How do you create a ballet? International choreographer Nicolo Fonte is currently sharing that process with Portlanders at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Square. It is the company’s 25th anniversary season and in celebration, Mr. Fonte is choreographing a brand new ballet set to local musical favorite and internationally acclaimed Pink Martini.
Mr. Fonte begins the process by bringing the dancers together for a brief conversation about his ideas for the ballet, drawing smiles and nods from the dancers. Then they begin to move, experimenting with shapes, as the lunch crowd at Pioneer Courthouse Square gathers to watch the company in action.
“I like big movements, sweeping movements, so we’re going to start like that.”, Mr. Fonte says as his arms call up arcs and his legs plunge on the diagonal. He encourages the dancers to embrace the off-balance torque they’re experiencing. He wants them to rise now and lean into their hips. Like riding a wave that’s just crested, they’re almost falling, but they’re having fun doing it. “Now,” he says, “take a risk by going really low.”
Mr. Fonte is always focused and sometimes joking with the dancers. Today he’s dressed in black from his baseball hat to his dance sneakers. The company has learned the first few phrases with the choreographer counting out, “ta, ta, ta, TA!”, marking the rhythm of music as yet unheard by the dancers. The choreography occasionally calls for recognizable ballet landmarks (“arabesque” or “pirouette”), but these steps are found in the midst of swinging phrases or whip-smart arms that unfold across the body: “Vwoom, vwaam!”, directs Mr. Fonte. During one particularly deep lunge, he encourages the dancers to turn in their front leg in order to gain more stability. “This one should go deep”, he demonstrates as he makes a whooshing sound. His next movement puts the dancers up on their toes, standing strong, while their arms gather the space and pour it over their bodies.
The movement looks different on the various company members as they practice on the sides of the stage. Rehearsal Director Lisa Kipp is busy in a downstage corner. She’s got a yellow legal pad in hand and is learning the steps, along with the dancers, while simultaneously notating the movement. After an hour of rehearsal the dancers are hot and sweaty, but when Mr. Fonte asks for the music to be played, right away the sounds of Pink Martini reanimate the stage.
Mr. Fonte has everyone move together to the music, leading the phrasing himself at the front of the stage, clearly in his element and enjoying the process. Moments of syncopation show the choreographer’s sense of humor, but these moments are balanced with cues like, “Go! Risk it!” The first phrases of the new ballet are packed with energy and adventure. The smiles on the dancers’ faces hint that it’s going to be a fun ride.