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Former OBT artistic director James Canfield to reprise 'Romeo and Juliet'


COURTESY PHOTO: BLAINE TRUITT COVERT - Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Brian Simcoe and soloist Ansa Deguchi are of two of the dancers playing the iconic leading roles in James Canfields adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Feb. 27-March 5. Says Canfield, the ex-OBT artistic director: Its actually my favorite ballet in all of ballet repertoire.Whenever James Canfield visits Oregon Ballet Theatre, he always beams with pride. Canfield helped merge two companies into OBT 27 years ago. He helped start the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre. He helped secure the building at 818 S.E. Sixth Ave. He helped put OBT on the ballet map as artistic director.

Today, he visits Portland, and while things are still recognizable, OBT is going in new directions. And, he likes it. OBT and Canfield are reprising “Romeo and Juliet,” his favorite ballet, after 15 years and, as he rehearses with dancers, Canfield looks through studio windows and sees the Willamette River.

“It’s very inviting,” says Canfield, of OBT’s new digs at 0720 S.W. Bancroft St., in South Waterfront. OBT moved from the 818 building in early January. “Kevin (Irving, artistic director) swears it’s smaller than the 818 building, but I swear it’s bigger. It’s great to have more studios, and it still remains true to the thought of walking in the door and the art is alive.”

Canfield, now artistic director at Nevada Ballet Theatre in Las Vegas, will make his first appearance with OBT since leaving his post in 2003. He and his successor, Christopher Stowell, got along fine, but it just didn’t happen for Canfield to return to choreograph or be involved in anything. Irving, in wanting to embrace the past as much as change the current and set the future, invited

Canfield back for “Romeo and Juliet.”

“If (Stowell) had called and wanted to do something, I’d say the same thing I said to Kevin: definitely,” Canfield says.

The company brought in Irving and other executives to straighten up things, management-wise and financially, and Canfield has watched the changes from afar.

“I haven’t known him for a long time, but I feel like we’ve known each other our entire lives,” he says. “Kevin came along at the right time. He’s the right fit.”

Canfield, a former performer with Joffrey Ballet, choreographed about 30 ballets during his OBT years, 1989 to 2003, while also helping manage the burgeoning company.

He originally choreographed “Romeo and Juliet” for Pacific Ballet Theatre, which merged with Ballet Oregon to form OBT in 1990, and OBT hasn’t performed his version of the Shakespeare classic in 15 years.

“It’s actually my favorite ballet in all of ballet repertoire. Shakespeare is a hero. Prokofiev’s score is brilliant,” Canfield says. “The character and depth and exploration of everything Shakespeare’s genius captures ... it comes together for me in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Prokofiev’s score can be as big or little as you make it.”

It’ll stage Feb. 27 through March 5 at Keller Auditorium (www.obt.org). Two casts will alternate performing the production’s iconic roles — principal artist Xuan Cheng partnered with soloist Peter Franc, and soloist Ansa Deguchi partnered with principal artist Brian Simcoe.

Choreographer James Canfield works with the other Romeo (Peter Franc) and Juliet (Xuan Cheng). In bringing back his version of Romeo and Juliet to OBT, Canfield also adds the third act - on the strong suggestion of Kevin Irving, OBT artistic director.On Irving’s request, Canfield has added the third act back into the production. Canfield chuckles, saying that he had to review VHS tapes of previous performances of the third act.

Canfield says character development is important for him in “Romeo and Juliet.” He doesn’t want roles to be insular; rather, he wants dancers to be aware of their surroundings and what people think about them — the audience being “the intruder.”

“The thing that’s really hard for dancers is they want to play out, perform out,” he says. The classic tale of commmitted love and tragedy is always a good lesson to be taught, he adds.

Of “Romeo and Juliet,” he says: “There’s comedy, intellect, deception, opportunity, people who knew better like the Friar and Nurse, vulnerability, abandon, youth taking over — the next generation and hearing their voice, we learn from the youth if we pay attention to them. If we don’t, it’ll end up as a tragedy. It’s a universal story that turned into ‘West Side Story.’ Think of gang violence, you think Montague and Capulet (feud). They can be depicted in any period of time, and thematically it still works. ... The tragedy (for Romeo and Juliet) is they were carefree and in love and thought they had it together, but they had to grow up more before they made life-altering decisions.”

Canfield would like to do more freelance choreography work, but his main job as artistic director at Nevada Ballet Theatre just seems to get in the way — in a good way.

“I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” he says. Working on ballet and attracting crowds in Las Vegas has proved to be a challenge, he adds, because of the abundant forms of entertainment on The Strip and elsewhere, and people working different hours and the hustle and bustle. “It’s truly the city that never sleeps,” he adds. “And, they have three rush hours, with hotel hours. There’s no time to stop, it’s always going.”

Canfield does return to Portland to work with Sarah Slipper and Scott Lewis at Northwest Dance Project. He helped lure Slipper to Portland, hiring her as OBT mistress in the late 1990s.

He marvels at the changes in Portland since the 1980s, the growth of neighborhoods, including South Waterfront.

He also says changing dynamics in dance, including the relocation of OBT and Northwest Dance Project, as well as Polaris, Conduit and others, to new buildings doesn’t surprise him. In his ideal world, Canfield says Veterans Memorial Coliseum would be a hub for performing arts, but “that’s somebody else’s dream.” It would work; dance companies have learned to live with one another in Portland, “saying, hey, we’re a community.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre is in good hands with Irving and others, he adds.

“I have said my entire career as an artist, student, teacher and choreographer, my No. 1 purpose when put on this Earth was to make dance important in people’s lives,” he says. “The fact that (OBT’s) still going is the greatest compliment.”