Nacho Duato’s baffling and beautiful Por Vos Muero, little known in the United States, kicked off Oregon Ballet Theatre’s first season under its new artistic director, Kevin Irving. The piece, originally set on Duato’s Compañia Nacional de Danza in 1996, makes a deep visual and emotional impression, a shining rebuttal to all the tedious, empty acrobatics of much contemporary dance.

Por Vos Muero: Ansa Deguchi and Michael Linsmeier, © Blaine Truitt Covert
Por Vos Muero: Ansa Deguchi and Michael Linsmeier,
©

With no narrative support, Por Vos Muero (translated, I Would Die for Thee) draws us into a kooky, time-bending world in which dancers communicate tenderly in a vernacular of Renaissance, baroque and folk dance vocabulary, laced with classical flourishes and reverential nods to Martha Graham. They embellish their exchanges with witty, often poignant gestures – flutters, wiggles and shakes of the hands, shoulders, hips and head – whose modernity contrasts delightfully with the Spanish Renaissance music, by turns stately and jaunty.

Fascinated, we keep asking ourselves: who are these folk? Like his mentor Jiří Kylián, Duato employs ballet as a mode of drag, shape-shifting with astonishing fluidity, aided by rapid costuming switches from nakedness (nude underwear, to be exact) to stripped-down Renaissance wear. Hints of ritual, both high church and pagan, and of suppressed rebellion against rigid social hierarchies permeate the piece: in one episode, the women wield stark Venetian masks as they twist in quiet agony on the floor; in another, the men, clad in swirling hooded cloaks, dart around the stage, menacingly swinging incense burners, as a female figure emerges from the smoky gloom to execute a moving dance of supplication.

I saw a marvelous second cast on Thursday night, whose passionate delivery and sharp, confident technique left me speculating how on earth the first cast would have topped that. Out of the starting gate, Catherine Monogue and Jared Brunson, peel off from the crowd in a strangely affecting duet. Monogue, with Ansa Deguchi and Makino Hayashi furl and unfurl with breathtaking fleetness and fluency in a female triumvirate that suggests Martha Graham on speed. Jennifer Christie’s powerful, sweeping fan kicks convey a yearning to break out of some unidentified confinement. Making a flirty trio, Ansa Deguchi scampers in to distract two boys, Kohhei Kuwana and Avery Reiners, who are busy one-upping each other with their feats of neoclassical ballet daring.

Apart from the abrupt way Spanish Renaissance love poetry was integrated in stentorian voice-over into the score, the only sour note was the men’s Renaissance costumes. Whimsical though they were intended, the puffed shoulders and dark short shorts against the men’s bare legs made them look more like wrestlers than ballet dancers.

Rounding out the evening was former artistic director Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opens with a lacklustre, under-choreographed scene from a modern wedding reception. A quartet of fussy bartender-waiters provides mild comic relief. The piece kicks into high gear with the transformation into a fairy kingdom modeled, enchantingly, on the ancient forests of Oregon’s Opal Creek.

I’ve never thought another choreographer could improve on the perfection that is Frederick Ashton’s Dream, and certainly not his final luxurious, organic pas de deux, set to the stirring Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s score. Stowell messed with the Mendelssohn, but stuck with the Nocturne for the final pas de deux – and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t just as moving as Ashton’s, though simpler and more regal. It begins with Oberon taking slow steps along a curving path, facing Titania; she then repeats the phrase exactly, facing him, the stately music washing over them like moonlight. This is a partnership of equals, Titania and Oberon having finally ironed out their marital difficulties.

The splendid Alison Roper and Brian Simcoe match each other in imposing presence and expansiveness of technique. Roper gives the fairy queen a delicious hint of Ziegfeld Follies glamour and a technical fierceness – stretching her balances out of pirouette, diving into a daring arabesque penchée on pointe. She and Simcoe storm the stage with their warring fairy battalions, the men dazzling in their beaten jumps. The broad comedy is expertly played by the two pairs of frustrated lovers, and by the waiters who show up as travelling players, dragging along a practice ballet barre. Xuan Cheng as Hermia is a spitfire, technically and dramatically radiant, her duet with Michael Linsmeier as Lysander a lyrical and musical triumph. The perkiness of Puck and Peaseblossom, however, became tiresome, undermined by campy, garish costumes, out of place in this otherwise elegant, imaginative production.

Stowell drafts a tiny, adorable boy to play Cupid – abandoning the usual device of a magic flower potion. Wafting in and out in the arms of Puck, Zeke Mitchell-Hopmeier slyly zaps the unsuspecting lovers on the head, then gazes out innocently at us as mayhem ensues.

Of many high points, perhaps the most satisfying are the moments when the Pacific Youth Choir joins OBT’s marvelous orchestra, and singing, music and dance fuse into one glorious expression of Shakespeare’s magical power.

DreamCarla Escoda2013-10-17Carla Escoda reviews Oregon Ballet Theatre in Nacho Duato's Por Vos Muero and Christopher Stowell's A Midsummer Night's Dream on their home turf in Portland4