Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Unstoppable Amanda Morgan


Amanda Morgan
photo @ Kenya Shakoor

Amanda Morgan is having a moment.

More accurately, she’s having a year of moments: from last summer’s grant to fund a series of open-air dance performances in Seattle parks, to her promotion to the rank of Soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet last September, to her upcoming Seattle Project show, Chapters, at Northwest Film Forum.

I got to thinking about Amanda last weekend at a performance of PNB’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was dancing the role of Hippolyta; in the first act she—accompanied by a pack of dogs—leaps around the stage with a golden crossbow in her hand. (I don’t recall this particular character in Shakespeare’s original text, but as one former ballerina told me ‘(choreographer) George Balanchine liked to make roles for tall women.’) 

Amanda as Hippolyta in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream
photo @ Angela Sterling

Watching Amanda unfold those long, LONG, legs of hers as she jeted into the wings, I got to thinking how far she’s come in the years that I’ve been watching her dance.

I first met Amanda in 2018, two years after she joined PNB as an apprentice. At the time she was making a dance for the company’s Professional Division students to perform at their annual spring Next Step performance. She wasn’t much older than 22.

Of course, I’d seen her onstage before that. She’s over 5’ 10”, so even in a ballet company that’s had its share of tall dancers, her height is distinctive. Not only that. At the time, Amanda was the only Black woman in the company, so of course you noticed her onstage.

Amanda Morgan in class at PNB
photo @ Megan Farmer for KUOW radio

Over the years I’ve wondered about her ballet future. She’d once mentioned to me that she, herself, was unclear about where her artistic path would take her. I think she felt a bit outside the white ballet world.

In 2019, Amanda founded the Seattle Project, a multi-arts nonprofit that would feature work by BIPOC and queer creators, including herself. When the pandemic hit and PNB was sidelined for months, Amanda poured her energies into making her own work. The summer of 2020 saw her collaborate with Nia-Amina Minor on a film for Seattle Dance Collective, Musings.

Amanda as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in PNB's 2023 production of Giselle
photo @ Angela Sterling

Since Amanda’s PNB promotion last fall, I’ve watched her take on new ballet challenges. Perhaps the toughest is my favorite role in Giselle; Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Myrtha and her band of jilted women—all dead--haunt the forest after dark. The role is both technically and dramatically challenging and it was a thrill to see Amanda perform it on successfully.

She was a standout in Crystal Pite’s The Seasons’ Canon last November, and although I didn’t see it, she also debuted as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s Nutcracker.

Amanda, center, with PNB company members in Crystal Pite's
The Seasons' Canon. Photo @ Angela Sterling

With all these new roles to tackle, you could excuse Amanda for letting her own choreography slide. Instead, she’s been working on her new piece, Chapters. The project explores the intersection of Blackness and femininity, as well as personal history, and features work by five self-identified Black femme artists: Amanda, Nia-Amina Minor, Akoiya Harris, Kenya Shakoor and PNB company member Ashton Edwards.

[A word about Ashton, who’s been a rising force since joining the ballet company as an apprentice in 2021. We’ve seen Ashton in an array of works: pointe roles in the big ballets, a fabulous duet with Luther DeMeyer in Justin Peck’s sneaker ballet The Times Are Racing, and most recently as a magical Puck in Balanchine’s Midsummer.]

A completely extraneous--but fabulous--photo of Ashton Edwards as Puck
photo @ Angela Sterling

Despite Amanda’s ballet accomplishments, she seems determined to forge ahead with her own creative endeavors, honing both her choreographic skills and her self-producing chops.

You can check out both of her worlds in the coming weeks. Seattle Project's Chapters will be at Northwest Film Forum May 5-6.

And PNB has one more program on tap this artistic season: Worlds to Come, a mixed bill featuring new work by Kiyon Ross (former PNB soloist, now company Associate Artistic Director) and internationally acclaimed Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The program also features the live stage debut of Edwaard Liang's The Veil Between Worlds. It’s onstage June 2-11 at McCaw Hall

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Some Enchanted Evening

PNB principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy, center, with company dancers in 
George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. photo @ Angela Sterling

Last Friday I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet’s latest production of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I can give you hundreds of reasons why this 1962 reimagining of Shakespeare’s magical tale is the perfect ballet to celebrate PNB’s 50th anniversary.

Seriously, hundreds of reasons.

Let’s start with more than a dozen young PNB school students decked out with wings and small antennae. They flitter around Martin Pakledinaz’s enchanting sets, flapping their arms and running in circles more like happy puppies than insects. But watching their exuberance lifted my spirits.

Elizabeth Murphy as Queen Titania, with some of her retinue in the enchanted forest.
photo @ Angela Sterling

A word (okay, several words) about those Pakledinaz sets. Garlands of rosy peonies! Sparkling spider webs! A skyful of glittering stars! Combined with Randall Chiarelli’s lighting, you can almost believe you’re in a magic forest.

Felix Mendelssohn’s glorious score is more than ably performed by the PNB orchestra--more than 65 amazing musicians led by conductor Emil de Cou. I think our reason count is nearing 100.

I’m guessing the crystals that adorn the costumes push our number into the 1,000s; add in yards of delicate tulle, plus the talented costume shop crew who transformed that material into the noble tunics and tutus that clothe the enchanted forest’s fairy denizens, and we’re already way above the 100s of reasons why A Midsummer Night’s Dream has captivated Seattle audiences since PNB’s founding Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell got permission from the Balanchine Trust to redesign the production in 1997. (Russell staged the production again this season.)

Soloist Christian Poppe as Puck, surrounded by PNB butterflies.
 photo @ Angela Sterling

I haven’t even mentioned the very best part of this particular production: the PNB dancers, numbering 46, not including the PNB school’s Professional Division students. Audiences got to welcome back to the stage three company members who’ve been missing for months: corps de ballet member Abbie Jayne D’Angelo and soloist Price Suddarth, who’ve been out with injuries, and luminous principal dancer Leta Biasucci, who has just returned from maternity leave, although watching her dance you’d never know she’d been away since last fall.

Principal dancers Leta Biasucci and James Yoichi Moore, surrounded by PNB dancers. 
photo @ Angela Sterling

From the kaleidoscope of butterflies led by Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, to the pack of dogs who bounded onstage with Elle Macy’s Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, every company member and student performed with joyful abandon.

I’ve seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream a number of times, but I attended this opening night with a ballet neophyte, so I had the opportunity to experience it vicariously through a fresh pair of eyes. My companion knows Shakespeare’s play and was interested to see how Balanchine had distilled the dramatic action into one act that introduces us to Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Fairies, (meticulous Kyle Davis and a glowing Elizabeth Murphy) along with a retinue that includes the mischievous Puck (danced that evening by soloist Christian Poppe) and Titania’s cavalier (James Kirby Rogers).

Kyle Davis, left, as Oberon, faces down his onstage wife, Titania, danced by Elizabeth Murphy
They're surrounded by PNB company members and school students
photo @ Angela Sterling

We also meet two pairs of rather confused human lovers: Helena and Demetrius (Cecilia Iliesiu and Miles Pertl) and Hermia and Lysander (Biasucci and James Yoichi Moore), plus Theseus, Duke of Athens (Dammiel Cruz-Garrido), in whose forest everyone cavorts.

Puck has bewitched James Yoichi Moore's Lysander into believing himself in love with Helena
danced by Cecilia Iliesiu, in red. Biasucci's Hermia, left, is his real true love.
photo @ Angela Sterling

The ballet offers marital spats, romantic misunderstandings, plus a magical flower that Puck wields at Oberon’s command to make Titania fall head over heels for the man-turned-donkey, Bottom (Ezra Thomson). Watching Thomson, kitted out in his winsome donkey head, straining to escape Murphy’s tender caresses and savor the blades of grass she’s bestowed upon him, well, I fell even further under the frothy spell this sumptuous production cast.

How could you not fall in love with that donkey face?
Soloist Ezra Thomson is beneath the mask, being caressed by Elizabeth Murphy's Titania
photo @ Angela Sterling

All of Puck’s mischief gets sorted out by the end of the first act, and, after the gaggle of children, fairies and enchanted forest residents had taken their bows, my Shakespeare-savvy companion assumed the ballet was over. What more was left to tell?

To my mind, Balanchine saved the real Midsummer magic for his second act, a banquet of stunning choreography reminiscent of some of his epic big ballets. And, on this evening, the dancing was as magical as the original source material.

In particular, principal dancers Dylan Wald (only recently returned from a serious injury) and his partner, the sublime Lesley Rausch, perform a duet so delicately beautiful that it took my breath away.

As much as I love Angela Sterling's photograph, it can't really capture the spell that Dylan Wald and Lesley Rausch weave when they perform together in Balanchine's Divertissement.

That’s due in large part to the pleasure of seeing these two dancers--frequent stage partners before Wald’s injury—reunited after so many months. Balanchine’s Divertissement (the official name for this duet) is a fitting showcase for their artistry, their complete trust in one another, as well as what seemed to be the real joy they found in the choreography.

Each time Wald lifted Rausch, she seemed to hang in the air for an extra beat or two before floating gently down to the stage. Twice, they moved downstage together in a series of diagonal steps, executing what looked like the ballet version of a do-si-do, their shoulders repeatedly touching, then separating as they twirled apart.

Wald has a majestic and magnetic stage presence, and, after more than 20 years with PNB, Rausch is a master of her technical craft as well as an expressive artist. She infuses each lift of a leg, every extension of her arms, with confidence and grace. And that made the evening bittersweet; Rausch retires in June so this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of her last at PNB. Another reason to get yourself down to McCaw Hall before it closes.

You don't watch a performance--this one or any other--in an isolation chamber, even if you purchase a digital ticket. We’re all informed by events in our personal lives and in the world around us. I can’t  escape the psychological aftermath of three pandemic years, subsequent economic pressures, plus the ongoing political and climatic turmoil that surrounds me. But two hours spent in an ethereal, enchanted forest was a most diverting respite. I think Shakespeare’s clever Puck said it best:

If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended. That you have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear.

Wouldn’t it be dreamy if those words pertained to real life?

PNB’s production of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through April 23rd.




Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Loving Max


Max, photo @ Alan Lande

I never thought I would love a cat.

In my suburban enclave, dogs ruled. We had a series of small yappers; they--and a slew of anti-feline stereotypes—surrounded me.

Cats were aloof, I was told. They didn’t bond with their owners, didn’t love their humans the way dogs did. I had no reason to question those prejudices, which were reinforced by the only cat I knew, an imperious Siamese named Missy who deigned to live with my cousins.

I never imagined that I’d own a cat and certainly didn’t envision falling in love with one.

Then came Max.

I actually had a few cats before Max, most notably a rambunctious Tabby named Buddy, who I adopted from a southern Ohio farm when I was working at my first bona fide radio gig in rural Yellow Springs. I lived on a street full of cats, and they had a pecking order, something I discovered when I made the mistake of purchasing a living catnip plant. I set it out on the porch, only to discover the poor seedling surrounded by the cat gang, who took turns ripping it to shreds. First, the big tom cat who lived next door had a go, then Buddy, who, by the way, was female. Old Wynona, with her sway back and greasy fur, had the final go at the denuded stem.

Buddy moved to Seattle with me when I got hired at KUOW in 1985 and she was around for another 10 years; always the life of the party.

This is Jiji, photo @ Alan Lande

We adopted Max, and his Tabby littermate Jiji, in 2008, I think. My son and I drove up to Everett to look at the litter of eight very young kittens who’d been rescued from an abandoned building in Ellensburg. They were being fostered at one of our region’s stellar rescue shelters.

Almost as soon as I sat down on the floor of a small room in the PetSmart outlet at the Everett Mall, Jiji climbed into my lap and started to purr. She chose us, and 15 years later she’s still a sweet and fairly unassuming cat.

Max was a different story. While I stroked Jiji, who was nestled in for the long run, her brother teetered on a narrow shelf that circled the room, then picked out careful steps like the Simone Biles of cats. Max’s black fur, white boots and whiskers were enchanting, but my son was particularly enticed by this kitty’s white and black facial markings that looked a little like Hitler’s mustache.

Cat on a warm carpet plinth. photo @ Alan Lande

We brought the kittens home a few weeks later, and settled them into our spare bathroom, the warmest room in the house.

Jiji was fearless and smart; she learned how to climb over the wooden barricade we’d set up, figured out how to maneuver through the makeshift cat door onto the back deck, and managed to climb the scratching post Alan built for them, eager to reach the carpeted platform that sat atop the post.

Max, on the other hand, while curious as cats are, was not the brightest bulb.

He wedged himself under the house; we called for him, puzzled by the faint meowing coming from who knew where. Rescue required slithering through the dirt and cobwebs while trying to maintain a bit of dignity.

Why, do you need this shelf for anything?
photo @ Alan Lande

One morning as I lounged in bed reading, with Jiji ensconced on my lap, we both heard Max yelling outside the bedroom window, feet firmly planted on the narrow veranda that wraps around the back of the house. He’d figured out how to use the cat door, but couldn’t quite manage to get back inside. I could almost see Jiji roll her eyes and she leapt off my lap and ran outside to get her brother.

I used to call Max my dog-cat because he lavished attention on us in the ways people expect from dogs: waiting attentively at the front door when he heard my car pull up, or sitting outside the bedroom door each morning, alert for my alarm. In the summertime, he’d perch on a railing outside the bedroom window, crowing like a feline rooster to let me know it was time for his breakfast. Occasionally I’d see him leap up onto a gray wooden structure in our front yard; he’d mince around its perimeter very daintily, reminiscent of the day we met him at PetSmart.

The older Max got, the more affectionate he became, especially when it was cold outside. He’d get up on the bed, all 17 pounds of him, drape his big paws over my thighs, and lay his head down on them, purring contentedly. I didn’t dare move lest I disrupt his beauty sleep.

What can I say? I loved him

These stories and many more have been bubbling up since we laid Max to rest last week.

Max was diagnosed with a swift-growing and painful jaw tumor just over two months ago. It was a horrible end for such a proud and feisty boy. He grew more needy, spending hours curled up next to me, or sitting beside me while I worked.

His death leaves an immense hole; we are truly gutted, as the British would say. Jiji searches the house for him, crying while I try to console her. I sit on my bed, knitting in hand, but no cat purrs at my side. Sometimes tears just well up as I picture him leaping up, giving me a little cat chirp of greeting. Sometimes I really do understand that Britishism, gutted, because it’s like part of my insides are gone. But not my heart. I know it’s still there because it’s still aching for his presence.

Sunday, March 19, 2023


Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet member Genevieve Waldorf, left, with soloist Christopher D'Ariano in Penny Saunders' Wonderland. Photo @ Angela Sterling


Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal made a good choice when he named the company’s latest program.

Boundless means limitless, according to my dictionary; an apt description when I think back on the three dances that make up the Boundless bill.

Boal has made it his practice to bring audiences two contemporary ballet programs each year, in November and March. Sometimes those dances are imported from other companies. In the case of Boundless—and thanks to the season-long celebration of PNB’s 50th anniversary--we get two world premieres plus the stage debut of Penny Saunder’s witty Wonderland, originally commissioned and presented as part of PNB’s 2020-21 digital-only artistic season.

Saunders, PNB resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo and the internationally acclaimed dancemaker Jessica Lang offered up three completely different works, each showcasing the company dancers to their best advantage.

PNB Principal Dancer Lucien Postlewaite, left, with company members in
Penny Saunders' Wonderland. Photo @ Angela Sterling

Wonderland, a love letter to theaters and the artists who inhabit them, originally was videotaped in various locations in the empty McCaw Hall, where PNB (and Seattle Opera) regularly perform. In 2020, when Saunders created the dance, the world had been shut down for months, and nobody knew when we’d all gather again in person. In revisiting Wonderland almost three years later, Saunders had to address our changed circumstances while retaining the essence of her homage to the magic that can happen in a theater.

The new Wonderland is bookended by the always fabulous Elle Macy. She emerges from the orchestra pit at the beginning, baton at the ready, to conduct a set of white-gloved hands that have poked their way under the heavy red velvet curtain. Macy reprises her conducting role at the end of the dance. In between, we revel in soloist Christopher D’Ariano and corps de ballet member Genevieve Waldorf’s duet on the stage, as well as principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite’s pas de deux with corps member Mark Cuddihee, performed in separate box seats above and across the sea of audience members.

Elle Macy, left, with Dylan Wald in Wonderland.
photo @ Angela Sterling

Saunders’ work not only survived the jump from small screen to live stage, it transcended, providing haunting moments of pure beauty along with the whimsy. One of the highlights was welcoming back principal dancer Dylan Wald, who’s been out for almost a year with a serious injury. Saunders made Wonderland with him in 2020, and it was truly a joy to see this talented artist back in his element.

If Wonderland left us feeling upbeat, Alejandro Cerrudo’s new Black on Black on Black, a combination of demanding, sometimes confounding, stage wizardry (kudos to the backstage crew and stage management for what had to be a monumental evening of scrim jockeying) and moments of simply lyrical dance.

Watching the sheer beauty of Leah Terada, perched atop Chris D’Ariano’s behind, slowly surfing a sea of dancers lying prone onstage is something to behold.

Luminous Angelica Generosa with James Kirby Rogers in
Alejandro Cerrudo's Black on Black on Black. Photo @ Angela Sterling

Two other sections linger: principals Angelica Generosa and James Kirby Rogers performed a lovely duet that showcased both their technical prowess and their artistry. (In fact, Generosa danced in all three pieces on opening night, and shone equally (and blindingly) in each).

The other highlight was a solo for corps de ballet member Noah Martzall. I wish I had a picture to show you, but you’ll have to content yourself with this photo of Martzall in Crystal Pite’s amazing The Seasons’ Canon. He’s definitely a rising presence in a ballet company that boasts any number of talented dancers.

That's Noah Martzall in the middle, surrounded by fellow PNB dancers in
Crystal Pite's fabulous The Seasons' Canon. Photo @ Angela Sterling

The program’s final work was Jessica Lang’s Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee, (LMMTWT for short) set to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, performed by the always wonderful PNB orchestra with singers Christina Siemens and Sarra Sharif Doyle. LMMTWT couldn’t be more different from the two dances that preceded it.

PNB dancers in Jessica Lang's Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee
photo @ Angela Sterling

The 18th century Stabat Mater is about Mary’s grief at the death of her son, Jesus. While there’s no mistaking the Christian symbolism in this ballet, Lang intends her work to transcend this particular story. But with the dancers clad in flowing costumes in faded gold, peach and blue and re-creating what look like Renaissance-era Church frescos, it’s hard to think beyond the New Testament. As a non-Christian, religious artworks like this often leave me cold. The assumption of the universality of their message is ignorant of the experiences of those of us on the outside. 

PNB company members in Jessica Lang's Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee
Photo @ Angela Sterling

But mid-way through, the cast swaps the pastel tights, skirts and flowing shirts for costumes rendered in super-saturated purple, blue, green and red. Despite the gigantic crucifix set piece, the costume change is where this ballet opened up for me.

I don’t want to give much away, but choreographically (and musically) the end of LMMTWT is magnificent; it is Lang’s visual rendering of the fugue we hear the orchestra play. The intricacy and the dancers’ grace truly are something to behold.

LMMTWT is an ensemble work; opening night featured some solid performances from several of the company’s newer members including Audrey Malek, Clara Ruf Maldonado and Kuu Sakuragi. They were as strong as such veterans as James Yoichi Moore, Elizabeth Murphy and Generosa, who truly was luminous. 

Angelica Generosa with James Moore in Jessica Lang's Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee
Photo @ Angela Sterling

Boundless, onstage March 23-26 at McCaw Hall, offered a smorgasbord of new work. There were those moments of transcendent beauty, the ones I always hope to see; there were also times when I wondered what I was watching.

What I am certain about is that PNB’s dancers look great right now, from the five newly-hired apprentices to accomplished principal dancers like Macy, Wald, Postlewaite and Generosa. Watching Martzall, D’Ariano, Terada and Sakuragi on opening night left me excited for the company’s future, whatever choreography comes their way.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

To Lesley Rausch, With Love


Lesley Rausch as Odette in Kent Stowell's Swan Lake
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

I knew it was coming but I still wasn't ready when I got the news.

After 22 years at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Lesley Rausch has announced she'll retire at the end of this artistic season. Lesley is currently the longest-tenured dancer in the company, one of the few who has straddled the artistic directorships of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and Peter Boal.

Lesley Rausch and former PNB principal dancer Seth Orza in Balanchine's
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Photo @ Angela Sterling

As I said, I knew it was a matter of time, but every ballet dancer's retirement hits me hard, as if I'm losing an onstage friend.

I've spent a lot of time talking to PNB dancers over the years, but I didn't know Lesley particularly well. Then, almost two years ago I ran into her on the street near Seattle Center. Although the pandemic was still in full swing, we’d just started to emerge from isolation, emboldened by the new vaccines.

Lesley was on her lunch hour; Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers were back in the studio, although they weren’t yet performing for in-person audiences.

Lesley Rausch at Seattle Center, September 2021
photo @ Marcie Sillman

I didn't really know Lesley, but we struck up a conversation. Remember, most of us hadn’t been face-to-face with other humans for months and months, so every encounter felt like greeting a long-lost relative. 

That was mid-2021; Lesley was 39, an age when many ballet dancers are planning the next phases of their lives. Lesley had been certified to teach Pilates, but she was one of the few dancers of her cohort who’d chosen to return to PNB for the coming season instead of retiring. We talked a bit about why she’d made the decision to keep dancing rather than step into her new career. 

Lesley with former PNB principal dancer Karel Cruz in George Balanchine's Agon
                                                              photo @ Angela Sterling

Despite her well-made plans for life post-PNB, Lesley didn’t intend her ballet career to fade away during Covid. She wanted the opportunity to dance again before a live audience.

Made sense to me.

We ended that chat, wished each other well, and parted ways. But I was intrigued by our conversation. A couple of weeks later, I approached Lesley to see if I could interview her regularly over the course of the 2021-22 artistic season. I was curious to hear more about how it felt--both in body and mind--to come back to the stage after months away from the rigors of the studio and regular performances. I wanted to know what drove her to keep dancing.

Lesley Rausch and James Kirby Rogers in Giselle, 2023
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lesley agreed to my request, and it was my great fortune to talk with her several times last season, and to write stories both here and for other media outlets. 

She was candid about the discipline required to prepare her body for the rigors of ballet: hot (“hot hot hot” in her words) showers, regular Pilates and physical warmups before she even headed into the PNB studios, great physical therapists (she thanks PNB's Boyd Bender in her goodbye announcement) and, above all, persistence.

Lesley told me that sometimes, after a full day in the studio, her body was so exhausted that she just came home and cried. She also told me how much ballet meant to her. She’d started classes as a very young girl in Ohio and climbed through the ranks at PNB to become a principal dancer in 2011. 

More than the professional accomplishements, Lesley thinks of the dancers and PNB staff as her second family. She met her husband, former PNB principal dancer Batkhurel Bold, at the company.

Lesley with her husband Batkhurel Bold, photo @ Angela Sterling

After more than two decades at PNB, Lesley is the most senior company member, the dancer who performs Giselle, Aurora or Odette/Odile on opening night.

But that wasn’t always the case for this graceful---and technically skilled---artist. PNB had other wonderful principal dancers when Lesley was coming up: Kaori Nakamura, Noelani Pantastico, Carla Korbes and Carrie Imler to name just a few. She kept working, kept performing, and has danced hundreds of roles over her career.

Lesley has always been a technical whiz, a dancer who executes the classical choreography with precision. But I first really noticed her artistry in the 2017 PNB production of Jean Christophe Maillot’s Cendrillon (which we English speakers know better as Cinderella).

Lesley as the stepmother in Maillot's Cendrillon, 2017
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lesley performed the role of Cinderella’s stepmother, dressed in the most outrageous costume; it looked like she had a dragon’s tail. And I remember so clearly how Lesley imbued that character with a touching pathos. We usually think of the stepmother as full of spite; in Maillot's version, Cinderella’s father remarries after his wife dies, but can’t quite forget his first love. Lesley showed us the pain of a woman who can never measure up to somebody else's memory; she showed us the roots of the spite and malevolence.

I asked Lesley about that performance; I was curious to know when she felt able to bring herself fully to the story ballet roles she loves. I was surprised when she told me it hadn't even been 10 years. Her focus had been on the choreography. Only when she felt it in her bones could she reveal her emotional side to audiences. It's been worth the wait.

Over the past two post-pandemic in-person seasons, Lesley has shown us an exquisite Giselle, a tender Odette and her a devil-may-care alter-ego Odile, plus her first “sock” ballet, in a lovely dance created by Alonzo King. And, of course, she was electric in Ulysses Dove's Red Angels.

Lesley in Dove's Red Angels. Photo @ Angela Sterling

One of PNB’s first pandemic-era videos featured the exquisite principal dancer Dylan Wald as Apollo and Lesley as one of his muses. At one point in the video, Lesley touched Dylan’s finger. I confess the shock of seeing two humans touch after the long months of social distancing was something to savor. 

Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald in George Balanchine's Apollo
Photo @ Lindsay Thomas

A dancer’s career is far too short; just as she reaches her peak artistry, her body tells her it’s time to move on. I’m so grateful to have gotten to know Lesley a bit more, to have a window into her hard work and mental preparations, and, above all, to watch her end her career the way she’d intended: dancing the roles she loved, giving audiences indelible moments to remember.

Lesley Rausch and Ezra Thomson in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Photo @ Angela Sterling

We hope to see Lesley perform in April in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. PNB will honor Lesley’s career on June 11 at the Season Encore performance. I’ll be sitting in McCaw Hall that evening to show my appreciation for an artist and for a truly lovely human being.



Monday, February 6, 2023

PNB Gave Me The Wilis. Huzzah!


PNB Principal Dancer Elle Macy as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in the current production of Giselle
                                                                   photo @ Angela Sterling

Let me confess right from the start: I am not a huge fan of 19th century story ballets.


I love Giselle. Partly that’s because it features some amazing dancing. But mostly because the band of female ghosts who emerge in Act 2 have stolen my heart. And their queen, Myrtha? I think she’s my favorite character in all of story ballet-dom. They’re truly the reason you need to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s current production before it closes on February 12th.

To be honest, I don’t love Giselle, the main character, although on opening night, principal dancer Lesley Rausch was close to perfection, sassy in Act I and ethereal in Act 2. Plus jumpin’ James Kirby Rogers as her true love Albert, danced gorgeously that night.

Giselle and Albert get cozy on a bench, before everything goes to hell
James Kirby Rogers, left, with the incandescent Lesley Rausch in this photo @ Angela Sterling

I guess I should back up and tell you more about this ballet. 

First off, it’s old, probably the oldest work in PNB’s repertoire. It debuted in Paris in 1841. PNB’s version was reconstructed in 2011 from three different 19th century sources, decoded by dance/music historians Doug Fullington and Marian Smith and staged by PNB artistic director Peter Boal.

Here's the plot in a nutshell. A beautiful young peasant woman named Giselle falls for the new guy in town. And he falls for her. Problem is, he says he’s a peasant, but in reality, Albert is slumming it. He’s actually a nobleman. AND he’s engaged to someone else, a noblewoman named Bathilde, the daughter of a prince. Uh oh...

Giselle finds out the truth about Albert from a fellow peasant named Hilarion, who’s in love with Giselle. She goes nuts and dies of a broken heart. Curtain down on Act I.

Now we get to the best part.

photo @ Angela Sterling

The action moves to a forest that’s haunted by the ghosts of women like Giselle whose lovers have done them wrong. If you’re a man who ventures into their territory at night, well, watch out, because these ghosts are bent on revenge. They’re called Wilis, they dress in white with little wings on their backs, and their leader is the all-powerful Myrtha.

Dancing in the moonlight, but nothing feels warm and right with the Wilis
photo @ Angela Sterling

The dancer who portrays Myrtha has to be fierce. Not only does she have to execute technically challenging choreography, leaping and spinning across the stage. She’s got to lead her Wilis in the charge against the men who, in my opinion, truly need to be held accountable for their actions. The Wilis don’t use weapons; they dance unsuspecting men to their deaths.

Elle Macy as Myrtha on opening night of PNB's 2023 production of Giselle
                                                                     photo @ Angela Sterling

There’s a lot of old-time mime in this ballet (don’t worry, PNB provides a “glossary” in the program); all you really need to know is the mime movement that conveys “dance.” It comes up repeatedly in the first act, when Giselle tells her mother she’d rather dance than go work in the vineyards. (Can you blame her?). Myrtha is all over the dance mime in Act 2.

In essence, the dancer who’s miming holds both arms in front of her torso. One arm at a time, she makes circular gestures, raising her arms up above her head. It looks a little like somebody gesturing you to get the ball rolling. Believe me, you’ll understand what I’m saying when you see the ballet.

PNB soloist Amanda Morgan looking regal as Myrtha
photo @ Angela Sterling

When Myrtha and her band encircle a man, Myrtha mimes “dance,” then she points at her captive’s feet. The meaning is pretty clear. It’s like one of those old Westerns, where the villain shoots bullets at the hero’s boots and tells them to “dance, sucker.”

When Albert wanders into the forest to lay flowers on Giselle’s grave, Myrtha and her posse nab him and he’s almost danced to death. Almost, because Giselle pleads with Myrtha to save him. Her efforts kill enough time that dawn arrives before the Wilis can finish off Albert. They disappear offstage, back to their tombs or wherever it is that Wilis hide out during daylight hours.

Yep, they’re like Zombies or werewolves, or whatever other creatures can’t function once the sun comes up. Once they’re gone, the audience is left to savor the memories of these dancers, their stern faces, and the way they first take the stage, in white veils, their bodies angled forward in two straight lines, like perfectly matched knives in a butcher’s block. Ooh, it’s something to behold!

photo @ Angela Sterling

I’ve embarked on a quest to see all three PNB Myrthas. Principal Elle Macy killed it on opening night; she shares Myrtha duties with fellow principal Cecilia Iliesiu and soloist Amanda Morgan. They’ll be performing in different shows this coming weekend, so check here for casting information.

PNB Principal Dancer Cecilia Iliesiu as Myrtha. Fierce, right?
photo @ Angela Sterling

I think I must be an outlier when it comes to Giselle. Some of my fellow ballet nerd pals call Myrtha the villain of the piece, and they’re saddened that Gisele and Albert can’t fulfill their love. At least while they're both alive. Frankly, I can’t work up a lot of sympathy for Albert when the Wilis are trying to dance him to death. Okay, maybe he doesn’t deserve to die, but he did break at least one woman’s heart (Bathilde also was  wronged, but she doesn’t do much except take Albert back). Shouldn’t Albert have to atone for his actions?

Giselle and Albert, aka Lesley Rausch and James Kirby Rogers
Does he really deserve her love??
photo @ Angela Sterling

Myrtha and the Wilis are there to mete out justice. Even in contemporary dance, we don’t often see resolute women like them. What am I saying? We rarely see tough women portrayed in any art form, which is one reason I like Giselle so much.

To me the Wilis are role models, standing firm in a world where their dreams of happiness don’t seem to count as much as their male counterparts’. Well, standing firm in the afterlife. They kick ass.

And the dancing isn't shabby either.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Giselle is onstage at McCaw Hall Thursday, February 9-Sunday, February 12.


Sunday, December 18, 2022

It's All About the Dancers!


The inimitable Noelani Pantastico in Tea/Arabian in PNB's 2019 Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

A few weeks ago I jotted down some thoughts after the opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet's latest production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Mostly I was whining about rude audience members and their cellphones. 

I posted my essay to social media, and was deluged with other stories about ridiculous behavior at live performances. But one commenter pulled me up short. She wondered what I thought about the ballet itself. And I realized that, while I'm impressed by the orchestra, the sets and costumes, and the big Snowflake and Flower waltzes, I don't go to Nutcracker to be awed by the show, not for the little girls twirling in party dresses onstage (and off), not even for the ballet itself.

PNB principal dancer Leta Biasucci soared as Sugar Plum Fairy in 2019
photo @ Angela Sterling

I go to see the dancers.

Before you respond 'well, duh Marcie,' let me explain.

I've seen this particular Nutcracker production at least 15 times  since PNB debuted it in 2015; twice a year, sometimes three times, for seven seasons. The story is almost incidental to my experience. It's not that I dislike attending another performance; quite the opposite. I'm looking for dancers who shine.

A Covid-era Clara and party guests, 2021. Ezra Thomson delights as Drosselmeier
photo @ Angela Sterling

During Act I I'm watching the kids in the party scene, particularly the various incarnations of Clara's naughty younger brother Fritz. I recognized him as one of last year's party boys. He has a wild head of hair and the military party hat wouldn't stay put. This year his Fritz was as exuberant as his hair.

Act II is all about featured company members, and for me, that's what makes Nutcracker a magical experience. Hefty roles like Sugar Plum Fairy and Dewdrop are pretty but also technically tricky, and I'm looking to see how the dancers navigate them. 

Here's principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy's 2017 Dewdrop. She's exponentially more lovely in 2022
photo @ Angela Sterling

This year both Dewdrops I saw--principal dancers Angelica Generosa and Elizabeth Murphy--brought a deft and sparkling lightness to the role. And I was fascinated to watch soloists Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and Ezra Thomson as Sugar Plum and her Cavalier. They had an almost tender partnership, with lots of eye contact. As always, Ryan threw her entire being into the role, and Thomson was her steady rock.

Beyond the usual suspects, it's always inspiring when a corps de ballet member gets a turn in the spotlight. PNB presents almost 40 shows this year, so there are many opportunities for less experienced company members to step up, whether to entertain an audience, or demonstrate to boss Peter Boal they have what it takes to go far. 

I haven't seen principal dancer James Yoichi Moore as the lead Candy Cane in several years. 
Angela Sterling captured this photo in 2017

It could be a chance at Sugar Plum, or the sinuous Tea/Arabian solo, and  I'm always interested to see which tall dancer will climb stilts and don the 60-pound Mother Ginger dress, or dazzle us with double and triple hoop jumps as the lead Candy Cane.

Speaking of a dancer on fire--here's Corps member Kuu Sakuragi, definitely a dancer to watch.
photo @ Angela Sterling

I've seen two Nutcrackers this season, and in both, corps member Mark Cuddihee had his turn with the hoop. He mastered it the second time, shooting off a couple of double jumps in the big finale.

That's Destiny Wimpye, front row on the left. Look at her pretty foot!
photo @ Angela Sterling

New apprentice Destiny Wimpye made her mark onstage, whether as one of several dozen Snowflakes, or radiating joy as a Marzipan shepherdess. 

And this year I was dazzled by Zsilas Michael Hughes' Toy Soldier and Coffee/Spanish lead. Hughes literally kicked up their heels with abandon and it was so fun to watch.

I know that emerging star Ashton Edwards will be dancing Dewdrop on Thursday, December 22 alongside soloist Amanda Morgan as the Sugar Plum Fairy. I'm almost tempted to catch a third performance just to watch them both. You can get a ticket here.

Several years ago PNB Executive Director Ellen Walker talked to me about dancers who reflect light back to the audience, the dancers we watch onstage then thumb through our program to identify. I've never forgotten her words. 

Unlike so many (most) dance writers, I don't come to this obsession from a dance background. I love to watch great performances, but more than technical prowess, I'm interested in that slippery, indefinable je ne sais quoi that imbues an artist with something that sets them apart from the crowd. In Spanish the word is 'duende.' It's about soul, and a passion that infuses each performance, whether the first or the 40th Nutcracker in this case. 

I *think* this is soloist Christopher D'Ariano at Mother Ginger.
This photo by @ Angela Sterling was taken in 2019, but D'Ariano stole the show again this year.

After the holiday decorations, the costumes and sets get stowed away until next season, I'll be thinking of those dancers whose souls burn with that interior fire, that duende. And I'm so grateful to know I'll get to watch them again--and again--on the McCaw Hall stage.