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Balancing the Balanchine Machine

23 Apr

Last night I attended Pacific Northwest Ballet’s All Balanchine program, featuring Serenade, Square Dance and The Four Temperaments.  I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to finally see Balanchine choreography live.  As much as I love to forage for ballet videos online or rent various media from the library, NOTHING compares to a live performance.  I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to take a stroll down to Seattle’s Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, a beautiful, prismatic venue and see one of the nation’s top companies in action.

I have to say, Seattle audiences offer a distinct brand of casualness that had this people-watcher both smiling to himself and shaking his head in dismay.  There were people in attendance who looked like they had just emerged from the forest, fresh from hiking a five mile trail.  I’m talking blue jeans, backpacks, water bottles and the essential black North Face fleece jacket.  Some say an outsider’s inability to pronounce nearby city names like Issaquah or Puyallup easily denotes a newcomer to Seattlean lands, but as a visual person I find that the lack of the North Face pullover or the presence of a tan complexion are almost as telling without having to engage in conversation about the local geography.  Of course there were also people who glammed up for the evening, which many feel is also a sign of respect for the performers.  As for me, I was somewhere in the middle, neither here nor there because I am still unfamiliar with the culture of the local folk.

Disappointment came not in how people were dressed but in the numbers themselves.  I realize Thursdays are perhaps not the most popular night to do indulge in the arts but come on Seattle!  I bought a ticket maybe half an hour before the show, sat dead center in the second tier and was utterly dismayed when the curtain came up after realizing that the second tier was maybe 10-15% full.  This is bigger than a travesty, it’s a TRAVESTY.  An ultra travesty even!  PNB is a great company with amazing talent…the very fact that there were so many empty seats makes me feel like the people of this city takes the company’s presence for granted.  So take it from an outsider Seattleites…you have it good and you should take care of your ballet company before it’s too late.  From what I’ve read, PNB is reducing the number of performances they will do of each program next season, supposedly due to financial pressures and given the lack of Thursday attendance it’s not surprising they have economic concerns.  It’s already begun; who knows what additional cuts may have to be made until they can find more stability.

At any rate, the show opened with Serenade, a signature Balanchine work that I had only seen pieces of before so I had some idea of what to expect.  Even so, as Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C began to play and the curtain went up to reveal a neat assemblage of dancers in perfect diagonals, holding out one arm with the palm facing out I couldn’t help but get chills from the sheer beauty of it all.  It had a majestic simplicity that drew audible gasps from the crowd, despite the fact that none of the dancers had even moved yet.  Serenade is a perfect example of why Balanchine’s choreography is so special; the way he layers phrases of movement with the structure of the music itself, overlapping one group of dancers into another to create these geometric onstage relationships is uncannily pleasing to the eye.  But as the ballet began to unfurl before me it became clear what makes Serenade perhaps a little different from the others.  The ballet takes on a life of its own and becomes this living, breathing spirit that harmonized the organic and ethereal.  It’s like watching this gargantuan flower blossom in front of you, but it too must die and accordingly so does the ballet.  But we don’t stop enjoying the flowers every spring and somehow the same sense of renewal can be found in Serenade.  I shouldn’t read too much into it though because Balanchine insisted that there is no narrative for the ballet.

After the first intermission came Square Dance, which I read just a smidgen about in NYCB dancer Kyle Froman’s book Waiting in the Wings where he briefly discusses what it’s like to dance the piece.  After reading the program notes (a mistake, perhaps) I found myself quite confused.  If someone told you there’s a ballet that mixed 17th century court dance, classical ballet and American Western folk dance to music by Vivaldi and Corelli, what would you make of it?  I was conjuring strange images of poofy dresses and bolo ties but it turns out I was way off the mark.  The title was somewhat misleading but more importantly I think Balanchine sought to capture the spirit of 17th century court dance and square dance, perhaps drawing attention to the fact that no matter what the dance form is, there is something about the relationship between the people in the physical act of dancing that is the same.  That’s probably why so many dance forms have popped up all around the world in the first place; we have an insatiable, universal need to connect with people through music and dance.  The highlight of this piece though was an incredible solo by principal Lucien Postlewaite, for whom it seems the solo was written for.  Set to Arcangelo Corelli’s Sarabanda, the solo is somber and lyrical with luxurious arching backwards, which isn’t the type of movement typically given to men.  Neither is lifting the leg to the side in a high developpé a la seconde and I have to say Postlewaite has some serious a la seconde if you know what I mean…and I don’t mean that it was good because it was extraordinarily high, but the way in which it filled the empty space and arrived into the line is what made it breathtaking.  Man I was jealous!  Anyway, who knew Balanchine could make something sensitive for men?

Closing out the night was The Four Temperaments, which I was really excited for because I love Paul Hindemith music.  While not consistently a fan of Balanchine’s so called “black and white ballets” (for those unfamiliar with the term, Balanchine choreographed several ballets where instead of costumes or tutus, he had the dancers where their practice leotards and tights, in the standard black leotards/light pink tights for the women and the men in white shirts/black tights/white shoes and socks.  It was kind of a scandal at the time), I thought Hindemith’s score would make things interesting for me.  Unfortunately it ended up being my least favorite of the night because sometimes the black and white ballets seem a little insubstantial to me and there just isn’t enough chutzpah.  It’s like going to the grocery store and finding Peanut Lovers Chex Mix when you really wanted Bold Party Blend.  Or not.  The black and white ballets often feature bizarre movements like turning in, flexed feet and hunching over which I did find fascinating at first and all throughout I sensed an integrity towards Hindemith’s score but admittedly I wanted some fireworks.  And not necessarily bravura steps but just some more dynamics.  Much of the piece places focus on just a pair of dancers doing smaller movements and it’s kind of like watching some of the bioluminescent weirdoes in the deepest parts of the ocean you’d see in nature documentaries.  Or not.

At any rate, I had a fantastic evening and felt like it was a wonderful welcome to what the city of Seattle has to offer.  I am looking so forward to attending more PNB performances in the future I’m almost back in the Eastern time zone.  And given the lifts the dancers performed at the end of Square Dance, I’ve discerned that my beloved Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is most defos a reality.  One day, one day.

Meanwhile, PNB has a few more performances of All Balanchine this weekend.  Ticket info can be found at their website: http://www.pnb.org/