Tag Archives: chalnessa eames

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “New/Old” Giselle

5 Jun

I feel very distraught over blogging about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s world premiere staging of Giselle, because it’s such a beloved ballet and this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill production unique to a particular company—a lot of scholarly work went into it to the point of warranting a presentation at the Guggenheim. Furthermore, it’s the star attraction for the Dance Critics Association Conference this year, which is focusing on the topic of reconstruction, which means there are a lot of people who will be here next weekend discussing things it in intelligent ways. In the face of tremendous pressure, I can only arm myself with the fortitude gained from half a dozen Snickers ice cream bars.

As far as the academic approach is concerned, I think PNB did an excellent job of providing educational materials for the audience. The program is chock full of information, including the libretto, program notes, a historical timeline of Giselle, a three page article with photos of the original Titus, Justapant, and Stepanov manuscripts, and a breakdown of the score and sources of choreography (which is a mish-mash of the above three with interpolations by Peter Boal). It was almost too much information, even for me, who has interest in such fine details. However, one of the cooler things was the ‘Mime Guide,’ which had illustrations of many of the gestures used throughout. Here is but a small close up (sorry for the awful picture, I don’t own a scanner so this will have to do):

The one for wings I don't think I've seen before.

For the mime lovers out there, this Giselle has the most miming I’ve ever seen in my entire life. There was even some miming before the show, as Peter Boal did a funny bit where he used miming to encourage the audience to donate money. As for mime in the performance itself, for better or worse it really slows the pace of the ballet (granted, I’m not always the most patient person). While I respect mime’s historical significance in ballet, it kind of drives me crazy…but I will say that the mime in this production makes a lot of sense musically. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing artistically, which is where the production runs into some problems—the artistic and the logical just seemed to be at odds several times throughout. Clearly, the notations used are indicative of a Giselle that was more focused on telling what would have been viewed as a coherent story at that time, and the edited versions we see today have moved far more into the realm of fantasy. However, depending on what you want to get out of the ballet, you could also see this as a more integrated story with a more sensible plot. It’s kind of like how movies and television, even sci-fi or fantasy still reflect our society in recognizable ways. The modern Giselle to us is a romanticized anachronism but if ballet fulfilled the role of entertainment in the nineteenth century than perhaps it needed to have more instances of sequential action.

Aside from the copious amounts of pantomime, I found Act I to be familiar enough, probably the one major difference being the timing in the mad scene. Normally, there’s that chaotic flurry of notes where Giselle will burst through between Bathilde and Albrecht in melodramatic fashion, but that’s not what happened here. Instead, the mad scene is more of a gradual deterioration of Giselle’s sanity, and internalized for a time before she starts reliving her romance with Albrecht. Major differences did show up, however, in additional scenes in Act II. Some productions of Giselle still do the scene with the hunters in the woods before they are scared off by the Wilis but probably not to this extent, and there is a second scene where a handful of incorrigible youths engaging in tomfoolery are warned by an old man of the Wilis, who they barely manage to escape from when the latter appear. Also, Wilfride accompanies Albrecht when he arrives at Giselle’s grave and finally at the very end, Bathilde and few of the noblemen arrive, in a brief reconciliation where the fading ghost of Giselle indicates to Albrecht that he should return to Bathilde.  The closing tableau is of Albrecht lying on the ground and facing Giselle’s grave, but with one arm extended behind him to Bathilde, who rests her head on it.

In terms of fleshing out the plot my brain was telling me the Act II additions made sense, but in the end I found them problematic because they kind of marred the sanctity of the ballet blanc. They also simultaneously undermined and enhanced the threat of the Wilis, because there was some really neat choreography in the scene where the youths and old man encounter them, but the overall effect is almost a little goofy because those characters are indeed a bit comical. Given, some stagings can take the ballet blanc too far and make it much too moony, but what I like about keeping Act II as “pure” as possible is that it has such a poetic effect. I also find such an Act II much more fascinating because it can be seen as a metaphor for dealing with grief; Hilarion succumbs to it and Albrecht must live with his remorse. However, the most interesting way to look at it would be to see the Wilis as a manifestation of that grief, which raises the question of whether they’re even real or not. Perhaps Hilarion and Albrecht were so beside themselves with sorrow, they danced (or nearly danced) to their deaths, and the Wilis were mere figments of their imaginations. I find that to be a neat juxtaposition of literal insanity in Act I with Giselle’s mad scene, to a prolonged, psychological hallucination that would be Act II. This is of course impossible to do with this version of Giselle because the additional interactions make the Wilis very real.

The "ballet blanc" or "white ballet," with Maria Chapman as Myrtha. (the Wilis' veils were flown away on wires!) Photo ©Angela Sterling

Artistic controversies aside, I’ve been worried all along that as a company that trains in the method a la Balanchine that Romantic era ballet would expose some weaknesses and it did. Overall, I think the company was just way too ahead of the beat, arriving early in certain positions and not finding ways to “fill the music” with their arms (more evident in Act I than Act II). Also, of course the open hip arabesque made a few appearances, like in the beginning when Giselle and Albrecht first dance together (in what one of my teachers called “the most notorious 6/8 in all of ballet”), I was at first interested by how low they kept their legs in the ballottés because it drew attention to the action of the feet, but on the fourth one where the dancers do an arabesque in demi-plié—zoom!—there it was. What was kind of odd was that Kaori Nakamura showed that line in the penchés in her first solo where I think she looked just a little tentative, but she was much more square in Act II and I thought she looked sensational. She was one of the dancers that really stood out to me as having the patience in musicality. (Update: I found out that Kaori’s shoe broke right before her solo! Considering the circumstances, she handled it like a pro!)

Lucien Postlewaite and Kaori Nakamura in Giselle. Photo ©Angela Sterling

Lucien Postlewaite was superb as Albrecht, although due to my issues with Act II toning down (if not eliminating) the tragedy, I don’t know that the production did his sincerity justice. For some reason, he does remind me a bit of Alina Cojocaru…he has a bit of that doe-eyed youthful look, but with a significant splash of devilry—like if Alina had a mischievous brother. Lucien showed marvelous batterie in Act II, and I really liked Albrecht’s choreography here…it was kind of weird to see the cabriole series (which normally come after Giselle’s iconic soubresauts) in the variation in lieu of the diagonal with double tours, but it wasn’t a bad change and overall there were a lot of jumps that aren’t seen so often in male dancing anymore. Lucien did do the entrechat sixes, and I didn’t want to count them but I knew you people would want to know and the answer is sixteen. They were followed by tour jeté city and a manège for good measure, in a truly exhausting danse macabre. I have to say that Albrecht spends a lot of time on the ground for this one, falling to the floor a grand total of something like four times (looks like my black cat powers are getting stronger…I swear, every time I see him!).

Lucien’s Albrecht variation:

In other news, a gold star for Jerome Tisserand, who was flawless in the Peasant Pas de Deux. He has the upper body carriage that is well suited for Romantic ballet, and though he is a corps member he did perform as Franz in Coppélia last year and I was really hoping he would get to do Albrecht, but unfortunately not this time around. I hope he rises through the ranks and gets promoted so he can have that opportunity in the future. I also enjoyed Chalnessa Eames as Berthe because she really invests a lot into her acting, as did Jeff Stanton in the role of Hilarion (they’re both leaving at the end of the season and will definitely be missed!).

Well, that just about wraps it up, though I have some links of interest if you’re hungry for more, including an archived video of the Works and Process presentation at the Guggenheim, as well as Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel, which has several great videos of rehearsal footage and dancer interviews about Giselle.

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.)