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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.

Pacific Northwest Ballet: ‘Director’s Choice’ Review

3 Oct

Welcome to October, and the beginning of what I shall deem “Reader Appreciation Month.”  As far as I’ve planned (which truthfully isn’t that far in advance) I’m dedicating every entry I write this month to faithful and friendly readers.  I’ve been inspired by a few suggestions of what readers have said they would like to see and have actually begun the process of doing the necessary thinking and research—it’s pretty exciting for me.  However, to kick off the festivities I shall be doing a review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s October 2nd performance of their season opener, “Director’s Choice,” which includes works by Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato and Jerome Robbins.  I dedicate this entry to Karena, who tolerated me in class, taught me things I needed to know, continues to encourage my potentially unhealthy obsession with ballet and simply told me that she wanted to hear my thoughts on the show.

First of all, I have to say it’s been months since Coppélia and I’ve been dying without live performances.  Dying.  So I was really looking forward to this.  It was also a night of firsts for me, as I’ve never seen Kylián, Duato or Robbins ballets live before.  I have seen the film version of Petite Mort (performed by the Nederlands Dance Theatre), and actually this is one of the first dances I ever saw, way back in the heyday of my introductory ballet classes, so I have a particular affection for it.  While I wasn’t as familiar with dance vocabulary at the time (as in, I knew virtually nothing) I remember falling in love with the piece and more specifically the mood of it.  The whole dance is washed in beautiful golden tones and has the most cleverly devised choreography.  Now having seen it live, I see with a new perspective how Kylián can take movements that should look (and feel) awkward like bent elbows, turned in legs, flexed feet etc. but give them a musical place and flow that makes them just as graceful as any romantic ballet step.  What’s more, it’s the way in which he manipulates those movements with classical lines that creates a visual feast for the eyes.  What I found most fascinating was his use of symmetry—symmetry down the middle of a single body or mirrored lines that were formed between two dancers.  The symmetry was not just vertical either, but horizontal, on varying angles and crisscrossing that created a kaleidoscopic effect—even if you turned your head just a little bit the shapes would take on a new life.

I was a little nervous for PNB because they started the dance a little jittery tonight.  Towards the beginning of the dance the male dancers pull a gigantic piece of billowing fabric from the back of the stage to the front and when they run to the back of the stage again, it’s as if the smoke clears to reveal a group of female dancers lying on the floor.  Unfortunately, a couple of the dancers were a little late and I could see them hurriedly laying down which may seem like I’m nitpicking a detail, but you have to understand that Petite Mort is Kylián’s spell—which can easily be broken.  In that sense, his choreography is so fragile because timing is paramount.  However, such is the nature of live performance and the whole fabric thing is repeated a second time in the dance and they pulled it off flawlessly.  I enjoyed the rest of the piece immensely and it is so gratifying to have seen it on living, breathing people.  That being said, I think the film version is still excellent, and can’t stress how much you should watch it, like right now:

After Petite Mort came Kylián’s Sechs Tänzes, which is speaking my language…a ballet comedy if you will, and I have to say that I was impressed.  Dancing a lot of Balanchine can make one…I hate to say wooden, but perhaps a little frigid just because of the nature of the Balanchine repertory.  However, PNB assembled a great lineup of comical dancers that delivered a wonderfully lighthearted performance, matching note for note with Mozart’s Six German Dances.  The piece is absolutely ridiculous—in the good way.  From the powdered wigs to the bubbles at the end, the audience was clearly into the humor and of course you know I was.  In many ways I identified with this piece quite a bit on a personal level and feel that it somehow legitimizes my whimsical nature and the way in which I live my life.  So many thanks PNB for your performance of Sechs Tänzes on this fine evening was a real treat.

Now I was on a high after that and Nacho Duato’s Jardí Tancat was a real buzz kill.  I have to be honest in that I didn’t feel that the piece really matched the occasion, if that makes sense.  It’s something I could see being much more interesting to me in a small studio theater, up close in a performance where I expect modern dance but it really sticks out in a ballet company’s repertory.  Apparently it’s a “fan favorite” amongst PNB patrons, which I have a hard time believing…although tonight’s cast was stacked with principals so maybe I’m missing something after all.  As earthy as the residents of this city are though, I’m unable to convince that Jardí Tancat is something people would want to see over and over again. Don’t get me wrong…it was really well danced and the movement quality was there but problems for me ranged from limited use of the stage and just bland choreography.  I don’t know what the logic is behind it, but what I do know is that this proves Seattle is in desperate, and I mean DESPERATE need of Tudor and MacMillan ballets.  It’s not that Tudor or MacMillan ever choreographed anything of the same nature, but I think the level of sophistication they achieved in their works is what Jardí Tancat seeks and for me, fails to achieve.  Duato does have works that I absolutely adore, and he can waltz into the Mikhailovsky and be all “none of you have ever danced” but quite frankly, all I can say is when I win the lottery, I’m donating a huge chunk to PNB’s “Tudor/MacMillan Fund.”  Actually, make that “ATM” for “Ashton/Tudor/MacMillan Fund.”

Meanwhile, the night closed with Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces, which thankfully proved to be the highlight of the evening.  It’s a piece that sort of describes an urban hustle to minimalist music by Philip Glass, with dancers dressed in color against a stark, white graph paper backdrop.  It’s divided into three sections, each of which focused on a particular grouping, though there were many bodies on stage.  For example the first, Rubric, points out three different couples who I wish I could name but because I sit far up in the balcony I can’t see too much in terms of facial characteristics so I’ll by the colored unitards they were wearing, which I shall describe as Gold, Sunburn and Spring.  Springman had the biggest jumps but it was Sunburnman who I thought displayed this effortless, effortless, positively effortless technique.  The way he did his grand battements was too easy—it’s like when my friend Magelachachka (and yes, I do call her that to her face) would say at barre: “lifting your leg up takes…so much work.”  I know it’s cliché, but Sunburnman was born to dance because work doesn’t describe him at all.  As three couples they had wonderful interactions aided by Robbins’s extraordinary choreography.  What I love about Robbins’s ballets is that he selects the most appropriate movements and is very reserved when it comes to the big, flashy, bravura steps.  There’s a real sense of contrast and a love for transitional steps that you don’t always see (though this is more apparent in the last section).

The second section focused on a single couple, dressed in scarlet and gray (Go Bucks!), featuring the divine Miss Carla Körbes, who I could recognize.  I’m telling you, this woman moves like a goddess of the clouds.  I lost count of how many times I got chills during her pas de deux with fellow principal Batkhurel Bold, because she has a lyricism that can’t be taught.  Credit must also be given to Bold as well because despite one’s own talents, beautiful dancing in a lift can’t be achieved if you can’t trust the one holding you up.  It’s interesting because the pas de deux is not romantic at all, but they still have chemistry in their partnership.  What’s also interesting is that because it’s not romantic, there has to be a certain intangibility to it while maintaining a lyrical quality.  I think it’s actually quite a complex “role” in that it’s not a role at all but requires a similar sensitivity in the technique.  Miss Körbes is a revelation and as PNB looks to really expand their repertory this season by doing a shockingly small amount of Balanchine and doing a romantic ballet with Giselle, I’m predicting that she will be the superstar Giselle come June 2011.  Although to be fair, I’m pretty sure a lot of people are thinking the same thing…

At any rate, the third section featured the corps de ballet, in a truly kaleidoscopic interpretation of the organized chaos that is a developed infrastructure.  While not explicitly dancing as vehicles or machines, I think systematized, linear movements that gave the feel of advanced technology and economic prosperity achieved the effect.  The end had the dancers turning in all kinds of directions, weaving in and out of each other like clockwork and despite its frenetic appearance it was never haphazard…always meticulously placed to contribute to the bigger picture like the pieces in a mosaic.  I thought it was flawless (minus a mini-spill a dancer in orange tights took…which I only noticed because I have freakish hawk eye vision for uncharacteristic movement.  He actually recovered remarkably well) and despite never being a Philip Glass fan (not a hater, but not a fan) I really came to appreciate his score.  Normally I like a melody, with a beginning, middle and end but his music was symbiotic with the dancing…they were meant for each other.

I had a great time…and did I mention how awesome it is to be seeing live dance again?  I would recommend that you go, but chances are if you’re in Seattle and you read this blog, you go to all of PNB’s shows anyway and if you wait for my reviews you’re giving me more credit than one should give.  There is but one more show in like…eleven hours.  Have fun with that.