Tag Archives: andrew bartee

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Modern Masterpieces’

17 Mar

As I now embark on this odyssey to see and experience ballet across America, I have to begin the journey with some stories of my final day in Seattle, which was spent entirely with people I love, from breakfast to ballet, and it couldn’t have been any better. The opening night performance of ‘Modern Masterpieces’ proved to be one of the finest shows I have ever seen at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and I don’t think it was just because of the occasion, or a certain sentimentality in knowing that I wasn’t sure when I would get to see the company again—I truly thought they were magnificent, and the program ultimately defined what a remarkable identity PNB has for itself as a stronghold of contemporary ballet.

The litmus test was taking my friend Darcy as my date, who hadn’t attended a ballet since seeing a Swan Lake when she was but thirteen, and had never seen PNB despite moving to Seattle shortly after I did (though we met about a year and half ago). I was actually excited to re-introduce ballet to her in a radically different aesthetic, for she is no stranger to the arts, so I was confident she would find something interesting in the experience, or at least enjoy the free wine and chocolates in the press room. Despite being the daughter of a professional cellist and having her own bachelor’s degree in art history, she once told me that for her, dance was her final, unexplored frontier, and it became my mission to help her navigate this strange land. The first baby step was attending a dance festival produced by small, local modern dance companies, due to her preference for contemporary arts. However, I really wanted a chance to share something with her that was on a whole different level, and a PNB mixed repertory with choreography by Balanchine, PNB balletmaster Paul Gibson, Ulysses Dove, and Twyla Tharp was exactly what I needed—it’s impossible for ANYONE to walk away from that kind of program without liking at least one of the four ballets.

After some fawning over the sparkly curtain in McCaw Hall (and she’s not my only friend to have done so), we began our foray into contemporary ballet with Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, choreographed to Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Double Violin Concerto in D minor’, and headlined by superstar Carla Körbes, and superhero Carrie Imler (the term “dynamic duo” a preposterous understatement). I had never seen Barocco before, though I of course knew of it, and figured the principal roles were cast to suit the dancers’ strengths. I took great pleasure in telling Darcy about how Carla has been regarded as one of, if not, the finest ballerina dancing in America, and that Carrie is a superhuman force of nature that is notorious for being able to do everything, because I wanted Darcy to know that we weren’t just watching pretty good ballet in Seattle—we were watching world class dancers who were highly esteemed even amongst their peers. Neither disappointed, and the corps de ballet delivered an exceptionally clean performance as well. I knew I’d like Barocco and I have to say that it included some of the most interesting patterns I’ve seen of Balanchine, and I especially loved the section where the corps link arms and slither around the principal male dancer, giving the appearance of a Gordian Knot when it turned out to be one of Balanchine’s most intricately woven feats of choreography, the effect of which is later echoed individually in a seemingly never-ending partnered promenade.

As if to have an answer to an opening set of ballerinas in white, Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces (to selections by Mozart) is a rare male corps de ballet piece, with dancers dressed in black. Though similar in structure, this piece had more room for individual expression, featuring an assortment of various solos that allowed for some breathability. A dazzling array of allegro work and some of the more rare steps alluded to Gibson’s knowledge of ballet pedagogy, but also left me feeling like the work was a bit academic. I was left wanting for more dynamics and phrasing—even an abstract work can have the shape of a narrative arc to it, and despite a tightly knit ensemble, I didn’t get a sense that certain groups of performers related to each other. Still, it was nicely performed and constructed well, and Benjamin Griffiths in particular was a joy to watch, his smile making it fully evident how much he enjoyed what he was doing on stage.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson, Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis and Eric Hipolito Jr. in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces, presented by PNB as part of MODERN MASTERPIECES, March 15 – 24, 2013.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson, Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis and Eric Hipolito Jr. in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces (Photo © Angela Sterling)

After the first intermission, we were then treated to the starkness of Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. Minimal in appearance with an emphasis on contrast (harsh spotlights and white unitards on a black stage), the choreography included some of the most interesting series of bodily pictures I have ever seen. Arvo Pärt’s haunting score (Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten) was barely more than brief, heart-rending string melodies and a single chime, but the effect is mesmerizing. I’d imagine dancing to that music is incredibly difficult because it’s so bare and repetitive, but Dove’s choreography succeeds in transfixing one’s attention the entire time. Six dancers in white engage in a series of vignettes, which Dove himself described as “a poetic monument over people I loved.” Though these pictures repeat and the music doesn’t offer highs and lows, I was shocked when at a certain point, the sextet dispersed into individual spotlights, and I just knew, “this is it—this is the end”, without any signal or build-up. It’s so spellbinding and engrossing you don’t realize how long you’ve spent in this other world until you quietly come to terms with the fact that you’ve seen everything you’re allowed. The opening night cast of Lesley Rausch, Maria Chapman, Rachel Foster, Seth Orza, Jerome Tisserand, and Andrew Bartee was PERFECT—and I really mean PERFECT. The chemistry of that ensemble was incredible, and had that magical magnetism that you can only feel and never describe.

Closing out the program was Twyla Tharp’s ‘In the Upper Room’, which could be described as a dance “experience” that includes an eclectic variety of dance styles, striped jumpsuits with red socks, and a smoke filled stage—but makes no sense in writing. Visually, however, it’s like a dream come true, with dancers materializing in and out of the haze, sometimes whimsically and at other times with reckless abandon (corps dancer Elizabeth Murphy in particular was on fire!). Coincidentally, Darcy loves Phillip Glass—like, honest to apple pie goodness, LOVES Phillip Glass, and her excitement over seeing a dance to his music was the bread and butter of the evening for her. It’s the same kind of giddiness I get from a Balanchine ballet to Tchaikovsky, and when she whispered to me “I LOVE PHILLIP GLASS!!!” for the third time as we “experienced” Upper Room, I had to marvel at this fact that two people with entirely different tastes in art, sat next to each other, saw the same thing, enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy—that’s okay too!) different things for different reasons, and most importantly, at the end of the day, were simply good friends. No fighting, no wars, not even callous “agreements to disagree”—we just had a fantastic time.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (Photo © Angela Sterling)

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (Photo © Angela Sterling)

A great deal of credit has to be given to Peter Boal for such fine programming in ‘Modern Masterpieces’. Just as the individual works typically contain their own episodic journey, the entire evening must as well, and ‘Masterpieces’ is wonderfully fulfilling artistically and psychologically. So a salute to Peter, because a lot of times artistic directors, like a President of the United States, get all the complaints when people are unhappy, and rarely any of the credit when things go well. It’s thanks to his vision that I’m happy to report Darcy was won over by seeing PNB, and wants to attend the ballet again, and may in fact, go see ‘Masterpieces’ a second time! Though she won’t replace me as a subscriber for season tickets (well, maybe for ‘Masterpieces’ she may quite literally replace me, as I gave my season ticket to her and her husband…who for the record, also loves Phillip Glass), I suppose I’ll be with her in spirit, because I’m sure I’ll tell her which programs to see and which may not be her cup of tea. Regardless, the fact that she even wants to go back is a victory for ballet and as I left Seattle the following morning, for a moment I reveled in a certain feeling that my work there was done.

PNB: Pre-Premiere

2 Nov

Pacific Northwest Ballet offers a number of great bonus goodies, one of them being a lecture presentation/dress rehearsal the day before opening night of every program run. Sometimes the lecture will be an interview with a choreographer, and notable guests in the past have included Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon (I should know—I was there, and ideally, you should know, because you may have read about it!). For the upcoming ‘All Premiere’ program, the esteemed guest was Professor Stephanie Jordan of the University of Roehampton, who is currently writing a book on Mark Morris and music. Karen Eliot, my teacher from Ohio State is a friend and admirer of Dr. Jordan’s work, and encouraged me to seek her out—so I did, which totally paid off because Dr. Jordan snuck me into orchestra level seating, which was technically for staff only.  Actually, she didn’t “sneak” me in because she asked “John” for permission so for the record, I was totally allowed to be there.

Before I go on, I’d like to mention that regular tickets for the rehearsal are seated in McCaw Hall’s dress circle for a STEAL at $30 (I paid less as a subscriber)—I honestly don’t know how PNB could make ballet more accessible to the public at a price like that, and it’s such an affordable option for people who wouldn’t typically purchase dress circle tickets. It really boggles my mind that some people can have such an elitist image of ballet, when PNB for example, has the aforementioned opportunity, and then for actual performances, they have a 2 for $25 deal for anyone age 25 or younger (which I’ve been told can even get orchestra level seating sometimes), plus affordable subscription packages. I pay roughly $25 a ticket and sit far away but McCaw Hall isn’t a gargantuan opera house—I find the view from my seat to be quite adequate. A nosebleed seat at McCaw Hall is not equivalent to say, a nosebleed seat at The Paramount where I saw Kristin Chenoweth on tour, for double the price! Which was totally worth it…but that also brings up another sore spot in that you hear the unspeakable prices people are willing to pay for concerts by their favorite pop stars, sporting events, musicals (Wicked is at the Paramount right now and my brain exploded when I thought to look at ticket prices), and then when they say ballet is “expensive,” it just makes me want to run down the aisles of an antique shop with a broomstick. Ballet IS an expensive art, but generally not for the audience, so myth dispelled…let’s get over it.

So back to Dr. Jordan’s lecture, as a precursor to the rehearsal, she divulged fascinating ideas on “musicality”—which I encapsulate with quotations because she said: “musicality is problematic, despite being a virtue.” She referred to the vagueness of the word “musicality” because there really are no set parameters to define it, and yet we can recognize it, oftentimes in our own way. When someone approached her afterwards to say that he never thought to look at dance in the manner she explained throughout the course of her lecture, she responded with something to the effect of saying that whatever his ideas of musicality were before she presented her findings were important too, and that now he simply has her ideas in addition to his own. What a marvelous thing to say! It’s a true reflection of her work because her current interests are in Morris’s choreography, who she said was sometimes criticized for “Mickey Mouse-ifying” music with visualizations that are too blatant (e.g., dancers stand on tip toes for high notes, crouch down for low notes, flutter their hands during trills), but she has no bias for one movement or another—they all have equal value, as do our abilities to observe it.

With that in mind, it was on to the dress rehearsal for PNB’s ‘All Premiere,’ which as the name indicates, is a program with four works making their world premieres. This is virtually unheard of in ballet circles, as directors like to present a good mix of repertory—familiar favorites, classics, contemporary, throw in a premiere…your basic smorgasbord. However, if you can imagine a buffet with all brand new dishes, then you’re really throwing the gauntlet down and issuing a challenge to the audience, and in this case there’s really nothing to guarantee any one audience grouping. You could do a program with Serenade and Dances at a Gathering and excite the Balanchine groupies, the Robbins groupies, ME—but those people already trust those works and know exactly what to expect. I suppose fans of Morris may have a general sense of his style but his rehearsals have been completely obscured from public view until today so even then there’s no promise of liking the newest piece. Not to mention for two of the four choreographers, Andrew Bartee and Margaret Mullin, this will be the first time they’ve created on the company, having previously choreographed on the professional division students. So for them, it’s a different beast and the entire program is ridiculously risky.

So, I guess the time has come for a spoiler warning…if you plan on seeing ‘All Premiere,’ you may as well go in with no expectations…after all, you’ve waited this long. However, for those of you who don’t have the great fortune of being able to go, I shall offer a few words:

Andrew Bartee’s arms that work is totally alien, and has the dancers in beige costumes constantly moving—very rarely is a body on stage still, and he provides contrast by stretching the movement tempos. The philosophy behind the piece is quite contemporary, and is definitely grounded in movement perhaps before music, which is generally the modern approach to dance (as opposed to being motivated by the music in ballet). His style ranges from little things to huge sweepers with his unique brand of fluidity. There’s also an integral set element of a wall of elastic bands, which looks a lot like the silhouette of a roller coaster, and offers an interesting deconstruction of line when paired with the movement. As a side note, it was kind of funny to see Bartee in one of the later pieces, do an ear-whacking grand battement—like a graduate of the Sylvie Guillem Academy of Bonelessness, you can imagine where he sources his material.

Next came Margaret Mullin’s Lost in Light, a ballet where the contrast was found in light and shadow, further emphasized by the black and gold costumes by her close friend, Alexis Mondragon. Lost in Light excites me because Mullin comes from a different sort of lineage than most dancers with PNB—having trained extensively with Amanda McKerrow, a repetiteur of Antony Tudor ballets, Mullin has developed a different voice, despite her daily work in one of many houses of Balanchine. Thus, there is an understated elegance to her choreography, and Lost in Light shimmers with emotion without being ostentatious. It’s a lovely ballet with beautiful lines and downplayed virtuosity. Corps dancer Chelsea Adomaitis especially stood out to me here—she just seemed to “get it” the most and there’s something very sincere and unpretentious about the way she dances that makes her glow.

Then came the long awaited first look at Mark Morris’s Kammermusik No.3 to Paul Hindemith’s music of the same name. Rehearsals were completely closed (they papered the studio windows to prevent spying), so this was in fact, the first look by any members of the general public. We get our first splash of color with dancers in black pants and magenta, ombre dyed tunics. Kammermusik employs a great deal of visualization as Dr. Jordan had discussed earlier, though in a great deal of codified ballet steps with contemporary moves that really pick up on Hindemith’s quirkiness. There are humorous moments, like trios of dancers entering the stage to briefly perform a leap before exiting immediately afterward, a striking and perhaps comedic visual, but entirely appropriate to the score. The structure is tightly knit, and it was interesting to hear Morris snapping his fingers in the audience, cluing us into what he hears specifically in the music. Not surprisingly, the outstanding-as-always Carrie Imler was on the money every time.

Closing out the program is Kiyon Gaines’s Sum Stravinsky, to Stravinsky’s ‘Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.’ A neoclassical ballet awash in ocean colored tutus, the ballet is as effervescent as Gaines himself is. The ballet is performed in three movements, an “Oreo-cookie” (or A-B-A) method of sandwiching a pas de deux with two ensemble pieces. It’s quick—lots of changes of direction and intricate phrasing, though the pas de deux is a wonderful adagio. Principal dancer Maria Chapman has those super arched feet that every dancer wants (except for the dancers that have them and dread hops on pointe), and it’s amazing how much she communicates in just walking at the very beginning of the pas de deux. Lesley Rausch was a veritable queen in the third movement, but again, Chelsea Adomaitis was a princess—somebody should give that girl a blue ribbon superstar award because she’s just wonderful.

The whole company looks eager and inspired, and I think ‘All Premiere’ takes the audience on an interesting journey of regression from contemporary to…less contemporary? It’s interesting because the first two pieces feature original scores, and then you have Hindemith and Stravinsky, and the choreography follows a similar suit—well, I’d say Mullin’s ballet is more classical than Morris’s, but the overall direction went from nebulous to structure in both music and choreography. The classicist in me of course wishes they would’ve taken it a step further with tiaras and Tchaikovsky, but these are all living, breathing artists and their work is all about embodying what’s relevant. For that alone, I can’t stress how utterly amazing ‘All Premiere’ is going to be these next two weeks. You can do whatever you want, but I’d go if I were you.

Want to know more about Andrew Bartee, Margaret Mullin, and Kiyon Gaines? Check. This. Out.

Whim W’Him…woot woot!

15 Jan

I attended the opening performance of Seattle based company Whim W’Him’s program, Shadows, Raincoats, & Monsters (even though the actual order for the evening went Raincoats, Monsters, & Shadows!) and after previewing an excerpt of Monsters in October as a part of Men in Dance, it was a treat to see the finished product, which for many reasons looked completely different from what I remembered seeing only a few months ago.  This is where I must insert magnanimous praise for the lighting designer, Michael Mazzola—the full effect was truly astounding.  I briefly met artistic director Olivier Wevers before the show, who essentially said that he can’t imagine working with anyone else now and I can see why.  In that meeting, Olivier also jokingly asked me not to write anything mean and while dancers tackle their own set of stereotypes (i.e. in negative reactions to Black Swan) it seems as a dance writer I have a few of my own to deal with…but far from offended, I found the experience quite exciting because it makes me sense my place among the circle of dance writers as well as the dance community as a whole.  Legitimacy is awesome (and a little addictive).

My overall comments are that this is a show with an invigorating, multi-faceted appeal that is sure to relate to broad audiences.  Whether intentional or not, I was fascinated by the order of the dances themselves, which seemed to mature as the evening progressed.  The first piece, This is Not a Raincoat was the most youthful, followed by Monster, which showed a marked jump in sophisticated subject matter, and then Cylindrical Shadows displayed a mellowed, genteel character.  The journey was an artistic progression that is easily understood and showed a genuine concern for really creating a relationship with the audience (hence a well-deserved standing ovation by the evening’s end!).  What I also liked was the elementariness of the costumes, which is always something that draws more attention to the choreography itself (most effective in Monster, through the use of socks in solid, primary colors) and a distinctive style among Wevers’s two pieces.  Sometimes I find that choreographers favor saturating their works with variety in order to show versatility and/or for fear of being deemed monotonous, but I like to see some familiar movement characteristics because to me that says the choreographer is not afraid of distinguishing a unique voice.

The first piece, This is Not a Raincoat, choreographed by Wevers and performed by Andrew Bartee, Ty Alexander Cheng, Chalnessa Eames, Kylie Lewallen and Lucien Postlewaite, began with only the rhythmic sound of footsteps and swishing raincoats.  When the dancers were finally illuminated in their peach velour cowl-neck and black raincoat glory, the barriers are first made apparent, like when the dancers ran full force downstage, and came to a complete halt on relevé at the very edge.  When they shed the raincoats there was a noticeable change in mood, and sprinting off in other directions ended in smooth slides.  First of all, how one does this without completely wiping out is one feat of timing and control, but the overall impression is that the movement has no rough edges, no harshness and takes on an air of warmth and invitation.  Much of it seemed to glide just above the floor, grazing the surface occasionally and offered lighthearted, playful gestures.  It was a display of childlike spirits, of people allowing themselves to indulge in merriment, after ridding themselves of conventional expectations.  As someone who has been told on several occasions that I have the intelligence of an adult with the mind of a child, it’s a message I fully appreciate.  I wholeheartedly believe that who we were as children is the truth that we should seek as adults, because that reveals more about who we are than the things people tell us we should be.

Next came Monster in full, which began with the duet dealing with despair in homosexual relationships when disapproval rains terror upon them.  I stand by my description of the piece from the first round so I won’t rehash it (though the casting was slightly different this time, with Bartee and Vincent Michael Lopez), just know that the fluorescent lighting, provided by vertical tubes on the sides of the stage gives the dance a starkness that makes it all the more haunting and each duet is also preceded by beautiful poetic readings by hip hop artist RA Scion, which is both a wonderful collaboration between contemporary artists and informative in providing further context for the dances to thrive in.  The next duet fired immediately like an electrical current, jolting Lewallen and Cheng to life (the costumes for all of the duets were gray shirts with colored shorts and matching socks, red for the first and yellow the for the second).  Their movements were contorted and spasmodic, staying earthbound as their bodies seemed to take on a life of their own.  As if drug induced, movements were erratically initiated by any and all parts of the body, with Lewallen becoming increasingly lethargic as her life ebbed away.  At one point, Cheng was essentially manipulating her through the motions, prodding her with his leg, until eventually the addiction claimed her.  The final duet conveyed a dysfunctional and abusive relationship (with blue socks).  I should note that the reason why I keep mentioning the colored socks is because they revealed a lot of articulation of the feet, particularly in demi-pointe (stretched ankles with flexed toes), which is normally used only when standing on relevé but is instead used in many air-borne extensions of the leg in this piece, which is both unusual and eye-catching.  The work featured an incredible amount of tension between Postlewaite and Melody Herrera, pushing and pulling at each other with mixed feelings of love and contempt.  A moment of particular interest was the use of a motif from the first duet, with one dancer kneeling down, reaching out one hand to hold the other dancer up as he leaned forward, to highlight the commonalities between both homosexual and heterosexual relationships.

The last work, entitled Cylindrical Shadows and choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa was born out of news she received of a friend of hers (and dancer) who had suddenly died at a young age, and explores emotional reactions and the enduring renewal that is intrinsic to both life and death.  Four men (Bartee, Lopez, Postlewaite, Wevers) and two women (Eames, Herrera) started in a triangular formation, moving in unison as dancers would intermittently break away to dance their solos away from the group.  Ochoa created fantastic manipulations of patterns here, to make the transitions seamless while the shapes changed.  She utilized different groupings, including a lithe and weightless trio that had Eames hovering through space, and a heartrending pas de deux between Herrera and Postlewaite that I shall describe as soulful.  What interested me most was the quartet with just the men, because female ballet choreographers are far outnumbered by their male counterparts, and it was gratifyingly refreshing to see such liberated male movement from a female perspective.  With sweeping gestures of the leg and huge penchées, elegance was paramount to the overall aesthetic.  It helps that Bartee, Postlewaite and Wevers have eighty-five miles of legs between them, but the choreography speaks for itself.  Some aspects of the piece confused me at first, but I have to say that after a few hours of processing, I’m enjoying the cerebral playground.

Living up the company’s name, Whim W’Him’s Shadows, Raincoats, & Monsters will make you think, but not ask too much, in both playful and erudite queries.  The dances are loaded with texture, color and narrative but remain unfettered by unnecessary complexities.  The trick to great choreography is to have too much material and trim the excess rather than extend something of little substance, and this show is definitely the former, which leaves you craving more.  Two performances remain at the Intiman Theater, though Saturday’s performance is sold out, so I suggest you get tickets for Sunday (5:00pm) ASAP! (Purchase Tickets at BrownPaperTickets).

For more information about Whim W’Him and its dancers, visit their website at www.whimwhim.org

(Disclaimer: The title of this entry doesn’t make a lot of sense, but alliteration is fun.  Deal with it.)