Tag Archives: pacific northwest ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Modern Masterpieces’

17 Mar

As I now embark on this odyssey to see and experience ballet across America, I have to begin the journey with some stories of my final day in Seattle, which was spent entirely with people I love, from breakfast to ballet, and it couldn’t have been any better. The opening night performance of ‘Modern Masterpieces’ proved to be one of the finest shows I have ever seen at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and I don’t think it was just because of the occasion, or a certain sentimentality in knowing that I wasn’t sure when I would get to see the company again—I truly thought they were magnificent, and the program ultimately defined what a remarkable identity PNB has for itself as a stronghold of contemporary ballet.

The litmus test was taking my friend Darcy as my date, who hadn’t attended a ballet since seeing a Swan Lake when she was but thirteen, and had never seen PNB despite moving to Seattle shortly after I did (though we met about a year and half ago). I was actually excited to re-introduce ballet to her in a radically different aesthetic, for she is no stranger to the arts, so I was confident she would find something interesting in the experience, or at least enjoy the free wine and chocolates in the press room. Despite being the daughter of a professional cellist and having her own bachelor’s degree in art history, she once told me that for her, dance was her final, unexplored frontier, and it became my mission to help her navigate this strange land. The first baby step was attending a dance festival produced by small, local modern dance companies, due to her preference for contemporary arts. However, I really wanted a chance to share something with her that was on a whole different level, and a PNB mixed repertory with choreography by Balanchine, PNB balletmaster Paul Gibson, Ulysses Dove, and Twyla Tharp was exactly what I needed—it’s impossible for ANYONE to walk away from that kind of program without liking at least one of the four ballets.

After some fawning over the sparkly curtain in McCaw Hall (and she’s not my only friend to have done so), we began our foray into contemporary ballet with Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, choreographed to Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Double Violin Concerto in D minor’, and headlined by superstar Carla Körbes, and superhero Carrie Imler (the term “dynamic duo” a preposterous understatement). I had never seen Barocco before, though I of course knew of it, and figured the principal roles were cast to suit the dancers’ strengths. I took great pleasure in telling Darcy about how Carla has been regarded as one of, if not, the finest ballerina dancing in America, and that Carrie is a superhuman force of nature that is notorious for being able to do everything, because I wanted Darcy to know that we weren’t just watching pretty good ballet in Seattle—we were watching world class dancers who were highly esteemed even amongst their peers. Neither disappointed, and the corps de ballet delivered an exceptionally clean performance as well. I knew I’d like Barocco and I have to say that it included some of the most interesting patterns I’ve seen of Balanchine, and I especially loved the section where the corps link arms and slither around the principal male dancer, giving the appearance of a Gordian Knot when it turned out to be one of Balanchine’s most intricately woven feats of choreography, the effect of which is later echoed individually in a seemingly never-ending partnered promenade.

As if to have an answer to an opening set of ballerinas in white, Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces (to selections by Mozart) is a rare male corps de ballet piece, with dancers dressed in black. Though similar in structure, this piece had more room for individual expression, featuring an assortment of various solos that allowed for some breathability. A dazzling array of allegro work and some of the more rare steps alluded to Gibson’s knowledge of ballet pedagogy, but also left me feeling like the work was a bit academic. I was left wanting for more dynamics and phrasing—even an abstract work can have the shape of a narrative arc to it, and despite a tightly knit ensemble, I didn’t get a sense that certain groups of performers related to each other. Still, it was nicely performed and constructed well, and Benjamin Griffiths in particular was a joy to watch, his smile making it fully evident how much he enjoyed what he was doing on stage.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson, Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis and Eric Hipolito Jr. in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces, presented by PNB as part of MODERN MASTERPIECES, March 15 – 24, 2013.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson, Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis and Eric Hipolito Jr. in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces (Photo © Angela Sterling)

After the first intermission, we were then treated to the starkness of Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. Minimal in appearance with an emphasis on contrast (harsh spotlights and white unitards on a black stage), the choreography included some of the most interesting series of bodily pictures I have ever seen. Arvo Pärt’s haunting score (Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten) was barely more than brief, heart-rending string melodies and a single chime, but the effect is mesmerizing. I’d imagine dancing to that music is incredibly difficult because it’s so bare and repetitive, but Dove’s choreography succeeds in transfixing one’s attention the entire time. Six dancers in white engage in a series of vignettes, which Dove himself described as “a poetic monument over people I loved.” Though these pictures repeat and the music doesn’t offer highs and lows, I was shocked when at a certain point, the sextet dispersed into individual spotlights, and I just knew, “this is it—this is the end”, without any signal or build-up. It’s so spellbinding and engrossing you don’t realize how long you’ve spent in this other world until you quietly come to terms with the fact that you’ve seen everything you’re allowed. The opening night cast of Lesley Rausch, Maria Chapman, Rachel Foster, Seth Orza, Jerome Tisserand, and Andrew Bartee was PERFECT—and I really mean PERFECT. The chemistry of that ensemble was incredible, and had that magical magnetism that you can only feel and never describe.

Closing out the program was Twyla Tharp’s ‘In the Upper Room’, which could be described as a dance “experience” that includes an eclectic variety of dance styles, striped jumpsuits with red socks, and a smoke filled stage—but makes no sense in writing. Visually, however, it’s like a dream come true, with dancers materializing in and out of the haze, sometimes whimsically and at other times with reckless abandon (corps dancer Elizabeth Murphy in particular was on fire!). Coincidentally, Darcy loves Phillip Glass—like, honest to apple pie goodness, LOVES Phillip Glass, and her excitement over seeing a dance to his music was the bread and butter of the evening for her. It’s the same kind of giddiness I get from a Balanchine ballet to Tchaikovsky, and when she whispered to me “I LOVE PHILLIP GLASS!!!” for the third time as we “experienced” Upper Room, I had to marvel at this fact that two people with entirely different tastes in art, sat next to each other, saw the same thing, enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy—that’s okay too!) different things for different reasons, and most importantly, at the end of the day, were simply good friends. No fighting, no wars, not even callous “agreements to disagree”—we just had a fantastic time.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (Photo © Angela Sterling)

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (Photo © Angela Sterling)

A great deal of credit has to be given to Peter Boal for such fine programming in ‘Modern Masterpieces’. Just as the individual works typically contain their own episodic journey, the entire evening must as well, and ‘Masterpieces’ is wonderfully fulfilling artistically and psychologically. So a salute to Peter, because a lot of times artistic directors, like a President of the United States, get all the complaints when people are unhappy, and rarely any of the credit when things go well. It’s thanks to his vision that I’m happy to report Darcy was won over by seeing PNB, and wants to attend the ballet again, and may in fact, go see ‘Masterpieces’ a second time! Though she won’t replace me as a subscriber for season tickets (well, maybe for ‘Masterpieces’ she may quite literally replace me, as I gave my season ticket to her and her husband…who for the record, also loves Phillip Glass), I suppose I’ll be with her in spirit, because I’m sure I’ll tell her which programs to see and which may not be her cup of tea. Regardless, the fact that she even wants to go back is a victory for ballet and as I left Seattle the following morning, for a moment I reveled in a certain feeling that my work there was done.

JeRoméo et JuLesleyette

15 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newfangled by Nutcracker

30 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immortal words...

Immortal words…

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

-♡-

Steve

PNB: 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.

“Carlarella”

30 Sep

Today I attended the final performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of Kent Stowell’s Cinderella. Yes, I know what you’re thinking—“Steve! You avoid Prokofiev like the plague!” and that I typically do, but times are a-changing and there are things about Sergei Prokofiev that are beginning to win me over (more on this latest development for another day!). Also, if Carla Körbes is the star of the show, then it’s impossible to be disappointed. However, the unfortunate truth is that I think Stowell’s choreography and staging are quite problematic—and not just because of the Ashton trump card up my sleeve. The program notes made mention of how Stowell wanted to make a departure from the comic tragedy, opting for a more romantic interpretation, because the former and its derivatives “boast more theatrical variety than narrative or emotional cohesiveness.” Okay, so I’m a little irked by the ding at Ashton, but I’m on board for a different perspective, and I was intrigued by this production’s intention to highlight the contrast between Cinderella’s experiences in reality and her dream world. In fact, from the outset, it sounded like the kind of psychoanalysis that would blend really well with the peculiarity of Prokofiev’s melodies.

That’s not what I got. There were a lot of discrepancies between what the program notes said, and how I felt about what was presented. First of all, Stowell opted to do some compositional surgery and added other selections by Prokofiev into the score, which is always a dangerous thing to do. I don’t even listen to Prokofiev on a regular basis and wasn’t familiar with the added music at all, and the discontinuity was still pretty obvious, which never bodes well for the narrative. The main problem though, was that the choreography didn’t really match with the music or say anything about the characters. Prokofiev’s score is rich like dark chocolate, and ever so slightly bittersweet, but the choreography didn’t highlight the subtleties and was quite often “louder” than the music, either in the step itself, or as a matter of being overdone, with too many steps. This is one of my pet peeves when it comes to choreography, especially in narrative ballets—it’s not just a matter of sequencing steps together on the downbeat of the music. A ginglyform mytacism sabrages a knismesis of jentacular witzelsucht if a dompteuse estrapades its callipygian cagamosis. You can’t just string words together and assume you’re communicating a message just because a sentence is grammatically correct; likewise, the art of narrative choreography must have some kind of method beyond counting steps to the time signature of the music in order to progress the story. It’s hard because there are more literary devices to make a story interesting than there are choreographic ones, but there has to be some minimum amount of attention paid in order to avoid a haphazard-looking result. Although one of the motifs Stowell does give was too blatant—a dozen kids in pumpkin costumes encircling Cinderella, jumping on each beat to represent her midnight curfew, which is later repeated at the ball when twelve couples do the same, albeit in a prettier lift. Rather than being a novel idea, I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the obvious, which happens to be my other pet peeve.

[The final pas de deux between Cinderella and her Prince. Some pretty moments and danced with a lot of heart, but I can’t help but feel that it’s…overcooked. And as if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the pas they’re showered with glitter! (dancers are principal Rachel Foster, and former principal Lucien Postlewaite)]

 

Misuse of the score aside, rather than do something different, I found Stowell’s Cinderella to be somewhat derivative of Ashton’s after all (and just made me miss Ashton more!). The structure was relatively the same, with two comic stepsisters, fairy godmother, four seasons soloists, jester, one-dimensional prince…you know, the standard assortment. Some of the insertions into the plot include triple casting the role of the fairy godmother, as Cinderella’s mother in flashback sequences, as well as a masked fairy at the ball, performing a divertissement. The idea was to emphasize Cinderella reminiscing about her past and the likeness between her mother and the fairy (though they are not one and the same), but what does this really contribute to the story? It would be one thing if the fairy godmother WAS in fact her deceased mother, but as a godmother that looks like her? It doesn’t make sense! Cinderella’s father also plays a bigger role, showering Cinderella with affection, but then not really acting on her behalf until the final act, when he actually espies Cinderella dancing with the glass slipper, stands up to the stepmother and stepsisters, and later on presents the slipper to the prince. This, for me, was an egregious error—we shouldn’t feel any sympathy for her father, because when he is truly preoccupied with the dastardly dames, Cinderella’s isolation is highlighted, thus giving significance to her dream of falling in love with the handsome prince. Trust me, I’m an escapist (aka, professional daydreamer) and I dig the libretto for Cinderella, but that’s why her desolation is so crucial; the emotional impact of living her fantasies becomes much more effective.

I was hoping for something darker and moodier, and was practically blinded by the second act when the entire corps de ballet came out in BRIGHT red costumes. Even from my nosebleed seat in the second tier, this was hard to look at. Not to mention the fact that the stepmother was dressed in maroon, and the stepsisters in orange and coral, there was a lot of clashing in the overall color scheme. The costuming was otherwise gorgeous, although some of the theatrical changes lacked drama. Using Ashton as a reference point, he handled Cinderella’s transformation from rags to riches by actually having her change offstage during a divertissement and then reappearing fully dressed in her coach, but Stowell has the fairies simply put a cloak over her shmata-dress and send her off, appearing in her ball gown at the beginning of the next act. In Ashton, when the clock strikes twelve, Cinderella runs offstage and a double in her ragged frock runs through the scene (facing away from the audience), while Stowell has her run into the coach, which then rolls away. From a theatre perspective (and speaking as someone who had to stand backstage for high school plays like a human coat rack, with unzipped costumes draped over my limbs and safety pins in my mouth for emergencies), the effect was lackluster.

Still, I did think the entire cast was wonderful, and Carla is truly in a league of her own. I could go on and on about everything I love about her, but she has such a gift to make her performance look natural. Her character is believable because it seems so real, and the fact that she has flawless technique helps to make her the superstar she is. I’d imagine she’d be a choreographer’s dream to work with because they may ask her to do certain things, but she surely isn’t the type of dancer you’d have to wrestle it out of—one need simply ask, and she’ll just do it, and make it her own. Her Cinderella had generosity and warmth, and the way she floated through her pirouettes was absolutely heavenly. Karel Cruz, as her prince, was a quiet nobleman but no less chivalrous, and really, bravo to the entire cast for a marvelous performance. I have to say that one of my favorites, Margaret Mullin, was exceptional as Autumn—what makes her so special is the way she uses her upper body and head, which was on full display in a commanding variation where she just ate up the stage with her presence. Even when dancing in unison with the full corps you see that detailing when she does simple waltz steps and it really is a treat, so watch that space (and face).

Suffice to say, I enjoyed standout performances by PNB dancers and really the whole cast lived up to their reputation as a world-class company. A full length story ballet is a behemoth, and the amount of work, rehearsal, and effort that goes into putting on the show was all there—I just wish Cinderella could have suited them better and really showed off their finest qualities, rather than a pastiche of clichés.

Lovely Love

1 Aug

It kills me that Seattle doesn’t get live screenings of ballet, and logically it makes sense because people who live with Pacific Standard Time aren’t going to get up at 9:00am to see a live stream of a ballet—but balletomanes are illogical and I would go, so I get to be bitter. Nobody complains more about not having Ashton in Seattle more than I do, so I’m going to begrudgingly eat my sour grapes and whine as much as I want. At any rate, I did write a review of the recent broadcast of La Fille mal gardée for SeattleDances (despite our screening being months after the original live airdate), a downright scintillating and CRAZY fascinating read, so as usual, I would ask that you read that before proceeding here.

Done? Good.

Obviously, I had a great time, marred only by the lack of attendance for the screening! Well, that and the fact that an old man lay his cane across three of the best seats in the house…I thought he was saving them for someone, but no, apparently he just wanted to take up as many seats as possible. What I did find interesting—or perhaps a little disheartening—was that I didn’t see any of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s staff or company dancers in attendance. Is there really no interest in choreographers outside of Balanchine/Robbins, some after Petipa, and contemporaries? On the one hand, to be a dancer and watch dance can be a strange thing, especially when it isn’t live, but on the other, isn’t the responsibility of proactively seeking out new choreographers or repertory something that naturally comes with the job? Or maybe, nobody really even knows about these screenings (the advertising leaves a lot to be desired) or perhaps, nobody likes funny, happy story ballets here (although, I’m a total hypocrite because I didn’t go to Coppélia this season…shh, nothing!). La Fille is often referred to as “Ashton’s sunny comedy” and it has not been a summer of sun here so maybe that’s part of it too. There’s also a possibility that everybody owns the DVD like I do…but who are we kidding—that’s not likely! What is likely is that not everyone is as Ashton-obsessed as I am, and that people like to have a life outside of work. It’s not like I eat pizza when I’m off the clock—wait, correction—it’s not like I MAKE pizza when I’m not working so the problem is really just me and my expectations.

At any rate, how adorable are Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae? I loved them both tremendously in the roles of Lise and Colas, and found their chemistry quite endearing. I had only seen them before in a video of Symphonic Variations, which as an abstract, ensemble piece doesn’t (and shouldn’t) inspire any visions of romance. However, in La Fille, they can be as sweet as they want, and they certainly showed a blissful affection for each other in the iconic ribbon pas de deux. As saccharine as that pas de deux can be, I can’t help but delight in it every time I see it because it relates so well to my personal views of love. My belief is that love is something that must be created between two people, a force that is mysterious, powerful, and yet intangible, while “love” that is one-sided is what I would call an infatuation—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because an infatuation can certainly spark the beginning stages of a romance, but it alone isn’t what I would deem love. Ashton hit the nail on the head with this one, by choreographing the ribbon into a physical and visual representation of love. While many classical story ballets can leave you with questions like: “Is Albrecht truly in love with Giselle?” or “Does James love the Sylph, or is he searching for a reason to break his engagement to Effie?” or “Does Odile’s manipulation of Siegfried, thus leading to his betrayal of Odette actually confirm the fallacy of love at first sight?” there are no such questions with Lise and Colas because Ashton shows in plain sight that their love is true and pure.

Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae performing the “Ribbon Pas de Deux”:

Though I find it impossible to not be filled with hope after that pas de deux, there is another moment that always gets me, which is the one where Lise professes her love for Colas to her mother, begging her to accept their relationship. A month or two ago, I was actually watching the La Fille DVD, you know, for fun, and my eyes started welling up with tears during that scene. As comically ornery as the widow Simone may seem at times, she’s not a villainess; sexist as it is, maybe her betrothal of Lise to Alain is a way for her to ensure that Lise is taken care of (Simone is a widow after all), which renders Lise’s plea for understanding all the more powerful. Asking Simone to accept that happiness in love is far more important than anything material is a simple request for unconditional love on her part, which moved me to tears again in the theater…almost. Apparently I have this notion that I shouldn’t cry in public or in front of people I know, so I held it together, but I was close. It just goes to show that strong emotions aren’t only evoked by drama (as say, the Academy Awards would like us to believe), and that a sentimental response that arises from comedy is equally genuine and valid.

It’s a perplexing shame that La Fille mal gardée isn’t performed more regularly in the US. Major companies like San Francisco Ballet and the Joffrey haven’t revived it in decades, and ABT last did it in 2002. Houston Ballet carries the torch for the most part, performing it as recently as 2010, but something I didn’t know is that Sarasota Ballet in Florida is apparently a treasure trove of Ashton repertory! Last season alone they did five Ashton ballets (including Les Patineurs, and Two Pigeons), with an evening program featuring only his work (Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Monotones I & II, and Façade)! I’m actually mad at myself for not having a clue about the company, and next season they appear to be doing Symphonic Variations, Birthday Offering, Les Rendezvous, and yes, La Fille mal gardée with a live orchestra! GAH! Who knew?! Obviously people who live in Sarasota did and I’d be interested in hearing more about what the residents there think of the wealth of Ashton repertory that’s presented to them. While I continue to starve on the West Coast, it is comforting to know that there is an American ballet company dedicated to performing Ashton ballets as regularly as say, Balanchine (which Sarasota also does). I’ll certainly have to keep a visit to Sarasota in mind for the future—white sandy beaches and Ashton ballets? It’s very, VERY tempting…

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘New Works’

18 Mar

Spring is nearly here and my apologies for the dearth of writing! I’ve been preoccupied with poor health and finding a place to live, two things I figure should probably be higher on my list of priorities…but here I am, and ready to get back on track with a review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s latest repertory program, ‘New Works,’ featuring David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Cylindrical Shadows, and Victor Quijada’s Mating Theory. An interesting triple bill that starts with the most balletic and deconstructs into the most modern, ‘New Works’ was cleverly devised to showcase a full spectrum of ballet that is guaranteed to please…however, the opposite is generally true for mixed bills as well in that there’s usually one that an audience member (or maybe this is just me?) will vehemently dislike. I call this “the WTF?! piece” and ‘New Works’ was no exception.

David Dawson’s work is the kind of choreography dancers absolutely love—it’s virtuosic and challenging without being unreasonably difficult. What I mean by that is oftentimes virtuosity in classical ballet demands absolute precision, longer balances, more pirouettes, and heinously difficult jumps, while Kisses asks dancers to push their bodies and technique in ways that are very athletic and yet quite liberating. You can watch Kisses and easily know that Dawson himself is a heavily trained classical dancer because the steps are ones dancers love to do and nothing about the phrasing looks unnatural. In other words, the sequence of steps always makes sense, with one being followed by another that the body wants to do, so it’s almost as if the dancers can perform Kisses without having to think (I said “almost”—it’s still wickedly difficult choreography!). Kisses was definitely a breath of fresh air, stripped to the bare essentials in simple but elegant Yumiko leotards and tights in powder blue. The cast for the Sunday matinee was absolute divinity—Carla Körbes, Lucien Postlewaite, Seth Orza, Maria Chapman, Lindsi Dec, Laura Gilbreath, Sarah Ricard Orza—and a last minute casting change had Jerome Tisserand and Margaret Mullin put in and they were fabulous! It’s a great jumping piece so of course Tisserand was perfect for it and Mullin is so tidy and expressive I loved watching them both, and I think they’re well matched as partners too (though the partnering was brief in this piece). Check out some of the rehearsal footage and commentary from the dancers:

You know, it’s interesting that Jonathan Poretta brings up William Forsythe here because I read the program notes after the piece and definitely felt there was a lot of influence from Forsythe. Not surprisingly, Dawson danced for Forsythe with Ballett Frankfurt so it makes a lot of sense—may the Forsythe be with you!

Also, check out the first movement of Kisses, as performed by the Semperoper Ballet:

ETA: PNB has now posted an excerpt of the company performing Kisses:


After the first intermission came Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Cylindrical Shadows, a piece I had seen before on Olivier Wevers’s company, Whim W’Him. Ochoa smartly chose to tweak it just a little bit, adding a few more dancers to make it suitable for the larger McCaw Hall stage (as opposed to the Intiman Theatre’s smaller venue). The results were just dandy and didn’t damage the integrity of the original piece at all, and it was quite a different experience to see Shadows again, especially from a much higher perspective (literally—like, second tier high). It has to be said that Shadows is by far one of the most genuine dances I’ve seen, in that it relies on nothing to make it exceptional—not on bravura steps, contortionistic flexibility, costumes, settings, star power…no one element overpowers another so overall the piece harmoniously maintains an incredible purity. When I first saw Shadows over a year ago I didn’t process it fully but revisiting it was like seeing an old friend. This time I took notice of clockwork motifs, with arms swinging like pendulums and even simple images like the dancers standing in a circle, evenly spaced apart. Beyond the sorrow of the piece I saw a passage of time, and how life and death are just benchmarks on the time continuum, which remains consistent even when it feels like it moves at different speeds. Just beautiful work, and PNB actually released a an excerpt on film, shot outdoors in casual clothing (I was actually supposed to advertise this better, and failed—sorry!), amazingly produced and edited by their video editor Lindsay Thomas, who creates the video segments we see on their YouTube channel, but who knew she too is an artist as a filmmaker? Her editing of Cylindrical Shadows is one of the finest, most beautiful examples of dance on film I’ve ever seen.

By process of elimination you may have figured out that Quijada’s Mating Theory was my “WTF?! piece” of the afternoon. I’m sad to say that I didn’t enjoy it at all, and was disinterested by Quijada’s unique style. It’s something of a blend, described in the program by Peter Boal as “a cocktail of many ingredients that range from classical to break dance with more than a pinch of Tharp.” I don’t know how to interpret that, but I was kind of seeing zombies…like, zombie ballet dancers trying to do some hip hop, with hunched posture and lumbering steps. I definitely didn’t get a sense that it was a style that all of the dancers were comfortable with, though it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. Some had a stronger grasp on it than others, but with even just a few looking awkward it’s hard to invest any belief in the work. This is where versatility gets dicey because of course that’s something ballet companies want their dancers to have, but there is a point where it becomes fitting a square peg into a circular hole, and I have to admit that for me, Mating Theory was quite the buzzkill for what was otherwise a fantastic show. It didn’t help that the music didn’t suit my tastes at all, and was rather dull and incessant. It made me feel that like zombies, the piece wouldn’t die either and I constantly found my mind wandering (always a bad sign). There was…stuff…going on…you know, the attraction between a man or a woman or something, but it was so slow, never gaining in momentum, and to be honest I just couldn’t find a desire to care. Inevitably, this is the world of art and this particular Quijada work failed to resonate with me….maybe next time? It is kind of a shame though because this was a world premiere work for PNB, always a special occasion and something you really want to look forward to, but reality dictates that expectations can’t always be met.

An excerpt of PNB performing Mating Theory:

 

So for me, ‘New Works’ may have ended on a sour note, but I don’t think this blog should, so I’d like to draw your attention to PNB’s bloopers from filming Cylindrical Shadows. If there was an award for “Funniest Ballet Company in the World” I think a celebratory cake would be well deserved for PNB.

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!

Nut-cranky

25 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

The Masque:

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

“Silk Road” Dances:

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

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

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

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

PNB’s ‘Love Stories’…not feeling the love

29 Nov

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I’ve blogged. It’s embarrassing but this is what working two minimum wage jobs gets you (stay in school, kids!). Still, at the beginning of November I got to review PNB’s ‘Love Stories’ and about once a year I get the royal treatment from them with press tickets, complementary truffles, and wine (or in my case, San Pellegrino Aranciata—the last thing I need to be doing is falling asleep mid-performance!). Chocolates aside, I love having the opportunity to do this because I rarely get to sit at orchestra level, and with having my season tickets up in the second balcony, I get to catch a second performance and see the same ballet from vastly differing locations. This was most apparent in Le Baiser de la Fée, but before I get into the details you’re pretty much going to have to read the aforementioned semi-legitimate review over at SeattleDances because I’m not one to rehash something I’ve already written and it’s my blatant way of directing some more traffic to that site.

Under the assumption that you have now read it (because, why wouldn’t you?), I shall elaborate on some of my thoughts. First and foremost, I hope I made it clear that the programming was unimaginative, even though the dancers were amazing. There were at least two embittered audience members who knew that ‘Love Stories’ replaced the ‘All Robbins’ program that was supposed to feature Dances at a Gathering. Sitting a few rows behind Peter Boal, there may have also been plans for one to trip him as he came down the aisle, and the accomplice to pin him to the floor until our their demands were met, but in the interest of avoiding assault charges, logic prevailed. Regardless, ‘Love Stories’ definitely rubbed some sea salt into the wounds because it simply lacked continuity. A mixed bill of shorter ballets is great because there’s always “something for everyone” and it’s exciting to decide what appeals to you or not, or performing works all by one choreographer is interesting too because it offers many facets of one artist’s perspective of the world. However, “love” is much too broad a topic and even a little misleading—Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun is not about love, and neither is the pas de deux between Siegfried and Odile. Even Le Baiser de la Fée was pushing it, since it didn’t really have a narrative. Baiser could have easily been interpreted as affection between two youths, children almost, and at that age, is it really love? I mean, the title of the program isn’t ‘Narcissism, Deception, Love Stories, and One Potential.’

I hate to say this because I love and respect PNB so much but this is the first time after moving to Seattle that I’ve been really disappointed with a program. Besides the fact that the dancers were totally hosed by not getting to develop roles completely, eavesdropping on conversations during the matinee revealed my worst fears to be true. Many didn’t “get” Faun and while art is of course subjective, there are times when the artist’s intent is important and Faun isn’t entirely abstract. However, as a part of ‘Love Stories,’ semantics played a role in herding the audience into preconceived notions—there were those who did in fact find Faun beautiful (and it is), but called it “utterly romantic.” My stomach really turned though even before the show began when I overheard someone say that ‘Love Stories’ extracted “just the best parts” of each ballet. I could have screamed in horror—what, really is the best part of Swan Lake? It’s impossible to answer that and it’s the same for Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. I don’t even like the story and even I know that there are several pivotal moments throughout and my friend and I were both left wanting to see more after opening night. As for Sleeping Beauty…well, I’m not sure there’s a best part of that ballet because it’s so heinously long and chock full of divertissements, but there are definitely parts that are significantly more pleasing to watch than the Puss in Boots variation that beats you over the head with pas de chat. Not to mention, I was pleasantly surprised by the grandeur of PNB’s Sleeping Beauty and honestly, it does look like a beautiful production.

Perhaps worst of all is that inevitably, I bought into the idea of ‘Love Stories’ too because I was really excited to see Carrie Imler dance Odile. Of course, I would much rather seen her perform the whole ballet, but in a nutshell, Carrie Imler is a goddess who is ruminative, powerful, and has impeccable technique. She’s no banana-footed string bean and I like to think of her as a throwback to when ballet dancers were admired for a healthy balance of purity in technique and performance quality. Reading up on ballet history might surprise some by revealing how difficult some of the exercises were during certain eras, and even professional dancers today wouldn’t be able to do certain steps as they were described. If you recall PNB’s Works and Process presentation on Giselle, you may remember Peter Boal mentioning that Imler can do anything and a certain passage in the peasant pas de deux that was incredibly tricky and required superhuman fast feet, was one she made look completely natural. Her body awareness is extraordinary and she’s always on top of her leg and can literally stop on a dime, plus she has one hell of a lofty jump, and effortless bravura steps. When it came time for the ubiquitous fouettés, she wove doubles and triples tightly into the music and looked like she could have done even more had she chosen to. It saddens and upsets me that the inclusion of the Black Swan pas de deux cuts her off at the knees, never revealing to anyone the contrast between her Odette and Odile.

Imler in Peasant Pas de Deux (4:57, note how the original choreography in the first phrase emphasizes the crossing of the foot on the downbeat—I love that!)

Some footage of Imler in rehearsal for ‘Love Stories’ at 0:14 and 1:00 (take special note of how she finishes that manège, pirouetting on one leg and casually changing to the other on pointe like it’s nothing. I’m pretty sure that’s freakishly harder than it looks).

One of my other favorite dancers in the company, Jerome Tisserand shined in the Bluebird Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty, which he did for both performances I attended, as well as Faun. Since ‘Love Stories,’ Tisserand has been promoted to soloist, which I’ve been telling people since last year and it’s funny to me that audience members were talking about him as if he were up and coming when he’s really been that good all along. For me, the buzz was something of a bittersweet reminder that the audience was eating up exactly what they were being fed, that casting Tisserand in principal roles meant he was worthy of the promotion when he’s been long overdue based on his talent alone. Of course there are others in the audience who have noticed him as I have (and probably since he first arrived!) but it remains disheartening how passive some of the audience was in accepting what was given, never thinking to question any of it. In this instance, the programming didn’t take any risks, and a great deal of the audience chose not to think for themselves.

A snippet of Tisserand in Bluebird (begins at 1:25, note the ease and airiness of his arms at 1:57 for the brisé volé! In the video he partners Margaret Mullin, who I didn’t get to see in this, though I like her a lot)

Dark times I suppose and it’s something that weighs heavily on a lot of arts organizations in the current economic climate especially. Tamara Rojo was recently a part of a panel discussing the future of dance in the UK, though she spoke of ballet in America briefly and so accurately describes what the probable situation is and I feel it’s relevant to share her wisdom here:

Corporations and private funders don’t want to take risks. They want to take their friends to a very safe show that ends well, is not going to offend anybody, and is a great celebration of their economic success…in America, it has translated, in my opinion to the death of any artistic vision. There is no risk taking in the great ballet companies, there’s nothing new being created, it’s constantly Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet—and I love those ballets—I do them all the time myself, but unless we invest in new unknowns, there will be no future Romeo and Juliets, there will be no future Swan Lakes, there will be no future for the arts.

Those pieces of work survive for good reason and the audience goes to see them for very good reasons. However, it is my personal opinion that in an organization that has that [funding] cushion, you ought to take risks but the responsibility lies entirely on the artistic directors. It is not in the funding bodies, it is not for them to tell us how to spend that money and it’s very good that there’s an ‘arm’s length’ policy [for the Royal Ballet] where they don’t tell us how to spend that money so if we want to look at why these companies are not putting on more creative programs, it is actually a personal decision by an artistic director and that is the person that has to answer for the programming being seen.

Meanwhile, can I just point out that when Tamara said that there would be no future great classics, Sleeping Beauty was not mentioned again? Intentional—I’m sure of it!