Tag Archives: benjamin griffiths

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.

JeRoméo et JuLesleyette

15 Feb

Much like that scene from ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’, when Treebeard and his fellow Ents took an exceptionally long time to decide that the hobbits Merry and Pippin were not, in fact, orcs, deciding which cast of dancers to see at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette required a serious amount of deliberation. Between newly minted principal dancer James Moore partnered with spritely Kaori Nakamura, the luminous Carla Körbes with princely Seth Orza, not to mention a one-night-only guest performance by former PNB dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite (now dancers with Maillot’s own company in Monte Carlo), the selection was beyond an embarrassment of riches. In the end, I had to go with the underdogs, Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand, who would only perform the title roles once for a Saturday matinee (and they delivered!). Although it’s unlikely that other audience members mulled over their casting choices as tediously as I did, the house was the most full I’ve ever seen for a matinee performance, an extraordinary feat considering the fact that the Pantastico/Postlewaite performance later that night completely sold out (bravo, Seattle!).

Obviously, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette is the perfect ballet to have in Seattle, because it truly satisfies the entire spectrum of dancegoers. The typical model for ballet companies these days is to brandish the war horses in full length, classical story ballets to appease the regular ballet-goers and coax people who generally don’t attend the ballet to do so (thanks to our human need to be told stories), and then leave it to mixed repertory programs to present a greater variety that finds appeal in diversified but niche audiences, namely those with more eclectic tastes in contemporary dance. Historically, modern dance has eschewed the narrative and naturally, the vast majority of contemporary dance are shorter pieces that are easily incorporated into a mixed bill. Still, the question needed to be asked if modern styles of dance could in fact tell a proper story and fortunately, a handful of choreographers have answered the call. Some have taken on original stories or previously unused ones, while others have re-imagined ballet classics and although the results may be hit-or-miss depending so heavily on an individual audience member’s tastes, the exploration is an important part of the evolution of dance. Roméo et Juliette comfortably sits right on the nexus of classical and contemporary here in Seattle, where pretty much everybody loves it. Based on what I’ve heard (“I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves, sir, honest!”), it just fits with the energy of the city.

I’ve only recently started warming up to any ballet version of Shakespeare’s tragedy (which, if you’ve followed my blog for some time, or had the displeasure of discussing R&J with me on Twitter, you’ll know that there’s some history behind this, and why things have changed is a long story that I’ll have to tell you another day), but I was quite excited to see Maillot’s take on it, after being inoculated with the balcony pas de deux from PNB’s ‘Love Stories’ mixed bill last year (that time I saw Nakamura/Postlewaite dance the pas de deux). That scene remains my favorite part, for its youthful idealization of love, in the way that it’s sometimes silly, sometimes clumsy and awkward, sometimes carnal in its eroticism, and yet it incorporates these ravishing moves that are just as sensuous and adult as something you’d see in a more conventional production of R&J. In that sense, Maillot’s choreography achieves an honesty that others don’t, because his is not an adult ideal of love that draws on nostalgia. I can almost imagine a teenager choreographing that pas de deux his or herself, because it has the elements of emotional maturity with mimicry as the young couple emulates their elders. There’s a lift in particular that I have to gush about because it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, where Romeo tosses Juliet around his waist and catches her as she wraps her arm around his neck, and they spin in circles, which makes your heart just fall into a pit in your stomach. I highly recommend watching the entire following video where PNB dancers talk about the principal roles, but if you’re impatient like me, you can see the lift at 1:29.

Anyway, there were a lot of things I loved about Maillot’s choreography—his use of gesture is a feast for the eyes and his phrasing so naturally picks up on the peculiarities of Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Theatrically speaking, Maillot’s production has a cinematic feel to it, complete with opening credits, a narrator, and slow motion death scenes (oh yes, he went there). Of the three, the narrator was an artistic liberty I took a major issue with—the narrator being Friar Lawrence, who basically replays the tragedy to the audience from his mind’s eye. The reason I felt this way is uninterestingly elementary, but I just felt overwhelmed with different perspectives. So you have this incredible story written by Shakespeare, as imagined by Maillot, but then narrated by Friar Lawrence, on top of dancers’ unique interpretations of the roles, which can even be influenced by the repetiteurs who stage the work. It was strangely overwhelming for a production that finds its beauty in purity, and I felt adding yet another voice convoluted the message (in addition to occasionally being unclear as to whether the Friar was actually present, or taking a stroll down memory lane). It’s sure to be a point of controversy for any traditionalist view on R&J, although in Seattle, there’s not a major dance version to compare it to so I’d imagine New York will have a much more visceral reaction upon its arrival for the company’s touring performances.

Principal Karel Cruz on the role of Friar Lawrence, explaining it way better than I can:

There were a couple of scenes I also felt were on the long side, but overall I appreciate Maillot’s creativity, and its presence in repertories around the world and popularity speaks volumes. I absolutely loved watching Rausch and Tisserand, as I think they have a chic chemistry—in past performances I’ve seen her as that cool-as-a-cucumber type dancer with pristine technique, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see her unleash in something so dramatic. The contrast is so dynamic with the flow of Maillot’s gestural choreography juxtaposed against a perfect ballet arabesque, and it really highlighted Rausch’s full range of ability as a dancer. And Tisserand is an irresistible charmer, boyish at times and yet quite valiant, as gifted an actor as he is a jumper. I do believe it was his first time performing the full ballet, and you never would’ve known it—he’s simply a natural Romeo. A great Romeo needs his wingmen though, and I have to say that Jonathan Poretta as Mercutio, and Benjamin Griffiths as Benvolio were absolutely delightful—I think New York audiences will really get a kick out of their performances. Although Orza will dance Romeo at City Center, it’s a shame they won’t get to see his menacing Tybalt—a thoroughly scary bully (who I think had something going on with Lady Capulet? Her major solo comes upon his death, where she undoes her hair, flinging it wildly about in an anguish that surpasses the grief she later shows for her own daughter, suggesting that her “nephew” was something more to her. I saw Maria Chapman as Lady Capulet and she was wild!).

I look forward to hearing peer reactions as they trickle in from the East coast in the next couple of days. I think I’ve arrived at the conclusion that for me, Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette didn’t fully resonate, as I left the theatre not feeling especially bonded to the work. The ending—well, we all KNOW how R&J ends, but Maillot’s particular enactment of it left me a little confused—it had me thinking rather than feeling, which is generally not how I experience dance when given the opportunity to be in my element. Even if it never really makes its way on my list of favorites, I do think it’s a wonderful ballet and in time, I hope to have the opportunity to see it again…in ten, twenty, who-knows-how-many years, I would hope to be a different person in many ways and experiencing Romeo et Juliette at a later age could teach me a great deal about what changes took place—a truly remarkable gift of a work of art that you may not necessarily understand the first time around.

Newfangled by Nutcracker

30 Dec

The end of the year is a wonderful thing—looking back at the various milestones and kilometerstones I’ve had, I feel nothing but blessed to be alive to have been through it all. Some marked changes rather than a benchmark experience, with the last of 2012 coming from my recent attendance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’. During this unseasonably warm and mild-weathered winter, it dawned on me that I was excited to see ‘The Nutcracker’…because…well…I love it. (There, I said it!) If I was a skilled hiker I’d shout it from the top of Mt. Rainier that I love the Maurice Sendak/Kent Stowell Nutcracker, and this is without the onus of decades of family tradition to twist my arm into feeling this way. Nutcrackers generally fall into two camps of a traditional production like that of Balanchine’s or something loosely in the image of Petipa/Ivanov, and then a myriad of ultra modern stagings (e.g., versions by Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne, and Maurice Bejart to name a few). PNB’s Nutcracker is something in between and I love that it’s unique in that way—it’s evidence that we can re-imagine conventional ballets just enough to infuse them with creativity while never straying too far from the original. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who is attending school at Columbia told me that she saw Ratmansky’s Nutcracker this year, and now home to see PNB’s, she realized the artistic fulfillment the latter provides, while others seem to relegate themselves to a certain level of pageantry. Last year I had written about Sendak’s interpretation of Clara’s dream intertwining with a journey along the Silk Road, and even the second time around I still can’t get over how brilliant an idea that was. May Sendak—who passed away this year—rest in peace.

This year I made it a point to see the seraphic Carla Körbes as Clara, and I even splurged a little on an orchestra level ticket. At fifty dollars, it was the most I had ever spent on a ticket to see PNB, but I wanted to have that experience of seeing the company as I had never seen them before. I should mention that I have in fact seen a few programs from orchestra level—but not from the fourth row! Some people spend their fair share of income to be that close to artists at rock concerts and I’m proud to say that it’s ballet that demands of me a certain proximity to the stage. What else to do but oblige? Inevitably, part of me missed my second-tier nosebleed seat that I had become accustomed to because patterns among the corps de ballet are indeed more evident, but up close you really get to hear that magical pitter-patter of pointe shoes, so there’s some give and take. Unfortunately, a far less ambient addition to the soundtrack came from restless children and when the toddler behind me started screeching during the grand pas de deux, among my sighs of pleasure may have been a sigh of despair. I know, I know, “magical experience for kids” and what-have-you but let’s be real—some kids just can’t handle sitting still for two hours (although, given the heated argument the married couple next to me had during intermission, I had some severe doubts about some adults too—awkward! Gah!). I’m of the opinion that rambunctious kids should live true to their nature; there are plenty of wintertime activities like sledding or ice skating that can tire out even the rowdiest of little folk, and really, at that age they’re practically indestructible anyway so it’s the best time to engage in activities that as adults we have to think twice about (or drink enough) to do without fear.

At any rate, the dancing was superb, and despite numerous performances preceding the one I saw, the company still looked fresh as daisies. I quite liked Jerome Tisserand as the Sword-Dancer Doll (one of the gifts from Herr Drosselmeier), and the Masque—a short pas de trois to a duet from Tchaikovsky’s opera Pique Dame—was a picture of elegance with mile-long arabesques from Emma Love, Price Suddarth, and Steven Loch. Though not original to Tchaikovsky’s score for Nutcracker, I love the inclusion of this music and adore the choreography for it, the style of which is reminiscent of courtly dances. In the larger ensemble pieces like ‘Snowflakes,’ corps dancer Angelica Generosa really stood out to me, which is quite the feat in a literal flurry of fake snow, sixteen dancers, and a lot of allegro work, but Generosa has the most marvelous port de bras—crisp but not forceful and finished with beautiful hands. The ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ was just as pretty, with Margaret Mullin leading the floral cascade with effervescence and lucidity. The “Silk Road” divertissements were great fun, and I especially loved Benjamin Griffiths in ‘Commedia’ as the lead harlequin. Clement Crisp once wrote that the jester is “a despicable figure in all ballets” but he’d be wrong about this one—it was wonderfully appropriate to the ‘Danse des Mirlitons’ (and Griffiths has a wicked penché—I love it when men get to do that!). With a common thread of splendid performances by Körbes as a halcyon Clara, and Batkhurel Bold as a quiet but majestic prince, I couldn’t help but feel an immense amount of satisfaction in being in the audience that night—it was truly gratifying to be treated to such marvelous performances by so many talented individuals.

All in all, I had a genuinely great time and now have a hard time imagining another Nutcracker living up to this standard and being so enjoyable to me. As I left McCaw Hall for the last time in 2012, I reminisced about how much Pacific Northwest Ballet has made my year so wonderful, and felt a great sense of contentment. Earlier in the year I decreed 2012 as the year of my dreams coming true, as evidenced by the following tweet that a certain favorite celebrity of mine responded to:

Who tweeted @youdancefunny? Kristin Chenoweth, that's who!

Who tweeted @youdancefunny? Kristin Chenoweth, that’s who!

She couldn’t have been more right, as there certainly have been a LOT of “YAYYYYYs” throughout the year! Now, I find myself looking forward to 2013, but with a new perspective on what I want to accomplish. More than ever I feel a need to take decisive action, to do things I’ve never done before, and experience the unknown. It’s exciting and maybe a little scary (actually, a LOT scary), but I think I’m ready—or maybe, I know I’m ready! Regardless, my new Moleskine planner shall provide the inspirational words I need to see every day, with a boldly embossed movie quote that I find accurately describes the outlook I want to have in life:

Immortal words...

Immortal words…

Happy New Year friends! Let’s make 2013 a year of “doing” and not trying, shall we? And thanks ALWAYS, for reading!

-♡-

Steve

PNB’s ‘Balanchine: Then and Now’–what you should also know…

18 Apr

So…moving apartments, a staph infection, and twelve days of work with no day off later, I am back from the dead! Not gonna lie—I think I may have been on the verge of an emotional or physical breakdown at some point so I’m really glad that to be in one piece right now. Anyway, let’s travel back in time two weeks and you may recall (if you’ve been following my updates on Twitter/Facebook) that I attended Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Balanchine: Then and Now’ lecture-demonstration on my birthday which was far and away one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Gary Tucker, the Media Relations Manager over at PNB didn’t plan on having any press coverage for the event and I had actually intended to go anyway, but he’s always been generous with SeattleDances and provided some tickets in exchange for an article (pretty sure he didn’t even know it was my birthday—he’s just awesome with getting us tickets!). I was more than happy to jump on the opportunity, and it was nice to have a chance to write something for SeattleDances that wasn’t necessarily a review. I tried to approach it more from a historical perspective with the hope of educating readers a little because it was, by far, one of the most interesting presentations of its kind and in a perfect world, anyone who read my article would be more compelled to attend these events in the future.

What was it like, you ask? Well dear friend, you should probably read my SeattleDances article before proceeding further! Now, assuming that you have, let me fill in the details. It has to be said that it’s so fascinating to listen to Francia Russell’s stories about Balanchine, because unlike his muses, Russell seems to have achieved colleague status with him. When she danced for New York City Ballet he used her as his guinea pig, often trying choreography on her, how he was relentless in demanding more, and how as one of his dancers you simply couldn’t refuse him. She even went so far to take Robert Joffrey’s class and then booking it to the School of American Ballet for company class with Balanchine. As if that wasn’t dedication enough she even mentioned how he even taught a three hour class on occasion—THREE HOURS. As exhausting as the mere thought of that is, she did say that there’s a certain gratification that comes with having given something your all (or perhaps, even just surviving such an ordeal). Still, the desire for a life outside of ballet was too great and she retired from dancing fairly early, though Balanchine often tried to lure her back by using her favorite roles in Apollo as bait. She did go back—though not to dance—but rather, to catch the eye of a certain fellow dancer named Kent Stowell (long story short, they eventually married).

Balanchine certainly mentored Russell from then on, sitting right in front of her as she began her career as an educator of ballet, “sniffing” while she taught and lecturing her afterwards about everything she did wrong. It wasn’t all overbearing though and for about a year they were in close quarters, and she recalled him being on the phone once with composer Morton Gould, discussing some things regarding a ballet about birds (unfortunately I can’t remember the specific ballet, but it’s likely that this was The Birds of America, set to Gould’s Audubon. It was intended to be a three-act story ballet involving prominent figures in American history and narrating westward expansion. Lincoln Kirstein wrote the scenario and Balanchine toyed with the project for decades, even while hospitalized before his death).  While speaking with Gould, Balanchine started doodling wings on the rehearsal schedule Russell was working on, in an elaborate rococo sort of design, a little sketch she treasures to this day. She was gracious enough to bring it in for the presentation and having seen it with my own eyes, it’s obviously an interesting insight into Balanchine’s mind, his eye for shapes, patterns, and aesthetics that are applicable to his work as a choreographer, but what is most lovely is how you could tell just from how she held that drawing in its matted frame, that it reminded her of the time they spent together. Balanchine was famous for gifting his favorite ballerinas with perfume, but this sketch is so incidental it’s sentimental value is unique.

I could go on—Russell did bring up “Gisellitis” and how Balanchine hated it more than anything, how despite her love for many Balanchine ballets Liebeslieder Walzer is the one she’d take with her to a deserted island, or even Peter Boal, visiting Balanchine in the hospital and asking him about the third movement of Western Symphony, to which Balanchine told him that the music was horrible and that it should never be seen again (Peter Martins did, however revive it)…but I should talk about the dancing that happened that night. I mentioned in my review the Melancholic solo from The Four Temperaments, how Benjamin Griffiths and Matthew Renko danced two different versions simultaneously (and this was after each of them danced it alone too!), and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in dance. I suppose this is easily achieved with video, but how often—if ever—do you get to see this kind of thing live, with one pianist providing the music? I wish they could have done more of that kind of visual comparison, but alas, they did not. There was another short excerpt from 4T’s, a couple of steps demonstrated from Apollo (a particular pirouette that apparently everyone hates and also a series of jetés that were changed to grand battements, because well, Suzanne Farrell didn’t like grand jetés), and two different versions of a duet in Agon (apparently Lesley Rausch was messing it up in rehearsal, but then Maria Chapman called it when she said she would be the one to make a mistake in performance…ah the curse of self-fulfilling prophecies!), but the real bread and butter (in addition to the Melancholic solos) was the male solo from Square Dance and the variations and coda from Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Griffiths was called upon again to dance the Square Dance solo, but before I elaborate on that, I have to quickly tell you they showed some footage of the original Square Dance that had hay bales and a caller—if ONLY I could remember some of the rhymes the caller came up with! They were absolutely hysterical. Anyway, Griffiths has a wonderful lyricism, a fantastic line (and he’s short so it’s amazing that he “dances tall”), and I enjoyed a lot of the subtleties he showed. To be honest, the guy really should be made a principal because he dances principal roles like this one, Oberon, Franz, Nutcracker prince (although I’m halfway convinced dancers will get together and fight over Nutcracker, like “You do it!” “No, you do it!” or maybe even use it as a wager in a game of poker), so fingers crossed that happens for him soon because he’s such an accomplished bravura dancer that he’s always called upon to do the hard stuff but doesn’t necessarily get the credit (or the paycheck!).

Now, the moment you’ve (okay I’ve) been waiting for—Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux!!! Have I not expressed my love for Tchai Pas in this blog no less than eighty-five million times? I’ve scoured the internet for videos, done as much amateur research as I can, dedicated posts to it and until this occasion, had never seen even a snippet live. Let me tell you, even in studio, without costumes and a full orchestra, it was everything I had hoped for. I’ve said before that Tchai Pas is like running down a hill and not being able to stop yourself, and quite often when I see it I feel the sensation of flight, and each movement reminds me of a different method of flying. The pas de deux floats and hovers like a cloud, the male variation soars and careens like a kite, the female variation flutters with the zip of a hummingbird, and the coda is a Peregrine falcon diving towards Earth at 322 km per hour. It was so gratifying and so exhilarating to watch, with Griffiths doing the male variation (seriously, three major solos—does that not scream principal dancer?), Rausch in the female variation, and Chapman/Renko in the coda. Griffiths was excellent, and Rausch also superb—I described her performance as having “minimal port de bras in the manner of Violette Verdy” and I’d like to elaborate on this. I’m actually planning yet another Tchai Pas post that discusses how it looks on dancers that come from different schools, but one of my pet peeves is actually how the port de bras, in my humble opinion, is rather overdone. My problem with excessive fluidity in the arms for this particular piece is that it draws attention away from the feet, which musically, is where the emphasis is. I’ll talk about this and more in detail another day, but I loved 98% of the way Rausch danced it, with my only criticism being something that Eric Taub elucidated for me, which is that a great many dancers won’t do a complete series of arabesque en voyagé into an assemblé before the diagonal of pirouettes. Given that Verdy herself can be seen coaching it this way in the documentary Violette et Mr. B., clearly this is something authorized by the Balanchine Trust.

I guess I’ll have to save the rest for that forthcoming Tchai Pas post (because this one is already too long) but one of my favorite parts of the coda, the fouetté series? Chapman didn’t do them a la Farrell, but she did do beautiful coupés that stayed en pointe before each plié, and I wanted to be like “Yeah! Get it girl!” but seeing as how I was one of probably three people under the age of thirty, it probably wouldn’t have been appropriate. I didn’t get a chance in the Q&A to harass Russell about the intricacies of Tchai Pas as I wanted to (mostly out of courtesy towards everyone else there who would’ve been bored to death by such a thorough dissection), though I did ask her about the challenges of staging Balanchine ballets on dancers with vastly different training like the Russian and French schools, and she said she was often met with a lot of resistance. The first staging of Theme and Variations for the Kirov wasn’t pretty—dancers up and walked out of rehearsals. Can you imagine if she had tried to stage one of Balanchine’s more abstract works? It wasn’t until she sat the company down one day just to talk, educating them about who Balanchine was and why he wanted things the way he did, that rehearsals ran smoothly. It just goes to show that understanding a little about who an artist is really matters in interpreting their work, and probably not just as a dancer of it, but even for us as audience members as well.

Meanwhile, I will conclude this post with an update to my SeattleDances review, the tragic news that next season’s ‘All Tchaikovsky’ program has been officially axed since I wrote of it. Like last year’s robbery of Dances at a Gathering as a part of the never realized ‘All Robbins’ program, this year sees an untimely demise for Allegro Brillante and yes, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Oh cruel world, oh PNB! You take as easily as you give, stabbing me in the heart and twisting the knife. Still, I have so much to be thankful for and I feel blessed to have had the birthday that I did. The bitterness won’t last forever…after all, it has to come back into the rep at some point. I’ll be here.

Nut-cranky

25 Dec

On a rare day off, I treated myself to a performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. This may come as a shock to some of you longtime readers as I, Ebe-Steve-r Scrooge, have often grumbled about how much I dislike it—or rather, what Nutcracker stands for but to make a semi-longer story shorter, I dislike that Nutcracker is such a necessity in American culture and that so much economic value is attached to it. I’m also not a huge fan of seeing children perform on stage because while there are roles that required a significant amount of technique, there were moments that had me wondering what was the artistic purpose of having mini-people dance with turned in arabesques. More than anything, they invoke thoughts of huge egos, parents flaunting the idea of their children becoming professional dancers, which all comes full circle to money because of course proud parents are going to spread the word to friends and relatives to buy tickets. I don’t blame them (entirely), but there are always people who go off the deep end and develop unrealistic expectations for their kids and take for granted how difficult a dance career is to earn. The bottom line is that getting cast in the Nutcracker guarantees nothing about a young dancer’s future and far too many people lose sight of that.

Okay, so the children thing is a little salty on my end because logically, I can see some value in giving kids the opportunity to be on stage and have a significant, inspirational experience. Dancers themselves are sentimental about it because new roles in the Nutcracker benchmark a step in one’s career and there really isn’t any other ballet that tracks progress from such an early age. Admittedly, I also kind of like that Nutcracker is indeed such a tradition, especially in the US which is a relatively young country compared to European countries with such vast histories that are rich in cultural traditions. However, a tradition is something to look forward to, and yet for many dancers the music can be like a trigger that sends them into Gollum-esque fits of rage or make them want to take up a hobby like aerial skiing where ACL injuries are like a rite of passage. Dancers (or artists, I should say because the musicians are pretty much in the same boat of monotony) shouldn’t be sacrificial lambs for the sake of money and tradition. Ideally, they would look forward to a Nutcracker run, which means performances could stand to be reduced, maybe even—wait for it—every other year! The Royal Ballet doesn’t have to do Nutcracker annually and doesn’t suffer for it, though I’d imagine the uproar in the States would make a biennial Nutcracker impossible. Well, that and limited funding…

I suppose I could learn to accept Nutcracker’s stranglehold on the holiday season, if I could get just ONE consolation prize—you see, Nutcracker is lauded for boosting ticket sales and introducing people to ballet, but by the time the next repertory program rolls around, a lot of people will have lost interest and I would like to see companies make an effort to “strike while the iron is hot,” perhaps in the form of a New Year’s Gala. If Nutcracker gets the pointe shoe in the door, than use a Ratmansky-fied cannon to blast it open! There is a real opportunity to take the audience a step further and introduce them to a style of ballet that will help them learn more about it, instead of meekly saying “thanks for coming to Nutcracker, see you next year!” In my mind, something like a New Year’s Gala would call for bold, symphonic works where virtuosity can be taken advantage of to adhere to a theme of “unleashing the fireworks” so to speak. There would be a great fervor over a one-night-only performance that included a lineup of something like Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Balanchine’s Sylvia Pas de Deux and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and then closing the night out with Symphony in C, which has the added bonus of giving the dancers something to look forward to, instead of a couple of deflated, post-Christmas performances of Nutcracker. So the timing is perfect, audiences go from a classical story ballet to symphonic, neoclassical works, the dancers get to end on a lively note, a savvy marketing department would advertise the limited seating of the gala during Nutcracker to create a buzz, tickets sell out (at least, I’m convinced they would) and everybody wins! It’s genius, right?

Anyway, enough nonsense and on to PNB’s Nutcracker—quite frankly, it’s awesome! PNB’s production is famous for using set and costume designs by world-renowned children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, and I was wildly impressed. It’s hard to describe, but the way the set pieces move and transition from one scene to another is absolutely riveting and gives such a neat glimpse at Sendak’s imaginative vision. The collaboration between Sendak and choreographer Kent Stowell was also a brilliant move as well, reminiscent of something Diaghilev would do, which was to really seek out the great artists of the time to design productions. Act I of Sendak/Stowell’s Nutcracker has its unique moments but is fairly standard in terms of setting up the story, though there is an interesting psychological element to Herr Drosselmeier’s relationship with Clara, as he orchestrates her nightmare first in the prologue with three dolls of the Nutcracker, Mouse King, and Princess Pirlipat, once more in the party scene in an elegant masque variation, and then of course there’s Act II—which in this version is a theatrical treasure. Usually Act II will take place in a generic, saccharine fantasy world but Sendak’s design has elements from the Ottoman Empire and while typical productions of Nutcracker have a hodge-podge assortment of ethnic dances that are sugary themed (e.g. Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, Russian Candy Cane), Sendak/Stowell so cleverly re-imagine them into the Moors (North Africa), Peacock (India), Chinese Tiger, and Dervishes (Persia). As I watched the divertissements unfold, it dawned on me that they intended this not only to be an adventure into Clara’s dreams but with an overlying journey on the ancient Silk Road. I was blown away by the ingenuity of Sendak/Stowell’s REAL concept here and it’s hard to imagine another Nutcracker with so creative an idea for Act II that unifies the ethnic dances so seamlessly.

There is a motion picture version of Sendak/Stowell’s Nutcracker, though before I post some clips, from what I’ve seen there are some differences between the current live production and the one filmed in 1983. I don’t know if the production has evolved over time or if the changes made were specific for the film, but overall I do think the live version is better. The camera editing in the filmed version is kind of a pain and cuts away from the dancing a lot to zoom in on faces, and other things are diminished too like “the tree,” which is this miraculous feat of stagecraft where a small tree unfolds and burgeons like a lava flow into a monstrous version of itself. The timing is slightly different in the live version because the tree definitely gets featured alone, now has blinking lights, and yes, everyone claps for it (as they should—who knows how many stagehands it requires to pull that off!)

The Masque:

Transformation (the Mouse King is completely different in the live version as well, though you can get some idea of what the sets are like):

“Silk Road” Dances:

I was really surprised by the choreography throughout, as there were a lot of interesting transitions and use of little steps. The Masque for example has nothing particularly difficult, but it’s very tasteful and has a lovely baroque quality to it—especially the presentation of the feet. I actually think it’s the type of divertissement that really allows the dancers to accentuate their lines not by physical length but by the imaginary kind, which is far more difficult to get the audience to invest in. The “Silk Road” dances were also right on the money, with the Peacock being the clearly coveted favorite. With Nutcracker being so thematic in terms of freedom and escaping reality, Peacock is actually a crucial role—her solo is this pivotal moment in the ballet because amidst Clara’s fantasy, you have this mysterious, exotic bird being held captive, and it’s a little tragic. Peacock really gives the story some depth that other Nutcrackers fail to achieve which is probably why the audience is so fascinated with her. However, I’d like to take a moment to point out that for birds (and definitely peacocks) it’s generally the male of the species that has the more ornate plumage…which begs the question: how would a male dancer fare in this role? Nobody knows, but here’s a neat video of corps de ballet member Chelsea Adomaitis talking about the role a bit, with some rehearsal/performance footage (the cast I saw had Laura Gilbreath dance it, and I held my breath the entire time! And this is no exaggeration—Gilbreath has to be close to six feet tall.):

Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths danced Clara and the Nutcracker Prince respectively, and I had seen them last year dance the principal roles in Coppélia and if I recall correctly they performed well though I wasn’t necessarily blown away (then again, maybe Coppélia is just a really underwhelming ballet in general) but they were amazing in Nutcracker! That first pas de deux when they woke up in their adult bodies and dance together in this pure, winter wonderland with Tchaikovsky’s score swelling with romanticism? Not gonna lie, I teared up a little. There, I said it. I got all schmaltzy and “emotional”—it truly was a divine experience and they had a perfect balance of youth, freedom, maturity, and regality in their movements. Who knew even I could be de-Grinched?

Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed myself, and really the only things that ended up bothering me were the “Toy Theatre” dancers (an octet of very small children) dancing to the first half of the coda music of the grand pas de deux, namely because the tiny bodies with their tiny, not-so-nimble legs failed to capture the grandeur and buoyancy of the famous melody, causing the coda to just completely deflate instead of create excitement. Also, the writhing toddler (and negligent parents) next to me didn’t exactly enhance the experience, and if you were at a certain Tuesday matinee and heard a child literally shriek from the first tier during “Sugar Plum Fairy” (the solo is actually danced by Clara in this production)…well, one guess as to who was sitting right next to her. Let’s take a moment to remember that going to the ballet is in fact a privilege, not just for you, but for many, so be ready to get something out of it—I know I certainly did. For next year, can I put a “25-and-older” Nutcracker performance on my Christmas list? Another opportunity to sell out tickets I think—pretty sure I’m not the only Scrooge in Seattle!

PS. I legitimately knew a dancer in the cast this year, as my friend’s daughter Madison Abeo was cast in the Chinese Dance, one of the coveted pointe roles for PNB School Students, so a little shout out to her—proud of ya’ girl! I even waited by the stage door with a gift to congratulate her on a good show. Meanwhile, when one of my favorite dancers walked by as I waited, I was so dumbstruck all I could do was manage an awkward smile instead of saying something nice. After my ‘Open Letter to Famous Dancers’ you’d think I would’ve learned something, but the more things change—the more I’m going to avoid my issues apparently.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Coppélia

13 Jun

Sometimes a person will have a day where they always seem to be a half step behind and today, that person was me.  I went to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Coppélia, with choreography by Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova (who danced the role and helped stage it from memory with Balanchine for NYCB).  According to the program, this is the first time Balanchine’s Coppélia has been performed outside of New York.  ‘Twas a night of firsts because it was also the first time I had ever seen a full length production of Coppélia, which means I have no idea what specific differences are compared to other stagings, but the program does mention that the third act is comprised of entirely new choreography by Balanchine.  Unfortunately I thought the third act was really out of place…but more on that later.

I should have known it would be a strange evening because for one thing, the weather was sensational—not a cloud or raindrop in sight.  In Seattle.  Seriously, Seattle.  Good news for commencement attendees at the University of Washington, including my quasi-wife who informed me that Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, co-founders of PNB received honorary degrees at today’s ceremonies.  I should have taken that as some kind of omen…not in the evil sense, only that I was in store for drama.  Unsurprisingly, next on fate’s list was missing the bus I needed to take to get home.  As I attempted to transfer from one bus to another, the bus I needed drove away as soon as I got to its door and with it, my opportunity to get home in time to change into nicer clothes.  I figured it would be better to just make it to the show because in the end, a body in the seat is better than an empty seat waiting for a late body in better clothes.  Changing plans, I made it to the Seattle Center but somehow in between the bus and the two minute walk from the bus to McCaw Hall, I lost my ticket.  Grief-stricken and panicking with bells-a-ringing, I searched my pockets and bag to no avail as time was running out.  Thankfully, the ticket window had my name on file and was able to reprint a ticket for me.

I made it into the theater, aided by the act that the first few minutes were used for an introductory speech that talked about funding and such.  However, as I entered I learned that Carla Körbes and Seth Orza would be replaced by Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths (I didn’t catch the reason why so I don’t know if it’s an injury or what have you).  Now I’ve only seen full length ballets four times in my life and so far half of them had casting changes…I think the odds are against me and of course I was a little disappointed that Körbes wouldn’t be dancing because I was so impressed with her when she danced Terpsichore and she reminds me a bit of Marianela Núñez (who I assume to be a lovely Swanilda).  Casting changes can be a little frustrating but are of course just a happenstance in ballet and honestly, I was a little preoccupied with the fact that I was sweating like a beast since I had just freaked out over ticket issues and basically ran to get to my seat as soon as possible.  Despite my trendy haircut from earlier in the day, I.  Felt.  Pretty. (as in not)

At any rate, the troops rallied and PNB put on a truly lovely production.  Foster was delightful—fussy, clever and she really shone in Act II, during the famous scene where Swanilda pretends to be a doll, starting out with stiff, mechanical movements and melting into human ones as she fools Dr. Coppelius into thinking his doll is magically coming to life.  She was also very crisp in the Act I, with some amazing, lightning quick passé and echappé work.  By Act III, I thought she looked maybe a little tentative in the female variation but I think Swanilda’s variation is deceivingly hard.  It is painfully slow and requires a lot of careful placement and the variation Foster chose to perform was one without the Italian fouettés which I actually think is more difficult because without a flashy bravura step it becomes all about balance and the pointe work.  Griffiths (as Swanilda’s love interest, Franz) did well to partner her and is quite a jumper.  He’s not particularly tall (and by that what I really mean is that he’s short) but he just ate up the stage in travelling leap combinations.  I was really impressed with how clean the jumping was, especially the way he landed in a very secure arabesque out of his cabrioles.  Exceptionally clean beats in his jumps and good control in the series of double tours at the end of his variation to boot (the same music as Aminta’s variation in Sylvia).

Now onto the rest of Act III…okay, so please tell me that not every production of Coppélia has a random attack of valkyrs in the middle of Swanilda and Franz’s wedding?  First of all, I didn’t think there was such a thing as a male valkyrie and it was the most bizarre thing to have them disrupt a wedding, dance and leave (the lead valkyr, which I think was Karel Cruz was on FIRE though…just awesome dancing).  Second of all, it made absolutely no sense.  There really is something to be said for editing a dance because despite Cruz’s prodigious technique the whole scene was just deepening the “WTF?!” frown lines on my face.  Then of course there was the children’s scene earlier on…an army of young girls in neon pink tutus (which clashed with the romantic style costumes in my opinion…I don’t like peas to touch my mashed potatoes and accordingly I don’t like my ballets to contain anachronisms).  I know I know…it’s great that the kids get a chance to participate in a big production and really I should know better than to judge them for bent knees, wonky port de bras and recognize that they’re trying to appeal to larger demographics and spark interest in kids.  But let us recall that children is one of the reasons why I avoid the Nutcracker…I really could have done without them and not because they’re young or because I think bourée on demi-pointe just looks weird, but because they were a little distracting during the solos (I think the characters were Prayer, Dawn and ???) in the third act.  They were given movements and basic formations that cramped the stage a bit  and detracted from the soloists.  For example, one of the soloists was performing a manége (a series of travelling pirouettes that move in a circle) but there was no space for it and the manége ended up too tight to really make an impact.  So I found some of the decisions questionable from an aesthetic point of view but I know the truth to be that ballet isn’t just about aesthetics.

Aside from the strangeness of Act III it really was (is, since they have one more matinee tomorrow) a fine show, with beautifully done sets and excellent dancing (minus one dancer who took an unfortunate spill tonight…I blame myself for that though because I think I brought a strange aura to the building).  Coppélia was made possible by virtue of generous gifts and I hope that’s a sign of more to come *cough MacMillan.*

And as always, kudos to the orchestra.  Live music rrrrrrrrocks!

(Visit Pacific Northwest Ballet’s website for ticket info and other tidbits…Peter Boal’s story about his experience with Coppélia is pretty neat)