A rehearsal for Suzanne Haag’s the surrounding thread

Women in Dance

Eugene Ballet highlights one favorite and two premiers

Eugene Ballet Company fulfills a vital role in our community by regularly commissioning and presenting contemporary dance. This season, EBC’s Midsummer Night’s Dream shares the billing with two rising stars: EBC’s own Suzanne Haag and Chicago-based choreographer Stephanie Martinez.

“It is important to the mission of Eugene Ballet to expose our audience and our artists to different creative talents,” says Eugene Ballet artistic director Toni Pimble.

Pimble’s Midsummer focuses on the forest scene — fairies, lovers, asses — and features live music by Felix Mendelssohn, played by the can-do wunderkinds OrchestraNext, who fundraised for themselves in order to pay their student and professional musicians.

Also on the bill, Suzanne Haag premiers The Surrounding Third.

“The piece uses the ebb and flow of Barber’s Adagio for Strings to evoke images of the ocean,” Haag says.

“The title is a loose translation from the Greek Amphitrite, the goddess of the sea,” she adds. “In this non-narrative work for four dancers, one woman is dressed in a flowing blue dress to represent the power, beauty and control of the ocean, while three men are manipulated by her.”

Each male dancer represents a different characteristic: hope, power and sorrow. That shows, says Haag, “that no matter our outlook, we are not entirely in control of our lives, there is another natural force guiding and hindering us.”

Haag is one of the founders of Instaballet — an exciting, boundary-breaking improv group that seeks to demystify dance — and she premiered as a choreographer for Eugene Ballet last season with a compelling new work, Look. In it, she played with themes around relationship and communication. The Surrounding Third offers audiences the chance to see what’s next on the horizon for this intriguing artist.

Rounding out the performance, Stephanie Martinez’s Wandering On, a brand-new commission for the Eugene Ballet, is a mathematically complex, satisfyingly balanced work: clever and energetic, yet rooted and earthy.

We caught an informal showing of the Wandering On in January, when Martinez and a few of her company members traveled from Chicago to set the piece on EBC. “The title, Wandering On, refers to the Sanskrit term samsara,” Martinez says. “We hope to have this journey, from this world to the next, with the help of others.”

Martinez found choreographic inspiration in the dancers themselves, the real people she’s working with — in their ideas, their way of looking at things and their ways of solving problems.

“The duets should seem personal,” Martinez says. “There has to be form and technique that thread them together, but they’re elemental, like the air, land and sea.”

An early duet featuring Colton West and Cory Betts occupies a space between reason and emotion, between head and heart.

“I created that section as if its two brothers,” Martinez says. “One had passed on and one hadn’t and the dancers are physicalizing that idea.”

But as the piece developed rich layers of shape, time and force, something else appeared to Martinez.

“Maybe they’re not brothers, but instead, this is the moment at death, when you’re looking back at yourself on Earth,” she says.

Martinez is comfortable within the blurry realm between contemporary modern vocabulary and ballet aesthetic, a place where lush lifts, slides and drags can coexist beautifully with gestural and relational themes and variation.

An arresting solo by Sarah Stockwell is a prime example: Bound and focused, carving the space ferociously, Stockwell burns up the atmosphere.

And no wonder. “She is helping people pass to the afterlife,” Martinez says.

While watching a contemporary work like this, it’s not necessary to ascribe a story, to assign characters or to try to figure out what’s going on. It’s enough to take in the moments of individual and collective expression, at once accessible and strong.

Eugene Ballet Company presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream 7:30 pm Feb. 11 and 2 pm Feb. 12 at the Hult Center; $15-$69. Tickets available at eugeneballet.org or at the box office.

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