Tag Archives: paul gibson

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.

Now, it’s personal…

4 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or at the very least, check out the trailer:

The Prince and the Pauper

27 Mar

This is not a post, as the title may suggest, on reasons why Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper should be a ballet (though the idea has merit).  It is how I would describe my recent experiences with seeing Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Contemporary 4.  I guess I earned my balletomane stripes these past couple of weeks, because I’ve finally graduated to that level of crazy where one sees the same ballet more than once, in order to see different casts.  Although contemporary ballets are often not the best medium for really identifying individual performers, Alexei’s Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH has enough narrative such that different casts for the two performances I saw made a huge difference in temperament.  However, this goes beyond just seeing the same dances more than once—I went opening night as a dance reviewer for SeattleDances (read that review here), and attended the final show (a Sunday matinee) up in the nosebleed seats thanks to my season ticket as a subscriber.

So what were the differences?  Well, getting to go as a reviewer was pretty rad.  I received two complementary tickets at orchestra level (my first time seeing the company from there I might add), quite close to where Ratmansky himself was seated for the PNB premiere of his work.  I also got to hang out in the pressroom where there were free drinks and chocolates (I had three sips of wine which was enough to burn my face off) and had a chance to talk to some of the administrative people of PNB who were floating around and socializing.  I found out that this here blog is something of a known entity amongst them and in fact, the media relations guy Gary recognized me when I picked up my tickets and told me that some of my entries get forwarded throughout.  This is simultaneously insanely awesome and alarming; I can’t tell you how grateful I am that people out there are reading because it’s one of the most rewarding things about being a writer but this means there’s a possibility I could say something that will get me into trouble.  So, I would like to take a moment to remind everyone that we live in a country where people are innocent until proven guilty…

Obviously, there was no special treatment for the Sunday matinee, which in many ways is more indicative of the real dance writer…you know, the majority of us who don’t make a living off of our creative output.  I often laugh at the stereotype of the “starving artist,” the struggling dancer in New York, waiting tables to pay an exorbitant amount for rent, surviving on ketchup packets and tap water as they channel the difficulty of their lives through the medium of dance, because that means the people who write about them should have an even sadder existence.  Perhaps it’s true to a certain extent…dance writing is a labor of love, but just as the “struggling dancer” takes a “by any means necessary” approach, we also do as we do because quite frankly, we have things to say.  I don’t mind not having the glamour of orchestra level seating and such (though I’ll take what I can get!) because sitting in the balcony has its perks too.  As a most casual mortal, I can wear jeans up there and nobody’s going to say anything (and believe me, I wasn’t the only one…this is Seattle after all).  Also, some ballets look even more amazing with a near bird’s eye view.  Paul Gibson’s Piano Dance was one that I appreciated more from higher up.  Pacific and Concerto DSCH were just as lovely (though I liked being closer for DSCH) and no seat in the house was going to help me enjoy Place a Chill.

Yes, it’s true…I’m obviously opinionated just like anyone else and I didn’t like Marco Goecke’s Place a Chill.  I gave it a fair review in SeattleDances because I respect its value as art; Goecke certainly has a concept and a clear vision, executed incredibly well by the performers…it just wasn’t my thing.  This is probably the biggest challenge for dance writers, is setting aside one’s ego and figuring out a way to be critical without making it personal.  It requires a lot of sorting, and a lot of what I didn’t like about the piece was indeed personal, with the only nugget of reasonable criticism being the fact that I did feel like the piece was too long.  On the one hand, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor is a beautiful piece of music not to be mangled with edits, but with the movement being so stylized and rather stationary, there’s only so much one can take of quick twitchiness before getting bored.  I of course had the same problems watching the piece both times, but recognizing what I like to see in my favorite ballets has helped me figure out what criticism is personal and what isn’t.

For example, a pattern amongst my favorite ballets is that they’re all very pure…simple, musical, and pristine, tending to side with lightheartedness and the plain old “pretty.”  The reason being, my approach to beauty is quite escapist.  Sure, a landscape of a beach is like a generic postcard photo, but I love them because I can imagine escaping into them.  Even a ballet like La Sylphide which ends tragically, still takes place in a fantastical world of delight and magic so it’s an escape from the reality we know.  One does not really escape into Place a Chill—it can draw you in, but it’s not a world I want to live in and that’s why I can’t say I really enjoyed it.  However, lambasting the work solely based on my personal issues would have been unfair—valid as an opinion sure, but as a legitimate art critique?  Boo-boo.  Especially considering the strong audience response to Place a Chill at both performances I attended, I was clearly in the minority.  Many people were completely fascinated by it…I was too busy being resistant.

Meanwhile, as for Concerto DSCH, I enjoyed both casts.  I think opening night may have had more energy, and with Carla Körbes and Carrie Imler (two of my favorites in the company) in the principal roles, it’s hard not to feel like that was my dream cast.  In the matinee, Lucien Postlewaite and Jerome Tisserand were more memorable in the trio for me, capturing a more youthful boyishness that went well with the character of Ratmansky’s choreography.  A second viewing of DSCH delivered as I thought it would…what did I say in my review? “Sure to reveal a myriad of individual company members’ personalities in different casts.”  Now, I’m not prophetic, but sometimes my intuition rocks (although in retrospect, the above quote is a statement of the obvious, no?).

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Ratmansky's effervescent Concerto DSCH. So...you can kind of see Carla in the center there, and a lot of people had a vehement hatred of the sage green. What say you? (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

Staging a Comeback, Part II

10 Jul

My attempt to revitalize my limited ability to dance continued with a class with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ballet master, Paul Gibson.  I suppose it should be mentioned that a friend and I also went to a hip hop class today at Velocity Dance Center in Capitol Hill, but my hip hop ventures should never be discussed publicly.  I do pride myself on being someone who will try anything once, or even try something, fail and repeatedly try again.  The idea that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results has merit for me…but I’m pretty sure this is last call for that genre.  It hurts in ways I don’t enjoy.  However, I may return to Velocity for a modern class someday.  They have ballet too, but I didn’t see any barres which disturbed me.

Mr. Gibson’s (I feel like it’s weird to write “Mr.” but we’re not on a first name basis…Master Gibson is too Jedi reminiscent…Sir? Duke? Lord?) class yesterday was absolutely wonderful though, and much closer if not exactly what I’m used to.  His bio at PNB’s website says he did do summers at School of American Ballet and danced with San Francisco Ballet before joining PNB.  I’m guessing his training is perhaps more well rounded, as San Francisco Ballet is more comprehensive in terms of the styles/techniques they perform, e.g. they are one of the few American companies to include Ashton and MacMillan works in their repertory (begin countdown to San Francisco Ballet’s revival of Symphonic Variations…207 days to go!).  Oddly enough, Lord Gibson also omitted pas de cheval and grand rond de jambe en l’air, which I didn’t think were necessarily too advanced (I take my grand rond de jambes at 45 degrees to work on placement anyway) but perhaps it’s all just coincidence.  Although on second thought, perhaps men, who tend to have less range of motion compared to women find grand rond de jambe en l’air less fun to do.

What I did find interesting is that despite Sir Gibson’s history with SAB and PNB, one of the corrections he gave was to really lengthen through the wrist in a straight line, which I always thought was more of an English thing.  Especially at SAB where they do the hyper extended fingers and such it surprised me that his aesthetic aimed for a purer line.  I’m okay with it though because it’s my preference too but there were some obviously PNB trained dancers in the class who did what they were used to.  If the wrists and hands weren’t a dead giveaway the arabesques certainly were.  Those dancers had really open hips in their arabesque which Balanchine’s ladies are notorious for and while I understand the appeal of a higher arabesque, I still like one that is as square as possible.  The open hip tends to splay out the torso as well and I think it kind of flattens the arabesque thus making it two dimensional.  When the pelvis is more square, then the arabesque has a three dimensional depth to it.  Neither is wrong, just different, but I will say that I still think a square arabesque is better for a promenade or a pirouette.  I’m also convinced that that open of a hip in arabesque makes it impossible to maintain turn out on the standing leg and at best, step onto a parallel leg in a pique arabesque.

I was really pleased that Baron Gibson gave a lot of little jumps, with a warm up of little jumps and two additional petite allegro combinations after that.  By that point in class I was kinda sorta feeling really good and was all “I got this!” and decided to try a little batterie in the assemblés and jetés.  It’s funny because this used to be my least favorite part of class, then one day I decided not to hate them and they became infinitely better for me (power of positive thinking!).  I’m not an adagio dancer nor am I a formidable grand allegro jumper but sometimes I feel like I’ve found a home in petite allegro.  One of my former teachers would have us repeat an allegro and then an optional third time with a faster tempo, which wasn’t always successful for me but I always wanted to try.  Of course yesterday I was practically wheezing after the second run through so I was in no shape to do such a thing but it brought back fond memories.  I think I see petite allegro now like puzzles and it’s fun for me to put the pieces together (I was one of those kids whose parents never bought actual toys, just brainteasers or books so such things still delight me).

Probably the oddest moment of the day was when Earl Gibson had us do a series of battement fondu (basically, leg kicks for those of you unfamiliar with ballet terminology) across the floor.  This wouldn’t strike you as something strange but then the pianist started playing One from A Chorus Line and all of a sudden it was this ritzy, jazz baby moment.  If that doesn’t make you want to break into song I don’t know will (and some people didn’t refrain from a little singing.  Although nobody sang when the pianist was playing Sixteen Going on Seventeen from The Sound of Music, but I would be thoroughly impressed by anyone who could manage to sing during a  frappé combination).  I love to have fun in class as much as the next whacko but this time had me actually trying to stifle a huge Broadway grin in addition to the urge to find a gold sequined top hat to complete the look.  It was unfair.

Class ended with a fun grand allegro (although I thought attempting cabrioles might’ve been pushing it for the day) and the combination ended with a saut de chat, for which Count Gibson didn’t specify arms and you know me, when it comes to this age old question I always have to ask.  The gentlemen had to have their arms in écarté or effacé but the ladies also had the option of going to third.  He said he would never have the men leap with their arms in third so indeed he doesn’t have a wild side like Karen Eliot.  And they say chivalry is dead…

All in all, I had a most wonderful, eye opening time taking class from PNB’s elite instructors and hope they do something like this again.  Maybe next time I’ll make the subtle suggestion of bringing back Dances at a Gathering ASAP.  I really considered writing it on a t-shirt, but I don’t know what kind of sense of humor these people have.