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Flash Review, 11-21: De Mille Sweet
Tulsa Gets a New 'Oklahoma!' for its Jubilee

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2006 Alicia Chesser

TULSA, Oklahoma -- Tulsa Ballet's latest program, Celebrate Oklahoma!, seen November 10 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, is artistic director Marcello Angelini's "thank you" to the centennial state that has become his artistic home and to the pioneering spirit that led Moscelyne Larkin and Roman Jasinski to create Tulsa Ballet 50 years ago. The company presented three ballets: Daniel Pelzig's "Nine Lives" (set to music by Lyle Lovett), Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo," and the premiere "Oklahoma! Suite" (a suite of dances from the Tony Award-winning Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!," also choreographed by de Mille). For most of us it was simply a delightful evening of ballet with a Western theme and a fun kickoff to celebrations of Oklahoma's 100 years of statehood. For Tulsa Ballet, it was another step in its journey toward becoming a major force in American dance.

Consider the choice of ballets. "Nine Lives" combines the sly twang of Lovett's songs with choreography that unites ballet, jazz, and Western swing, and a very contemporary sensibility. "Rodeo" is, of course, de Mille's masterpiece, a treasure of 1940s American dance and of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo which Larkin and Jasinski loved so much. And the "Oklahoma! Suite" is another of Angelini's bold initiatives, created in concert with the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization in New York (which provided its manifold services free of charge) and legendary de Mille dancer Gemze de Lappe, who made use of de Mille's original choreography and added to it to create the suite. These ballets, while similar in theme, are quite diverse in dance terms: different eras, different styles, even an entirely new production based in American musical theater. The programming itself is something to admire.

And then there is the dancing. Angelini has refined and refined his roster so that, in performance anyway, there is not one squeaky wheel in the entire company. He now has four extremely good male leads -- Alfonso Martin, Ma Cong, Wang Yi, and Michael Eaton -- and a very solid second tier. The leading women -- Alexandra Bergman, Ashley Blade-Martin, and Rene Olivier -- are strong, versatile, and gorgeous; the same goes for dancers like Karina Gonzalez, Megan Keough, Kiri Chapman, Serena Chu, and on and on down the roster. With these dancers coming from all over the world, it's a remarkable achievement to have brought them so fully "together" such that they are able to do just about anything that is asked of them, and to do it in a way that makes you think they've been dancing together their whole lives.

In "Nine Lives," nine of those dancers tell stories of attraction, hard drinking, pursuit, regret, tenderness, loneliness ... in other words, the stories of love and loss that endlessly fascinate Lovett. The ballet opens with a country feel, as five men (in Western shirts and black pants) and four women (in short jewel-toned dresses that look like ... teddies?) do a boot-scootin' boogie to "I've Been in Memphis." A brief piano interlude, with dancers moseying across the stage, provides the segue to "Pontiac," a dark duet for the elegaic Martin and Yi about loss, friendship, and the awkwardness of consolation between men.

From that midnight mood, the lights switch on and the scene changes to a raucous bar for "Hot to Go" -- in which Mugen Kazama, stepping in for an injured Ma Cong, was hot to go indeed. Kazama, "just" a kid from Japan in his first year in Tulsa, set off fireworks in this house with an incredible solo that was by turns sharp and subtle, lightning quick and lingering, the dancer hilarious in his physical comedy but never mugging for the crowd. This is the Lovett song in which the singer realizes (a bit too late!) that the object of his admiration down at the other end of the bar is "ugly from the front" (to which the lady retorts, "Well, you're ugly too!"). Kazama, with his tremendous sailing leaps and "what the hell" (but completely controlled) turns and tumbles, stopped the show even before this funny bit. When it arrived, he had the house rocking with applause.

A slow, twining duet for Bergman and Ricardo Graziano followed, to "All My Love is Gone." To the lyric "I've got some birds outside / What sit on my window sill / Some birds won't you know / But some birds will," Bergman -- looking for all the world like a lonely girl in a dancehall -- stretched out her arms as if considering whether to fly away or to perch and sing with her newfound mate. In "She's No Lady (She's My Wife)," Olivier showed once again the amazing versatility of her dancing, going completely loose and sexy with all the other dancers flinging themselves around her. Gonzalez and Martin were pensive and thrilling in their quiet duet to "Nobody Knows Me But My Baby (Gonzalez perched on Martin's knee at one point like a guiding star). These two young dancers dug deep into the choreography's slow, small maneuvers and looked deep into each other's eyes, articulating the ache and tenderness of intimate love. And in "Black and Blue" Kate Oderkirk (a stunning tall dancer with super-strong technique) matched Eaton's hard-drinking suitor kick for kick in a wild duet full of 1980s dance references, such as a riff on the "robot." The finale, to "If You Were to Wake Up," brought Olivier together with Yi and the entire ensemble to conclude a smart, funny, elegant ballet with just the right amount of emotional interest and choreographic challenge (merging heel-toe country dancing with long, wide leg extensions out of jazz, for instance) to bring out surprising facets in these dancers.

Speaking of surprising, for "Rodeo" the men wore real cowboy boots and real Levis, making them appear just the slightest bit uncomfortable, but contributing greatly to an authentic Western feel. "Rodeo" is a ballet that has a very special place in my heart, as I learned all the parts in it (even the square dance parts!) as a teenage apprentice in Tulsa Ballet during the Larkin/Jasinski days, when it was the extraordinary Willy Shives (now with the Joffrey in Chicago) dancing the Champion Roper. This performance was a fitting tribute to Miss Larkin, who was a legendary Cowgirl herself and in whose honor the ballet was included in this program. (Angelini reports that she was "elated" when she came to see a dress rehearsal of "Rodeo" a few weeks ago.) Former Joffrey and American Ballet Theatre dancer Paul Sutherland staged the piece; after doing so more than 40 times, he's to be trusted when he says, as he did on this occasion, that this was one of the best performances of "Rodeo" he's ever seen.

There were some opening night jitters that threw off rhythm and timing at moments, but "Rodeo" was "Rodeo": buoyant and spacious like the Oklahoma plains. There was fine dancing from the whole company, but Eaton made a particularly strong impression as the Champion Roper. He has caught my eye before with his powerful technique and modest manner onstage. (He's not a showman like Cong, nor a romantic like Martin, just a good, solid, reliable man with a serious demeanor.) This role brought out new dimensions in him: authority, looseness, charm and ... tap dancing! Really, really good tap dancing. (Turns out Eaton is a seasoned tapper; he performed a tap solo for Barbara Bush at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Who knew?) His Roper was a genuine guy, not as cocky as others I've seen in this role, just confident and charged up about the day's events -- and very tender towards the Cowgirl, danced by Megan Keough.

Keough -- very petite, very girlish -- was pert as a bird in this role. Her Cowgirl was not the rough-and-tumble tomboy/feminist one often sees, but certainly a determined woman who's ready to take on anything for the attention of the Head Wrangler (Yi). She handled the demanding buckin'-bronco choreography very well and had an adorable hangdog look when she gazed at the suitably remote and commanding Yi. And she was radiant -- just glowing with delight -- in her red dress and little black boots in the final dance with Eaton and the company.

Superb as these leading dancers were, others captured the feeling of the ballet perhaps better still. I'm thinking especially of Blade-Martin as the Rancher's Daughter and Chapman, Chu, and Leah Gallas as the Friends from Kansas City. These four women were thrilling in their knowing glances and in the fullness and simplicity of their movement in de Mille's choreography (which on this evening reminded me of Nacho Duato's for some reason ... perhaps a connection to be pursued in another Flash, when Tulsa Ballet, which has done a number of Duato ballets, performs "Por Vos Muero" in the spring?). (My editor PBI makes an excellent point in response to this observation: "It validates the precept ... that by creating a varied repertory one serves not only to develop the tastes of the audience but the skills and versatility of the dancers.") These dancers found the only thing lacking, in my opinion, in the rest of the performance: enough of the wistful "sunset" quality that runs like a campfire serenade through the ballet, beginning with the lone male figure who sweeps across the back of the stage in its opening moments. A bit more of the elegaic would have made this performance even richer. But this was a jubilant "Rodeo," snappy and vigorous and bright, charged with an optimism that was fitting for the celebratory occasion.

Perhaps the sweetest spot in the entire evening came with "Oklahoma! Suite." While this may not be the first time a full ballet has been created from a musical -- Jerome Robbins's "West Side Story Suite" comes to mind -- it is certainly a rare undertaking. Angelini explained how it came about:

"Candace Trombka, the former president of the board, in the brainstorming session about the 'Celebrate Oklahoma!' evening, reminded me about the musical 'Oklahoma!' and its dances choreographed by Agnes de Mille. I looked at the DVD of the musical again. (I had seen it live when I first came to Tulsa and bought the DVD right after the show.) I was surprised at how well it captured the simplicity, and the complexity, as well as the spirit of this land. Let me better explain: While the musical doesn't really reflect the life of cities like Tulsa or Oklahoma City or the life in larger communities in the state, it quite well represents where the human roots of our state, and maybe life in the rural parts of Oklahoma, came from. I felt the choreography captures this simplicity. It's by no means complicated or complex; both in concept and in intricacy of steps, it really reflects life in the plains. Its straightforwardness is really its charm.

"With that in mind, I approached the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and explained my concept of extrapolating the dances from the musical and creating musical and choreographic 'bridges' so that we could tell the story of the musical with just the dances. In order to stay true to the style of the work they enrolled Gemze de Lappe [to add on to the choreography], as she was Agnes de Mille's assistant for many years.

"I started planning [the ballet] about 18 months ago. It was a big deal as the musical director of the [Rodgers & Hammerstein] organization had to create brand new scores for the ballet, carve the dances out of the musical, and create the musical bridges and then the finale.... There is really no dancing finale in "Oklahoma!,' so all the pieces of music and dance from the show had to be pieced together for the finale. Not to mention teaching ballet dancers to tap.... Then Gemze came and she created the [additional] dance sections that were needed in order to tell the story using exclusively de Mille's vocabulary."

And it works! "Oklahoma! Suite" is absolutely charming; I would venture to say that it captures the spirit of de Mille as perfectly as does "Rodeo." All the familiar songs are here: "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City," "Many a New Day," "The Farmer and the Cowman," and of course the famous "Dream Ballet" in which the heroine Laurey dreams she's in the clutches of the low-down Judd and his "Postcards" (ladies in provocative outfits, if you know what I mean) and eventually wakes to find herself back at home in the arms of her beloved Curly and her friends.

De Lappe did a marvelous job recreating the existing dances and adding on to them in the de Mille style. There was tap-dancing a-plenty in "Kansas City." The "Dream Ballet" was perhaps even more powerful than it is in the musical, not only because it's amplified by so much other dancing before and after it, but also because of the passion of the dancers (Keough as a dreamy Laurey, Martin as Curly, Ricardo Graziano as a lumbering, desperate, five-o-clock-shadowed Judd, and Blade-Martin, Olivier, and Jennifer DeWolfe as the Postcards). "Many a New Day" featured some exemplary moments for the women; with buoyant arms and open chests, they captured all de Mille's boldness and delicacy, as well as a certain iconic quality, a "rigidity" that's a hallmark of her choreography (as it is of her contemporary Antony Tudor's). The gorgeous costumes and sets came from Music Theater of Wichita.

The finale for all 23 dancers looked for all the world as if it came from the original musical -- "O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A," state flag, and all. There was some trouble with the lights at the end of the "Dream Ballet," but frankly (though there was a collective held breath in the audience until it was resolved) nobody cared. The momentum of the suite -- of the evening -- was huge, and it ended with everybody singing "Oklahoma!" to the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra's exuberant music, led by the young and gifted ballet and opera conductor Nathan Fifield.

"Oklahoma! Suite" is a tremendous gift from Tulsa Ballet to the state in which it was born 50 years ago -- a winning finale to this evening of dance which was itself a generous, respectful, innovative thank-you from the Tulsa Ballet of the present and future to the Tulsa Ballet of the past, and to a community that has proven to be such a fruitful ground for ballet, against all predictions, surpassing all expectations.


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