Tag Archives: YDF crosses the country

‘The Gathering Storm’ – Based on a True Story

2 Jun

Once upon a time, four balletomanes walked into a Mexican restaurant on a hot summer day in New York City. Their spirits were as high as the humidity, each one of them brought to the Big Apple by the lure of one word: Ratmansky. Even the intermittent screeching of tires and squealing brakes of poorly maintained taxis seemed to rasp this singular word—“Rrrat-man-ssssssssssskyyyy!” they cried, grinding metal protesting in fervent agitation. Spirits of the urban landscape whispered the word from all corners, as it rustled through the leaves of the dishearteningly few trees nearby, gurgled forth from the eruptive jets of water of the Lincoln Center fountain, and clung to the smells of pretzels, falafels, and body odor (not necessarily in that order). Somehow, this mystical force managed to assemble four balletomanes in one time and space, and so began the gathering storm.

One globe-trotter traversed the skies from London; another wayfarer arrived by land from Seattle; the remaining two far wiser to be residents of New York City or nearby along the East Coast such that their summoning could be perceived with more sanity. When they sat down for dinner in a sunlit room, the square table became the arena, the tablecloth the battleground, and the homemade medium-spicy guacamole the temporary nourishment. The weapons had been chosen—The Bow and Arrow of Romanticism, the Neoclassical Sword, the Sickle of Modernity, and the Shield of Neutrality, each following suit with the Ashtonian, the Balanchinian, the Ratmanskian, and Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, ‘twas not long before discussions became heated and surreptitiously more barbed.

One such exchange went as follows:

“How can you not like Bach? Concerto Barocco is the most amazing ballet,” exclaimed the Balanchinian.

“Bach ballets need to die,” said the Ratmanskian, without flinching but paused thoughtfully. “Except for Forsythe’s Artifact Suite.” A motion of agreement from Switzerland quelled the mounting tensions for a moment, but like good tortilla chips, such things never lasted for long.

“To be honest, I don’t like any of the leotard ballets,” the Ashtonian casually remarked.

The Four Temperaments? Symphony in Three Movements? AGON?!?” the Balanchinian listed them all one by one, each time with more vehement disapproval.

“Unless it’s Rubies, don’t get me started on Stravinsky…” warned the Ashtonian.

“I LOVE Stravinsky!” interjected the Ratmanskian, excited to discuss a composer far removed from the blandness of the Baroque. “Give me dark and visceral any day.”

“Give me La fille mal gardée any day!” countered the Ashtonian, and after a recent viewing of it in the swamplands of Florida, even the Balanchinian paid respects to a delightful piece of storytelling.

Fille also needs to die,” added the Ratmanskian, unwavering in disposition even as the Ashtonian nearly fell to the floor with heaving chest pains.

The war waged on for what seemed like hours and the quartet of balletomanes stopped only for tacos (curiously, Switzerland rebelled by ordering an enchilada) and flan. Symphonic Variations? Masterpiece. Christopher Wheeldon? Carousel. Swan Lake? Mariinsky. Serenade? Unanimous approval. Mayerling? A must see. David Hallberg? Demigod.

But when the clock struck seven the witching hour of Ratmansky had drawn close and it was time for the pilgrimage across the plaza to the fortified Metropolitan Opera House. And so they did, crossing asphalt, the great stone steps, and brick on a far from perilous journey—no catfights, no gouging of eyes, and no theatrical slaps in fits of rage. Comrades? Perhaps…but more importantly—just friends.

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Otherworldly Othello at The Joffrey Ballet

25 Apr

Chicago rocks my world and the Joffrey Ballet is a huge part of the earthshaking. The opening performance of Othello, choreographed by Chicago-born Lar Lubovitch was by far one of my favorite performances I’ve seen this year. I thought I loved the DVD (and I still do) but the opportunity to see it live on a prestigious company like the Joffrey for the first time was something else. And not just the performance itself, but attending the Joffrey Ballet yielded something new—I even received a swanky electronic press kit complete with bios and photos on a CD (a commodity of pure class if you ask me) and I was immediately impressed by how accommodating the Joffrey is to the press (if I could even call myself that!). Like any non-profit arts organization, they want to make themselves known, and I appreciate that they make it easy, so three cheers to the public relations and media team for outstanding operations! To feel respected as a writer was a tremendously generous gift.

Meanwhile, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, a grand hall gleaming with the Midas touch and illuminated by vast arches of incandescent lights, provided a venue more than worthy of a great Shakespearean tragedy. Lubovitch’s Othello loosely follows a distilled summation of Shakespeare’s play, taking necessary plot details and making some alterations in order to make the story compatible with ballet. Though the ballet picks up partway through the play, the meatier elements of Othello the Moor’s marriage to the noblewoman Desdemona, the resentment from his ensign Iago, a sinister plan of betrayal framing Desdemona for infidelity with Othello’s lieutenant Cassio, and subsequent death for pretty much everyone involved are all present (Cassio is executed, Iago murders his wife and Desdemona’s attendant Emilia, Othello kills Desdemona, Othello commits suicide, and the villain outlives them all). There are many times in movies, art, etc. where I find people try too hard to be dark and dramatic but certainly not here—it just is. Lubovitch certainly knows theatre and he succeeded in creating this grisly and macabre world without resorting to any form of antics, which reigned supreme with a refreshing authenticity.

Fabrice Calmels as Othello and April Daly as Desdemona (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Fabrice Calmels as Othello and April Daly as Desdemona (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Lubovitch was definitely aided by the score, composed by Academy Award winner Elliot Goldenthal (I have to geek out for a moment and mention that Interview with the Vampire is one of my FAVORITE film scores). One of the best things about Othello is not the fact that Goldenthal actually wrote a part for alto flute (apologies for geeking out again) but that a contemporary choreographer brought to life an untapped, non-fairy tale libretto and utilized an original score by a contemporary composer. Though the aesthetic of this ballet has modern elements, it still follows the story ballet tradition, and is arguably the most phenomenal ballet to have done so in the past couple of decades. I can’t praise Lubovitch’s storytelling abilities enough and find it interesting that while he did work professionally as a ballet dancer (as well as other forms of dance), he didn’t necessarily have a famed career as a performer. Still, he did study under ballet great Antony Tudor at Juilliard, but diversified his studies with modern dance artists like Jose Limon, Anna Sokolow, and Martha Graham, the multi-faceted influences woven into his education very much apparent in his choreography. If Lubovitch was a dancing smorgasbord (er, not literally), Goldenthal was something of a musical equivalent, composing concert works, ballets, film scores, Broadway musicals, and more. They both had lives, work, and perspectives outside of ballet and it made the ballet they fashioned together all the more compelling.

I would go as far as to say that the non-balletic choreography Lubovitch created were the most fascinating. One of my favorite steps had three Venetian dancers (danced jovially by Erica Lynette Edwards, Amber Neumann, and Kara Zimmerman) perform a simple pencil turn en pointe, a simple pirouette with a straight body but the choreography called for a flexed foot instead of a pointed one, and while I often find that the flexed foot can be overused simply because it’s considered a “modern aesthetic” and therefore automatically makes a piece seem “edgier”, it wasn’t at all trite in that moment and even surprised me. And then there’s the tarantella of Act II, where women and men rapturously celebrate the latter group’s safe return to a seaport in Cyprus…let’s just say there are times in ballet where it can be said that the choreography given to the corps de ballet is actually far more interesting than that given to the dancers in the lead roles. From a purely movement based perspective, the corps work was hands down the pinnacle of excitement. To see a bunch of ballerinas let their hair down and throw themselves into a wild style of movement with reckless abandon was great fun. With undulating spines and dynamic jumps stripped of the virtuosity that we expect of classical ballet, I couldn’t help but feel a visceral urge to join them.

April Daly, Aaron Rogers, and Valerie Robin with artists of the Joffrey Ballet (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

April Daly, Aaron Rogers, and Valerie Robin with artists of the Joffrey Ballet (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

The colossal Fabrice Calmels, towering at least a head above the rest of the cast gave a foreboding presence to the title role. It’s not so easy for a 6’5” guy to dance because that’s a lot of musculature and a high center of gravity to throw around but Calmels was very much in control of his performance and psychologically deep into the character. The diminutive April Daly was so tiny in his arms as Desdemona, with the beauty and appearance of fragility like a porcelain doll, but with a great deal of emotional integrity. To show a full range of romance, resolve, and resignation only scratched the surface at what was indeed a masterful performance by her. I also quite enjoyed Aaron Rogers as Cassio, who had a certain elasticity to his arms and hands that finished every movement. My friend I attended with noted how he used his head to look up and out at his surroundings, not presenting only frontally to the audience, but really observing the world around him and really living in that moment. But let’s be real—the entire cast (with Matthew Adamczyk as a sleazy Iago, Valerie Robin as a skittering and pitiable Emilia), was fantastic and showed a marvelous union of ideas and energy. Combined with Lubovitch’s narrative talents, my mind never wandered for a second, and I found myself engaged the entire time.

It’s hard to believe the Joffrey Ballet will retire Othello from the active repertory (although I find the wording of that statement unclear…what is active vs. inactive repertory? Will they never perform it again? Will they simply put it on hold until they activate it again? I’m not sure), but with several performances remaining through the weekend and next, limited opportunities exist. I only wish I could be in Chicago still, to see the Joffrey’s outstanding Othello once (or twice) more, to relive the mighty drums that make your heart explode, and observe other dancers in the company taking flight in various debuts in one of America’s finest achievements in theatrical ballet. To miss out is a tough pill to swallow, but after all is said and done, the optimist in me wonders if maybe a final bow with the Joffrey could mean passage for the Moorish martyr to unmarked territory, and the lurid wonder that is Othello can indulge the fancy of new audiences.

Fabrice Calmels's suicide as Othello (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Fabrice Calmels’s suicide as Othello (photo ©Cheryl Mann)

Dawn of a Swan: Oklahoma City Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’

22 Apr

It can’t be emphasized enough that Swan Lake is no small undertaking, and for Oklahoma City Ballet to put it on stage for the first time in the company’s forty-one year history was a tremendous accomplishment. With just over twenty-five dancers, OKCB barely eked it out, with most of the performers in multiple roles (and help from clever adjustments by artistic director Robert Mills, balletmaster Jacob Sparso, and répétiteur Lisa Moon) so that the company didn’t appear dwarfed on the stage of Civic Center Music Hall. The company also enjoyed live accompaniment from the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, a marvelous (and necessary) feat that really brought Swan Lake to life. It doesn’t matter how big or how small—Swan Lake is always going to be a beast for different reasons, and the OKCB in particular did a wonderful job of keeping their dancers healthy and well rehearsed. Just one injury would have been devastating; whereas a larger company could spare an understudy, OKCB wouldn’t have had any options. They rolled the dice and won the hearts of the audience, not just for putting on a great show of the most iconic classical ballet, but also for showing that OKCB is on track to do more.

I wouldn’t dare say I was an expert on Swan Lake, but I felt OKCB’s production was relatively complete. There’s no such thing as a perfect version—it’s like asking a person what makes for a good wedding cake. Sure, everybody knows what a wedding cake is and most people have a similar image of what one looks like, but ultimately they always taste different. And some people will eat anything but others may try but maintain their preferences. Balletomanes discuss such things ad nauseum and over time develop a checklist; mine includes things like aversions to prologues, jesters, and music edits—all of which OKCB had, but some of which made sense for what they wanted to accomplish. For example, the jester (danced by Io Morita) was one of the highlights, aided by Morita’s soaring jumps and frisky petit allegro, his legs flickering with precision as he ricocheted them in the air. Though the character served no indispensable purpose, he was nonetheless fun to watch. It was a great way to show off the bravura talents of dancers not in the lead roles. However, this skirts a precarious line too—the jester and the role of Benno, Prince Siegfried’s friend both performed jétes en manège, or a series of split leaps that circle around the entire stage, which should be Siegfried’s trademark in the Black Swan pas de deux, but the excitement of the effect was diminished by having seen it before. While virtuosity does captivate the audience, sometimes it’s important to make them wait for it.

Overall, I felt the first act was over-choreographed just a hair, and while Act II, the famous lakeside scene with the bevy of swans in white tutus was pretty typical but had eliminated the mime scene where Odette explains to Siegfried her plight, of being transformed into a swan by the sorcerer Von Rothbart. Obviously, OKCB reconciled this issue with the prologue in which we see Von Rothbart transform her, but I believe that the mime scene is important in some form or another because—and I feel like a broken record because I’m always saying this—it gives the audience a reprieve from the dancing. We can’t just stare at a constant stream of steps without breaks where something happens to progress the story. I was missing that in the first act as well, where it seemed too easy to get lost in all of the dancing, despite the beauty of it all. The best way to learn how to discern the different choreographic tools would be to watch a lot of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky ballets (Serenade, Theme and Variations, Ballet Imperial, Diamonds, etc.) because the mentality in creation has to be different, thus the devices are different.

Still, there was much to enjoy and my perspective was different from the rest of the audience who had never seen Swan Lake before. Eavesdropping on the conversations around me yielded only complimentary reactions and even with my biases I had to agree. Miki Kawamura delivered an outstanding performance as Odette, and Yui Sato a genteel and sincere Siegfried. Kawamura’s Odette had a hardier flavor, regal as a queen of the swans, opting to portray a magnificent creature rather than timid milquetoast. When Siegfried balances her on one leg, and she delicately quivered the other foot like a trembling wing, I couldn’t recall having seen a dancer reverberate with such speed, her foot practically a vibrating blur. As Odile she commanded the stage with a vivacious presence, as her manipulation of Siegfried turned into a source of amusement, and perhaps it was shades of Kawamura’s own personality shining through as well because she clearly had great fun as the black swan. Sato partnered her well, displaying his own skill for acting as a naïve prince and dancing the role in his uniquely quieted way. It was an exciting and pressure packed night for those two OKCB dancers, as the remaining two performances were claimed by guest artists from Houston Ballet that were sponsored by the Inasmuch Foundation. Odette and Siegfried are the premier dream roles for countless ballet dancers and to have just one opportunity to dance it demands a great deal of mental fortitude—Kawamura and Sato delivered, and were rewarded by a standing ovation, their efforts further recognized when the announcement was made that they would be promoted to principal dancers, in a company that had no previous hierarchy.

Oklahoma City Ballet has referred to their 2012-13 season as “Raising the Barre” and it certainly has been an exciting one for them. From my observations, they’re teetering at the brink, capable of making that jump—to the base of the mountain that is the development into a highly esteemed regional company. It’s no simple matter to hire about ten more dancers and find the funding to diversify their repertory, but seeing how they put together such a competent Swan Lake with nearly the bare minimum of resources is a hopeful sign. Even if they hired the necessary dancers tomorrow and procured the licensing rights for some of the current popular ballets, it would still be some years before the company could really gel together and settle into a groove. Until then, it may not be a bad idea to look into collaboration with the nearby Tulsa Ballet, something that has worked very successfully for BalletMet of Columbus and Cincinnati Ballet in Ohio, which has allowed them to put stage the large-scale productions and perform ballets that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

Howling in Houston: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

19 Apr

Several factors make Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo one of the greatest ensembles on Earth—they never fail to win over an audience; they tour all over the planet and bring classical ballet to all kinds of people; their comedy is madly intelligent; the dancers always look like they’re enjoying themselves, and they happen to be the incredibly rarefied “men en pointe”. It made for a jubilant atmosphere at Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 at Jones Hall in the humid city of Houston, where the diversity of the crowd (in addition to their raucous laughter) meant that the Trocks had succeeded in obtaining the elusive, the coveted, and the supremely difficult to engineer—universal appeal. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the people I saw, the type of people I never thought I’d see at a ballet, and equally amazed by their assessments: “I didn’t like the first one…” a middle aged man said to his MALE friends (yes, PLURAL) in a thick, sausage-gravy Texan accent “but the second scene and the one after were cool.”

The man first referred to the opening number of Chopeniana (also known as Les Sylphides), originally choreographed by Michel Fokine. Romantic era ballet relies heavily on a specific style and the Trocks had it in spades—and comedic touches in shovels. It’s ironic that men, who tend to have less pliant backs than women, actually achieved the tilted torso so characteristic of Romantic ballet, oddly comparable to ballerinas at the time who had to wear corsets. Not to mention the mannerisms, with delicate hands and limp elbows, and especially the wistful, aloof expression worn on the face of the lead male role of the poet. Various sylphs bickered for his attention, although he remained as vacant as ever, barely attentive as he stared off into the distance when he was supposed to be assisting the lovely faeries in airborne lifts and serene promenades. Still, the luminous spirits of the air forged on, holding their composure as best as they could, even when one particularly buxom one had them falling to their knees and into the splits with every “dynamic” landing from each lofty jump.

Following came the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, which was surprisingly performed unaltered, a masterful display of classical technique that’s difficult even for an accomplished ballerina. The wonderful thing about it was that the performers had great charisma, an area where ballerinas can be relatively quiet in eschewing brassiness, but the audience loved the showmanship, and when the dancer performing Kitri aced the fouettés in the coda, throwing in double pirouettes for good measure, there was a genuine roar of appreciation—no laughter, no sarcasm, just excited recognition of having seen something spectacular.

Go for Barocco, an original piece by the Trocks, is the ultimate Balanchine pastiche. I had seen Go for Barocco on film before, but having just seen Concerto Barocco for the first time this year, I was amazed by how spot on the Trocks version was. Many of the same steps were used to great effect—the Balanchine patterns where dancers link arms and weave in and out of each other, the hops en pointe, the piqué arabesques—choreographer Peter Anastos certainly knew his source material. It’s often underestimated how difficult great comedy is, and easily forgotten how much intelligence it requires to pull it off. Not all imitations are created equal, but not only did Anastos succeed in creating a challenging work that entertained audiences, but the twists he put on it makes it even funnier the more you know about Concerto Barocco. And yet, an audience member who knows nothing about ballet can still find a reason to laugh, especially when in a somber duet, diva attitudes emerge from the ballerinas trying to establish supremacy, by virtue of stacking their hands upon one another, alternating to see who could finish on top at the end of the music.

Next came The Dying Swan, a parody and tribute to Fokine’s solo for the illustrious Anna Pavlova. It’s one of the crucial pieces in ballet history and choreographically, the most amazing piece to use almost exclusively just the bourée, challenging the ballerina to express all of her technique in her port de bras. For the Trocks, the choreography was nearly the same, though the tutu molted a flurry of feathers until the bitter end. At last, when the swan perished to signal the end of her performance, she took an emotional curtain call that lasted almost as long as the piece itself—truly, a la Russe. Even in these transformations, it’s wonderful to see the work of Fokine performed, as the subtleties of his work aren’t always appreciated by modern audiences and Trocks is very much in the image of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, with their constant touring and modified preservation of certain repertory. Even if audience members had never heard of Chopiniana or The Dying Swan, the Trocks provided a starting point from which people could seek out the original works on their own and play the compare/contrast game, learning—and quite effectively—something about watching ballet and becoming an active participant of it as an informed observer.

Closing out the show was Walpurgisnacht, a bacchanal of fauns, nymphs, and Olympians. Choreographed in the spirit of Soviet era choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky, the mythical figures danced with reckless abandon in front of a moonlit temple, toning down (but never losing completely) the humorous touches and taking the performance rather seriously. It was easy to forget that they were men in drag, the technique behind each of the ensemble dances executed to the full extent of sheer beauty. The piece also put on full display the company’s ability to dance as men too—the lead faun a particularly demanding bravura role with countless turns and bounding leaps in the ubiquitous “stag” position, with both legs bent in the air like a deer. It occurred to me that the dancers of Trocks had the talent to dance in conventional ballet companies, as many of the smaller regional ones are often starved for men, but I’m glad they don’t—it’s a beautiful thing that men who seriously invest into training en pointe have a safe space where their interests are treated with respect and nurtured in order to allow them to grow as artists.

Hope for male pointework to make its way into repertory by all ballet companies in non-farcical forms remains small but vigilant, but with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo having got their size-thirteen-pointe-shoed-foot in the door, their achievements as harbingers of change and acceptance is beyond remarkable.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are currently on tour in the US for the remainder of the spring and through the summer. For more information about performance dates and location, check out their website: http://www.trockadero.org/

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.