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Oregon ballet's dance of transformation

New director wants to inject enthusiasm, excitement into OBT season


by: COURTESY OF ASPEN/SANTA FE BALLET - Kevin Irving brings a lengthy resume to Oregon Ballet Theatre as artistic director, following a dancing career with director positions in Spain and Sweden and, in the past six years, consultant work for the likes of Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet (above). He starts at OBT on July 15. To bring out the best in dancers, Kevin Irving, the new artistic director at Oregon Ballet Theatre, appeals to their sense of “true selves.”

“It’s a message I always come back to,” says Irving, who was hired June 7, filling the vacancy created by Christopher Stowell’s resignation. “There are certain demands and challenges and technical skills you have to try to cultivate. But people in the audience want to see you. That is what makes it come alive. Somebody on stage, eyes are drawn to them, and performers channel that energy and send it out to the people who are there.

“It’s the people who are most successful at that who break out and become beloved.”

Irving, a Long Island, N.Y., native who recently lived in Brooklyn, brings a wealth of experience to OBT, which he officially joins July 15. Trained in many genres of dance, he performed for the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and Twyla Tharp Dance. He has been an artistic director internationally in Spain and Sweden, the latter with the Goteborg Ballet. He has been a consultant the past six years and takes over from Anne Mueller, who served as interim artistic director as the company persevered through the 2012-13 season with a leadership void.

Irving, a life partner with noted choreographer Nicolo Fonte for 22 years, visited recently with the Tribune:

Tribune: Thoughts on Portland and OBT?

Irving: I’ve been here visiting; my partner has choreographed a number of times for OBT, quite successfully. I love Portland. I like the vibe here. The company’s very highly regarded. No doubt the artistic level is very, very high. My commitment is to build up the relationship with the community, so the company has a really exciting and stable future.

Tribune: After Stowell resigned, you saw opportunity here?

Irving: It was a shock when I heard about Christopher resigning. Knowing the company as I did, I thought it was a really great fit for me. I came back to the U.S. (from Europe) because I wanted to be part of the future of ballet here.

I have a unique perspective. I was extremely fortunate in my career, and somewhat out of the ordinary with the breadth of different influences I’ve had as a performer and in my post-performance career. I’ve established very personal contacts with a wide variety of choreographers (like Mark Morris, Tharp, Nacho Duato, Yuri Killian). As a dancer, I transcended a lot of different categories, and I really think this is the future of ballet in the U.S. — not narrowing the focus so tightly, but opening it up.

Tribune: You see the trend toward modern ballet taking hold in the U.S.?

Irving: I think so. I think it’s exciting for audiences. We don’t turn our backs on the traditions, the traditions are the heart and soul of who we are, we’re able to hold on to them tightly and still open our arms to contemporary.

I don’t think it’s such a big transition (at OBT). Christopher is a contemporary choreographer. He is alive and choreographing in a neo-classical style, but he is by definition contemporary. ... We have a beautiful art form. We have a lot of joy and delight to share. We want as many people as possible to come to appreciate what we have. Sometimes we’re delighting the eye, sometimes delighting the heart. It’s all part of the package

Tribune: Will Fonte have a role with OBT?

by: COURTESY OF INGMAR JERNBERG - As artistic director at The Goteborg Ballet in Sweden from 2002 to 2007, Kevin Irving helped to broaden the companys scope, making it an international touring attraction. He hopes to help stabilize leadership at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Irving: No, he’s the resident choreographer at Ballet West in Salt Lake City. He also travels around the world staging his ballets. We are certainly going to fit him onto our dance card, and he is going to fit us onto his dance card. He’ll have influence like any guest choreographer does.

Obviously, as my partner, I’ll be hearing from him. But, we have navigated a lot of different power dynamics, and we’re very good with boundary issues. Nicolo is the last person who desires to be a Rasputin or something like that.

Tribune: OBT’s 2013-14 season has been set. Plan any changes?

Irving: I’m just getting a handle on all of that. I certainly want to inject a little bit of excitement and enthusiasm. We’re really focusing on developing a spirit of renewal in the company. Out of this watershed moment last November (Stowell’s resignation), there was a renewed feeling of all the people who are deeply invested in the organization that we want to make sure that we get it right.

There are a lot of people in the community who have been extremely generous and have extended a hand in help on multiple occasions. And there’s a feeling that you don’t get too many second chances. We want to make sure we really show that we have learned from our mistakes. As we go forward we really want to make sure we’re engaging the community and getting people excited about something that we love and want to share.

Tribune: Financial issues aside, what’s OBT’s biggest challenge?

Irving: Operational challenges for sure. We’ve been operating without an executive director, a head of development, with an interim marketing director. The organization and staff and especially the dancers have

done a remarkable job at keeping the company going forward and performing so well under what was an extremely stressful situation.

We need to hire the right team to make sure that we can start looking at three, four or five years out, start making a plan and are not focusing on putting out fires. OBT has been a gold standard for arts organizations here in Portland. We have to make sure we can hold our head up high.

Tribune: Do you know Stowell very well?

Irving: Christopher and Nicolo had a warm and friendly relationship. I was never around that much, never spent any significant time with him. I have tremendous respect for him and what he was able to do with the company.

Tribune: How’d you get your start in ballet?

Irving: Ballet came last. I wanted to be a Broadway singer/actor. When I was 16, somebody said, if you want to be on Broadway, you should really learn how to dance, too. So I started taking jazz dance classes at The Marianne Anderson School of Dance (in Wantagh, N.Y.). She pushed me to audition for Alvin Ailey. Alvin was at that audition and, to this day it was the single largest audition I ever went to. I got a scholarship there (in 1980), spent three years in the Ailey organization and performed with the company occasionally as a student. I studied a lot of different things.

After that I was at another very, very modern company. When I was 24, I got a job at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and it was at that point that I began to take ballet every day and became a soloist, then a principal dancer there through sheer determination.

Tribune: You helped Goteborg evolve (from 2002 to ‘07)?

Irving: I totally transformed it. There was a very difficult mind-set to instill. It is a beautiful gorgeous huge state-of-the-art opera house in Gothenburg, which is very similar to Portland in a lot of ways. We had tons of people, tons of time, tons of budget. You look at the work rooms and studios for dancers, and we had every bell and whistle you could possibly imagine. They were terrified to go out on the road (on tour) and not know how to deal with conditions that weren’t that good. I took them to Finland, Germany, Spain, some small groups to the U.S.