Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Return to Ballet--and to Hope


    Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Alejandro Cerrudo's "One Thousand Pieces"                                                                    photo @Angela Sterling

Almost exactly 18 months ago I had the inordinate privilege to watch a ballet performance at McCaw Hall.

It's a privilege I've often enjoyed, but this particular show was different. I was one of three journalists invited to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s dress rehearsal of resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces” and David Dawson’s “Empire Noir.”

But this wasn’t your standard dress rehearsal. 

A few days before, in a desperate move to slow Covid-19’s relentless spread through Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee had ordered a halt to public gatherings. None of us had any idea how long the closure would last. Everyone was jittery, uncertain what to expect.

PNB artists presented this single show for a miniscule audience; about 80 people were dispersed in the vast hall, witnesses to an impassioned and heartbreaking performance, in many ways a farewell to the familiar. 

    PNB company members in Alejandro Cerrudo's "Silent Ghost." photo @ Angela Sterling

That evening was very much top of mind for me on Friday, September 24th, as more than 1,000 ecstatic ballet fans gathered, masked, in McCaw Hall to celebrate PNB’s return to live performances with, fittingly, an evening of Cerrudo ballets, including an excerpt from “One Thousand Pieces."

Passing through the ID and vaccination card check into the lobby was both strange and strangely familiar, a reincarnation and reinvention of life in the “before times.” Things were different, but joyful; as each patron handed her ticket for scanning, the ushers greeted us with smiling eyes, welcoming back the denizens of this arts palace.

I don’t mean to imply that I didn't enjoy PNB’s all-digital 2020-21 artistic season, along with streaming offerings from some of the world’s great dance companies. There’s no denying the upside of watching dance in your pajamas—affordable, accessible, comfortable. 

But, truly, nothing compares to sitting in the theater before a show, hearing the chatter of your fellow patrons, thumbing through the program, gazing at McCaw Hall’s sumptuous red spangled curtain, filled with anticipation as you wait for it to rise. It’s a singular experience, particular to each individual, but shared with everyone in the building. 

And on this night of nights, we were ready to celebrate.

When PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal came through the curtain to welcome us back, the cheers and applause lasted at least a full minute and probably would have gone on longer but for the fact that we were all impatient to see the dancers, to witness ballet performed live for us.

The program, “Singularly Cerrudo,” was a fitting opening presentation.

For one thing, Alejandro Cerrudo’s appointment as PNB’s resident choreographer came just a few months before the Covid shutdown, so audiences really didn’t have the opportunity to welcome him. 

PNB Principal Dancer Dylan Wald with Soloist Elle Macy in Alejandro Cerrudo's "Little Mortal Jump."                                                     photo @ Angela Sterling

Beyond that, Cerrudo’s work is performed mainly to recorded music (although a small group of PNB orchestra members did play live--wonderfully--for one of the ballets), requiring fewer musicians to gather together in the orchestra pit. 

And although the three works on the bill do feature some exquisite duets, there are also sections that don’t require the dancers to touch one another, a side benefit when it comes to health and safety precautions.

I am an unabashed Cerrudo fan. 

I love the way his choreography, music selection, and brilliant Michael Korsch’s dreamy lighting designs, merge to conjure emotions ranging from the almost elegiac evocations of human connection and separation in “Silent Ghost,” the program opener, to the surreal watery world of “One Thousand Pieces,” to my personal favorite, “Little Mortal Jump,” which on this September evening felt like a tentative ode to the future.

        PNB Principal Dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite in Alejandro Cerrudo's                                                                 "Silent Ghost," photo @ Angela Sterling

PNB’s dancers gave everything—even more than 100%--to this show. It was a revelation to see them perform live after so long and their joy at the return to live performance was abundantly clear. Bravos to everyone. 

Three couples shone in particular. 

In “Silent Ghost,” Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite were flawless. They have been onstage partners at PNB and Ballet de Monte Carlo for many years, and that knowledge, comfort and mutual trust were evident, as was their technical command and their artistic mastery. Pantastico and Postlewaite don’t perform choreography; they inhabit it.

    PNB corps de ballet members Christopher D'Ariano and Leah Terada in Alejandro Cerrudo's                                               "One Thousand Pieces," photo @ Angela Sterling

In “One Thousand Pieces,” corps de ballet members Christopher D’Ariano and Leah Terada were paired for the first time, and watching them dance together was a revelation. 

D’Ariano has stood out for me ever since he joined the company as an apprentice in 2017; Terada has been a steady, lovely presence throughout her PNB tenure, but during this Covid break, she’s had more opportunity to be front and center both in PNB digital productions and in work she created and performed with partner Miles Pertl. She has developed a quiet self confidence onstage. Terada and D’Ariano together were magic in this ballet.

Finally, but by no means least, Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in “Little Mortal Jump” reconfirmed their talents for us. They are a couple offstage, and that infuses their onstage partnership. Their every move is perfectly synched, their bodies a lovely match. 

                    PNB's Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in Alejandro Cerrudo's "Little Mortal Jump."                                                                        photo @ Angela Sterling

Watching them move in slow motion toward the bright light shining from the wings felt like a metaphor for all of us as we creep with tentative hope into the future.

Whatever that future holds, I want it to include these dancers, on this stage, with all of us sitting in the audience.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Coming Back to Ballet


                                        Lesley Rausch in Ulysses Dove's "Red Angels" photo @ Angela Sterling


It’s been forever since I last posted here.

Pandemic. You know how it is.

But, it’s time to stop using global disease as an excuse not to write, so here goes.

A few months ago, I ran into Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch on the street near the Seattle Center. We got to talking about the year+ of Covid, about ourselves, about our dreams for the future.

I’d just retired from my 35-year career in public radio. The pandemic put the kibosh on my plans to attend grad school in New York, so I was thinking out loud about my next step. Lesley—who’s approaching 40, an age when many ballet dancers contemplate their futures—knew exactly what I meant when I talked about transitions. We said our goodbyes, looking forward to PNB’s next artistic season.

That conversation really stuck with me, so in August, I asked Lesley if she’d be willing to talk to me regularly over the next months, about everything from getting back into ballet shape to what it means to be one of PNB’s senior dancers to her thoughts on the future.

She agreed.

                      Lesley Rausch, September 1, 2021, Seattle Center

We met for the first time on a beautiful early September afternoon. The yellowing leaves on the trees above the bench where we sat, not far from PNB’s Seattle Center home, filtered the sunshine although not the construction noise from nearby Climate Pledge Arena.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of emotion when we come back to the theater,” Lesley told me. “On both sides of the curtain.”

I’d asked her about the ballet company’s upcoming season. On September 24th, Rausch and her fellow dancers are scheduled to return to the McCaw Hall stage for their first performance for a live audience in more than a year. I write “scheduled,” because if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that nothing is certain. For now, though, both artists and ballet fans like me are looking forward to the big night.

For Lesley, it’s been a long and emotionally arduous road back to the stage.

Like almost every arts presenter in the world, PNB shut its doors in mid-March, 2020, the day after the dress rehearsal of choreographer-in-residence Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces.”

Lesley wasn’t onstage that night. She was rehabbing an injury, prepping to perform the title role in the classic ballet “Giselle,” the next scheduled presentation last April. But when Governor Jay Inslee mandated that all public venues shut down, her plans went out the window.

“We didn’t know if--or when--we’d be coming back,” she recalls.

As the weeks passed, it became clear that PNB’s artistic season---at least as planned—was over. Although the ballet company quickly decided to pivot to a digital season, starting with previously recorded performances, nobody could predict when they’d dance again for live audiences.

Lesley Rausch and husband Batkhurel Bold in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake," photo @Lindsay Thomas

For Lesley and her husband, former PNB Principal Dancer Batkhurel Bold, the end of the artistic season normally meant they'd return home to Hawai'i. But Covid travel restrictions trapped them in a Seattle limbo: no jobs, no way to travel, no clue what to expect moving forward.

Like all of us, Lesley struggled to keep her spirits up. Often, she couldn’t summon up the energy to attend the online classes PNB offered its dancers. Instead, she did a lot of Pilates, and took long walks with her husband, exploring Seattle neighborhoods they’d never had the time to see when they were both working.

She was grateful to get regular unemployment checks, and even though PNB had laid off the majority of its staff, company managers committed to continuing health care benefits. 

Despite her relatively stable situation, Lesley was emotionally gutted by the extended break from her beloved ballet. She’d never spent so much time away from the studio. Unlike her younger colleagues who could spring back into their careers after a six-month hiatus, as Lesley homed in on her 20th season with PNB, she knew her performing days were numbered.


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

PNB called back its dancers in August, 2020, but it wasn’t business as usual. Operating under strict Covid safety protocols, the dancers were divided into small pods of four to six people. They rarely encountered anyone outside their group.

Lesley hated the separation from her friends and colleagues, but she says the hardest thing was getting her body in shape for the demands ballet would place on it.

“It was a shock,” she says. “All those tiny little muscles that allow me to roll slowly up to pointe, they weren’t there anymore.”

She remembers those first couple of weeks back as “tortuous;” each evening she’d return home in tears.

“It was really hard to believe that I could ever get back to the place I was before.”

Beyond the work needed to get her body ready, Lesley was gutted by the fact that Covid protocols dictated that only dancers who lived together could dance as partners, in the studio and onstage. For her, it was the loss of one of the things she loves best about ballet.

“It’s such a unique experience, and I didn’t get it at all last year.” She pauses, as tears well up in her eyes. “In a way I took it for granted.”

Lesley did have one opportunity to work with a partner, though. She was paired with Dylan Wald in a duet from George Balanchine’s “Apollo” for a performance marking his promotion to Principal Dancer.

    Lesley and Dylan Wald in Balanchine's "Apollo," 2020. photo @Lindsay Thomas

It’s been almost a year since that performance streamed online, but I still remember the shock I felt when I watched Lesley reach out her hand to Dylan, their fingers lightly touching. We’d all been shuttered away for so many months, deprived of casual hugs, handshakes and physical contact. Seeing these two dancers connect made me weep both for what we’d all lost, and in gratitude to the artists who let me experience that contact vicariously.

Last summer, Lesley didn’t know if she’d even get the chance to dance for a live audience again. If the pandemic dragged on for too long, she feared it would be just too difficult to summon the discipline to work as hard as she needed to prepare her body. 

Now, though, as she and her colleagues approach the launch of the new artistic season, she’s less anxious, maybe even a little hopeful. She made it to another artistic season with PNB.

But Lesley’s clear that while things seem close to normal in the studio, nothing is normal, or at least not the way it was in the “before times”. Millions of us heading back to classrooms or office cubicles are experiencing that same combination of hope and trepidation. We long to have our old lives back.

What’s changed, at least at PNB, is a lot more understanding about how to dance with the a deadly virus.

“We’re all in masks, and there are stringent protocols about what you can do,” Lesley says. This season, the company gets to rehearse in larger groups, rather than in the small pods they were restricted to last season. 

Plus, the new rules allow vaccinated company members to dance together. Lesley’s been rehearsing a pas de deux from George Balanchine’s “Diamonds” with Dylan Wald. She’s also learning two duets from Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Silent Ghost,” one of three Cerrudo ballets that make up PNB’s opening program, “Singularly Cerrudo.”

“To be able to come back and really, truly work. It’s such a blessing,” Lesley says. But she confesses that it’s been an emotional homecoming.

“I cried at least five times the first day back.”

Lesley Rausch anticipates more tears when the McCaw Hall curtain goes up on September 24th. Onstage and off.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Three Nutcrackers, One Curmudgeon

The grand finale of Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"
photo @ Angela Sterling

I had one of those ‘aha’ moments this weekend.

An epiphany. A revelation. A shock of self-discovery.

I actually like the Nutcracker ballet.

Doesn’t that sound sort of obvious for a person who writes a lot about dance in general and ballet in particular?

Trust me, this realization took me by surprise.

I’ve seen some version of the Nutcracker every year for decades; sometimes I attend more than one performance.
PNB dancers are lovely snowflakes, aren't they?
photo @ Angela Sterling

Usually I’m there because I’m writing a story, or checking out young dancers making their debuts in featured roles. For years I’ve been oh so nonchalant about the production: so hokey, so saccharine, so predictable. (Not to mention Drosselmeier, giver of the nutcracker, a role that’s just short of pedophile.)

Imagine my surprise to discover that somehow, without me noticing, the Nutcracker’s joy and optimism had penetrated my curmudgeonly cynic’s shell. It was almost like I was hit upside the head by a projectile of some sort…like an un-cracked walnut.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened; the projectile was Mark Morris’ acclaimed take on the ballet, “The Hard Nut.”
Snowflakes ala Mark Morris in "The Hard Nut"
photo @ Julieta Cervantes

With visual inspiration drawn from comic artist Charles Burns, and gender-bending casting, Morris has created a hipster’s-eye take on the holiday classic. Morris told a journalist not long ago that he was inspired by the full Tchaikovsky score, performed at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre this year by a small, live orchestra. Sitting in the audience last week, I felt a disconnect between the soaring beauty of the music and Morris’ snarky, wink-wink choreography. Most of the audience found it hilarious. In me, it all evinced a clear-eyed realization that I want my holiday entertainment to inspire me. Straight up, if you will. Pardon the pun.

That’s not to say I’m wed to George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography, now onstage in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production at McCaw Hall. I'll take my Nutcracker joy where it presents itself.

This weekend I attended a workshop of Donald Byrd’s “Harlem Nutcracker,” a show he created originally in 1996 for his New York-based company. Set to the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn jazz adaption of Tchaikovsky’s music, Byrd's rendition of the 1892 ballet takes place in contemporary Harlem.
Original production of Donald Byrd's "Harlem Nutcracker"
photo @ Susan Kuklin courtesy Spectrum Dance

Even truncated and presented in workshop form, Byrd’s “Harlem Nutcracker” delivered the emotional punch I didn’t realize I was craving. He hews to the same story line as Balanchine, but where Clara is a young girl in the ballet, she’s a recent widow in Harlem, visited by the ghost of her late husband. The choreography—at least what Byrd presented in this workshop—was sassy and saucy, and I look forward to seeing a full-on production. The all-ages packed house was with me on that.

We’re living in dark times, both literally as we inch towards the Winter solstice, and figuratively, as Congress claws its way to impeaching the man in the White House. So many people I know are overwhelmed right now, in search of diversions or laughter, or maybe the oblivion that comes with one eggnog shot too many.
My spirits soar with PNB's Leta Biasucci as the Sugar Plum Fairy

Personally I need something to remind me of the powerful and resilient human spirit.

That’s not to say I don’t love some of the sillier holiday shows, your Buttcracker or gay cabaret, for example. But this time of year I crave art that inspires at least a few hours of gratitude and good will. You may find the holiday spirit in a performance of Handel’s stirring “Messiah,” or at ACT Theatre’s annual stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story of redemption, “A Christmas Carol,” or in any number of other December productions. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me, I find it at PNB's Nutcracker.

As I sat through Morris’ alt-version, enjoying his take on Snowflakes, appalled by creepy Drosselmeier, my mind went unbidden to the ballet, to the magical synergy of Tchaikovsky and Balanchine. That’s when it hit me: omg, I’m a sap. A sappy holiday sap.
Oy vey!!!
Nothing sappier than Mother Ginger!
photo @ Angela Sterling

Happy Holidays y’all.  

Monday, December 2, 2019

I Found a Reason to Smile

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'
photo @ Angela Sterling

I really envy people who get to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker” for the very first time.

(To be accurate, it’s PNB’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” created for New York City Ballet in 1954 and first presented in Seattle in 2015.)

Back to my envy.

I was one of thousands of people who flocked to Marion Oliver McCaw Hall this past weekend for the show’s annual opening performances. Unlike most of my fellow audience members, I’ve seen some version of this classic ballet dozens of times over the years. Partly, that’s because it’s my job to see things. But like many of us, this time of year I’m searching for experiences of awe and wonder; for sense memories of what it means to be our fullest selves.
Always stunning PNB principal dancer Noelani Pantastico
photo @ Angela Sterling

Watching little girls dressed up in their holiday finery, hearing them gasp as the curtain goes up and they see Clara, Fritz and a holiday party for the first time? Well, that’s what I envy: their surprise and delight, their sheer wonder at the extravagance of it all.

So, every year I return to PNB and---to paraphrase a friend and fellow arts writer—I open my heart chakra, hoping to experience some new delight. This year it came in the form of a young dancer named Adam Abdi, who is cast in the role of Fritz, Clara’s bratty younger brother.
That's Adam Abdi in center stage, with the red tie, holding Madison Taylor's hand
PNB photo @ Angela Sterling

If you don’t know anything about “Nutcracker,” suffice it to say that in Act I, Fritz and Clara’s parents host a Christmas party. An odd gentleman named Drosselmeier arrives and presents Clara with a nutcracker that later evolves into an animate creature who vanquishes some invasive rats. Or mice. Some type of rodent infestation.

Back to Adam/Fritz.

As I said, I’ve seen a load of Nutcracker productions and rafts of ballet students performing roles that range from candy canes and angels to the flock of Polichinelles who emerge from under Mother Ginger’s voluminous skirts. Usually the focus is on the student cast as Clara; Marissa Luu was impressive on opening night. But Adam Abdi stole the show, and my heart.

Abdi infused Balanchine’s 65 year old choreography with fresh verve. When he grabbed the nutcracker from his sister’s arms and cantered around the stage, he was the epitome of the jealous sibling exacting a moment of revenge. But Abdi is more than a budding actor. The kid has all the makings of a dancer.

He swung his legs in wide, graceful arcs, his toes pointed. Leading a gaggle of boys, his imaginary pony ride was full of joy and timed well to Tchaikovsky’s score (performed with typical brio by the PNB orchestra). Even when Miles Pertl, as Fritz’s father, scooped him up off the floor at the end of the party, Abdi’s Fritz kicked up a furious, and realistic, storm.
PNB Principal Dancer Leta Biasucci soars as the Sugar Plum Fairy
photo @ Angela Sterling

This year’s opening night cast offered the usual great performances from PNB company members. I particularly enjoyed Noelani Pantastico as an enigmatic Peacock (officially, she's dancing a section called Coffee), Elizabeth Murphy’s sparkling Dewdrop and Leta Biasucci’s sprightly Sugar Plum Fairy.
PNB principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy is a stunning Dewdrop
photo @ Angela Sterling

But I left McCaw Hall with visions not of sugar plums dancing in my head, but of Adam Abdi standing center stage, beaming out at the audience. I hope he will keep dancing, because this boy was born for the stage.

I wonder if that’s what somebody said when Peter Boal once danced that very same role?

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Moving, Feeling, Thinking

PNB dancers Cecelia Iliesiu and Dylan Wald soar in Donald Byrd's "Love and Loss"
photo @ Angela Sterling
Celebration and lamentation. Love and loneliness. Beauty and the persistent strength of women.

All of this is onstage in Pacific Northwest Ballet's current offering, "Locally Sourced."

PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal commissioned three Seattle-area choreographers to create work for the company: Donald Byrd, Miles Pertl and Eva Stone. Byrd, who leads his own Seattle dance troupe, Spectrum Dance Theater, is an award-winning, internationally known artist. Stone, a respected teacher and dance maker, also heads her own company and runs an annual dance festival called Chop Shop. Pertl is better known as a dancer; he's a member of PNB's corps de ballet.

These three artists approached their commissions from their own life experiences; their deeply personal works allow the fine PNB performers to stretch technically and artistically. The result is a thought-provoking, emotionally resonant program.
Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite in Eva Stone's "FOIL"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Eva Stone's beautiful FOIL opens the bill. Stone divides her ballet into five distinct sections, which she thinks of as individual rooms in a house. They're delineated by a moving collection of chandeliers, and illuminated lovingly by the talented Amiya Brown. Each section is set to music by a different female composer, and performed by seven women and four men.

In a post-show interview, Stone said she chose the title, FOIL, as a comment on the role women play in society, and more specifically in the dance world, where female dancers comprise the vast majority, but are a distinct minority when it comes to artistic decision-making at either the choreographic or administrative levels.
PNB dancers in Eva Stone's "FOIL"
photo @ Angela Sterling

This artistic motivation might sound defiant, and Stone most certainly is aware of the challenges that have faced her during her long career. But her dance is a gossamer creation, made of pastel colors, delicate crystal chandeliers, and above all, lovely evanescent movements.

Of particular note, a trio performed by Cecelia Iliesiu, Margaret Mullin and Emma Love Suddarth. The women wear long ivory skirts that are draped over what look like antique hoops; their bare backs face us throughout this section, and as they braid around one another, their muscles ripple, revealing the strength that underlies this delicate beauty.

In a dance full of striking images, I particularly enjoyed the pas de deux for principal dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite. These longtime friends and partners imbue their movements with technical grace as well as deep emotion, so satisfying to witness. Soloist Margaret Mullin also shines.
Postlewaite and Leta Biasucci in Donald Byrd's "Love and Loss"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Donald Byrd's "Love and Loss" is second on the program. This is a contemplative---and heart breaking---rumination on relationships, set to music by Israeli composer Emmanuel Witzthum.

Seattle audiences may know Byrd best for his work addressing racial and social issues. But Byrd has a long legacy of work inspired by both his love of music and his fascination with human interactions.

"Love and Loss" features more than 20 dancers in an unfolding series of duets and trios. In the first, Lucien Postlewaite emerges slowly from the rear of the stage, through one of five "doorways" created by set and lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli. His spiky movements are full of longing. Leta Biasucci comes from the shadows to join him in a passionate duet that conveys all the highs and lows of first love. Ultimately, though, when he reaches his hand to her, she spurns him.

This dynamic is repeated in other onstage partnerships: Madison Rayn Abeo and Benjamin Griffiths; Joshua Grant and Christopher D'Ariano; Amanda Morgan, Ryan Cardea and Price Suddarth. Byrd guides us through one slow heartbreak after another. Ultimately Dylan Wald and Cecelia Iliesiu dance a, perhaps, more optimistic expression of love.
PNB dancers in Byrd's "Love and Loss"
photo @ Angela Sterling

"Love and Loss" was affecting and evocative, but its power is diluted by its length. I'd love to see it tightened a bit because this is a ballet that deserves to be presented beyond PNB.

The program ends with Miles Pertl's love letter to his hometown. "Wash of Gray" starts and ends with rain and mist and mountains. The dancers move in front of two large screens that project images created by Pertl's sister and artistic partner, Sydney.
PNB dancers in Miles Pertl's "Wash of Gray"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Although Pertl deploys more than a dozen of his fellow company members, the strongest sections of his ballet are two duets and a brief, surprising solo performed by Sarah Pasch, who is seven months pregnant. She is always a strong presence onstage, but she has never looked more radiant.

Each of these three ballets showcases the dancers lovingly, and presents the talents of the homegrown choreographers and their collaborators. The result is a satisfying evening that presented far more beautiful moments than I can catalog here. And yet, at both shows I attended, there were rows of empty seats. Perhaps it's a fear of risking precious dollars on an unknown program? I'm here to tell you this show will satisfy both lovers of the classical idiom and those whose tastes are more adventurous. "Locally Sourced" is a window into the ways dance, and dancers, can express what it means to be human.

"Locally Sourced" is at McCaw Hall through Sunday, November 17.

Monday, September 30, 2019

When You're Obsessed With a Ballet...

Francia Russell, seated, in a 1957 "Agon" rehearsal with George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky at New York City Ballet
photo courtesy Russell and PNB

I could watch George Balanchine’s 1957 masterpiece “Agon” 100 times and still find something new and magical with each viewing. Lucky for me, “Agon” was half the season-opening bill at Pacific Northwest Ballet this past weekend.

I first saw “Agon” in 1993, when PNB gave its Seattle premiere. A quarter century later, Balanchine’s choreography looks both of its era and eternally fresh.

“Agon” is Balanchine’s disciplined and imaginative embodiment of Igor Stravinsky’s commissioned score--wild, challenging, influenced by Schoenberg’s 12-tone music. One of Balanchine’s acclaimed “black and whites,” “Agon” was paired by Kent Stowell’s 1993 voluptuous crowd-pleaser, “Carmina Burana.” The bill was both a study in contrasts, and a salute to Stowell and his wife and partner Francia Russell, PNB’s founding co-artistic directors.

Russell, an internationally-known stager of Balanchine’s ballets, performed in the original “Agon.” She brought the ballet, and many other Balanchine works, to PNB. I’ve had the great fortune to watch Russell at work in the PNB studios, to see both her reverence for the choreography and her meticulous attention to detail. Both were on full display in this new production.

PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch in the 2013 production of "Agon."
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

When I first saw “Agon” onstage, I didn’t know Russell’s history, or really anything about the ballet. But I was enthralled by the central pas de deux (I suspect Patricia Barker was one of the dancers). I remember the couple facing the audience, the woman’s backside up against the front of her partner. She bent at the waist, wrapped her leg around his back, her foot extended, then flung her arms back as if to challenge the audience: ‘ha, just wait until you see what else I have in store for you.’
Here's Rausch in 2013 with retired Principal Dancer Karel Cruz, photo @ Angela Sterling.
See what I mean?

On opening night this time around, I happened to be seated next to retired PNB principal dancer Olivier Wevers, who has performed that pas. He told me the two dancers are meant to egg each other on, the ballet version of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." On opening night, PNB principals Lesley Rausch and Seth Orza delivered. Rausch, who is always clean and precise, offered some mind-boggling moments. When Orza lifts her up at one point, she throws open her legs into a wide split, then holds the position as Orza slowly rotates, then finally lowers her carefully to the stage. At another point, Orza is supine while Rausch flits above him. He scoots his body beneath her, his pointed toes fluttering like a hummingbird.

PNB's Seth Orza lies supine beneath fellow Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch in the 2019 "Agon"
photo @ Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

I can’t recount every choreographic detail for you, but Balanchine has packed this 28 minute dance with dozens of these captivating moments. Principal Benjamin Griffiths, in a polished solo, whips off a series of leaps. Nothing unusual, except for the fact that only one leg is extended; the other remains vertical, slightly above the stage floor.

I particularly loved a pas de trois featuring beloved (at least to me) principal dancer Noelani Pantastico with two of the company’s rising stars: soloist Dylan Wald and corps de ballet member Christopher D’Ariano. This trio was fierce and unrelentingly daring. I gasped out loud when Wald lifted Pantastico off the floor, her body perpendicular, then tossed her, still vertical, over to D’Ariano, who caught her neatly then lowered her to the stage. Yikes!

PNB rising stars Dylan Wald, left, with Christopher D'Ariano in "Agon," 2019
photo @ Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

“Agon” contains dozens of these moments, and they (cor)respond wonderfully to the Stravinsky score. (Interesting side note—PNB recently streamed a rehearsal on Facebook, and one viewer commented that she liked the dance but thought PNB should swap out the music. That would be like a PB&J sandwich without the jelly!)

George Balanchine made so many, and such varied, ballets over the course of his career. I love many of them, but “Agon” is among my favorites. This coming weekend you have four more opportunities to watch PNB’s most excellent dancers perform this masterwork, lovingly passed on to them by the woman who learned it from Balanchine himself. All praise to Francia Russell!

Monday, September 16, 2019

Starting With a Bang!

Whim W'Him company members in Kyra Jean Green's "Smile Club"
photo @ Stefano Altamura

If Friday the 13th offered up any omens this year, they were all lucky for Seattle contemporary dance troupe Whim W’Him.

The company opened its 10th season with its fifth annual Choreographic Shindig program: three new works created by choreographers the dancers themselves get to choose. This year, as is now customary, the bill featured three completely different dances that showcased the cornucopia of talents these capable dancers possess.
Jim Kent and Liane Aung in "See-Saw" by Joshua Manculich
photo @ Stefano Altamura,

Shindig V opened with Joshua Manculich’s “See-Saw,” a work the choreographer describes as a counterpoint between the immediacy of a child’s world and the wider, more nuanced world view of an adult. Manculich depicted this, in part, through the juxtaposition of melodic, balletic sections and interludes of jangly, goofy movement. Designer Michael Mazzola punched up those tensions through abrupt shifts in the lighting, echoed by changes in Michael Wall's score.
Cameron Birts in "See-Saw." I wish you could see him stretched out in all his gracefulness!
photo by Stefano Altamura, @

I was struck in particular by a tender pas de deux performed by long-time company member Jim Kent, dancing at the top of his form, and the ever-amazing Cameron Birts. When Birts unfurls his long arms, or extends his foot and gracefully points his toes, he seems to transcend his small stature, and he becomes the proverbial swan. Kent is confident in his movements, owning the space. (By the way, that space--Capitol Hill's Erickson Theater--is a dandy location for watching dance. Small, intimate, with seats raised above the dance floor. You get a great view of everything.)
Whim W'Him company members in Yoshito Sakuraba's "Laurentide"
photo by Stefano Altamura

All seven Whim W’Him dancers displayed similar elegance in the evening’s closing dance, “Laurentide,” created by Yoshito Sakuraba to a haunting score. This piece was inspired by the long-lost Laurentide Ice Sheet which once covered most of Canada, and this lyrical, highly physical work was a perfect showcase for the dancers’ versatility: stately, poignant, technically demanding.

I was impressed by both “Laurentide” and “See-Saw,” but for me the program highlight was sandwiched between these two new dances.
Jim Kent and Liane Aung, center, with Whim W'Him company members in Kyra Jean Green's "Smile Club"
photo by Stefano Altamura

Kyra Jean Green’s quirky “Smile Club” was quite a change from Whim W’Him’s usual offerings. Instead of drawing on the company’s core—movements evolved from the classical training artistic director Olivier Wevers and many of the company members bring to the table—“Smile Club” seems rooted in a dance vernacular you might see in contemporary hip-hop; the Robot, the worm, side-to-side articulation of the neck, subtle flicks of fingers, arms and feet. The choreography might have been challenging, but these dancers nailed it.

Most striking, though, was what Green demanded of the dancers’ faces. They stretched their mouths from grimaces into grins, opened eyes wide in shock, dragged their cheeks and chins down into sagging despair. These faces were mesmerizing.

With “Smile Club,” Green asks the audience to consider what drives human emotions, how much they are external to the self. In this work, as poignant as it is humorous, she stirs the embers in search of answers.
Jane Cracovaner is molded by Adrian Hoffman's mad scientist in "Smile Club"
photo by Stefano Altamura

All of the dancers were fabulous in Green’s piece, but Liane Aung, Jane Cracovaner and Adrian Hoffman were particular adept at rearranging facial features and synching their bodies to Pascal Champagne’s driving sound design.

Choreographic Shindig V demonstrated once again the versatility and technical prowess of the Whim W’Him dancers, their ability to not only perform diverse works but to invigorate them. I’ve said it before, but it bears frequent repetition: one of the biggest gifts Wevers has given Seattle dance fans is the opportunity to experience a range of choreographers from outside our region, even our country. He celebrates ten years of hard work forging this dance troupe by inviting some of those creators back to the Pacific Northwest. Look for in-demand Anabel Lopez Ochoa’s return, plus the Whim W’Him debut of acclaimed choreographer Sidra Bell.

Woo-Ho! It’s dance season in Seattle!