Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Moving On

The dancers are back in the studio for a couple of days now, turning our attention to the next item in our datebook which is the performances May 8 and 9 with White Bird's 4x4 program. OBT's contribution to the evening is a ballet called Rush, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The principal and soloist dancers learned their parts last October when Joanna Berman, a former dancer with San Francisco Ballet, came to Portland to stage those sections of the ballet. The corps de ballet learned their material in January from one of SFB's ballet masters, Anita Paciotti. Since then, Rush has had very sporadic rehearsal times-- a few hours here and there, crammed in between rehearsals for whatever ballets were more imminently at hand. We worked on it a tad during December, on slow afternoons before Nutcracker performances, and again a little bit in early March. Now, all of a sudden, it's got to be on stage in a couple of weeks.

Rush is a tough ballet for a few reasons. The music (Martinu) is not always easy to hear and count clearly, and the first and third movements are large group sections that need to be danced precisely on the music, either in unison or in some form of canon. There are also a lot of fairly intricate patterns in the choreography for those group sections-- couples are weaving in and out of each other's paths, making asymmetric formations and unusual shapes. And then the choreography itself, the actual steps, is quite hard. It's very classically based, but everything has a twist to it, or some added element that gives it an unfamiliar dynamic. The "finale step", which is the very last bit of the last movement, has the entire cast onstage doing the same complex (and fast) sequence all together. It's quite exciting to see, but really difficult to make it work. There are five corps couples, two soloists couples, and one principal couple. That's a lot of people to get organized.

Today I sat in on a rehearsal for the pas de deux and tried to help the dancers recall details and work out trouble spots. They've been rehearsing it a little bit, but haven't yet had time to smooth everything out. And usually, time is all it takes. Time and nit-picking. The final product often looks so clean and clear that it's impossible to think it ever was awkward, but getting to that place is a painstaking process in which we analyze virtually every single moment to discover how to make it work. We can literally spend an hour on a few seconds of choreography, if it's a tricky patch. For example, in this pas de deux there is a sort of slide that the dancers do. The man is really carrying the woman and supporting her weight, but her feet are still pointed against the floor so the illusion is that she is gliding. It's supposed to travel pretty far and happen fast to really achieve that effect, and then go right into an off-balance promenade. The tricky part is transitioning from the slide into the promenade because there is a significant shift in how the man has to balance the woman's center of gravity. It's not hard to do, but it's really hard to do well. And if it's not done well, it loses the seamless quality that the audience can't even put their finger on but would notice if it weren't there! They spent a pretty good amount of time today trying some different tactics and figured out a couple of new things to help make it both effective and relatively comfortable for both of them. Then there's another step we call "the purse" because the woman has to hang off the man's shoulders as he kind of totes her around the corner... like she's his handbag. Again, it's a really cool-looking step, but is unusual and takes some figuring out. The problem with this one is two-fold: if she holds herself up too much, he can't feel where her weight is, but if she hangs down more, their feet get tangled and it's a bit too bumpy. And then the issue of where his hands are on her ribcage needed to be worked out because it was not only quite painful but kept her from getting her own hands up high enough to reach his shoulders. These are the problems that become invisible eventually, but they don't go away magically.

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