Three women, three new dances, and two nights to see ’em. Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Choreography XX competition for female choreographers culminates with the debut of pieces created by its winners at free shows at the Washington Park Amphitheater this Thursday and Friday, June 29–30.
Choreography XX represents OBT’s effort to “help fuel the drive for more women to see themselves in leadership roles,” says Kevin Irving, the company’s artistic director.
The panel of Portland dance professionals who selected the winners were looking for a mastery of ballet, a fit with the company, and excitement in the artists’ voice. The winners chosen to create world-premiere work were Gioconda Barbuto, a dancer and choreographer from Montreal; Nicole Haskins, a dancer with San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet and freelance choreographer; and Helen Simoneau, the artistic director at Helen Simoneau Danse in North Carolina.
While women are far from invisible in ballet—can you really imagine it without them?—the genre has “traditionally been shaped and driven by men,” says Irving. Despite this history, Irving believes women have made some of the most important contributions to the art form, whether working from within to change the limits of what it could include, or making an impact from outside the genre: Irving identifies Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham as game changers in the latter category.
Will having their bodies directed by women change how movement feels to female dancers? That might depend on the individual. But Irving recognizes that for many dancers, this event will stand apart from their experiences being choreographed by men. Breaking the conventions of classical ballet is part of OBT’s vision.
“Classical ballet sometimes has to deal with stereotypes of gender conformity (men lifting women is usually more successful than women lifting men),” Irving says. “But at OBT, we try to augment those stereotypes and fill out the possibilities that exist between the genders.”
Although OBT announced Choreography XX a year and a half ago, Barbuto, Haskins, and Simoneau arrived in Portland just three weeks ago to begin auditions and rehearsals with OBT’s dancers.
“I was thrilled and honored [to be part of Choreography XX],” says Barbuto, whose pieces have been presented at Northwest Dance Project, the Juilliard School, and the Dutch National Ballet Academy, as well as several dance companies across Canada. “It was a wonderful privilege to come here and to be amongst the selected and to work with these other two beautiful choreographers and especially to meet this company.”
Barbuto, who describes her work as contemporary, came to OBT with a selection of music, but let the dancers inspire her piece’s direction. The dance came together through workshops where she wanted dancers to explore and invent new movements and ways their bodies could connect. She also loves working with a diverse group of dancers, whose different personalities and strong individuality can add to the collective work.
“I direct with them, I create with them, and I get to know them as if we are playing through this workshop,” Barbuto says. “It becomes like a painting and more layers come on and it keeps growing from there… They’re activated by one another, and their responses and questions are in their bodies like a physical conversation.”
7:30 p.m. Thu–Fri, June 29–30, Washington Park Amphitheater, FREE