Tag Archives: seattledances

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)

The Modern Myth

20 Dec

As you know, the majority of my blog’s content is related to ballet, with the occasional post about modern.  However, all of the reviews I’ve done for Seattle Dances have been about contemporary artists, with the most recent being on choreographer/dancer Molissa Fenley’s work, in an evening featuring performances of three pieces, which were then followed by a conversation between her and Pacific Northwest Ballet director, Peter Boal.  Despite my feeble attempt to be somewhat incognito by wearing my Clark Kent glasses, Peter (we shook hands, we’re on a first name basis now) said he recognized me from class—I think the people at PNB are on to me…I knew I should have upped the ante with a fake mustache but alas, at this point my regrets are my own.

Peter told a funny anecdote about how when he had nights off from New York City Ballet, he went to see Molissa Fenley perform, while other NYCB dancers (including his wife) went to see the likes of Natalia Makarova and Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theater.  Fenley was also quick to note that she would see Peter perform with his respective company, so there was a mutual appreciation of the other’s art.  I don’t know that it’s very common for ballet dancers to find modern dance interesting, and it certainly wasn’t natural for me either.  We all know that I’m an Ashton junkie (well, Peter doesn’t know…YET) because the technical steps, characterization and musicality (among many, many other things) speak to my soul.  I took to ballet like a faerie to a forest but modern was and continues to be more difficult for me to process.  I can churn out a review of a ballet performance with relative ease but my Fenley review I had to drag out of my brain, kicking and screaming.

In some ways I was rather surprised to discover that Peter is such a modernist and it got me thinking about the gap between ballet and modern and popular misconceptions, like “modern is for dancers who didn’t make it in ballet” or even that it’s for dancers who retired from ballet.  Modern dance is for people who like modern dance—that’s all there is to it.  Yes, it can be less demanding on the body (and seems to demand less on the physical traits of a person), although I have to say that I’ve had a few minor injuries in dancing ballet, like pulled muscles and such but when I’ve had some of the more devastating variety, like the kind that last for weeks or more and they all came from modern classes.  I don’t know if it was a strange belief that I could do what teachers asked for, a willingness to try anything, throwing my weight around, or the Aries in me pushing one hundred percent, but modern hurt.  I think it would be more apt to say that modern doesn’t demand a physical capacity to perform precise, virtuosic feats in the way ballet does, but modern can be a mental obstacle course that in my opinion, can be worse.

First of all, there’s the “I-word”…which normally I do not speak aloud but I shall for the sake of clarity, remind you that this is my euphemism for “improvisation.”  It’s virtually impossible for me to create dance instantaneously and more importantly, continuously, and exercises in “I-word” make me an anxious squirrel.  I tried, but practice of it made me ridiculously uncomfortable, which of course happens to be the greatest inhibitor of “I-word.”  Or how about “retrograde,” meaning dance a phrase and then basically rewind it.  Maybe due to the advent of television’s rewind button we’re not so impressed with such a mind-boggling skill, but to see human bodies do it without the use of technology is really something else.  As someone who relies on music that recognizes a time and space continuum, to inform the tone or character of a movement, it’s just inconceivable…and many times modern dances won’t even have music at all, which is like a hellish nightmare for me.  The intellectual challenges modern dance provides are different, but by no means easier than physical challenges seen in ballet.  I would even argue that those mental challenges are in fact greater because the mind is limitless, whereas there are limits to what the body can do, and that vastness is why modern never fails to be “new.”

It may sound like I don’t like modern because of my natural tendencies and escapist point of view that favors the romantic, fantastical world of ballet but the world is more than romance and to me, that’s what modern explores.  It’s an art form that is indeed beautiful in its own way, but when I remember not to expect to feel the same after seeing it as I would a ballet, then the doors are open to experience whatever it is.  Of course there are things I like or don’t like, and in many ways learning to understand the subjective nature of the arts is a metaphor for human interaction.  I think of artists as having great responsibility in bearing their souls for an audience, because if we can judge them as we inevitably do but in a respectful way then we can claim that we are capable of doing the same for any person we encounter in life.  Perhaps it’s cliché, but this is why I truly believe that art appreciation is one of the keys to a world peace.  There’s a reason why patrons of the arts don’t go into museums, rip paintings off the walls and burn them if they don’t like them, which makes the fact that people are so willing to harm or even kill one another over differences all the more tragic.

So…I aim to never write a negative review for Seattle Dances, because people work too hard to have someone just blah on their creations.  I’m more open with criticism in this blog (though I try my best to keep it constructive and relatively inoffensive) but people read this specifically for my thoughts…a formally published review is not the appropriate forum for overindulgences into my ego.  I encourage any dance audience member to respect the validity of their opinions regardless of your understanding of dance…be judgmental, but don’t be a jerk.  There are even times when a harsh critique is perfectly appropriate; a good review does not imply seeing things through rose-colored glasses and some of my favorite reviews I’ve read aren’t sunshine and bunnies.  The secret is knowing when, where and how to express oneself and to be open to learning something before disliking it.  It wasn’t a simple process for me, but I had help along the way, in the form of education and encouragement I received from various teachers (for whom without, I would not be writing about dance as I do today!).  I came across a video a few days ago of sardonic New York humorist and author Fran Lebowitz, who in talking about her relationship with Jerome Robbins, sums it up better than I can:

I am a writer: writing about writing

20 Oct

I would like to dedicate today’s entry to Kristen Legg, who gave me the chance to write a review for SeattleDances, of the second week of Men in Dance.  I’m so grateful that she sees something worthwhile in my writing and want to thank her for the opportunity to write for a broader audience.  If you haven’t read the review, here be a link for your perusal: Men in Dance, Week 2

In case you haven’t noticed, I put on my best for this one and upped the professional one of the piece.  I won’t rewrite the review with my perspective here because I think the review speaks for itself and I don’t want to damage its integrity—it’s entirely legitimate and something I’m very proud of.  I do enjoy “funny me” very much and would of course love to be that way all the time…but life isn’t about me, and that review was most certainly not.  What I realized is that a review must be about the performers so I set out to describe what I saw, insert a few neutral ideas and paint an image of the works with the assumption that each piece would appeal to somebody out there.  This task was about truly writing about dance…not indulging my funny bone.  THAT, friends, is what this blog is for!  And like proper addicts, you all just keep coming back…

So I would like to write about my first experience as a true dance writer (and not some nuttercracker with a WordPress account).  My first order of business was to follow the criteria given to me by my editor (note: I like saying “my editor” because it makes me sound more writer-ish).  She asked me to write a review—not a critique, and this was something I decided to differentiate for myself.  To some, they may be one and the same but I made a distinction because I feel that a good review tells it like it is and a critique is where one can get cranky (or positive, but generally cranky).  I still love reading critiques because constructive criticism is healthy and is useful feedback in future performances, but I wanted to look at these dances as finished products.   It’s like buying something and finding an inherent fault with it…registering a complaint isn’t going to change what it is at that moment so focusing on the present was more sensible to me.  Of course I did have my share of criticisms!  One piece (I’m not going to say which one) had a really…well, awful, schmaltzy score that I was not a fan of.  At least it had some amazing choreography but then out of nowhere came a series of Italian fouettes (if you don’t know what they look like, fret not, here’s a link), which made absolutely no sense to me.  One of my pet peeves is when a bravura step sticks out like a sore thumb and breaks the spell of a dance…they have to be used in contemporary choreography very carefully.  One fouette and I won’t notice but eight in a row? Overkill.  However, this is strictly my opinion and there must have been others and obviously the choreographer who felt that it was entirely appropriate and are the most important; my opinion as an audience member (or even a reviewer) still matters, but in a different way.

After figuring out my approach, the next step was to actually get to the show and I have to admit that getting a complementary ticket was pretty cool.  Nothing inflates the ego like going up to a box office and telling the people there that you represent something and a ticket should be there for you.  That, and having press photos e-mailed to me to post in the review was awesome too.  I had access to things most people didn’t (only one photo made it into the entry, but I got to see the rest!) and as mundane as such a thing may sound to some, I was kind of on a high.  I had a general feeling of excitement throughout the whole process and you know you’ve found something you’re meant to do when you look forward to what should be deemed “work.”

There was a certain allure too, in slipping in casually and knowing that I would write something that could reach and inform people.  The only feature that set me apart from other audience members was the fact that I pulled out a legal pad to write on, something I hadn’t done since my days at Ohio State.  I have an excellent visual memory (though it’s not something I can control) and can come up with some good descriptions as I watch a piece, but as fast as my brain works it can just as quickly forget.  My teachers at Ohio State always encouraged us to write without looking at the paper so we didn’t miss anything but writing quick notes to myself in between each piece was working well for me.  Well enough, such that writing the review was a breeze afterwards because I had all of my key phrases set to go.  The only omission was a review on one of the new pieces that evening, which I feel bad about…you see, Men in Dance had two different sets of dances the first and second week.  A review had already been written of the first week so I went with highlights of the second, including only the new works that were performed.  I ended up highlighting all but one “ugly duckling,” and there was nothing wrong with the piece, but I just couldn’t come up with anything…right.  Wouldn’t be the first time I ran headfirst into a writer’s block.

For so long, even though I’ve been writing this blog I always hesitated to call myself a writer.  I always added those adjectives describing a potential like “aspiring,” “hopeful” or “in progress,” but now that I’ve done this I think I can bring myself to say it (a la Yoda): a writer I am.  An editor I have, and in the door my foot I’ve got.  So many thanks again to Kristen…there is no greater gift than to help someone understand on a deeper level who they are.