the romantic music of Gerda and Kay, the quirky music of the conjure woman’s garden, the fields of crows, the prince and princess palace and the gypsy scene are all very diverse scenes, not only in place and time but in the telling of the tale. He has handled this diversity wonderfully.

“The colors and sounds of each scene are clearly different and transport us to each scene and yet the segues into each scene are beautifully crafted and seamless. Some scenes are very rhythmical, others flow more with lush romantic sound.”

Pimble said hearing the music actually played by a live orchestra is helping her with ideas for choreographing the work.

“Music is the catalyst for me when choreographing, so the more I can immerse myself in the music before stepping into the studio to begin rehearsals with the dancers, the more prepared I am with ideas for the dancers and the rest of my fellow collaborators. Yes, I have been inspired this week!”

Hearing the live performance helped focus her ideas on particular scenes, Pimble said.

“I think the gypsy scene is going to be challenging music to choreograph to but very exciting, too. The field of crows is clever, complex music with a light touch and will definitely be fun to work on. Kenji told me he watched some TV programs on crows before attempting that scene.”

To prepare for this week’s recording sessions, McWhorter told me earlier, he has been studying the score – but not listening to the MIDI version of the music.

He and Pimble, McWhorter added, have been consulting with Bunch by telephone or by email about once a week as Bunch developed the piece. I asked if this amounts to composing music by committee.

“We try to be as delicate as possible,” the conductor said. “It’s this funny dance. Kenji is so open to ideas, as opposed to a composer who has a rigid vision. He’s not dogmatic, at all.”

McWhorter and Bunch have been friends since they were students together at the Juilliard School years ago. “I am considering Kenji’s sensibilities almost more than anything. That comes from knowing him. What kind of things he values. He’s not one of those composers tied to the two-dimensionality of the score.”

This is the sixth story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment.

See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch; Part Four, on costumer Jonna Hayden; and Part Five, on dancers Isaac Jones and Sara Stockwell.

“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

 

Brian McWhorter

Conductor Brian McWhorter

 

Snow Queen 5: Two dancers from Eugene Ballet’s corps de ballet

Sara Stockwell and Isaac Jones

Sara Stockwell and Isaac Jones

The hierarchy of traditional ballet divides dancers into principals – the stars of the show – and corps de ballet dancers, the ones who get the supportive roles.

That’s not true of a small company like Eugene Ballet, which mixes corps dancers – which it calls “company dancers” – into top roles for many of its productions.

Two young company members who will be performing in the ballet’s new Snow Queen when it opens here in April are Sara Stockwell and Isaac Jones, both dedicated dancers at the beginning of promising careers.

“What’s so great about Eugene Ballet is that being a small company, the company dancers can be highlighted in principal roles,” Isaac says. “Though there are some rankings, company dancers still do principal and soloists roles, and sometimes principals will be a part of corp work. (Artistic director) Toni (Pimble) really gives all her dancers opportunities to be in the spotlight, and that has really been a blessing. To experience corps work in some shows and soloist/principal roles in others has given me a lot of room to grow.”

With nearly a quarter million dollars in funding from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment, the Snow Queen will be an all-new production, with a new score, created by Portland composer Kenji Bunch, new costumes, by Jonna Hayden, and new set, by Nadya Geras-Carson.

Both Midwesterners, Sara and Isaac each began their ballet training at what the dance world derisively calls “Dolly Dinkle” schools, which, to put it most charitably, means a small school that is more suited to recreational dancers than to aspiring professionals. Both young dancers are smart and ambitious, and both convinced their supportive parents that serious ballet study was more important, at least at this point in their lives, than college.

And both, unusually, managed to land jobs in Eugene without an in-person audition.

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I met Sara and Isaac for coffee one morning last week to learn about their careers, their families and what they hope to do in “Snow Queen.” The pair of them were just back from a performance of EBC’s annual “Nutcracker” in Corvallis, and were headed out on the road again a few days later for 30 more performances around the West of the perennial holiday favorite.

A native of Rochester, Minnesota, Sara, 23, is beginning her sixth season with the ballet. The daughter of a computer programmer and a mother who home-schooled two children, Sara – at least by family lore – fell in love with ballet at the age of two when she happened to see “Hans Christian Andersen,” the 1952 Danny Kaye movie, on television. She announced right then she wanted to be a ballerina.

“I watched the movie again recently,” Sara said. “When I was two I must have been enamored by the costumes and sets; the spectacle of it all was enchanting and I wanted to be at the center of it!”

Sara begged her parents for ballet lessons until they finally enrolled her in a class that was half ballet and half tumbling.

When she was 10 she was in her first “Nutcracker,” in the starring role of Clara. An experienced male dancer brought into the show saw her technique and suggested to Sara that she needed a better ballet school.

Two years later she auditioned for a professional intensive program at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Manitoba – and was accepted – and then put the school off for a year because she thought, at 12, she was too young. At that point her parents asked which she wanted to do – college or ballet?

“I was like, ‘This!’” she said. They agreed to help her out with ballet.

The Royal Winnipeg program marked a turning point for her with its military-style precision and discipline. “It was so very different,” she said. “That was the first time I really understood what ballet really is.”

It was also sometimes over-the-top. “After four years it was so competitive and so intense I saw a lot of burnout.”

Sara told her mom she needed a change, left the ballet program in Winnipeg, and, at the age of 17, headed for New York City, where she found a new teacher, and endured round after round of cattle-call auditions. Along the way she sent an audition tape to Eugene Ballet, having heard of the company because a several alums of the Royal Winnipeg were working here.

She was offered a job here based on the tape and on recommendations from instructors.

“It was harder than I thought it would be,” she said of her first impression of the Eugene company. “I thought, because I had gone to schools that were so intense, there was no way it could be more intense. But it was: The sheer number of shows and the amount of dancing!”

“In hindsight,”she said, “I don’t think I would’ve burned out had I stayed, but I’m grateful to have experienced life in New York City and happy with where I am now.”

She started out dancing in Romeo and Juliet that season; her roles here have included Summer Fairy in Cinderella and Petit Cygnets in Swan Lake. She has also danced in Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain, Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, Sarah Ebert’s Arráncate and Toni Pimble’s “White Teeth, Black Thoughts” from Zoot Suit Riot. Last season she was featured the White Cat and Fairy of Tenderness in The Sleeping Beauty.

A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Isaac, 21, is the son of a quality director and a medical coder. “They put me in dance when I was six because they had put me in Little League, and I hated it,” he says.

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That early support from his parents has been unwavering, he said, despite many possible traps. “Being a dancer, being gay – that was all very relaxed,” Isaac says. “My parents were like, ‘This is what you want to do. You can go to college when you’re older.’ They were both supportive of anything I wanted to do. They try to come to as many of my shows here as they can.”

Like Sara, he started at a local ballet school that wasn’t exactly top rated. He was eventually hired at Sarasota Ballet in Florida and worked a season there.

A former Eugene Ballet dancer working in Sarasota suggested he send an audition video to Eugene. Isaac did, and soon the friend pulled him aside and said, “They’re interested.” To his considerable surprise, a couple hours later Pimble emailed Isaac a contract to sign – again, based on the tape and on recommendations.

He showed up for work here September 20, 2013. “My first show was Peter Pan. I was a pirate, and a fish.”

The ballet company in Sarasota was a bit old school, Isaac says, with sometimes impossible expectations of its dancers. So when he came to Eugene he was on edge.

“I remember walking in the first day, terrified. What was this going to be like? And right away, all the dancers walked up and introduced themselves. They allow you to grow here in healthy ways. This is my fourth season, and I’m still happy!”

He played the evil Cousin Kevin in the ballet’s production of Pimble’s Tommy the Ballet, based on the Who’s rock opera, in 2015. “That was the most fun I’ve had in a show,” he says.

Other roles he’s danced here include Solo Boy in Septime Webre’s Fluctuating Hemlines and Herr Drosselmeyer and Trepak in The Nutcracker. Last season he danced Puss in Boots in The Sleeping Beauty and Tom Buchanan in Pimble’s The Great Gatsby. He was also featured in Amy Seiwert’s White Noise.

When Isaac first heard of plans for the new Snow Queen production, he feared the worst. “Our first thought was, oh my god, we’re doing ‘Frozen,’ the ballet.”

But word trickled down that the new production would be nothing like the Disney version, and even the most skeptical dancers were won over.

Meanwhile, both Isaac and Sara are still waiting to find out exactly what their roles will be in the new Snow Queen. Based on advance publicity they have an idea what their roles will be, but can’t be certain.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I know what I’m going to be doing in April next season (2018),” he says. “But I still don’t know yet what I’m doing in April of this season!”

 

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This is the fifth story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch; and Part Four, on costumer Jonna Hayden.

“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

Richard P. Haugland, 1943-2016

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Richard P. Haugland, a major financial supporter of Eugene arts organizations, died last night in Thailand after a battle with brain cancer, according to his friends at the Eugene Ballet. He was 73.

With his wife, Rosaria, Haugland was a founder of the Eugene hi-tech business Molecular Probes. With the profits from that company, the couple created charitable foundations that have given large gifts to Eugene Ballet as well as to Oregon Contemporary Theatre and Eugene Opera, among other organizations.

“I first got to know them when their daughter, Marina, studied ballet at our school over 30 years ago,” Eugene Ballet Artistic Director Toni Pimble said today. “He was a very generous, kind and thoughtful man whose philanthropic gifts spread far beyond Eugene. His generous soul touched all who knew him. He will be sincerely missed.”

The Hauglands supported the ballet in its early years and, more recently, gave more substantial gifts that enabled the organization to purchase the building that became the Midtown Art Center on South Willamette Street.

Later he offered funding to Pimble and the company to create a new children’s ballet, and the result was 2013’s “Mowgli, the Jungle Book Ballet.” Pleased with what he saw at the premiere, he immediately offered to support a second new show.

With a $200,000 grant from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation, the ballet is currently at work on an all-new production of “The Snow Queen,” which will premiere here in April.

“We are so very sad that Richard will not see the results of his support for this second work,” Pimble said.

In recent years, Haugland lived in Thailand, where he supported – both financially and with hands-on work – needy children and orphans.

“Eugene is fortunate that he and Rosaria chose to grow their company here and to simultaneously play major roles in the growth of several of Eugene’s arts groups,” said Craig Willis, artistic director of Oregon Contemporary Theatre. “What I find even more inspiring was his dedication to improving the lives of AIDS orphans in Thailand. He so clearly loved these children and found joy in enriching the lives of people who might otherwise be cast-offs.”

 

 

Snow Queen 4: Jonna Hayden on costuming a fairy tale ballet

Jonna Hayden in her costume shop while woking on Snow Queen for Eugene Ballet.

“‘The Snow Queen’ is the ultimate challenge,” says Eugene costume designer Jonna Hayden. “Every costumer out there wants to do ‘Snow Queen.’”

And now, after nearly a lifetime of designing and stitching, Hayden is at last creating some 60 original costumes for Eugene Ballet’s all-new production of “The Snow Queen,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The show will make its world premiere at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene on April 8 and 9.

Funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment, the show will also use newly commissioned music from Portland composer Kenji Bunch, new sets by Eugene designer Nadya Geras-Carson and new choreography by Eugene Ballet artistic director Toni Pimble.

For Hayden, her career really began one night when she was a little girl watching “The King and I” on television.

“It was the ball scene,” she recalls. “Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. I had never seen anything so magical!”

Jonna was six or seven years old then, growing up in a Navy family. Her mother was a tailor who made ball gowns for the officers’ wives. Inspired by the movie, Jonna began to collect scraps of fabric and made little outfits for her troll dolls. She was dazzled by Deborah Kerr’s gown.

Cut ahead a few years. When she was 15, she attended OryCon, the science fiction/fantasy convention that still runs each year in Portland. She discovered the Society for Creative Anachronism. She started making her own costumes, and has never looked back.

“I wasn’t really sure I could make it my life,” she says. “But I knew when I got out of high school that this was what I wanted to do.” She headed for the University of Oregon, where she studied theater, business and art history, but was too busy with life and work to graduate.

She’s honed her skills over decades of designing and sewing everything – she loves to stitch – from costumes for stage shows to bridal gowns for elaborate weddings.

“I made wedding dresses for 10 years,” she says. “I got the reputation for telling the mothers, are you the one wearing the dress?”

Hayden takes a similarly no-nonsense approach to design for the stage. However much a costume might flash or dazzle from the point of view of the audience, it has to work flawlessly for the performer inside it.

“I am all about fit,” she says. “If the performer is thinking about her costume, she’s not able to perform.”

Hayden began working with Eugene Opera 10 years ago when it mounted its game-changing production – the show bailed the opera out of a difficult financial situation – of “The Pirates of Penzance,” directed by Mark Beudert.

“Mary Mikkelsen called me one day for help,” she said. “‘Can you come in and just make the policemen?’”

She later designed “Faust” and “La Boheme,” and she designed the opera’s splendid “Nixon in China,” giving Pat Nixon a mint green coat instead of a red one, as the actual first lady wore. That interpretation upset some purists.

“I will not do Life magazine,” Hayden says. “People think they know Pat Nixon. You wouldn’t believe the pushback I got from some people. But I was dressing the character, not copying the coat.”

Opera has its own requirements for costumes.

“Everything is bigger in opera,” she says. “It’s 40 feet to the front row. Colors are brighter. Patterns are bigger. And, the big thing is, they have to be able to sing. So a corset has to be tight at certain points and not at others.”

Ballet is different. “Ballet is all about movement,” she says. “I can’t really make a costume unless I know what they’re going to be doing in it. Doing a ballet costume requires understanding of skeletal structure.” It also requires close consultation with dancers, she says. “I want the dancers to come to me with any problems. Any problems at all.”

Jonna Hayden in her costume shop while woking on Snow Queen for Eugene Ballet.

Hayden got her introduction as a designer for Eugene Ballet working on “Mowgli,” the ballet’s 2013 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” also supported by Richard Haugland.

“That was a radical departure for me in terms of how I work with color, shape and texture,” she says.

After “Mowgli,” Haugland told the ballet he’d like to fund another new show. That was the beginning of “Snow Queen.”

“A year and a half ago, Toni sent me an email with an outline of ‘Snow Queen.’ ‘You in?’ it said.”

Hayden thought about it for a couple days, and said yes.

She is basing much of her “Snow Queen” design on the work of the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, former head designer for Givenchy. His early fashion work established him as an enfant terrible for his use of dark, exotic and primitivist imagery. McQueen once described himself as a “romantic schizophrenic.”

McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010 at the age of 40, had also worked as a stitcher, Hayden says, giving them common ground.

“His technical skill for fit, for shape, for line, is mind boggling,” Hayden says. “He made wild, disturbing, amazing things. He has done more to push fashion than any other designer. His work always had a sharp edge and a philosophical side.”

The McQueen sensibility will be used for the Snow Queen characters in the ballet, inhabitants of the icy cold world of evil.

“The ice world all comes from Alexander McQueen,” Hayden says. “Everything from the warm world is all curvilinear, Pre-Raphaelite. Not angular and sharp.”

In Hayden’s west Eugene studio, she has racks and racks of costumes, with dancer’s names pinned to their shoulders, in the process of being tried on and fitted and adjusted. Some glitter with an icy look. Some are being built of butterfly images printed on silk, and painstakingly stitched together. Some are covered with black feathers. All have to be washable. Dancers sweat, a lot, on stage.

All need to be finished by her deadline of Jan. 30.

One of the first things Hayden did after taking on the job and establishing basic design ideas for the costumes was go for a wild shopping spree with Pimble in the fashion district of downtown Los Angeles. The trip, she says, was sheer delight.

“That’s like the Powell’s of fabric,” she says. “We were looking at fabric that was $175 a yard….”

Jonna Hayden in her costume shop while woking on Snow Queen for Eugene Ballet.

This is the fourth story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; and Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch.

“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

See more at EugeneBallet.com.

A new Snow Queen 3: Composer Kenji Bunch takes on the biggest project of his musical career

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Kenji Bunch

When Eugene Ballet premieres its new full-length interpretation of “The Snow Queen” at the Hult Center next spring, its dancers will perform to all-new music by Portland composer Kenji Bunch.

That’s a giant leap forward, both for the ballet – which has never before commissioned a full-length musical score – and for Bunch, who has never before composed such a long piece of music.

“I have never done a full-fledged, evening-length orchestral ballet score,” he said in a recent visit to his home studio. “That is definitely a bucket-list item for a composer.”

Bunch, 43, grew up in Portland, where he played viola for five years in the Portland Youth Symphony and attended Wilson High School. From there he went to the Juilliard School in New York, where he majored in viola and composition. He stayed on in New York for two decades after graduation, performing and teaching and working as a composer, steadily making himself a name in the classical music world.

It was while Bunch was at Juilliard that he became friends with Brian McWhorter, a high-energy trumpet player who was also studying composition there.

“We were both students at Juilliard and we shared an interest in breaking out of the conventional composer/performer dynamic,” says McWhorter. “We were both composers and performers – and we were enamored with bringing some semblance of improvisation to classical music. I think that shared interest naturally brought us together, and we explored a lot of music from the experimental art music scene.”


A Kenji Bunch sampler on YouTube

McWhorter, who is now a professor of trumpet at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, is also co-founder and conductor of Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra that has played for Eugene Ballet performances since 2012. And it was McWhorter who suggested to EBC artistic director Toni Pimble that Bunch would be a great choice to compose the “Snow Queen” score.

“Kenji has a playful sensibility with his music that I enjoy a lot,” McWhorter says. “And I’m not alone. His music is very colorful, rhythmic, and he finds creative ways to set moods that are perfect for a narrative. He seemed a perfect fit for this project and I knew that Toni would like what he came up with.”

While students in New York, the two musicians began performing around the city, sometimes doing work so aggressively experimental that they left their audiences behind. This bland 1999 review from the Village Voice was about their performance as part of the Non-Sequitur Festival there:

Kenji Bunch and Brian McWhorter showed found film footage of a ’50s-era man dressed in an apron and making eggnog, while playing a desultory modal improv on viola, trumpet, and electronics that didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything.

These days, Bunch’s reviews are more enthusiastic. The New York Times has called him “a composer to watch,” and Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, included Bunch’s 2006 chamber opera “Confessions of the Woman in the Dunes” in his list of significant contemporary works in his book “The Rest is Noise.”

In a world that is largely hostile or indifferent to contemporary orchestral music, Bunch has managed to woo audiences without pandering. His work is richly complex without being off-putting. He works with pop influences without making his work sound cheap and easy.

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Bunch likes to cook, and when we first began discussing “The Snow Queen” he immediately brought up food as a metaphor for his music.

“I think a lot about food,” he said. “I like to cook, and I like eating and just thinking about food. And I see a lot of parallels with cooking. I get my best ideas in the kitchen.”

Much of his music, he said, is like new American cuisine.

“Chefs with classical training apply those techniques to regional dishes – and comfort food dishes – and revitalize it with their own unique approach,” he said. “I am drawn to the music of my surroundings. I listen to a lot of popular American music. Folk music. I like to play fiddle. I have written a lot of things with inspiration from fiddle and folk music.”

Except for this: None of that is happening in his score for “Snow Queen.”

“In this case, that didn’t seem to fit the project,” he said. “‘The Snow Queen’ is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable, and is set in a time and place that, while somewhat vague, is clearly far removed from present day America. I wanted to capture an Old World aesthetic that both supported the story and honored the long tradition of evening-length orchestral narrative ballet scores, so my influences here are closer to Prokofiev and Stravinsky than American folk or jazz idioms. I’ve spent most of my life performing and listening to this music, so it feels very comfortable to find a personal vocabulary in that tradition.”

The Snow Queen project is a challenge even for an accomplished composer. Turning out two hours of fresh, inspired music takes a lot of work.

“It’s just a ton of music,” he said. “It’s about two hours of orchestral music. The longest thing I’ve written up until now – my third symphony – is just about 35 minutes. And writing fast music is incredibly hard.”

Bunch works when he can, fitting in composition time around his jobs teaching viola and composition and being the parent of two girls.

One of his favorite times to compose music is in the early morning.

As early as 5 a.m. some days, Bunch heads with his dog Coffee, a sweet-natured rescued pit bull, to a small but tidy studio – it measures just eight by 12 feet – that he constructed just outside the family home, which sits in a beautiful forested section of southeast Portland near Tryon State Natural Area. On the back wall hangs a series of stringed instruments: a violin, an acoustic guitar, a mandolin, a five-string banjo, a Fender electric guitar, a ukelele.

“Once in a while I’ll grab one of those and use it in a recording,” he said. Like most composers these days, he does the bulk of his work on a computer, which can, at the press of a button, kick out a MIDI-controlled performance of his complex score. This is both good news and bad news: The composer gets to hear the music played without hiring dozens of musicians, but the MIDI instruments are so electronic sounding that you really can’t tell a violin from a flute, and Bunch apologizes before letting me hear a passage of his new “Snow Queen” score.

And for good reason. For my unpracticed ear, the music – while certainly interesting and moving – was a bit lost in the artificial sound quality of the MIDI performance. It’s like someone is playing the parts using random stops on a cheap electric organ.

Bunch’s deadline for the completed score is the end of this year. At that point, McWhorter’s Orchestra Next plans to play and record the entire two-hour composition; Pimble will use that recording as she begins to work with her dancers on the choreography.

There’s a lot riding on Bunch here. The ballet has had one previous bad experience with a commissioned work, whose composer didn’t deliver on time. Bunch, though, looks perfectly confident he can finish the new “Show Queen” on time for Pimble and her dancers to create a new ballet.

“I am closing in on the end of the first of two acts,” he said. “It started really slow, but the further I get into it, the more momentum there is.”

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Bunch with Coffee

This is the third story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble, and Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson.

“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

See more at EugeneBallet.com.

 

Creating the Snow Queen 2: Nadya Geras-Carson on building an ice palace from scratch

Nadya Geras-Carson

Nadya Geras-Carson

The walls of the palace were of driving snow, and the windows and doors of cutting winds. There were more than a hundred halls there, according as the snow was driven by the winds. The largest was many miles in extent; all were lighted up by the powerful Aurora Borealis, and all were so large, so empty, so icy cold, and so resplendent!

That’s Hans Christian Andersen’s description of the Snow Queen’s palace in his popular fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”

Now just imagine designing and building that same palace from scratch – on a theater stage.

That’s exactly what Eugene artist and designer Nadya Geras-Carson is doing. The results will be on view at the Hult Center next April, when Eugene Ballet premieres its all-new ballet version of Andersen’s eerie and redemptive story of Gerda, Kay, a magic mirror, and an icy queen. Geras-Carson will also, of course, be designing sets for the rest of the tale, including a village scene and a forest.

So, we asked her, how do you go about creating a fairy tale world on a real-life stage?

The first stop, Geras-Carson explains, is to visit an entirely different world – the mind of the ballet’s artistic director Toni Pimble.

“With any show, you have to get inside the brain of the artistic director to see where they are coming from,” she says. “And Toni is a dream to work for. The first thing Toni said to me was, ‘I don’t want the set to be literal.’”

It won’t be. In fact, while some of the sets will be built – “hardscape,” as she calls them – they will be augmented throughout the show with a series of elaborate video projections and other lighting effects.

Geras-Carson is no stranger to theater or to art. She originally got a theater arts degree in design and technical theater at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. After acting for a while – she played little-girl parts because of her short stature – she later studied illustration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, thinking she would like to do poster design.

“But in the back of my mind I always wanted to be a sculptor,” she says. “Imagine!”

A sculptor she now is, as well as a painter – and a set deisgner.

In 2002 she painted a series of images that were projected onto the stage as a backdrop for Eugene Ballet’s production of “The Red Pony.”

Her initiation into full stage design here in Eugene came with Eugene Opera’s 2007 production of “The Magic Flute.” Her set for that show was open, looked a bit industrial, and drew on New World themes as well as the Egyptian imagery that is traditional for the show.

She is married to Don Carson, whom she met at the Academy of Art University. They both later worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, where she was a dimensional designer and conceptual designer/painter, and he helped design Splash Mountain and Toontown.

Don Carson has also done sets for both Eugene Ballet and Eugene Opera.

Geras-Carson actually got called into doing the Snow Queen design late in the game. The ballet company had originally hired another designer, who took on the project and then backed out due to a job offer.

“They called me in January,” Geras-Carson says, “and said, ‘Can you do this? And, by the way, can you get the sets drawn by June?’”

Once she had read the fairy tale and talked with Toni, Geras-Carson started with rough ideas and themes. She picked out color schemes. She looked for unifying principles that could help hold the show together visually. She thought about the idea of video projection, and decided she wanted to draw on the visual style of such artists as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Signac.

“You have to have a master concept, a design concept, that tells you these rules are inviolate,” she says. “Because I have to go from environment to environment to environment, I need some rules.”

Here are some of the self-imposed guidelines she’s working with:

  • The Snow Queen palace is all diagonals.

  • The village is horizontal and heavy.

  • The forest is vertical and fluid.

“You couldn’t have something fluid and warm inside the Snow Queen palace, for example,” she says.

She is also looking to Russian lacquer painting for inspiration.  “Russian lacquer painters and plate painters have used the Snow Queen story a lot in recent years,” she says.

Similarly, her color palette will shift coherently from scene to scene. “It’s all cool colors for the Snow Queen. Then you move into the village, and it’s gold and fall colors.”

Color is one point where more people get involved. Geras-Carson is coordinating, of course, with costume designer Jonna Hayden – “Oddly enough, most of our decisions for the colors happened simultaneously,” she says – and with lighting designer Michael Peterson.

The lighting plan, she said, includes “a stained glass effect that kind of makes the set look like it’s moving just a little bit.”

Movement like that onstage is something Geras-Carson is fond of, whether it’s done by lights or by video or by physical sets that transform themselves in front of the audience.

“I love to do a set that changes, especially if it can move,” she says. “The audience is constantly guessing as to what is going to happen next.”


This is the second story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble,  here.

“The Snow Queen” will have its world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

See more at EugeneBallet.com.

First of a series on Eugene Ballet: Creating a new “Snow Queen,” with choreographer Toni Pimble

Toni Pimble, Eugene Ballet

Toni Pimble, artistic director

Once in a blue moon an arts organization gets what amounts to a blank check to create good work. Not just good work, but new work, original work, work with no strings attached and no corners cut.

That kind of fairy-tale good fortune has befallen Eugene Ballet Company, which – with the help of a generous patron – is, for the first time, creating a new ballet entirely from scratch. EBC’s new adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen” will make its world premiere at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts in April 2017.

It will have a full-length original orchestral score, by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch; original sets, by local scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; original costumes, by Eugene costume designer Jonna Hayden; and, of course, original choreography by Eugene Ballet co-founder Toni Pimble.

With support from Eugene Ballet, I will be following the creation of this new ballet through a series of articles over the next nine months on Eugene Art Talk. I’ll focus on the key players in this process, including dancers, musicians, designers, and even the business types that it takes to mount a brand-new show like this.

I start today by talking to Toni Pimble, who chose “The Snow Queen” after being invited to create a brand-new ballet by philanthropist and former Eugenean Richard P. Haugland. His foundation is covering $200,000 of the cost of creating this new show, with another $40,000 – for the music commission – coming from the Hult Endowment.

This is actually Haugland’s second time sponsoring a major new production here.

“Richard – a supporter of the ballet – had emailed me in 2011,” Pimble explains. “He said, ‘I would be willing to fund a ballet that you create for children. What would that cost?’

“I was on the bus on tour for ‘Nutcracker.’ And he was in Thailand. I said, ‘It’s really expensive. $150,000.’

“He said, ‘No problem.’

Pimble smiles. “I think I should have asked for more.”

That grant resulted in the ballet’s performance of “Mowgli – The Jungle Book Ballet” in 2013, based on the Rudyard Kipling story. It, too, was a complete new ballet, except that it relied on existing music.

Haugland, who with his wife Rosaria Haugland founded and later sold their company Molecular Probes, was a backer of the Eugene Ballet long before the couple had the money to be major philanthropists. Much of Haugland’s philanthropy has been directed at children; he is the founder of the Starfish Country Home School near Mae Taeng, Thailand, where he lives much of the year. At his school, the young students learn, among other things, ballet.

He’s even told Pimble he would like to see one of the graduates of Starfish dance someday in the Eugene Ballet.

And he liked what he saw in “Mowgli,” Pimble says. “After the show, he said, ‘Let’s do another!’”

Pimble knew exactly what she wanted to do next: “The Snow Queen.” It satisfied one of Haugland’s requirements – that it be a ballet for children – as well as one of hers, that it be a ballet for adults.

“It has to be sophisticated,” she says. “And it is.”

Pimble also wanted enough money to be able to commission an original score. For “Mowgli,” she selected from existing music.

“I really wanted to have a full-length composition written for us,” she says. “We have never done that before.”

The music for “Snow Queen” will be created by up and coming Portland composer and violist Kenji Bunch. Writing in the Oregonian, David Stabler this year called Bunch’s music “a driving blend of popular and classical styles.” A Portland native who spent two decades working in New York City, Bunch has been called “a composer to watch” by The New York Times.

“He does some pretty out-there music,” Pimble says. “But he also does work that’s accessible. He does both. You know, we want real music. We don’t want pandering.”

Bunch hasn’t composed for ballet before, Pimble said. “I liked the idea of his being in Portland. I like that people are excited about his music. I like that his career is taking off.”

So far, she has given Bunch a list of scenes, with their lengths, what will be happening in each scene and where the emotional high points are. His deadline for the commission is this fall. Pimble will have Orchestra Next, the Eugene student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter, record the new score in January, so that Pimble and her dancers can begin work on the actual ballet.

At its heart, “The Snow Queen” is the classic tale of a hero’s quest. In this particular telling, though, the hero is actually a heroine – a girl — and she goes off on adventures to rescue a boy from the forces of evil.

In the story, childhood friends Gerda, a girl, and Kay, a boy, are separated when Kay is blinded to the good of the world by shards of a frozen mirror made by Satan. Kay ends up being taken to the Ice Palace of the Snow Queen; with help from various other characters, Gerda rescues him there.

It was this reversal of the classic gender roles that draws Pimble to the story. “It’s the heroine who saves the hero in this story,” she says. “And, the two main characters are women. That’s very different.”

She hasn’t cast the entire show yet, but principal dancers Yuki Beppu and her husband, Hirofumi Kitazume, will dance the roles of Gerda and Kay, while Danielle Tolmie will dance as the Snow Queen.

Pimble’s artistic career has its own fairy tale quality. Born in England, she studied ballet at the Elmhurst Ballet School, which is associated with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The school’s notable alumnae include actress Hayley Mills, best known in the U.S. for her role in the Disney film “The Parent Trap,” and crossover soprano Sarah Brightman, known, among other things, for her performances of “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and in the West End.

“My parents were not wealthy, and their commitment to my dream of becoming a dancer was quite a burden on them financially,” Pimble says. “Then I got a job within a week of graduating from Elmhurst, in Germany. Riley (Grannan, the company’s managing director) and I founded the Eugene Ballet in 1978 and have been very lucky and blessed with the support we have received from the community over the years, especially from Richard and Rosaria.

“And, yes, Richard’s commitment and trust in myself and EBC to create a ballet of this magnitude is very special, a dream come true!”

Pimble has choreographed nine full length ballets for the company and more than 50 shorter works, in addition to guest choreography for other companies around the country. In 1992 Pimble choreographed “Two’s Company,” to music by Antonin Dvorák, for the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project. She’s been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts choreographer fellowship grant and, twice, artist fellowship grants from the Oregon Arts Commission.

Pimble has long been interested in popular culture. Last year, the company did a straight-through ballet version of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.” She’s done ballet to the music of Pink Floyd and Pink Martini. She’s collaborated with the late novelist Ken Kesey and with Oregon blues singer Curtis Salgado. “I grew up listening to the Beatles,” she says.

The Eugene Ballet version of “Snow Queen” might get a boost from an unlikely popular source: A Disney animated comedy.

The original Hans Christian Andersen story of the Snow Queen served as the inspiration for the hit 2013 Disney computer animation “Frozen,” though Andersen’s tale was extensively changed to make it more conventional. “There is snow and there is ice and there is a queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit,” explained the movie’s producer, Peter Del Vecho, when the movie came out.

Despite the differences, Pimble thinks the popularity of the Disney flick will benefit the ballet. “I think ‘Frozen’ will help us with marketing,” she says. “Interestingly, the first time we did ‘Peter Pan,’ the movie came out a few months before our premiere. I was really worried it would impact our performance negatively as regards ticket sales, but I think it had quite the reverse effect.”

Not surprisingly, the original “Snow Queen” fairy tale is darker and more serious than the Disney version, dealing explicitly with issues of sin, death and redemption through a Christian lens. Pimble’s version strips out the Christianity, but leaves the robust core story of how love and friendship can ultimately conquer evil.

“Andersen is a Christian – and I am an atheist,” Pimble says. “That doesn’t matter at all. ‘The Snow Queen’ is all about love: One human’s love for another.”

Halie Loren and Ballet Fantastique do a Dickens of a Christmas Carol

Jazz singer Halie Loren greets fans in the Hult lobby after Friday night's show.

Jazz singer Halie Loren greets fans in the Hult lobby after Friday night’s show.

OK, I’ve now been to three different versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” this season in Eugene. (There are actually five productions running. I’m most likely not going to make it to the other two.)

“An American Christmas Carol,” Ballet Fantastique’s Christmas show with Eugene jazz singer Halie Loren, is clearly the best of the lot.

BFan, as it’s affectionately known to its fans, is ballet light and fun. It does less “Swan Lake” and more rock ‘n’ roll. That doesn’t mean for a moment that its dancing is less passionate, crisp and precise than any other company in town. Just more relaxed.

 

I can't help myself. These two Christmas spirits were like eerie brides of Frankenstein.

I can’t help myself. These two Christmas spirits were like eerie brides of Frankenstein.

This Christmas show, which debuted last year, transports the familiar Dickens tale from Victorian London to 1940s, jazzy New York. Joseph Marley becomes Smokey Joe, a Brooklyn tough guy with pinstripe suit, white spats and a thick accent, portrayed here by Adam Goldthwaite.

Loren, a splendid singer, holds the show together with her renditions of such standards as “Let It Snow,” “That’s Life,” and the culturally touchy “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which she pulls off in a perfect duet with Goldthwaite.

And, yes, the dancing. It’s hard to figure out in this version of Dickens whether you’re here to listen to Loren sing or to watch the dancers. Fortunately, you get to do both.

Ballet Fantastique's Hannah Bontrager, and her mother, Donna Marisa Bontrager, after the show.

Ballet Fantastique’s Hannah Bontrager, and her mother, Donna Marisa Bontrager, after the show.

The Hult was absolutely hopping Friday night, as the Eugene Symphony was featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the big Silva Hall while BFan was in the Soreng.

Who says Eugene ain’t an arts capital?

The Hult lobby begins to fill.

The Hult lobby begins to fill.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya returns to conduct the Eugene Symphony

Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Miguel Harth-Bedoya

When an orchestra plays for a much-loved but now-former conductor who’s back in town, do they step up their game? Is it like running into a former lover on the street and wanting to look sharp?

That’s how it felt tonight when Miguel Harth-Bedoya returned to the Hult Center to conduct the Eugene Symphony in a program that featured two works by Alberto Ginastera.

Harth-Bedoya, who was music director here from 1996 to 2002 and who now conducts the Fort Worth Symphony in Texas, was back as part of Eugene Symphony’s 50th anniversary celebration. Also returning to the podium this season will be Marin Alsop, who held the job before Harth-Bedoya, and Giancarlo Guerrero, who had it after him and just before Danail Rachev.

In any case the orchestra absolutely stepped up to the occasion tonight, playing tight and lyrically and with passion. The evening opened with a couple small pieces, Alfonso Leng’s Preludio No. 1 and Enrique Soro’s Danza Fantastica, but the main course of the evening was two longer works by Ginastera.

The first of these was his Piano Concerto No. 1, played by Vadym Kholodenko, winner of the Van Cliburn piano competition in 2013. The concerto is weird and beautiful and challenging – imagine rustic themes of Ginastera’s Argentina woven into the complexities of Shoenbergian 12-tone music.

Kholodenko’s nuanced performance at the keyboard gave the difficult concerto a perfectly coherent voice, charming the crowd in the Silva. (Besides which, he played from a score on an iPad, which glowed blue on the music rack of the piano while a page turner periodically leaned forward and swiped the screen. I’ve never seen this in a concert before, and kept wondering whether there isn’t a Bluetooth device that would let the page turner sit back, out of the line of fire….)

After intermission, the orchestra returned to a dramatically darkened stage to perform Ginastera’s Estancia, a set of twelve dances, which were performed by the Zaraspe Dance Troupe in traditional costumes on the lighted stage apron, while baritone Jorell Williams sang.

This was fun – the dancing was romantic and energetic, a great expression of the music – and made for one of the better symphony concerts I’ve attended.

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