Bob Keefer on art and music around Eugene, Oregon

Category: Dance (Page 2 of 2)

Cinderella — I mean Cindy — is brought out of retirement by Ballet Fantastique

photo/Stephanie Urso

photo/Stephanie Urso

The ’60s must be in the air this spring in Eugene’s arts world. Last month the Eugene Ballet did a bang-up dance interpretation of Tommy, the 1969 rock opera by the Who; and tonight at The Shedd, New York singer Nellie McKay will perform music from My Weekly Reader, her new album of ’60s rock covers.

Meanwhile, last night I was at the Hult Center and took in yet another ’60s show, Ballet Fantastique’s Cinderella, which is billed as “a rock opera ballet.”

Conceived and choreographed by Donna Marisa Bontrager and her daughter, Hannah Bontrager (who dances the lead role of Cindy), Cinderella was first done by the company in 2012 and is now the first show the five-year-old company has reprised. I didn’t see it then, though I spent some time at the BFan studio watching the Bontragers and the dancers pull the show together.

It’s all wrapped around a cool conceit: Instead of a fairytale ball at the palace, the dance here is a high school prom. It’s told as a live radio broadcast, narrated perfectly here by Fred Crafts, the former Register-Guard arts writer and a one-time radio guy in real life who now runs his own small theater company, Radio Redux. Crafts completely captures the tone of those teen-oriented ’60s pop shows that those of us of a certain age remember all too well.

The real armature to this Cinderella is the rock ‘n’ roll , a nice selection of early ’60s, mostly pre-Beatles tunes performed live by Shelley James and Callan Coleman and their band. The show opens with Big Girls Don’t Cry and plunges right on through such familiar hits as You Can’t Hurry Love, Mashed Potato Time, I Saw Her Standing There and Save the Last Dance for Me.

Through it all the BFan dancers interpret the familiar fairy tale, with the wicked stepmother and stepsisters (Jocelyn Wright, Ashley Bontrager and Krislyn Willes) vying with Cindy for the attentions of Prince Charming, danced lightly and wonderfully by Casey Myrick.

Leanne Mizoni is strong as the fairy godmother, and Lydia Rakov does an amazing, almost disjointed dance instructor from Dancing Divas.

My favorite scene is the colorful ensemble work that ends Act I, to the sounds of the Chordettes’ Mr. Sandman.

Classical ballet this isn’t, and much of the dancing in Cinderella seems more spirited than controlled. A bigger problem is that this is essentially a jukebox musical, with dancers. That’s fine for singing along, but this Cinderella lacks much semblance of an emotional arc as it moves from tune to tune. One remedy might be to forego the story and push even further into spectacle. Any Busby Berkeley fans in the local dance community?

But that might be taking things too seriously. Cinderella is a perfectly fun show, and even people much younger than baby boomers will recognize most of the music. You can see it tonight and tomorrow.

Cinderella:  A Rock Opera Ballet

Ballet Fantastique, with live music by Shelley & Cal + the Agents of Unity
Continues 7:30 p.m. Saturday May 9 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday May 10
Soreng Theater, Hult Center for the Performing Arts


photo/Stephanie Urso

photo/Stephanie Urso


Eugene Ballet’s ‘Tommy’: Just go see it, hear it, feel it


The 1969 rock opera Tommy by the Who isn’t quite a great piece of music, but it’s very, very good. I’ve loved the album ever since it came out, so I was thrilled to hear that Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble would be choreographing her own full-length ballet to the Who’s hard-driving rock ‘n roll.

Pete Townshend’s songs tell the story of little Tommy Walker, a witness to the murder of his mother’s lover by his father, who has unexpectedly returned from the war after having been declared dead. The grown-ups tell the boy he’ll never see or hear or remember anything about what he’s witnessed, and, as a result, he becomes blind, deaf and dumb — a condition that’s remedied when he finally becomes a pinball wizard and cultural hero.

If this storyline strikes you as extremely unlikely, you probably haven’t seen very much classical opera.

Happily, the Eugene ballet version, which opened Saturday for a two-performance run at the Hult Center, gives full rein to the rock ‘n roll sensibility. This may be ballet, but it’s still a rock concert, with lights and smoke machines. You may want to use earplugs, which are available. (Having blown out my own hearing listening to works like Tommy 40 years ago, I actually might’ve preferred the volume to be a little louder, myself.)

And it may be rock ‘n roll, but it’s also ballet — and, ultimately, opera. Somehow the synergy between the three art forms pushes the slender emotions of the original album to new heights in this production. You can actually feel the story here.

As the familiar overture begins, the dancers act out the beginnings of the tale: the wartime marriage, the soldiers lost in battle, Capt. Walker’s unexpected arrival home and the murder in front of the boy.

I was enthralled from the beginning. One reason may be this: In 1969 my college roommate and I settled in for an ecstatic evening of mescaline and Tommy on the hi-fi. The music made, let’s say, an impression on my synapses that hasn’t faded.

Adding dance to the mix absolutely brings the experience of the music up by an order of magnitude. The occasional clunky lyrics and repetitive passages of the original album, all too apparent on more recent listenings, are redeemed by the visual counterpoint of dance.

TommyalbumcoverTommy is danced here by three separate dancers. Ethan Ares, a student at Eugene Ballet Academy, portrays the very young Tommy; Antonio Anacan dances the main role with considerable charm, especially considering he is dancing the role of a nearly comatose person for most of the show. Anacan shakes and trembles blankly as Tommy is abused over and over again by people like his evil babysitting cousin Kevin (Isaac Jones).

A wonderful touch is the addition of a third Tommy, the inner Tommy if you will. Jun Tanabe, often seen as a reflection of the deaf, dumb and blind kid gazing in the mirror, is the Tommy who soars in his own mind and, on stage, for ours.

Danielle Tolmie is perfectly slinky as the gypsy acid queen who is called on to cure the boy’s problems with sex.

But the best dances actually come from the entire company, whether at a Christmas party in Tommy’s youth or — with highly mobile pinball machines — celebrating Tommy as the pinball wizard.

TOMMY7_EBCThe live rock ‘n roll comes from a band put together by Tim McLaughlin.

While a purist might find a note or chord out of place here or there, the musicians do an excellent job of re-creating the album without making it sound like a recreation. One of the two vocalists, Siri Vik, is actually trained as an opera singer, and the only weak part of the music is that the rougher and looser voice of the other singer, Zak Johnson, isn’t a good match for the clarity and authority of hers.

A bit to my chagrin, the ballet cut some of the original story, leaving out the fabulously wicked uncle Ernie, who abuses the young Tommy with gusto in a song called Fiddle About. This sort of thing may be too much for our post-millennial sensibilities about sexual abuse, but I was sorry to see the song go.

That’s a small point. This show is a great fun, done with huge energy and enthusiasm, and if you have any love of rock ‘n roll or ballet either one you really ought to go see it Sunday afternoon.

Tommy the Ballet

Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble choreographs the Who’s 1969 rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard
Final performance 2 p.m. Sunday April 12
Hult Center Silva Concert Hall

(sub)Urban Projections: A pale shadow of a light show in the Hult Center lobby

Trails: The best of an uncertain lot kept kids and adults mesmerized

Trails: The best of an uncertain lot kept kids mesmerized  making digital angels Thursday at the Hult Center

I will say right off, I was warned. I might just be too old for this kind of thing. I would probably enjoy it better with the help of recreational drugs.

I went anyway, at least for a while, to (sub)Urban Projections, the free city-sponsored festival of light, music and dance that was held in the lobby of the Hult Center Thursday evening — and, in fact, is most likely still going on as I write this, as I left town early.

The idea was interesting enough. This would be, in the city’s gushy press release, an event that “spotlights multimedia and interdisciplinary performances that re-draw the boundaries around expression, creativity and art to encompass the complexities of our 21st century landscape.”

That’s OK. I’ve read enough overheated prose like this in my career not to take it too seriously.

And the whole thing was a run-up to Friday evening’s performance at the Hult by Quixotic, a Kansas City group that melds dance, music, circus acrobatics and digital projections.

So I got to the Hult this evening with pleasant expectations. Something new and different would take place in the familiar cultural space. And as I walked in, half an hour before show time, it felt exciting — like coming in through the stage door, instead of into the lobby.

The lobby was back-stage dark. Cables were stretched here and there, performers were getting ready to go on, some video was beginning to be seen on the interesting high surfaces that define the Hult lobby. So far so good.

Following the crowd’s energy, I found my way to a wall on the mezzanine, in the hallway across from the women’s  restroom, where half a dozen delighted kids were dancing in front of a projector that showed time-delayed echoes of their movement in bright, psychedelic color. The kids could make video angels, like snow angels, by waving their arms.

This exhibit — Trails, by Benjamin Geck, Clara Munro and Zachary Dekker — turned out, sadly, to be the best thing I encountered.

The couple dance performances I stuck around for were lost in the sheer size of the crowd;  you couldn’t really get around from one part of the lobby to another, you couldn’t see, you couldn’t hear, and at one point an usher suddenly yelled at me that “These stairs are closed!” (she wasn’t being mean — she had to yell to be heard) as I tried to get back to the main floor for a better look.

What was missing, for me and a couple other cranky old folks I talked to, was any overall scheme. I wanted something big and bright. What I got instead resembled a booking convention, with small acts competing against one another on small stages, most of which you couldn’t get to even if you tried.

There was no overall presence, nothing that tried to fill that big, beautiful and intriguing space.

An acquaintance who once worked for the Grateful Dead shook his head in dismay. “We knew how to do light shows,” he said.

I’m off to bed now, right after I take my Geritol.



Ballet dancer Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero will be honored in Saturday tribute concert


Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero was one of Eugene Ballet’s best known and best loved dancers when he died in 2013, a suicide.

He always was an intense guy. JC, as he was known, was so disciplined and future-oriented that, as a child, he insisted on wearing a necktie to kindergarten, according to a story told by his family at a memorial after his death.

On Saturday, he’ll be remembered again – this time in an evening tribute of dance and music put on by Eugene Ballet and Eugene Concert Choir, with whom he often performed, at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall.

The program will open with a ballet, choreographed by Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble, to choral music by Rossini, Mahler, Debussy and Eric Whitacre, as well as an excerpt from Carmina Burana, and wrap up with a choral performance of the Mozart Requiem.

“I always was captivated by JC when he would dance,” said Diane Retallack, artistic director of the Eugene Concert Choir. “It was amazing to me how he could walk on stage and stand there and, having done nothing else yet, command the stage. I don’t know where that kind of charm comes from.”

The Radiance Orb in Paris

The Radiance Orb in Paris

JC was a friend of the concert choir, Retallack said. “He performed with us a number of times, and I feel a connection to him. JC would be on stage, and I would be conducting the orchestra and chorus – there is some kind of connection from a conductor to a performer and back. It’s magical.”

For the tribute, Retallack and Pimble selected music that illustrates various sides of JC’s personality, from his intensity and his Latin heritage to his sweetness.

The ballet will close with a song by Mahler, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” or “I am lost to the world” – arranged, by Clytus Gottwald for 16-part chorus.

“It’s about the artist being so isolated from the world that he is dead to the world,” Retallack said.

During that final song, the Radiance Orb – a three-foot-diameter sphere of electronically controlled light panels – will appear above the Silva stage. Created by Eugene’s Light at Play, the Orb appeared recently at UNESCO’s International Year of Light in Paris.

Mozart Requiem and Choral Ballet

A tribute to Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero by the Eugene Concert Choir and Eugene Ballet

8 p.m. Saturday, February 28
Hult Center Silva Concert Hall


A night in the pit with Orchestra Next and Eugene Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’


The first thing I encountered as I entered the orchestra pit at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall last night was a music stand with a sign-in sheet and two bags of bright-orange disposable ear plugs. They looked just like Cheetohs, and I stuck a pair in my pocket, just in case.

I was at the Hult to hear Orchestra Next in its first rehearsal for this year’s “Nutcracker,” which will be performed on the Silva stage this weekend by Eugene Ballet.

Now in its third season, Orchestra Next – a training orchestra that allows student musicians to play alongside professionals – started off by providing live music for the ballet’s traditional holiday show, which had been done in some previous years to taped music.

BKPIX-4894This season, the orchestra also provided music for the ballet’s fall production of “Cinderella”; it has previously performed with Cirque Musica at Matthew Knight Arena.

The orchestra was founded by trumpeter Brian McWhorter, a high-energy musical madman who conducts the musicians, and by trumpeter Sarah Viens, who handles administration.

McWhorter kept, and used now and then for emphasis, a slapstick by his side on the podium at Wednesday’s rehearsal.

“Play like you know there is some kid out there in the audience hearing ‘Nutcracker’ for the first time!” he exhorted the 52 musicians, about a quarter of them professionals who play with groups such as Eugene Symphony or the Oregon Mozart Players.

I had arranged to hang out at the rehearsal in part because I wanted to know more about Orchestra Next, but also because I had never before been in an orchestra pit while musicians were playing.

BKPIX-5009That’s an experience worth going out of your way to have, as it turns out. The music is not just full-bodied, it’s like rock and roll volume (yes, those earplugs, though I forgot to put them in). As I wandered through the orchestra photographing the players and watching them in action, the music came at me from all sides. The woodwinds were definitely here and the violins were absolutely over there, a surround-sound effect you miss entirely from the audience.

The pit itself is dark and industrial, with lots of electrical fixtures, and walls and floor painted in well scuffed dark hues. The stage floor reaches out like an overhead shelf, making a low ceiling above half the orchestra’s heads, and, with no dancers performing during this rehearsal, a rope was stretched across the stage front with a couple red, white and black industrial signs, the kind that often say “high voltage,” warning: “Open pit.”

(When I went up to watch from above, I noticed the rope was just about high enough off the floor to trip on.)

BKPIX-4940Rehearsals offer an interesting mix of casual atmosphere and honest hard work. At one point, as the rest of the orchestra played feverishly, the keyboardist was reading a book (pianist Leon Fleisher and critic Anne Midgette’s “My Nine Lives,” as it turned out); one of the two harpists was knitting; a bass player was checking his phone; and percussionist Crystal Chu was quietly tapping out rhythm on her stomach.

A doctoral student in music at the University of Oregon, Chu, who is from Hong Kong, was playing for the second year with the orchestra, which meant she occasionally reached, as the score required, for a triangle to ding or a tambourine to shake to add a bit of rhythmic color to Tchaikovsky’s lush melodies.

Next to her, Adam Dunson, a master’s student from Las Vegas, awaited his moment to pop a wooden box with a mallet. “Nailed it!” he said, having done his part on cue. “I enjoy playing here a lot. It’s fun to be able to play with professional musicians as well as my contemporaries.”

McWhorter kept up a zany pace, delivering direction and criticisms in a stream of sometimes-profane consciousness. “It’s a Christmas ornament,” he said of one stretch of music. “It’s a fucking Christmas ornament on a fucking Christmas tree.” The musicians laughed, and poured more Christmas into their music.

BKPIX-4785Or, again: “Look: In this section I don’t care what notes the strings play for those 16th notes. But it’s a storm. I want it to be wild! I want your violin strings to pop and hit you in the eyeballs.”

Then he turned his attention to the violinists in the back ranks. “I want to have someone do that in the back like they’re vying to get up front. Got that?”

During a 20-minute break in the middle of the three-hour rehearsal, McWhorter laughed about his over-the-top persona. “I used to think I had to tone things down,” he said. “Now I’m more myself, and it works.”

McWhorter enjoys the raw energy he gets from working with students, who he says are more likely to reflect his own enthusiasm for any given musical approach than jaded pros might be.

But Michelle Stuart, a sometime-professional horn player from California who is a fellow, or student member, of Orchestra Next, likes the high-energy approach. “I have worked under a lot of conductors,” she said. “The first time I saw Brian I was blown away. He is so genuine and authentic!”

BKPIX-4863“The Nutcracker” has become a holiday favorite for ballet companies across the country because, among other more-artistic reasons, it features a lot of roles for small children who are just learning to do ballet.

Multiply all those baby mice and party girls by several parents, friends and relatives each, and that adds up to a lot of tickets sold to each production.

And McWhorter will be among this weekend’s proud parents, as he announced to the musicians at rehearsal. “At the beginning of this movement on Saturday night my daughter is going to be up there on stage for the first time,” he said. “And I’m going to lose my shit. She’s a mouse. So I won’t care what you guys are doing right then. I’ll be standing here taking pictures.”

The Nutcracker

Eugene Ballet does the Tchaikovsky Christmas favorite, with live music by Orchestra Next

7:30 p.m. Friday, December 19
2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 20
2 p.m. Sunday, December 21

Hult Center Silva Concert Hall


It’s official: Ballet Fantastique is now a Hult Center resident company

Ballet Fantastique's Hannah Bontrager dances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2011.

Ballet Fantastique’s Hannah Bontrager dances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2011.

Word has been around town informally for a while, but today the official announcement is in: Eugene’s chamber ballet company Ballet Fantastique has become a resident company at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

They join six other resident companies at the Hult: The Eugene Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene Opera, Eugene Concert Choir and The Shedd Institute

Resident status offers a number of benefits to a performing arts group. The resident companies get first shot at the booking calendar, they get a break on some rental fees, and they are entitled to apply for grant money from the Hult Endowment.

But being a resident company can also be a burden, as groups are expected to perform regularly at the Hult — which can be fairly expensive for small non-profit arts groups.That’s why two years ago the Oregon Mozart Players gave up their resident company status and began performing at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall.

The Hult began its resident company program with five companies in 1987.

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