White Nights

Oregon Ballet Theatre at the Keller Auditorium, SW 3rd & Clay, 222-5538, Feb. 28 & March 4-6 @ 7:30 pm, Feb. 29 @ 2 pm, $10-85

F or 13 years, James Canfield was the bold leader for the Oregon Ballet Theatre, willing to break ballet's dainty molds and pushing the troupe to the forefront of dancing on the West Coast. Last year, Canfield handed the artists reins over to then San Francisco-based Christopher Stowell. Like a ballet step itself, the new direction is not a loud or abrupt change. Instead its significance can be found in the subtle changes that Stowell is instigating.

Unlike Canfield's push-the-envelope style, Stowell is encouraging a much more neo-classic style, one that happily bends the rules, but only once the dancers truly understand them. In October, the ballet staged a jazzy and athletic New Beginnings, but the debut of White Nights this week should be more indicative of Stowell and OBT's new mindset.

White Nights is a collection of Russian ballet and music. The performance is split into three sections, each a distinct mood, from the romantic to the effervescent. The songs that set the stage for the dancers are largely upbeat, fairly standard numbers. Set to the Tchaikovsky classic "Serenade," the first dance of the evening is the most traditional, a fluid and easily accessible piece by the always reliable George Balanchine.

With "Adin," the second section of the evening, Stowell finally struts his stuff. As the dance flows towards its conclusion, a ballerina pirouettes on her tippy-toes for an unbelievable length of time, while a male dancer buffets her side-to-side, giving gentle pushes as she staccato steps across the stage. It is a refreshing scene, as playful and lighthearted as a Rogers & Hammerstein piece, yet also extremely resonant because it is set against other dance numbers that are touched with melancholy and gravity. In another part of "Adin," a female dancer half faints on her partner's hip as he swings her around with a gesture that is both put-upon and resilient. It is a beautiful and deeply emotional gesture. It is an auspicious beginning for Stowell's tenure. PHIL BUSSE