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obt’s left unsaid: a review

Artur Sultanov and Daniela Deloe in Left Unsaid
(photo © Blaine Truitt Covert)

It seems strange that on a dance-packed weekend in Seattle, anybody would leave town to see a dance company elsewhere.

But I had to. Memories of the fabulous James Kudelka piece—Almost Mozart—that I saw at Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2007 drew me inexorably to Portland for a world premiere by this former National Ballet of Canada artistic director.

The trip down to the Rose City was worth it, but not for the reason I had expected.

The highlight of the evening for me, and for many in the audience, turned out to be Nicolo Fonte’s Left Unsaid. It was one of those pieces you want to press Replay on the minute the curtain goes down. The cumulative beauty proved so poignant that I cried at the end of the piece. Catharsis.

This piece for six dancers and three chairs plays out to a startlingly loud recording of Bach solo violin selections (from Partita for solo violin No. 2 in D Minor and Sonata for solo violin No. 3 in C Major). The lighting and costumes are interesting and stylish and flattering without being obtrusive. (Todd Elmer/Michael Mazzola did the lights, Kathy Scoggins the costumes.)

Except for two brief moments, the chairs manage to skirt gimmick somehow. Their use injects a little (unforced) humor into what is a mysterious and somewhat severe modern piece. For example, in part of the opening sequence, two suited men sit side-by-side, facing the audience. They play a duet on and around their chairs. At the last moment, one of them turns his chair around and ends up facing upstage. It is so simple, but it was unexpected and sincerely funny. For the most part, dancers approach the chairs à la Vespers, almost squatting into them, backs ramrod straight.

Anne Mueller (top) and Steven Houser, Brian Simcoe,
and Artur Sultanov in Left Unsaid
(photo © Blaine Truitt Covert)

What was most striking about the piece? The partnering, for one. The dancers switched comfortably between man-woman, man-man, woman-woman. Fonte wraps the innovative lifts into the overall aesthetic and the dancers executed them with grace and musicality. Some of the lifts turned into hangs; what amazed me was not the certainly tremendous strength of the dancers hanging on, but the way the “hangs” worked as part of the overall style. And then there was one man’s unforgettable lunge, where a woman stepped onto the back of his knee and then placed her other foot on his shoulder.

Another striking aspect? The off-balance balances. There were a lot of demi-pointe holds for the women; it was harder to see on the men, because of their long pants, but now that I think back about it, frequent demi-pointe balances might account for that extra bit of intention, that extra bit of tension, that extra something that makes a movement art.

I love this piece by Fonte, and my review doesn’t capture the energy of it. I’d love to show a video, or at least more images of it, and I’ve written to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, who premiered the piece in 2003, in the hope that they might have something to share with SeattleDances.

The evening opened with William Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. This is actually the piece that drew me to OBT the first time, back in 2007; I had seen Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated at PNB and couldn’t wait to see more of his work. Plus the costumes looked so cool: orange trunks and shirts for the men, lime green tops and flying-saucer skirts for the women. Who could resist?

It was such a disappointment! So soul-less, completely stripped of what I think of as the essence of ballet.

This time around, however, I found a different way into the piece and I loved it.

I started with the title and focused on the thrill of exactitude, the thrill of precise ballet mechanics. I tried seeing it as an exercise machine, one of those cartoon machines where pistons fire furiously and wheels whir around madly and nobody’s quite sure what gets produced but you can see there’s a heck of a lot of directed energy getting expended.

This filter focuses attention on the fast, shifting patterns/groupings of Forsythe’s work, made all the more noticeable by the dancers’ ability to dance as one. I don’t just mean together…but as one, with each other, with the music, with the movement. This is so rare, and it takes the experience up to another level.

One detail I love in this piece is that the dancers are so careful with their eyes and focus, as though these have been choreographed. As a group, they turned in a clean performance. Even the one slip in the back corner was covered with grace. (How amazing; it’s the first time I’ve seen a goof that didn’t color the dancer’s work during the rest of the piece. She immediately refocused and got back into the game, unshaken, confident, shining.)

I don’t know the company well enough for many call-outs, but I have to say that Kathi Martuza is becoming one of my favorite OBT dancers. She sure can do the steps, and she also uses her body to express emotion.

After two intense pieces, we saw Balanchine’s little Tarantella, danced sweet and light, like cannoli, by corps members Julia Rowe and Javier Ubell. There’s room for fun in this fast piece. Ubell took advantage of the chance; Rowe seemed more focused on getting the steps right. They both did well, however, and it was impressive to see this level of dancing from young corps members.

For Kudelka’s piece, Hush, I’d like to direct you to Bob Hick’s sensitive, descriptive review in The Oregonian.

There’s much to recommend this most recent effort of Kudelka—beauty, grace, a chilling ending—but the story is old. “A meditation on the transience of life”? Youthful innocent makes way for maturity; love cedes to loss…we’ve seen that before and this piece didn’t warrant the retelling. Plus, for me it was such a downer at the end of what was a wonderful night. It was a subdued audience that left the theater. I would guess that many were lost in thought, and that others were transported.

The program described the piecemeal music (by Rodney Sharman) thus: “The Celtic harp Etudes have a clear rhythmic base and a straightforward structure, while the pedal harp pieces have a delicate, shifting transparency that leaves them nearly devoid of rhythmic or melodic clues.” I.e., the music didn’t exactly rouse the audience. When I asked if there hadn’t been two harpists instead of the single harpist taking a bow, my companion said that the first one had probably died of boredom. (There were two: Rita Costanzi and Auna Selberg.) While I didn’t have quite so vehement a reaction to the music’s style, I can’t say I’m a fan. It did, however, fit the theme and tone of the ballet.

And so what did I like about Hush? Lots. Ubell starts out the youth section, lying on the ground as if it felt good to lie on the ground. The happy lasses that traipse in and daisy-chain around looked sincere.

Gavin Larsen and Chauncey Parsons with harpist
Rita Costanzi in Hush (photo © Blaine Truitt Covert)

Gavin Larsen and Chauncey Parsons danced a lovely pas de deux; she had such a lightness!

Grace Shibley and Ronnie Underwood in Hush
(photo © Blaine Truitt Covert)

The pas de quatre that followed had an intriguing, spicier flavor and the dancers executed it very well indeed. (How gorgeous is this photo!)

OBT dancers in Hush
(photo ©
Randall Millstein)
In the next section, six men moved in unison back and forth across the stage, exuding strength, creating what amounts to a mesmerizing, physical drone. [The veiled women who threaded through their patterns seemed to be out of a Romantic ballet (when will Giselle come, I ask!); it was a little heavy-handed dramatization, I thought. It looks pretty in the photo, though.]

And I loved the ending: the characters we’ve seen over the course of the ballet enter upstage left, two-by-two, walking forward in two columns which fold in on themselves and recede once they reach downstage, creating a flowing effect. This is one long, chilling procession of the disappearing dead. The women, who have been on pointe more or less for the entire ballet (often walking) are still on pointe, which adds to the overall solemnity. Wow. (Great practice for the Emeralds walking pas de deux that OBT takes on next season.)

OBT is running Hush again next season. I’m interested to see it again. Maybe I’ll find another way into the piece, like I did with the Forsythe, and adore it. Maybe they’ll place it in the middle of the program, so that we leave happier. Also on the program for that rep is Fonte’s Bolero. Yep. I’ll be there for sure.


Links to Other Reviews of OBT’s Program:

Portland Mercury interview with Fonte
– In which we find out the suits in Left Unsaid are by Gucci!

Portland Mercury review

The Oregonian review

Willamette Week review

Just Out review/interview