Slideshow: Production photographs capture some of choreographer and Oregon Ballet Theatre–founder James Canfield’s career highlights.

The bloom of youth and the stillness of maturity hit the stage at Oregon Ballet Theatre this spring with James Canfield’s take on “Romeo and Juliet,” opening Feb. 27, and Nicolo Fonte’s “Beautiful Decay,” which runs April 14–23. Shakespeare’s tale remains the classic love story that ends in suicide, while “Beautiful Decay” takes on aging and death by contrasting OBT’s young dancers with two 75-year-old dance veterans. 

Aaron Scott sat down with Canfield, who founded OBT in 1989, and Fonte to get some insight into the process of choreographing these two very different — but equally dark — ballets.

James Canfield working with Peter Franc as Romeo and Xuan Cheng as Juliet.

James Canfield working with Peter Franc as Romeo and Xuan Cheng as Juliet.

Blaine Truitt Covert/OBT

On where their inspiration comes from
James Canfield: “Probably 99 percent of the time for me it’s the music, because you visually want to see that music come alive. When you want to make choreography and ballet relevant for the generation we’re dealing with now, you have to know where their head is at and what they’re listening to. So if there’s a way you can make dance relevant, which was my forte, at the time the approach was to bringing in new audience. And with that you’re going to ruffle feathers. ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ the Pink Floyd album, when I choreographed ‘Go Ask Alice,’ that clearly came from the music.”

Nicolo Fonte: “Mostly I get really inspired by music. Sometimes, though, like this project I am working on with the company, ‘Beautiful Decay’ — that was an idea that came first, an idea that I wanted to work with an inter-generational cast. There are two elder dancers in it. I thought, ‘how do I make this work?’ and then went about finding the music. So it’s kind of a mixed bag, but music is essential. I consider myself a musical choreographer.”

On choosing when to deal with contemporary issues through dance
JC: “Things like ‘Edie’ [Sedgwick], ‘Anaïs’ [Nin], and ‘Coco’ [Chanel] — that was a trilogy of women who I thought had very significant influence during their day, and still their voices were heard today influencing women all across the world, and so that was something that I wanted to portray and do choreographically. And there were other things, like “Drifted in a Deeper Land” — it wasn’t really an AIDS ballet. It was all men, but it was a dark cloud over my head that I didn’t know what was going on in my life and realized, once I did that ballet, I was relieved.

So it is again things that were relevant in our time and those things that attracted a newer audience to ballet. Because when I first got here, this was a steel and a lumber town. You’re not going to get men into the ballet; you’re not going to get boys into ‘The Nutcracker.’ You’re going to have to put girls under French berets, and they’ll be your boys. But I love a challenge, and we moved from there. And men do come to the ballet, and boys are in ‘The Nutcracker,’ and there is a company here still. So whatever it took, I wanted to make dance important to people’s lives.”

Choreographer Nicolo Fonte in rehearsal for Oregon Ballet Theatre's premiere of his dance "Presto" in 2015.

Choreographer Nicolo Fonte in rehearsal for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s premiere of his dance “Presto” in 2015.

Blaine Truitt Covert/OBT

On what is attractive about themes of aging, death and the darker side of human existence
JC: “I think, in this country, we have turned everything into a happy ending, and the theater is a place where you can deal with reality. We only know happy if we know sad. If we don’t know the opposite of anything, then how can we exist as people? So it’s not whether the idea of death or decay is appealing to me, it’s just a part of who I am and who people are, and a part of life. The theater is a place that you go, yes, to be taken away from reality, but a lot of times that reality is something you have to face. ”

NF: “’Beautiful Decay’ does deal with a heavier subject matter, but I also wanted to be entertaining. So that is specifically why I chose Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons.’ The music is very, very beautiful and very, very accessible — to the point of it being elevator music! I loved the idea of packaging a profound, darker idea in a lighter package. I say the same thing over and over again in my work: it’s sex, love and death. And I think there’s really nothing else.”

On whether dance should be entertaining and accessible
JC: “If it’s only educational you are going to lose making something relevant for a younger audience. I used to say, ‘Get them in the back door through something that is familiar to them.’ Whether it’s music or a title or a name, once they are in the front door, you educate them.”

NF: “There may have been a certain period in time when there was a movement away from basic accessibility. Everything was so beyond even highbrow, it was incomprehensible; maybe two people in the audience got what you were going for. We are in the business of entertaining a public, so if one person gets it, I don’t think that is successful in any way, shape or form. I don’t shy away from entertainment, but I guess there is the danger of dumbing everything down. Like anything, you have to find the balance.”

On why we continue to perform “Romeo and Juliet
JC: “Sex, love and death. I say everything goes back to Shakespeare. What are the themes in ‘Romeo and Juliet?’ Crips and Bloods, Capulets and Montagues — that’s gang violence, that’s an issue that was then, and it is now. You’ve got deception, you’ve got a double suicide, underage sex — it’s all there, but we don’t look at it that way because it’s Shakespeare and we cover it with Elizabethan clothing. But it is the themes that we still are talking about because it is such a big part of who humans are.”