Dancing Far From Home

Ballet Fantastique presents The Odyssey with a beatboxing feminine twist

The Hult Center hosted Eugene’s Ballet Fantastique this past weekend — a warm reprieve from the bitter snowpocalypse that left many of us without hot showers or flushing toilets, two vastly underappreciated amenities in the modern world.

In collaboration with local musician and artist Cullen Vance, BFan’s head creatives, Donna Marissa and Hannah Bontrager, bring to life a stunning, one-of-a-kind adaptation of Homer’s epically epic poem, The Odyssey. Lit nerds rejoice!

The Odyssey centers on Odysseus (Gabriel Ritzmann), king of Ithaca, and his 20-year-long journey away from his home and wife, Queen Penelope (Tracy Fuller). Stuck on an island thanks to an angry Poseidon, and later shipwrecked, Odysseus finally makes his way home to fight off his wife’s new collection of aggressive suitors.

Ballet Fantastique remains true to the well known plot but shifts greatly in its focus. Rather than centering on the story’s male protagonist, the emphasis is on the role of the many strong women in the story — and fierce they are in talent.

Feminine rule is established early on in Odysseus’s duet with his female captor, Kalypso (Hannah Bontrager). Ritzmann leaps across the stage after his dominant yet tender captor. Each elegant lift embodies Odysseus’ relinquished powerlessness. Likewise, and in typical BFan style, modern dance and ballet are used together to blend uniformity with fluidity.

Even mighty Zeus goes largely unnoticed when set beside Athena (Esperanza Montero) and the renamed and regendered Hermes, now called by his Roman name, Mercury (Carolin Koepplin). In “Return to Ithaca,” Vance flexes his unique and unusual musical repertoire, beat-boxing on loop along with his sultry electric violin. Montero and Koepplin — dressed in royal-blue, turquoise and golden Greek armor — powerfully step, spin and leap like soldiers of dance.  

Cullen displays his flair again in “Ace of Swords,” in which Penelope engages in a sexy duet with a very determined suitor (Jim Ballard). Despite Ballard’s aggressively yet gently spinning Fuller around on stage, she remains in control as she stiff-arms a defiant “No” at the echoing final beat of the song.   

BFan’s Odyssey incorporates the oral tradition in several ways. Vance, who narrates as Homer, is perhaps the most obvious example. Even the choreography, highly expressive by nature, exemplifies storytelling at its best. The entire production, which elicits few words, speaks volumes in its artistry.  

The costumes — which range from every shade of blue and gold trimming to flowing red and pink chiffons, and floral laid pixie dresses — are the incarnation of the natural forces at play. The sirens are especially bewitching with their legs twitching in green. The Cyclops, though a bit underwhelming, looks like an elaborate, melting street sweeper in a conquistador hard hat. I think I saw a lone eyeball in there somewhere.

Likewise, Greek, Asian, Celtic and Indian motifs appear in both the costumes and the music — a cross-cultural sweeping of myth and ancient times. Moaning violins, wailing voices and harrowing drums fuel the movement and emotions.

Unfortunately, Vance is not used to his full potential within the context of the score. Needs more beatbox! The set itself was a little disappointing. Bare columns and a boat with a single mast set against an underwater landscape felt static, and short of the otherwise abundant creativity on stage.

Though a massive snowstorm days before opening night proved a difficult challenge for the BFan crew, the timing of our weather seemed perfect. Powerless man with no flushing toilets for another 2,500 years seems helpless against the forces around him. 

Check out Ballet Fantastique’s upcoming production of Cleopatra (May 9-12 at Hult Center) at balletfantastique.org.