Xuan Cheng, Peter Franc, and Chauncey Parson
Xuan Cheng, Peter Franc, and Chauncey Parson Photo by James McGrew
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director Kevin Irving introduced the dance company's debut of Napoli with a disclaimer. After praising the efforts of the troupe to learn the work and the crew for their striking set design, he noted that the three-act performance was, essentially, a fairy tale and therefore steeped in sincerity. It was a strange and unnecessary comment coming from the head of a company that stages the magical and achingly earnest Cinderella on the regular.

Irving was really preparing the audience for the unabashedly Christian themes that mid-19th century Danish choreographer August Bournonville wrote into his ballet. The core plot has a mythological tinge to it, with Gennaro, a young Italian fisherman, forced to rescue his new bride from the clutches of a sea demon.What saves the couple is their Christian faith—that and a Virgin Mary medallion that scares off a gang of water nymphs.

Irving could also have mentioned that much of Napoli is more operatic than balletic. The first act features almost no dancing to speak of, instead it sets the story in motion through broad, silent movie-style acting. Anyway, there wasn’t much room for dance at the ballet's outset because the stage was so often clogged with supernumeraries, bustling around and pulling focus from the plot. The second act, which takes place entirely in an undersea cave, is far more focused and exciting. Chauncey Parson, playing the sea demon Golfo, delivers simple yet powerful movement work.

Peter Franc and Xuan Cheng
Peter Franc and Xuan Cheng Photo by James McGrew

It’s only near its end that Napoli truly turns into a ballet. Once the couple have returned home, their wedding reception kicks off and all the principal dancers take turns with solo pieces or some delightful pas de deux. As you might expect, Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc, playing the newlyweds, have the most dynamic work, but soloists Katherine Monogue and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair bring an especially joyous spirit to their performances.

The last act strikes a contemporary tone for a ballet written in the mid-19th century. The cast closes in, clapping and hitting tambourines, offsetting the more traditional sweep of the orchestra with a jazzy feel. The choreography responds with interpretive bends and jitterbug-like mania. In these moments, it feels like Oregon Ballet Theatre has kept the screen from fading to black on this fairy tale, showing us what “happily ever after” really feels like.