Tag Archives: maria chapman

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.

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.

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.

Long Overdue Review for DonQ

13 Feb

For the past two weekends, Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote has been a major hit in Seattle. I attended the first Saturday evening performance, where the buzz was already apparent after Act I—with the exception of the bitter couple that left their orchestra level seats in front of some friends of mine during the first intermission (take a wild guess who was then “upgraded” from second tier to orchestra!). To be honest I probably could’ve agreed with those people about the ballet at one time in my life because DonQ isn’t exactly on my list of favorites. In fact, I rather despised it, with its bland (but irritatingly catchy) Minkus score and its hackneyed plot. Given, few things about ballet are logical, but DonQ pushed it to the extreme for me and when I watched the Baryshnikov staging on film, I was underwhelmed. However, I can honestly say that I enjoy a great deal of Ratmansky’s version and had a wonderful time watching Pacific Northwest Ballet be the one to premiere it in America.

One of the most difficult challenges for this production though was choosing which cast to see! A few of my favorite dancers were in the lead roles, like Carla Körbes, Carrie Imler, and Lucien Postlewaite, but of course never with each other! Ultimately, I decided to see Imler because I hadn’t seen her in a full-length story ballet before as I have with both Körbes and Postlewaite. Before all else, it has to be said that Imler is an absolute treasure in the ballet world—she’s not a string bean contortionist or a petite porcelain doll—no, she’s a throwback to what the women of ballet used to be, and embodies the qualities that made them legendary. She has a flair that conjures images of the Soviet greats from the 1960’s, combined with thoughtful acting, marvelous technique, and a huge jump (I’ve espied her in company class holding her own with the men, and in some cases her jumping was even better). In a nutshell, she’s old school, it’s glorious, and there aren’t enough dancers like her out there today.

Unfortunately, I felt like casting was an issue because there didn’t seem to be a suitable partner for Imler. Batkhurel Bold was cast as the Basilio to her Kitri, and he’s a big guy known for his jumping as well, but he’s not exactly praised for his acting abilities. I really hate to say this because I’ve read so many reviews of his dancing before where he’s just criticized out the wazoo for not being the most expressive actor…but it’s true. It’s not as though there’s only one way to play Basilio, but I do think that he’s a character that at the very least requires charisma. It’s for that reason alone that I found it disappointing that Jonathan Porretta was not cast as Basilio—Porretta is one of PNB’s most vivacious performers and had the audience in stitches as Kitri’s absurd, French poodle of a suitor Gamache. I suspect type casting (Porretta is openly gay), though it’s possible that because of that ridiculously unfair one-arm lift in Act I, that logistically, the assumption was that there wasn’t a partner short enough for him. It’s ironic because the one-arm lift proved to be problematic for Bold as well, and I’m surprised that it wasn’t adjusted to something that could be accomplished cleanly. The ease in which a movement is executed is first and foremost in ballet and any overhead lift would have achieved the same dramatic effect, especially because in that awkward open second position Kitri does in the air, her dress ends up obscuring Basilio’s arm anyway. Towards the end of this clip, you can see Nakamura/Postlewaite performing this beastly lift:

 

Before I go back to gushing over Imler, I’m so glad that PNB posted the above video so we could get a glimpse at the Nakamura/Postlewaite partnership too. I had a feeling Postlewaite would be a very charming Basilio, and Nakamura is deliciously feisty. I adored those two in Giselle, but remembered that Nakamura/Porretta were fantastic in Le Baiser de la Fée and it would have been nice to see them in DonQ together as well. In fact, Imler/Postlewaite were amazing in Black Swan Pas from that same program, and it makes me wish that principal casting for DonQ could have been the same. Porretta would have even been great as Espada too, but no such luck there either.

Speaking of Espada, Jerome Tisserand was absolutely brilliant. When he was performing you literally couldn’t look at anyone else because his presence was so commanding. It was quite an auspicious occasion too because while his promotion to soloist has been known of since the end of last year, Saturday night was when it was consecrated on stage, and Peter Boal had him take bows before the show, and dressed in full costume he was almost in character the way he just lifted his arms, invoking a strong desire to shout “¡Olé!” He was perfect, as was Maria Chapman as the Queen of the Dryads. Soft and elegant, she did a tour jeté during one of her solos where her upper body was such at ease she was gliding rather than jumping. In that same scene, Rachel Foster was delightful as Cupid (even though I still hate that stupid wig she has to wear). However, it was in this scene in particular, where the ease in which Imler dances was especially apparent. The thing about Imler is that she makes things look so deceptively easy—whether it’s the suspension in her jumps or the sureness of her balance, she’s never shifting around to find her footing or exerting herself in a series of leaps.

Also in Act III, where Kitri and Basilio unleash the bravura in the ubiquitous wedding pas de deux, Imler was on. She has some of the best chaînés turns I’ve ever seen, which is kind of funny because it’s an underrated step—it’s always the first turning movement dancers learn in ballet, which also makes it the one prone to a lot of bad habits. Not so with Imler, who tightens the line through her legs and spots with dynamism. Obviously, her thirty-two fouettés were perfect, weaving in consistent doubles throughout while opening and closing a fan, sneaking in a triple when the music changed after the first sixteen, but it was probably her manége, where she performed simple piqué turns in a circle where she was most impressive. For those unfamiliar with the piqué turn it’s a common step where a dancer basically steps to the side onto a straight leg into a pirouette (rather than bending their knees and springing up into one), and sometimes that step gets big enough to be a little jump, and sometimes if you’re Carrie Imler you practically leap into them with crazy speed, never wavering in the slightest. It almost felt like the nail in the coffin for Bold, who was already at a disadvantage because of his quiet personality, but to have Imler looking so effortless made his incredibly difficult jumps look like work. As grand as they were, the exertion in doing them was also apparent.

All in all, I really enjoyed myself and the show was definitely highlighted by Imler, Tisserand, Poretta, and the majority of the cast, with much credit due to the acting of Tom Skerritt as Don Quixote and the comedic flourishes of Allen Galli as Sancho Panza. It was brilliant to generate some publicity with the involvement of a mainstream actor, and hopefully appeal to new audiences. After the success of Giselle, it seems Seattle audiences are excited by the inclusion of yet another new production of a story ballet to the repertory. I, for one, rather like this trend!

Now, it’s personal…

4 Aug

I’ve been avoiding writing something about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s DVD of A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I really felt like it was only yesterday that I reviewed a live performance by them…but that was in April, which was longer ago than I thought. First, I have to say that whoever made it happen so that the Seattle Public Library finally obtained some copies of PNB’s production—thank you! I don’t know if my “suggestions” had any impact on the library’s fairly recent acquisition of it, but I’ll let my ego inflate a la Oberon. If you’ve read here long enough, you may recall that I have watched the La Scala production with Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle, and in retrospect, that was a mistake! La Scala’s Midsummer is quite bland in comparison, hindered greatly by unimaginative sets that suck the charm out of the entire ballet. Although Ferri and Bolle are beautiful dancers, I don’t know that their performances really enhanced the production either. Having heard Francia Russell say that she didn’t like working with La Scala (she was not however, the one to restage Midsummer for them), as well as Lady Deborah MacMillan’s difficulties in working with them (a controversy over compromising the creativity of the set designers, coincidentally), La Scala seems to have a lot of woes they need to sort out for some of their ballets.

Anyway, the point is La Scala’s Midsummer didn’t really leave a great impression, but I’m learning to love Balanchine’s ballet, which is quite unusual for me because my opinions can be rather stubborn. I actually watched about three-fourths of PNB’s DVD before falling asleep at my computer, so the next day I watched only Act II, which proved to be a much more fulfilling experience, since it is rather disconnected from the story anyway. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying I love Act II now, and for me, the Divertissement Pas de Deux was the highlight of the DVD (though I still love Oberon’s Scherzo in Act I). Watching the DVD with fresh eyes also provided a revelation—I had seen the Divertissement Pas before! Back in my golden years as a newly minted student of dance at Ohio State University, I took “Dance 161: Dance and Theatre, 1945 to Present” with Annie Kloppenberg and Ashley Thorndike (who I have to take a moment to thank, because they told me from the beginning that I had a gift as a dance writer), and in that class one of the video clips we watched was this very Divertissement Pas. I remember now because Annie specifically pointed out to us the partnered cabrioles, and asked us to think about what we thought the meaning of that movement was. I wish I could remember what I thought, because at that time, like ninety-nine percent of the class, I had no idea what a cabriole was!

Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers in the Divertissement Pas de Deux (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

My personal journey with Midsummer is proving to be a strange one with some odd twists of fate. I’m now positive that the Divertissement Pas was in fact my first experience in watching Balanchine choreography. In the film, the pas is danced by Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers, the latter of whom I would eventually meet and see perform it live ten years later in one of his farewell performances. In addition to Wevers, Jeff Stanton (Demetrius), Ariana Lallone (Hippolyta), and Batkhurel Bold (Theseus) would reprise the same roles from they did at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the performance I saw at McCaw Hall. There were a lot of other goodies too, like Kaori Nakamura as Butterfly (she did the Divertissement Pas with Wevers in April), and a handful of dancers I spotted in the corps like Carrie Imler, Maria Chapman, and Mara Vinson went on to become principal dancers (though Vinson retired from PNB last year). On top of that, several of the dancers like Paul Gibson, Timothy Lynch, Julie Tobiason, and Alexandra Dickson are people I’ve taken class from! It’s probably one of the most amazing things about the ballet world, how traditions are spread and passed from one to another and in a way, I almost feel connected to Midsummer now, even as an outlier on this vast and intricate web. Or maybe I’m just getting mushy and sentimental, but I definitely have a newfound nostalgia for the Divertissement Pas in particular and thus I’ve come to understand more that ballet survives when we can make the experience of viewing it personal, and that as a ballet student, even recreational, I would do well to remember the legacy that is passed on via teaching in the studio.

Overall, it’s nice DVD with some of PNB’s most legendary ballerinas, like the lovely Nadeau, Lallone, and of course Patricia Barker as Titania. I only moved to Seattle after Barker retired, and have only heard things—which I find to be true. She really is not the most emotive dancer via facial expressions, but she has some of the longest lines I’ve ever seen, and has an uncanny ability to move like water and contrast that fluidity with real attack to certain steps. It’s all a matter of taste though, as I’m the type of audience member who zeroes in on faces before anything else (then feet I suppose), so it’s important to see appropriate animation in a dancer’s face and eyes and I didn’t get that from Barker all the time…it was there in some moments and in others a little vacant. However, it could be considered a more enigmatic approach and one way to get an audience to see how you express yourself through your body. Barker was partnered by Paul Gibson as Oberon, who I felt gave a well-rounded performance, with sharp technique and fortitude in the mime. He’s not one blessed with long limbs, a freakish turning ability, or the highest jumps but he executes everything clarity and belief, so it’s a virtually faultless performance. The company as a whole looked so well rehearsed that it would be easy to sit back and enjoy—were it not for some artistic issues with the story. I know it’s sacrilege, but for me Midsummer contains a great deal of beautiful dancing that delights, but can’t do much more than that because it’s simply stretched too thin to elicit a deeper, emotional investment (Divertissement Pas aside).

Still, I learned my lesson though—they say you can’t judge a book by its cover and I should really know better than to judge a ballet by a first viewing even if it’s guaranteed that visceral reactions to any number of ballets will ensure I’ll make the same mistakes again in the future, and won’t be able to find some personal meaning each time, which is okay too because conviction in oneself is also a good thing. So check it out from your library! If they don’t have it, complain like I did–results require putting the idea out there in the first place!

Or at the very least, check out the trailer: