by Martha Ullman West

Historically, Oregon Ballet Theatre has closed its seasons with a mixed repertoire show in the Newmark Theatre, a jewel-like European opera-style house and Portland’s best venue for dance. This year, Nicolo Fonte’s compelling, evening-length Beautiful Decay concluded the company’s 26th season, opening an eight performance run on April 14.

According to a program note, a series of 3-D photographs of exotic flowers taken by Mark Golebiowski inspired both the ballet and its title. “[The flowers] are very much dead, but also still very vibrant,” Fonte wrote. This perception led him to think about the human life cycle, the toll the passage of time takes on our bodies, the wisdom our experience can give us and the ways that wisdom can be transmitted to the young.

The resulting Beautiful Decay, which BalletX premiered in Philadelphia in 2013, constitutes a rep show in itself. In the course of this single, beautifully crafted work, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers change character, mood, technique, costumes, even their shoes, as rapidly as they were required to do in the four diverse ballets that made up last year’s season closer (by Darrell Grand Moultrie, the late Dennis Spaight, Fonte and Nacho Duato). Those ballets had little to do with each other musically, visually, technically or thematically. In Beautiful Decay, however, everything is tied together by Martha Chamberlain’s costume designs, Mimi Lien’s sleek minimalist set, Drew Billiau’s too dark lights, the score and the ballet’s theme.

Beautiful Decay was danced to recorded music that includes Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, played on period instruments for Act I, and, for Act II, Max Richter’s remix of same, as well as Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds’ popular songs.

On opening night, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers were joined by guest artists Gregg Bielemeier and Susan Banyas, Portland contemporary dancers in their 60s who are known for their improvisational skills. The company gave its juiciest, most versatile performance of the season as they danced, for roughly 80 minutes (with one intermission), this at once intellectual and emotional story with ease, éclat and an eloquence that at times brought tears to the eyes.

This was especially true when Banyas and Bielemeier performed directly with Oregon Ballet Theatre’s younger (much!) dancers. Early on, Bielemeier is shadowed by Jordan Kindell, suggesting a mentoring relationship; Banyas, in the opening, observes and reacts to Peter Franz’s alternating airborne and floor-bound solo. Bielemeier watches and briefly joins a male quintet toward the end of Act I, then, barefoot, tenderly partners Kelsie Nobriga, who wears pointe shoes, in a brief pas de deux. In Act II, Banyas and Bielemeier, seated behind a scrim, gazed at Sarah Griffin (who alas is leaving OBT), who extended her arms imploringly toward them, as if to say, “Stay, stay, please stay.”

These, on the whole, are quiet moments and they are balanced by Fonte’s fast travelling steps that take groups of dancers across the stage at seemingly mach speed, a metaphor for how rapidly time passes; before we know it, we are reaching the end of our lives. All is not elegiac, however. There are playful sections, too: Parsons chasing Xuan Cheng across the stage; Kindell leaping high; some of the men tossing Ansa Deguchi in the air. Beautiful Decay ends in stillness, with circular groups of dancers embracing each other, embracing the theme of this bold, complicated, risky ballet.

Fonte, who will become Oregon Ballet Theatre’s third resident choreographer in the fall (his predecessors were Spaight and Trey McIntyre), has a history with these dancers and this company that began more than a decade ago. Beautiful Decay is the sixth work he has staged on them; in the fall he will make a new piece for an opening repertory evening that includes George Balanchine’s Serenade and William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

He made an extremely interesting 21st- century version of Petrouchka for the company in 2011, and a Bolero in 2008; both of those ballets are now in the repertoires of a number of companies around the world. A less successful work that premiered in 2014, Never Stop Falling (In Love), a collaboration with Thomas Lauderdale and his Portland-based band Pink Martini, nevertheless had moments of truly terrific and, as in Beautiful Decay, intensely musical dancing.

At what Oregon Ballet Theatre was pleased to call a season unveiling earlier in the spring, Fonte spoke of the pleasure he takes in his new position, which among other things formalizes the relationship he already has with the company’s dancers. The Portland audience can also take pleasure in seeing what Fonte does next with dancers who demonstrated, in Beautiful Decay, their complete commitment to his work.

Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay | Photo: James McGrew
Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay | Photo: James McGrew

DI FALL 2016