By Martha Ullman West
Published in Dance international, Spring 2019
Xuan Cheng, wearing a rehearsal tutu and worn pointe shoes, lies cradling a guitar, seemingly unconscious, across the lap of another dancer. Cued by the sound of a horn, she wakes up, looks around, rises to her beautifully articulated feet and starts to run soundlessly on pointe, her whole body, including her face, projecting terror and bewilderment.
On an unseasonably warm day in mid-September, in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s sunlit main studio, Cheng is learning to be Teresina, the determined heroine of Danish choreographer August Bournonville’s 1842 ballet, Napoli, which opened the company’s 29th season in early October.
Opening night in Portland’s far-from-intimate Keller Auditorium, Cheng danced the story of the Neapolitan girl in love with a poor fisherman — in which she overcomes maternal opposition in Act I, an arrogant sea devil in Act II and accusations of witchcraft in Act III — with the same musicality, technical skill, attention to detail, intelligence and heart that characterize her performances in a wide swath of classical and contemporary ballets.
Over the seven years she has danced with Oregon Ballet Theatre, Cheng has inhabited, with every ounce of her five-foot-four body, such disparate parts as the title role in Giselle, the fleet, sparkling Dewdrop Fairy in Balanchine’s Nutcracker, and the mysterious, wandering woman in William Forsythe’s The Second Detail. She has danced a tragic Odette/Odile in former OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell’s Swan Lake, and one who lives happily ever after in current artistic director Kevin Irving’s idiosyncratic account of the same ballet…