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Monday, June 6, 2022

It's Hard to Say Goodbye

 

Sarah Pasch, center, with Elle Macy, left, and Chelsea Adomaitis in Twyla Tharp's
Waiting at the Station, 2013. photo @ Angela Sterling

When dance journalists write about ballet, we’re usually focused on the choreographers or the principal dancers, the orchestra, or the sets, costumes and lighting.

We note new creations, exemplary performances, on-stage partnerships and the like. I think of us a bit like magpies, lured from one bright, shiny object to the next. When a beloved ballet star gives their last performance, we're likely to note their departures in a multitude of media outlets. The accolades are usually well-deserved; unfortunately, we’re not quite so attentive when other hard-working dancers decide it's time to leave their performing careers behind. 

And that’s too bad, because I think of the corps de ballet in particular as the hardest working, often least recognized, group of dancers in show business. This week Pacific Northwest Ballet says goodbye to two corps members: Guillaume Basso and Sarah Pasch. The company also bids farewell to elegant PNB soloist Joshua Grant.

Joshua Grant-Montoya, left, with his husband Christopher Grant-Montoya and canine family members in their new school, Dance Conservatory Seattle. photo courtesy Joshua Grant-Montoya


One minute to recognize Grant, who has appeared in everything from new work by David Dawson to Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette, where his Paris unsuccessfully wooed a reluctant Juliet. 

Joshua Grant as Paris in Jean-Christophe Maillot's
Romeo et Juliette. photo @ Angela Sterling


But Grant, a veteran of Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo, was just as arresting as Mother Ginger in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, both for his facility mincing along on stilts supporting a 60+ pound costume that hides a troupe of kids and his brilliant comedic timing.

Joshua Grant as Mother Ginger with PNB school students in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
photo @ Elise Bakketun 

But back to the corps de ballet, dancers who are particularly indispensable when a company like PNB mounts big productions like Nutcracker or Swan Lake. While our eyes may be glued to the Sugar Plum Fairy (or Mother Ginger), or to Odette and Siegfried’s doomed love story, we can’t help but be awed by twirling Snowflakes, or the amazing bevy of swans who take the stage in Swan Lake’s Act 2, hopping in from the wings with precision and unity. It’s hard work, physically and mentally. Odette and Siegfried get several night’s rest in between performances, but those swans grind out shows every night.

PNB corps de ballet members in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, 2018.
Sarah Pasch is at far right. photo @ Angela Sterling


Leading PNB’s pack (or should I saw flock?) this year with her trademark elegance and poise was ten-year corps de ballet member Pasch.

“It was my fourth time around with this ballet,” says the 31-year old. “I still love it.”

It will be one of many memories Pasch savors next fall, when she trades the Marion Oliver McCall Hall stage for an elementary school classroom. While the dancers were sidelined during the pandemic, Pasch used her time to complete a Bachelor’s degree from Western Governor’s University, and to focus on her now two-year old daughter Etta, who she’s raising with her husband, PNB soloist Ezra Thomson.

“The pandemic actually kind of worked in my favor,” Pasch explains. “I had planned to take time off school and work when Etta was born (January, 2020). Things changed, and I wasn’t dancing (because of the pandemic), so even though I had a newborn baby at home, I did have time to do school.”

Last fall, Pasch needed a few more months leave from PNB to complete her student teaching. She told her boss, Artistic Director Peter Boal, that she’d be back for Nutcracker, but would retire from the company this summer.

“I kinda used it as a consolation prize,” Pasch laughs. “If you let me do this, I’ll retire and you can hire some younger dancers!”

Sarah Pasch as the Stepmother in Jean-Christophe Maillot's
Cendrillon. photo @ Angela Sterling


In the meantime, Pasch has used her position as one of the senior corps members to help guide some of PNB’s newer dancers. Boal says Pasch’s grace and unobtrusive but steady presence in the studio has earned her the respect of her peers, and her boss.

“Every company has undesignated leaders like Sarah, who see the bigger scope of the rehearsal process.” Boal wrote in an email. “She knows what needs to be fixed and how to fix it. She will be missed.”

Sarah Pasch with Dammiel Cruz-Garrido in Ulysses Dove's Red Angels, 2018.
photo @ Lindsay Thomas


Pasch leaves PNB on a high note. She’s scheduled to dance in Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels with fellow corps member Dammiel Cruz-Garrido in the company’s Encore performance June 12th. She first saw this ballet when she joined PNB School’s Professional Division in 2009.

“I was out in the audience,” says Pasch, “and I was like, ‘I have to do that role!’”

Boal cast her in it several years later, which she says was a big deal for her; as a corps dancer Pasch hasn’t had regular opportunities to  perform solo roles. She considers Red Angels to be one of her career highlights, along with a stint in George Balanchine’s Rubies.

Sarah Pasch, center with, from left, Chelsea Adomaitis, James Yoichi Moore and Elle Macy in 2013 production of Tharp's Waiting at the Station. photo @ Angela Sterling


Another highlight was originating the role of Golden Girl, one of a trio featured in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station, created for PNB in 2013. The ballet is one of three Tharp works that make up PNB’s final program of this artistic season. Although COVID forced the company to cancel opening weekend performances, Pasch is scheduled to reprise the role this weekend (June 9-12), if the virus allows the shows to go on.

“It feels like full circle,” she says. “To have a role created on you is so cool. It feels very precious to me, and I’m so excited I get to dance it again.”

This summer, Pasch will tour with PNB to New York and Los Angeles before stepping away from professional ballet for good. She acknowledges her life will be different come September, when her husband heads back to the ballet studio while she takes her place in front of a classroom. Pasch is eager to begin this new career, but says ballet will always be with her.

“I’ll really miss that magic of the curtain coming up, being onstage in costume. There’s nothing like it,” she acknowledges. “I’m just grateful for the audience here, the career I’ve had, this home I’ve created at PNB.”

 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Return of the Swan

Lesley Rausch as Odette in Pacific Northwest Ballet's past production of  Swan Lake
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

 

Early Spring sunshine streams into a small Pacific Northwest Ballet studio, casting shadows on two dancers, one in dark sweat pants and a tee shirt, the other dressed in a purple leotard, stiff white tutu and pointe shoes.

They’re rehearsing a pas de deux from the classic ballet Swan Lake, under the watchful eye of PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal. Veteran company member Lesley Rausch portrays the famous White Swan, Odette. Her partner, James Kirby Rogers, is Prince Siegfried, smitten by Odette’s beauty when he encounters her with a flock of fellow swans on a moonlit lake.

Boal starts a recording of Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, and Rausch and Rogers begin a delicate courtship dance. They circle one another, warily at first, then spiraling closer. At last, Rogers steps behind Rausch and wraps her in his arms, gently folding her limbs across her chest. When they pull apart, Rausch’s arms extend behind her, like a swan’s wings, her fingers fluttering like feathers in a breeze. Rogers lifts the ballerina up over his head, once, twice and a third time, as if she weighs no more than, well, a bird. 




When the ethereal seven-minute duet ends, both dancers bend over, gulping in air through the black face masks they wear to ward off Covid.

For so many ballerinas, dancing Swan Lake’s Odette and her evil doppelganger, the Black Swan, Odile, is a career pinnacle. It’s not simply that the roles are technically demanding, a tour-de-force when performed well; it’s also the fact that the ballerina must learn the choreography and then distinguish each role dramatically for the audience (if not for the love-sick Prince who, somehow, mistakes Odile’s flamboyance for the gentle grace of his love, Odette).

James Kirby Rogers and Lesley Rausch in Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Swan Lake
                                                        photo @ Angela Sterling

Whether it’s portraying the agony of a woman captured in swan form, or whipping off Odile’s jaw-droppingly difficult 32 fouetté turns, this dual role allows a dancer to demonstrate everything she’s mastered over her career.

Lesley Rausch and her husband, former PNB dancer Batkhurel Bold, in Swan Lake
photo @ Angela Sterling


Four years ago, when PNB last presented this ballet, Rausch had the opportunity to perform Odette/Odile on opening night. “That was the fulfillment of every childhood dream I ever had,” she says. “I didn’t even realize it until it was happening.”

Two years ago, when COVID forced the world to shut down, Rausch wasn’t sure she’d make it back onstage, let alone get a chance to star in this ballet again.

Of course, ballet dancers weren’t the only ones affected by the March, 2020 pandemic closures. All but people deemed to be essential workers were sent home to puzzle out how to set up offices at their dining room tables; to squabble over laptops and internet bandwidth with their family members. 

While many of us were able to conduct business as (almost) usual, ballet dancers floundered, wondering how to keep their bodies and minds ready to perform if and when they were called back to work. PNB offered daily Zoom classes to its company members, but Rausch and many of her peers sometimes found it hard to muster the enthusiasm for remote dancing.

“I have a lot of good self-motivation normally,” Rausch says. “But there were times I just couldn’t make myself do ballet.”

Rausch felt detached from the online classes, and she didn’t have the studio space at home to move the way she wanted and needed to. Beyond space issues, like so many of us, Rausch found the daily pandemic news to be emotionally grueling. Although she felt fortunate to be financially stable, and that PNB continued to provide health insurance to all its workers, seeing the toll Covid was taking on so many people around the world was sobering.

PNB’s pandemic closure dragged on through the summer of 2020, the longest non-dancing period Rausch had experienced since she started ballet lessons as a little girl in Columbus, Ohio. She practiced Pilates daily, trying to keep her muscles toned and healthy. And she relished the time with her husband, retired PNB dancer Batkhurel Bold, who works in the hospitality industry now. Together, they explored Seattle on foot, trying to make the most of their downtime together. But dancing a full-length ballet requires specific stamina and training. The longer Rausch was away from the studio, the more concerned she became about how she’d regain what she was losing.

Batkhurel Bold with his wife Lesley Rausch. Photo @ Angela Sterling


Although the pandemic maintained its grip on us, by mid-2020, PNB had decided to go ahead with a new artistic season, albeit digitally. Most (but not all) of the dancers returned to the Phelps Center studios, where they were segregated into small pods of four to six dancers. Everyone was—and still is--masked, and tested for Covid on a regular basis, but they were dancing again, which Rausch didn’t take for granted. 

(By the way, the challenge of dancing in a mask can’t be overlooked. Imagine how you feel when you take a brisk uphill walk in your mask; sometimes it feels like you just can’t take in enough oxygen. Now think about dancers, who spend hours each day in strenuous activity, constantly masked.)


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


Although Rausch was thrilled to be back in the studios, even masked, it was by no means ballet as usual. Covid protocols dictated that only dancers who lived together could touch one another in the studio or onstage, or do the kind of partnering a ballet like Swan Lake requires.

“We’re very used to touching all the time,” she says. “It’s a building where people hug frequently, where corrections are hands-on. This (Covid protocols) was a seismic shift, and it was scary for us all.”

Lesley Rausch and former PNB partner Jerome Tisserand rehearsing Swan Lake in 2018.
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

Beyond the Covid protocols, the journey back to back to ballet-readiness wasn’t easy, particularly for older dancers like Rausch, who turned 40 in late 2021. The art form’s physical demands frequently force dancers to leave the profession by their late 30’s. A few, like Rausch’s former colleague Noelani Pantastico, hang on into their 40’s. (Pantastico retired this February at age 41). 

Rausch found the work to retrain her body to be grueling; after a day in the studio, she often went home and just cried from the pain of, for example, building back the strength in her feet.

“You know, when I was younger, I could walk in off the street, slap on my pointe shoes and go right into rehearsal,” she muses. “I can’t even imagine that now!” Rausch is far more aware of her body’s strengths and weaknesses than she was 20 years ago, and much more cautious about potential injuries, so she’s been slow and methodical about her re-training.

Eight months into this artistic season, Rausch is nursing a sore back, which kept her out of two productions earlier this year. Bolstered by a brace, she’s thrown herself into Swan Lake rehearsals, determined to be back onstage in the coveted dual role. “Every day is different,” she muses. “Some are better than others.”

Every morning, before she even arrives at PNB’s Seattle Center studios, she spends a couple of hours preparing her body for the physical toll the full day of rehearsals will exact on her. “I take a very, very, very, hot shower,” she laughs. Rausch then runs through a series of Pilates exercises, focusing especially on her back. But she also relies heavily on the expertise of PNB physical therapist Boyd Bender and Laura Bannister, a PT at Avant Studio.

“I feel like I’m stronger after a year and a half away. I’ve tended to old injuries,” Rausch says. “I definitely feel more confidence that I’m able to do my job.”

Beyond the physical re-adjustments, Rausch found PNB to be a very different dance company when she returned in August, 2020. More than a half dozen of her contemporaries decided to retire or leave Seattle during the pandemic, including her longtime stage partner Jerome Tisserand, who danced her Prince Siegfried in PNB’s 2018 Swan Lake production. 

Tisserand's departure was wrenching for Rausch, who had built up a level of comfort and trust with him after years dancing together. Now she’s working to build that stage relationship with James Kirby Rogers. In rehearsal they work on small nuances: how Rogers can help her into a turn, or where he should hold her waist when he prepares to lift Rausch into the air.

James Kirby Rogers with Lesley Rausch, Otto Neubert in background
photo @ Angela Sterling for Pacific Northwest Ballet

Like Rogers, most of PNB’s new company members are much younger than Rausch. Although she’s one of only a handful of veterans at the company, Rausch isn’t ready to step away from a life that has defined her since childhood. She decided to be a ballerina when she was 10 years old, and her commitment hasn’t wavered. “I had a five-minute solo,” she recalls, “and I had this moment of just feeling like, ‘This is it!’ I just felt alive.”



She feels the same way today.

Aside from family, ballet has been the one constant in her life for more than 35 years. “It has been with me through the good and the bad, the ugly and beautiful. I think it starts to become even more cherished when you contemplate that it won’t be part of your life much longer.”

A year ago, Rausch wasn’t sure what the future held. She’s a certified Pilates instructor, and she’s been building her own business, but Rausch wasn’t quite ready to jump into this new pursuit full-time. When she learned that Peter Boal had included Swan Lake in the company’s current season line-up, it was the signal she needed. Rausch signed her contract, and prayed that her body would be up to the task ahead. 

Her gamble seems to have paid off. Not only does she get another chance to star in Swan Lake; she and Rogers will dance on opening night. It’s the opportunity Rausch could only dream about two years ago.

“Now I just feel gratitude for my body, that it can still do the things I ask it to do.”

And, while no one can predict the future with any certainty, Rausch is betting both on her body and her artistry to carry her into another year with PNB. Last month she decided to return for her 21st season in the company, to help celebrate PNB’s 50th anniversary.

Before then, audiences can see Lesley Rausch perform Odette/Odile on opening night of PNB’s production of Swan Lake, choreographed by Kent Stowell. The ballet runs April 15-24 at McCaw Hall.

 

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Amanda Morgan Never Stops

 

Dancer and choreographer Amanda Morgan, photo @ Jessamy Lennon

Last week Amanda Morgan was tapping her heart out in the Pacific Northwest Ballet production of Justin Peck’s sneaker ballet, The Times Are Racing. This weekend, Morgan is at the helm of a new show she’s producing under the auspices of her own venture, The Seattle Project.

The show, truth be told, includes three dance films and three live dances, including a duet Morgan created for Marco Farroni and her PNB colleague, apprentice Zsilas Michael Hughes.

Morgan launched The Seattle Project at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic hit. She wanted to provide a creative outlet for her own work, and for that of other BIPOC and Queer artists. Although the Project isn’t limited to dance, Morgan cheerfully admits that, as a dance artist, she gravitates to the art form.

Morgan describes her latest choreographic effort as “more experimental” than work she’s made in the past. This new duet is literally split in two: Hughes and Farroni spend 2/3 of the performance separated from one another, on the different stages--one a platform built directly over the main floor, accessible only via a steep wooden ladder.

Farroni, an experienced performer (including work with Spectrum Dance Theatre and choreographer Dani Tirrell) starts on the upper level, while Hughes first appears directly below Farroni, seated on a stool. Eventually, the two dancers join forces, and when they do, their distinctly different movements converge as well.

This weekend’s show also features work by Akoiya Harris, Devin Munoz, Christopher D’Ariano, Leah Terada and the Seattle premier of a film by Nia-Amina Minor, called Without Ever Leaving the Ground (She Flew).

Because Morgan holds down a demanding day job with PNB, she doesn’t schedule Seattle Project performances very far in advance. Look for her this summer on the Seattle waterfront, and presenting work with the Art in the Parks program. Morgan says audiences should expect the unexpected when it comes to her choreography. She’s always eager to try something new, even if it falls short of her imagination.

“At least I made stuff,” Morgan says. “At least I used my voice.”

The Seattle Project’s truth be told debuts at the Northwest Film Forum on Saturday, April 2 and repeats Sunday, April 3.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Finding Light in Dark Times

 

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch as Dewdrop
in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. photo @ Angela Sterling

When I heard the news about Covid's Omicron variant a couple of weeks back, my body just clenched up. “Oh, what fresh hell is this?” I asked myself.

These are dark times, literally and metaphorically, as we hover near Winter Solstice with so few hours of daylight, and news reports of rising infection rates and ongoing political strife crash ashore endlessly.

I always struggle in December, so it’s become my practice to seek out moments of joy wherever they present themselves; simple pleasures--holiday lights emerging like mushrooms on houses and shops across the city, glowing like beacons in the long stretches of darkness. Or baking for friends, with KING-FM on in the background.

Or annual holiday performances, a pleasure I took for granted until last year, pre-vaccine, when the pandemic forced the cancellation or the migration of live shows to online streams. We’ve learned to love, or at least live with, digital performances, but for me there’s nothing like sitting in an audience with other people.

I’ve written before about the giddiness I experienced upon entering McCaw Hall to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. I had a similar sense of glee this month at a performance of A Christmas Carol, at ACT Theatre.

R. Hamilton Wright, Amy Thone and Nathaniel Tenebaum 
in ACT Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol. Photo courtesy ACT Theatre


Actor Nathaniel Tenenbaum’s pre-show speech started off with a rousing “we’re back!” followed by a shout backstage to his fellow cast members “they’re here in the seats!” I got goose bumps, and a bit misty eyed, and filled with the familiar anticipation of the play about to unfold.

Julie Briskman, the Ghost of Christmas Present in ACT Theatre's A Christmas Carol
photo @ Hannah Delon, courtesy ACT


As I watched the brilliant Julie Briskman, the Ghost of Christmas Present, rise up from below the stage on a chaise, draped in green velvet with a matching garland of greenery crowning her head, I broke into a huge smile. Of course, it was under my mask, so nobody saw it, but I know the rest of the audience was probably smiling too.

 

PNB company members with Noelani Pantastico as Dewdrop, 2016
photo @ Angela Sterling

What I didn’t realize was that, this year, performers are relishing these moments too. Arts organizations here and around the world have struggled to keep their heads above water through the pandemic, so reopening with a holiday classic has new meaning.

 

 

Lesley Rausch with her Cavalier, Dylan Wald in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

“Sometimes, we get to Nutcracker and it’s like, ‘oh, here we go again.”

Principal dancer Lesley Rausch is in the middle of her 20th season dancing with PNB, so she’s performed her share of Nutcrackers. For Rausch and her fellow company members, the chance to be on stage this December is a return to business as usual, albeit with a twist.

“We’re testing every other day during Nutcracker, with rapid (antigen) tests,” she explains. “There’s a little bit of fear every time that what if this is the time that the virus slips through? It affects the whole company.”

That fear is particularly acute now that Omicron is raging through New York, forcing Broadway theaters to close down shows. As I write these words, Puget Sound arts organizations remain open, but on high alert.

At PNB, everyone backstage is still masked, including the dancers. The masks don’t come off until they twirl out from the wings. Which is only fair, because all of us audience members are also masked. (BTW, that mask should cover your mouth and nose! It doesn’t do anything hanging over your chin except make me want to yell at you!)

 

Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald in PNB's 2021 production of The Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

 

This year, watching Rausch and Dylan Wald take the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier touched me in a way that the familiar pas de deux normally doesn’t. I like the choreography, and love the music, but I’ve seen Nutcracker so many times that I’m often not completely present. This year, though, Rausch and Wald created a magic that I’ve been missing; she truly was a gossamer fairy in Wald’s arms, her descent to the stage from each leap an evanescent, gravity-defiant shimmer.

Rausch says dancing in this year’s Nutcracker has brought her a renewed energy for a show that can sometimes feel like an annual grind. We may see it only once a year, but for dancers, especially those in the corps de ballet, the four-week Nutcracker run can be grueling. This year, though, Rausch treasures every performance.

“We’ve all just been craving it so much!” she says. “Thursday night’s show wasn’t even full, but the audience was wild. I got applause for just walking out on stage. I never had so much fun out there, it was a blast!”

PNB company members in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling


In the darkness of a second pandemic winter, audiences are grateful to be able to sit in theaters again, to savor holiday traditions. Sometimes we need to respond with more than cheers and applause.

“I got a letter in the mail, from a little girl,” says Rausch. “She told me how much she loved watching me as Sugar Plum and how she wants to be just like me when she grows up.”

The girl included a gift for the ballerina--a home-made holiday ornament, fashioned from popsicle sticks and covered with glitter.

Rausch’s big blue eyes fill with tears as she tells me this story.

“I mean, cue the water works! We’re so removed from the audience as performers, you forget the impact you can have on somebody’s life!”

When it comes to moments of joy and grace in the December darkness, it doesn’t get brighter than that.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is onstage at McCaw Hall through December 28. ACT’s A Christmas Carol is onstage through December 26.

 

 

 

Monday, November 29, 2021

Nutcracker 2.0-It's Back and Better Than Ever

 

PNB soloist Cecilia Iliesiu, center, and fellow dancers in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.
photo @ Angela Sterling

This past weekend Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its annual holiday production of The Nutcracker.

After almost two years of COVID isolation that forced PNB to cancel last year's run, this opening is a big, big deal.

I’ve seen this version of The Nutcracker at least a dozen times since PNB debuted George Balanchine’s 1954 classic six years ago, but sitting in McCaw Hall Saturday night, watching Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald perform the Sugar Plum Fairy/Cavalier pas de deux, it was as if I was seeing this ballet for the very first time.

Being able to gather with a (masked) audience to share a live performance, to hear the full PNB orchestra for the first time since February 2020, to watch a stage full of dancers, was remarkable. 

It was both comfortingly familiar, and yet a completely new experience.

PNB soloist Ezra Thomson, left, with DianaStarr Robinson
photo @ Angela Sterling

First, the masks. Nutcracker features a large cast: PNB company dancers, plus dozens of students. To protect their health, and that of the professional artists they perform with, the kids all wear masks, specially designed to match their costumes. 

It’s startling at first, but masking is now part of our new normal as we continue to fend off succesive waves of viral mutations. PNB takes its COVID-19 precautions seriously. In addition to masks, audience members must show proof of vaccination status, or a negative COVID test. Even the wildly popular second act appearance by Mother Ginger and her Polichinelle flock was transformed by health protocols. 

Instead of sheltering all eight children under her enormous skirts, Mother Ginger enters with only four young dancers hidden from view. The other four dance on and off from the wings, the ballet equivalent of social distancing.

These health safeguards are only part of the changed face of this Nutcracker production. PNB has made others the company hopes will help eliminate some of the art form’s embedded racial and gender biases.

PNB corps de ballet member Noah Martzall makes a very natty Green Tea Cricket
photo @ Angela Sterling

When Balanchine created his Nutcracker almost 70 years ago, mainly white audiences and critics most likely didn’t question why the male dancer in the Act II “Tea” section was dressed as an ersatz “Chinaman,” complete with a pigtail. The original energetic choreography also included movements that many Asian Americans have rightly called out as offensive.

Several years ago PNB changed part of that dated choreography to eliminate the racial stereotyping. This year, the character itself, with its costume, has been changed. Meet the “Green Tea Cricket,” complete with bobbing antennae. 

Corps de ballet member Amanda Morgan 
photo @ Angela Sterling


Beyond the Cricket, I noticed more racial diversity among the entire cast. In the "Before Times," the majority of the professional company members were white. This year, it's more diverse than ever before. 

In Friday evening's performance, two of the five Marzipan shepherdesses were young African American dancers. Someday that won’t feel so remarkable, but more than a year after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police sparked an international outcry for racial justice, you can’t gloss over the importance of onstage representation.

And that brings me to another, even more tradition-shattering change.

This year PNB hired two non-binary apprentices, one of whom has trained to perform on pointe, a ballet realm that’s been reserved for cis-gender women, outside of comedy drag troupes like Les Ballets Trockadero. 

The Waltz of the Flowers ends Act I 
photo @ Angela Sterling


Watching this apprentice waltz their way across the stage with their fellow Snowflakes, I knew I was witness to what I can only call a seismic shift in a very hide-bound artform. My Gen-Z son shrugged his shoulders when I pointed out what we’d seen; for him, ballet should reflect what’s happening in the wider society.

And that’s how this particular PNB apprentice put it to me in an online exchange.

“It makes me so excited to see what is next not only for PNB but for ballet, as the world keeps evolving and dancers like me become normal.”

I don’t know how many of my fellow audience members were aware that they were watching history-in-the-making, because this particular dancer blended so well into the full corps de ballet. And that's as it should be.

Sugar Plum Fairy Angelica Generosa, with her Cavalier Price Suddarth
photo @ Angela Sterling


Meanwhile there I was, mask on, sitting at a relatively safe distance from audience members I didn’t know, soaking in Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, appreciating this old ballet in a new way. Beyond the pageantry itself, I was keenly aware of the many stagehands, costumers and other staff working behind the scenes to restore a bit of normal to a world that COVID-19 turned upside down last year.

As I said, this year's Nutcracker was comforting, familiar, and at the same time, transformed by the calls for justice and change that have rocked our world. I wept with joy, relief, and on this Thanksgiving weekend, gratitude, for a chance to savor it all again.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2021 production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is onstage at McCaw Hall through December 28th.

 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

New Films From Seattle Dance Collective

 

Noelani Pantastico, foreground, with Jacqueline Burnett in Robin Mineko Williams' Where You Stay
                                                         photo @ Bruno Roque

Performing arts venues are slowly starting to reopen to live audiences, but many organizations continue to offer either hybrid, or all-digital, seasons.

And that’s the case for one of Seattle’s newer small arts groups, Seattle Dance Collective.

SDC is the brainchild of Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancers Noelani Pantastico and James Yoichi Moore. Instead of a dance company with a fixed group of participating artists, Pantastico and Moore wanted to create a structure that would allow them to collaborate with a variety of dancers and choreographers as the spirit moved them. Their goal was to commission and present new contemporary work each summer, when PNB dancers aren’t working.

The first season, 2019, audiences at the Vashon Island Performing Arts Center were treated to work by Marco Goecke, Bruno Roque, Penny Saunders and more. 

When the pandemic hit last spring, SDC, like every arts organization, had to rethink its plans. Last summer, Moore and Pantastico commissioned five dance films, tapping PNB colleagues like Miles Pertl and Amanda Morgan, as well as artists outside the immediate ballet world they inhabit.

This year, with the fate of live performance still iffy, SDC again decided to present a digital stream for its fans. The program, HERE & NOW is available now; it features three new works, all created during a summer artistic residency on Vashon Island.

Alice Klock and Florian Lochner in To Dust, by Juliano Nunes. photo @ Bruno Roque


To Dust, choreographed by Juliano Nunes and filmed and directed by Bruno Roque, is a moody duet performed by FLOCK, Alice Klock and Florian Lochner.

The duo also choreographed a work for SDC, 5 Favorite Things.  This dance features six performers, Jaqueline Burnett, Jane Cracovaner, Andrew McShea, Noelani Pantastico, David Schultz, and James Yoichi Moore. Roque’s camera is onstage with the dancers, weaving around them like a seventh performer.

SDC dancers in FLOCKS' 5 Favorite Things. photo @ Bruno Roque


In both 5 Favorite Things and To Dust, audiences experience something we’ve grown accustomed to during the pandemic: a very intimate, very closeup view of a dance. Our eyes are directed to certain perspectives chosen by the choreographers and directors, as opposed to the way we watch dance live, where the audience watches the same dance, but as individuals, we may focus on different aspects of the same artwork. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad; it just is the way dance adapted to the pandemic. I wonder if we’ll have a hard time readapting to live performances?

The third work on the HERE & NOW bill is by Robin Mineko Williams. Unlike the other two offerings, Where You Stay was filmed in and around a small house on a historic Vashon Island farm. Burnett, Cracovaner, McShea, Pantastico, Schultz and Moore appear alone, in duets, and trailing a mysterious young boy, the choreographer’s son, through the surrounding woods. There isn’t a linear story; for me, it evoked the sensation of being tied to our houses for most of the past 20 months, the ties we had with people in our immediate pods, moments of joy and moments of darkness.

Well, you can see for yourselves. Find out more about the project and buy tickets here.

The films are available through November 21.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Ballet and Beyond

PNB company members in Alonzo King's The Personal Element, photo @ Angela Sterling

                            
Maybe it’s just me, but even after almost two years of social distancing, and the gradual reopening of live performance venues, it feels like we’re all just starting to re-adjust to life among our fellow humans.

That’s one reason why Pacific Northwest Ballet’s second program of this artistic season really resonated with me.

Beyond Ballet is a medley of work by three choreographers, each with a distinctive movement vocabulary and sensibility. Despite the stylistic differences, each work centers on interpersonal relationships, something we’ve struggled to maintain through Zoom happy hours and Facetime conversations. As I watched the performances, I appreciated the aesthetics of each work, and the dancers' commitment to them, but found myself most drawn to the myriad ways they depicted love, grief, joy and the ways we are connected to one another.

Before I talk more about the dances themselves, I just have to say that, to me, Beyond Ballet is a misnomer. Each work on this program is a ballet, right down to the pointe shoes. What they don’t do is mimic the 19th century classics. Instead, they’re emblematic of ballet's metamorphoses. If Beyond Ballet represents the art form's future, hey, I’m all in!

The program opened with Ulysses Dove’s 1993 Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, which has been in PNB’s repertoire for 15 years. This elegy to the people who lost their lives during the HIV/AIDS epidemic is as resonant now as when it was created.

Soloist James Kirby Roger, left, with Corps de Ballet member Christopher D'Ariano in 
Ulysses Dove's Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. photo @ Angela Sterling

Dancing features six performers, three women and three men clad in white unitards and shoes. On opening night, the entire cast was stellar: Cecilia Iliesiu, Amanda Morgan, Lesley Rausch, Christopher D’Ariano, James Kirby Rogers and Dylan Wald. 

Veteran Rausch demonstrated both her command of technique and her artistic mastery, imbuing the movement with fierce, but tender, emotion. But Iliesiu, Morgan and D’Ariano, as well as PNB newcomer Rogers, also danced with an almost heartbreaking clarity. Watching Morgan extend her long, long leg into the air was nothing short of hypnotic.

This ballet is a tribute to lives lost too soon, but it’s also very much about the grief of those left to mourn them; it was an apt programming choice during this current pandemic.

Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations offered up a very different reflection on pandemic loss, this time through its structure.

PNB Principal Dancer Elizabeth Murphy in Jessica Lang's Ghost Variations
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lang created the ballet for PNB in 2020, when COVID protocols meant that only four dancers at a time could be in the studio together, and only those co-habitating could actually touch one another. 

Lang worked with two pods—eight dancers altogether—to create a dreamy, almost stately, modern version of a classical ballet, complete with long tulle skirts and waltzing couples. The twist: the couple very often consisted of one dancer onstage and a shadow dancer behind a large white screen. For instance, Postlewaite performed a duet with D’Ariano; later in the ballet, Kyle Davis danced with four of his own shadows.

Ultimately, newly promoted Principal Dancer Elle Macy and her partner, fellow principal Dylan Wald, appeared in front of the screen. As I watched them twirling together across the stage, in contrast with the shadow duets that came before, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the pandemic really limited our physical contact with people outside our immediate households. We’ve all been waltzing with Zoom shadows, haven’t we?

PNB originally presented this work a year ago as part of its digital season, but Lang told me then that she always envisioned it to be performed for a live audience and indeed, I enjoyed it much more as a stage, rather than screen, presentation.

The program ended with PNB’s first---and I hope not last---presentation of work by San Francisco-based Alonzo King.

According to very brief program notes, The Personal Element is meant to showcase the interplay between Jason Moran’s piano score and the virtuosity of the dancers. For me, it did that and much more.

The eight dancers--Lesley Rausch, Elle Macy, Amanda Morgan, Cecilia Iliesiu, Miles Pertl (newly promoted to Soloist), Lucien Postlewaite, Dylan Wald and James Kirby Rogers—are virtuosic indeed, but to me, this 20-minute ballet was more than a showcase. I found it to be a mesmerizing tapestry of people coming together, dancing alone, merging into a community.

When the curtain went up, the entire octet was standing still under bright lights. Then Iliesiu rose to a teetering point, windmilling her arms as if she needed them to keep her balance. As if, indeed. Morgan and Postlewaite emerged in a duet, Morgan lifting a long leg, toe pointed elegantly. With a quick flick, she flexed her foot, only to return to her pointed extension. That move, repeated, was like an exclamation mark: see what I can do balanced on one leg?

Amanda Morgan, left with Lucien Postlewaite in Alonzo King's The Personal Element
photo @ Angela Sterling

When Pertl escorted Rausch onto the stage, she had one leg bent up behind her, and she clutched her foot, the way a runner stretches out a tight quadricep muscle. As Pertl propelled her diagonally downstage, Rausch repeatedly extended the other leg in front, like a slow-motion prancing pony.

Throughout this ballet, the dancers came forward in dazzling duets or solos, then rejoined the group in a line reminiscent of the imagery you might see on a Grecian urn or a painting by Matisse, their legs and arms intertwined. They stood still, but it wasn’t static. To me, it was as if their moving bodies had been captured in a still photograph. Days later, I can still see that image in my mind’s eye, although I’ve got Angela Sterling’s fabulous photo to refresh my memory.

Mixed rep programs like Beyond Ballet are always a crap shoot. I’m usually satisfied if I like two of three works on the bill. Beyond Ballet, to stretch my gambling metaphors, was like pulling the slot machine arm and getting three cherries lined up; PNB hit the jackpot and so did the audiences.

It may take me a while to readjust to a life lived in public, but I’m so glad that life will be graced by artists like these. And seriously PNB, if this is where ballet is heading, I'm with you for the ride.