CHISELED. HOMEOWNER. WORKS WELL ON POINTE.
BY LINDA BESANT, October 2005
You might have seen her as the Princess in The Firebird or as counterpoint-made-visible in Concerto Barocco; or you might have spotted her at Home Depot picking up drywall or in the park playing with her dogs. Wherever you find her, you’ll also find that Kathi Martuza is happy to be in Portland, dancing with Oregon Ballet Theatre.
Kathi and her husband Kester Cotton joined OBT in 2003 because “Portland felt completely right for us. It made sense in every way.” After several years at San Francisco Ballet, they’d wanted different opportunities in their careers. “We checked out Boston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, OBT and the Joffrey,” Kathi says. “Listening to the radio one day, we heard it was ten below zero in Chicago. We didn’t want that!” Portland was their leading contender. They had taken class with OBT and liked the company; Kester grew up in Portland and liked the idea of returning home. “When Christopher Stowell was appointed OBT’s new Artistic Director, we knew we would love to work for him,” Kathi says, “and we believed in the kind of company he wanted to build.”
Christopher’s hard-working, classically based company is turning out to be just right for Kathi. “I really like the work ethic,” she says. “Company class is very good. We take it as seriously as we took ballet class when we were student dancers. The underlying ethic is ‘This is how it’s done at OBT.’ It’s not like that in every company.
The company is full of really great people. We all get to know and support each other and we egg each other on in an encouraging way—‘Come on, you can do it!’ That’s a great atmosphere—we work really hard but it doesn’t feel like, ‘It’s a job and I have to do it.’ It almost doesn’t feel like work.”
As Christopher develops a diverse repertoire for OBT, Kathi has had what she describes as “a ton of opportunities to experiment in all kinds of roles.” She is a dancer with elegant, precise technique. Her work embodies George Balanchine’s description of a beautiful ballet foot as “like an elephant’s trunk; strong and yet flexible and soft.” Kathi counts performing Balanchine’s Duo Concertant and Christopher’s Adin as among the highlights of her 2003-04 season. “To have a pas de deux for Adin created on me my first year here was tremendous,” she remembers. “Last spring, dancing the principal couple in Christopher’s Opus 50 was great too. I was in the corps of Opus 50 when it premiered at San Francisco Ballet in 2000.”
Since moving to Portland, Kester and Kathi have renovated one house and are working on the second. “I’ve painted, put up drywall, mudded and sanded and mudded and sanded and mudded and sanded, done some landscaping, and even been a plumber’s helper,” Kathi says. “In San Francisco, we lived in an apartment. I’ve always wanted to have dogs, and here we can. We have a border collie named Sam, and a Plott hound, a little tank of a dog named Lucy. I LOVE my dogs.”
Like most dancers, Kathi and Kester seem to thrive on constant activity. On top of work and home renovation, they’re both in school through the LEAP program—Liberal Education for Arts Professionals—at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. They’ve finished most of their course work; Kathi’s next paper is due in October. “I can fit this all in because things are a little slower, a little easier here,” Kathi feels. “Portland is a manageable sized city. I don’t have to fight for space all the time. Still, there’s so much energy in the arts and music. Being here is perfect right now.”
This season, Kathi is an OBT veteran among eight new company dancers and eight new apprentices. “There’s always turnover in the ballet world and you just have to learn to deal with it,” she says. “You don’t get to work with certain friends any more, and you lose their experience. But it’s always exciting to have new people. With new men in the company, you have that many more pairs to put together. I love making eye contact with a partner on stage. I’m always curious about what I’m going to see looking back at me. What will the chemistry be like?”
Kathi is excited about this season too, with its added program and more live music. “You have to listen differently to live music, to be adaptable every moment,” Kathi says. “I feel that the music is the bridge between the audience and the dancers, we’re both listening to the music. When the music is live, it completes the arc of energy.” It will be a real milestone for OBT to perform Swan Lake with full orchestra next June, and Kathi’s experience will be valuable. “What goes on behind the scenes is a real challenge for dancers,” she explains. “We run like mad between scenes, constantly changing costumes, shoes, hair. It’s crazy!”
As for the Fall Program, having Julia Adam back at OBT to stage Angelo is a reunion for Kathi and Kester, who worked with her at San Francisco Ballet. “Julia danced with flow, she was very coordinated and thoughtful as a performer, without belaboring it. That shows up in her choreography,” Kathi says. “And she has a really interesting mind. She knows what she wants. She follows her instinct and will not waiver from it. She takes risks, she’s not afraid to experiment, even if she comes up with something that might be challenging for the audience.”
Preparing for this program, Kathi experienced both repeating a role she performed last season, with In the Night, and having choreography created on her, with Eyes On You. She finds that “every time you start to work on a ballet, you begin at zero. When you already have the choreography under your belt and you’ve performed the part several times, your zero level is much higher. You can concentrate on finding more and more depth. Making new work is different, and every choreographer is different. Christopher is really clear. He’s open to the dancer trying things and making suggestions, he wants to see you go for it. And of course, dancing to Cole Porter songs is great—anything jazzy I love.”
In the studio, a dancer is an instrument for the choreographer’s creativity. Kathi admits to being drawn to creativity of her own after work. “I’ve started playing the piano again. I like typical classical music, and stuff I can sing along to. I like to be creative—making garden mosaics, knitting, sewing, writing letters to friends and putting little drawings or paintings on them so they’re special. And I recently discovered (to the glory of OBT potlucks and birthday parties) that I love to bake pies.”