Disquiet over the blatant gender inequity in the creative ranks of ballet has been building. But at the moment it is the smaller companies who are tackling the problem most convincingly.

When Oregon Ballet Theater announced a new initiative last year to support emerging female choreographers, it received 91 applications. From that pool, Helen Simoneau, artistic director of North Carolina-based Helen Simoneau Danse, Montreal-based Gioconda Barbuto, and Nicole Haskins of Smuin Ballet were chosen to create new work. The results were unveiled on two crisp summer evenings at the outdoor amphitheater in Portland’s Washington Park.

Oregon Ballet Theater in Simoneau's <i>Departures</i> © Yi Yin
Oregon Ballet Theater in Simoneau's Departures
© Yi Yin

The pieces on the triple bill differed notably in how they engaged with their music. Simoneau’s movement seemed to spring organically from the mysterious, moody score by David Schulman. In contrast, Barbuto’s dancers appeared to be in a tug-of-war with the electronic, pulsing score by Owen Belton – at times responding precisely to its rhythms, at other times breaking free from its tyranny. Haskins chose a recording of the Benjamin Britten wartime song cycle that embroidered lines of poetry from Arthur Rimbaud’s hallucinatory Illuminations. It showcased tenor Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, who sang with poignancy, despair, and a sort of deranged ecstasy. Surprisingly, the dance sailed politely over the wanton provocations of the text.

Simoneau christened her piece Departures and colour-coded her dancers into three tribes. All was painstakingly architected, notably the shifting patterns of the ensemble and the placement of the dancers’ hands on partners’ bodies. The movement was weighty yet light, skimming the ground, apart from sudden breathtaking moments of flight. Bodies stacked to make curves on curves; dancers pulled each other with great daring into sweeping arcs; trios revolved in tight intimacy. Notable in scarlet, Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe connected spectacularly and effortlessly, in an almost-playful mood.

There was a strong sense of a journey, and of a mutual defense pact between the tribes. The movement and lighting design emphasized the glassy quality of the slick black flooring, rather like the surface of a lake, and the saturated colours of the dancers’ second-skin unitards suggested the sometimes perilous migrations of jewel-toned waterfowl. The bird imagery was enhanced by the deployment of hands in wide, gently fluttering gestures and by the women’s lightly flicking pointework.

Avian or human, Simoneau’s dancing bodies remained fundamentally ambiguous and enigmatic. The choreographer professed to be influenced by the deep colors of a whimsical geometric work by Kandinsky, titled Soft Hard. In this piece, she seemed less interested in ballet as an art of expression, rather more concerned with the fusion of sound, colour and a stripped-down technical virtuosity into a living sculpture.

Oregon Ballet Theater in BRINGING<i>OUTSIDE</i>IN © Yi Yin
Oregon Ballet Theater in BRINGINGOUTSIDEIN
© Yi Yin

Barbuto’s dancers shed their pointe shoes and ballet slippers in favor of athletic wear and socks for her piece, titled BRINGINGOUTSIDEIN. Removing the white space between words and employing all-caps in the title reflects the breathless urgency of her movement idiom, which is as disciplined and pared-down as Simoneau’s but in a more transparently athletic manner. The dancers strode or raced on and off stage, shooting hostile or defiant glances at each other. With chins down, they boxed, shoved, invaded each other’s spaces, and administered invisible electric shocks.

The industrial soundscape gave way to the haunting fiddle of Sarah Neufeld, as mechanistic task-based movement built on itself and blossomed into unexpected and moving tableaux. Barbuto’s musicality is very refined, and the briefest moments of stillness proved highly effective. There didn’t seem to be an arc to this movement exploration, yet it was unaccountably thrilling.

Illuminations delivered fireworks, too, mainly through its score. The prose poems – apocalyptic, densely layered, drug-fueled visions of twisted beauty, raw sensuality, and power madness – were among the last that Rimbaud wrote before he abandoned poetry at the age of 21. He handed the explosive manuscript to his former lover, poet Paul Verlaine, on the occasion of their last meeting in 1875. Verlaine had served a two-year sentence in a Belgian jail after firing a revolver and wounding the younger poet in a drunken rage. Rimbaud wanted his would-be assassin to arrange for publication of the manuscript.

Ansa Deguchi and Thomas Baker of OBT in Haskin's <i>Illuminations</i> © Yi Yin
Ansa Deguchi and Thomas Baker of OBT in Haskin's Illuminations
© Yi Yin

No hint of this tormented history nor of Rimbaud’s Parade sauvage (savage sideshow) infiltrated Haskins’ choreography. The score allows for wide-ranging interpretations but this ballet proved a generic neoclassical affair – elegantly delivered by the dancers, especially by the radiant Ansa Deguchi and Thomas Baker. The dance soared on Britten’s strings in the prettier passages, ignoring the tenor’s pyrotechnics, the underlying anguish, the sex, and the strutting of the would-be fascists in Royauté (Royalty). The partnering was winsome, the men reverential and tender toward the women, with much intertwining of arms, romantic lolling around on the floor, and chests ecstatically lifting skyward. The most memorable sequence saw the ensemble united in a stirring semaphore, as if warning of an approaching enemy.

While this inaugural season of OBT's ‘Choreography XX’ yielded two works worthy of inclusion in any ballet company’s repertoire, perhaps the greatest value lay in offering dance-makers the freedom and resources with which to experiment.