Tag Archives: phillip glass

Ballet Arizona’s ‘Director’s Choice’

29 Mar

My time in Arizona has been a series of exceptions—thanks to Easter weekend, I could only take class at Ballet Arizona School once and apparently, they’ll be moving into a new facility this summer so if I’m ever able to come back to Phoenix, the images I have in my mind will be but distant memories (and how they managed to sustain momentum for that long term project through the recession is a miracle—bravo!). Meanwhile, the opening night performance of ‘Director’s Choice’ I attended took place at the Orpheum Theater, which is not their usual venue, and despite the theater’s beautiful classical styling and capabilities, my rifling through the program became frantic when it began to dawn on me that there would be no live music for the evening. Ballet Arizona does typically perform with the Phoenix Symphony at Symphony Hall—just for this particular repertory program they did not. It could be a budget thing (doubtful) or maybe an installation thing (possible), or maybe they just felt like it (why not?). After all, there is something to be said for different venues drawing different crowds…as in, it happens.

In general, Ballet Arizona seems to do things a bit differently. For one, they don’t have a hierarchy within the company’s dancers. I can’t say that it’s necessarily better or worse for making casting decisions, and it may very well be there’s a sort of unspoken hierarchy, but democratization is an interesting idea here because the audience can pick their favorite dancers without bias solely based on rank. Another neat thing the company did was have the executive director show a preview clip of Topia, a site-specific work to be performed at the Desert Botanical Garden at the end of May. Site-specific work, while a common practice in modern dance, is not seen as often in ballet (Fire Island comes to mind), and the outdoor stage looked breathtaking at night in the video. Before ‘Director’s Choice’ began, I was thoroughly impressed with Ballet Arizona’s initiative.

The program consisted of three pieces, Alexei Ratmansky’s Le Carnaval des Animaux, the world premiere of Second to Last by Alejandro Cerrudo, and artistic director Ib Anderson’s Diversions (Anderson also choreographed Topia). Ratmansky’s ballet opened the show and…well, I didn’t like it. While I’m fully aware that a disinterest in Ratmansky’s work is nothing short of ballet heresy, Ratmansky’s Carnaval lacked clarity to me. He mostly followed the structure of the score, which is divided into several movements, each characterizing an animal, and subsequently abstracted into the choreography. I don’t know if there was an oversight on the casting sheet, but certain movements like ‘Aquarium’ of Camille Saint-Saëns’s composition had no roles listed, although it was definitely used, and in the manner expected (tutu girl = jellyfish). I knew the music well enough on my own, but it was a bit confusing anyway. Some animals were clearly outlined in the choreography, but others had me second-guessing what I knew—like the kangaroos that had me wondering if there was a ‘Rabbits’ movement I was missing. When it came to the ‘Swan,’ the obvious reference to Fokine’s Dying Swan drew some chuckles, but there was no content after the novelty of pastiche wore off. The concept for Ratmansky’s Carnaval was almost at war with itself, finding a middle ground between some bits of amazing choreography but never finding cohesion (‘Personages with Long Ears’, ‘Pianists’, and ‘Fossils’ were mostly ensemble dances with no common thread). Still, Amber Lewis’s ‘Elephant’ solo was clever and danced with charm and I loved the silky smooth movement quality Nayon Iovino had as a cockerel.

Alejandro Cerrudo’s world premiere came as a pleasant surprise—visually simple with six dancers half dressed in black and a hanging installation of squares with speckled designs, Second to Last put on full display Cerrudo’s fluid yet punctual style to music by Phillip Glass and Arvo Pärt. It’s almost as if the choreography finds specific points where energy bounces or is transferred, but never stops, rendering the few moments of stillness in his work some of the most powerful indeed. Like a marble in a never-ending labyrinth, the movements are fluid and steady, avoiding gaps and pauses with calm. The cast of three couples (Tzu Chia Huang & Junxiong Zhao, Raychel Weiner & Myles Lavallee, Amber Lewis & Joseph Cavanaugh) suspended themselves in the piece with subtlety and still produced an exceptionally powerful performance. For the seasoned balletomane, it may be hard to ignore that Cerrudo used the same music Christopher Wheeldon did for his After the Rain pas de deux, but comparing notes on different artists’ perspectives is fun when the mind is open and willing to new possibilities.

Last came Anderson’s Diversions, a neoclassical piece to Benjamin Britten’s ‘Diversions for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21’. A whimsical ensemble work that seemed to peer into an almost ritualistic dance of twenty-two dryad like beings, two of the immediate impressions left by the piece are the amazing lighting design by Michael Korsch, and Anderson’s arresting musicality. The steps are succinct and derive so strongly from the essence of the music that it’s impossible to imagine anything else to that score, a feeling that as an audience member, I associate with mastership by the choreographer. When you can feel the choreographer’s interest in the music and see the thought process unfold, then you really become a participant of the art and it’s an incredible sensation. Nothing is trite in Diversions, though some of the partnering bordered on excessive manipulation of the female dancers, overall the foundation of intricate patterns, variety of steps, a true journey with highs and lows, not to mention wonderfully clean execution by the dancers makes Anderson’s piece a thoroughly engaging dance to behold. Tzu-Chia Huang and Junxiong Zhao’s poetic duet highlighted Diversions with generous warmth, simplicity, and serenity.

To see Ballet Arizona in top form was a treat, and I only wish I could stay around for their ‘All Balanchine’ program coming up in May. For a ballet company to have maintained a trajectory of growth through the recession is inspiring to say the least, and it’s a testament to the company’s talent that there has been no evidence of artistic qualities falling to the wayside. The new facilities are sure to give Ballet Arizona momentum and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the company improving upon what I had the pleasure of seeing, which was already fantastic indeed.

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.