Monday, November 24, 2014

What Does It All Mean?

Tere O'Connor's "Bleed"
photo by Paula Court
A few years ago, my friend Christopher let me in on his approach to contemporary art.

"Just sit down in our seat," he instructed, "take a breath and open all your chakras to what you're about to experience."


That's probably the best advice to heed before you see Tere O'Connor's "Bleed." This work for 11 dancers, and the three separate works that informed it, were all performed in Seattle November 20-23, 2014 at On The Boards and Velocity Dance Center.

"Bleed" is an abstract, hour-long dance. Choreographer O'Connor told dance writer Melody Datz Hansen of "The Stranger" that he doesn't make work to convey meaning. He wants us, the audience, to experience his dances at the moment we watch them. Somebody described this to me as akin to watching something from another planet; beautiful, but alien. Somebody else told me O'Connor's "Bleed" felt to him very much like the dance version of what happens on a New York street:  constant flow, and change and serendipitous events. A random beauty, if you will.
"Bleed" by Tere O'Connor
photo by Paula Court

Movement by movement; moment by moment. That's the frame of mind and body best suited for "Bleed" viewing. I am not much for meditation, but I imagine this to be something like sitting zazen. "Bleed" wasn't about analysis, or thought. It was about immediacy. I had a rowing coach who always counseled "don't think; FEEL."  Get those chakras open wide and be there in the moment. I did my best.

Interestingly, the night after I saw "Bleed," I went to Meany Theater to catch a performance of David Rousseve's "Stardust." Both works can be categorized as contemporary dance, but boy, are they different from one another.

If "Bleed" is abstraction, "Stardust" is fully committed to story. In this case, the tale of a young, African American gay man reaching out for human contact on what he calls the "Innernet." The actual story is written out for the audience in a series of faux text messages projected on the wall at the back of the stage. Rousseve's movement isn't an interpretive version of the words. It's more a physical punctuation of the mood those words express.
David Rousseve's "Stardust"
photo by Steven Gunther

Tere O'Connor wants us to experience. David Rousseve wants us to feel. You open your chakras wide for "Bleed." You might want to ratchet them back just a bit for "Stardust," so you're not overwhelmed by Rousseve's message.

These two performances pushed me to think about what I love about dance (and art in general).
As a writer, I suppose I'm always trying to figure out what things "mean." And then to try to convey that meaning in words. But the artworks I love best are those that move me viscerally, that defy me to capture and distill their essences. It's a constant push/pull; choreographers like O'Connor don't want to be parsed. But hey, that's all in a day's job for me.

When I think about art that really pushed me off my axis this year, two dance pieces stand out:
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again" and Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness" as performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta.
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo courtesy On The Boards

Neither work was narrative. But each succeeded in evoking a plethora of emotional and intellectual responses. They reflected aspects of what it means to be human. To (badly) misquote Gustave Flaubert, both succeeded in melting the stars for me.

I don't need an artist to hit me over the head with a story. And I tend to resent a blatant intent to manipulate my emotional responses. I want to art to challenge my assumptions and my responses to the world around me. I want it to make me look, to feel and to recognize humanity.
Oh yeah, and I promise to work on that open chakra thing.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta
in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness"
photo by Angela Sterling

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

PNB's Director's Choice-A Moving Feast

It's November, and I've got Thanksgiving on my mind. 'Tis the season to be thankful, and also to think about big smorgasbords. Pacific Northwest Ballet's November 2014 "Director's Choice" program is a lot like one of those Thanksgiving feasts. It offers an array of entrees, some tastier than others.

The evening is book-ended by two big works: David Dawson's "A Million Kisses to My Skin" (more about that later), and the new PNB commission "Debonair," by New York City Ballet choreographer-in-residence (and dancer) Justin Peck.

PNB billed "Debonair" as a world premiere, although New York audiences got a sneak peek in October at the Joyce Theater. It's a dance for 12 performers, set to American composer George Antheil's "Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1." As the evening's closing dance, it was meant as the program's capstone. It would have been better as an aperitif.
Korbes and Tisserand in PNB's production of "Debonair," choreographed by Justin Peck
photo by Angela Sterling

Peck constructed a ballet in three sections; two lively pieces sandwich the dance's strong center, a tender pas de deux performed on opening night by the beautiful Carla Korbes and Jerome Tisserand.

Korbes will retire in June, 2015, so every one of her performances is a bittersweet opportunity to see her dance. She doesn't disappoint in "Debonair." The role allows her to engage emotionally, something she excels at. Tisserand, too, is meant for this kind of romantic material. (On Saturday, November 8, Lindsi Dec and William Yin-Lee took on those roles. It was wonderful to see Dec  show this side of her dancing.)

The main problem with "Debonair" (aside from the men's costumes) was its placement on the "Director's Choice" bill. The dance is an amuse-bouche, not an elegant dessert. Despite the very lovely pas de deux, the work as a whole is light and fizzy; charming, but ultimately forgettable.

The meat and potatoes of this program are Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After" and Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement."
PNB Corps de Ballet members Raphael Bouchard and Angelica Generosa
in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After"
photo by Angela Sterling
I first saw "Before After" several years ago, presented by former PNB dancer Olivier Wevers' company "Whim W'him." Lopez Ochoa performed with former PNB principal Lucien Postelwaite. Their emotional connection was riveting.

PNB corps de ballet members Raphael Bouchard and Angelica Generosa give an electrifying and technically dazzling performance, but it lacks some of the oomph that would have lent this athletic duet  psychological depth. Soloist Elizabeth Murphy had been scheduled to perform opening weekend, but pulled out due to an injury. Generosa and Bouchard had one day to rehearse together before opening night. I'll chalk up the lack of rapport to that.
PNB's Angelica Generosa and Raphael Bouchard in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After"
photo by Angela Sterling
Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement," set to traditional Haitian songs, is a plaintive and powerful rumination on power, powerlessness and subjugation. And it was a showpiece for Batkhurel Bold on opening night.

Bold is one of those solid, and stolid, dancers. He is so strong and handsome, but he doesn't always emote. In this dance he positively mesmerized with feral energy. Lunging sideways across the stage, he's like a wild cat trying to evade his stalkers. When they finally capture him, he dangles upside down from their shoulders, abject and wretched. I had to shiver from the sense that his blood was actually dripping down.
PNB Principal Dancer Batkhurel Bold with Soloist Elizabeth Murphy
in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement"
photo by Angela Sterling
On opening night, Lindsi Dec danced the principal female role, the narrator of this sad story. Saturday evening Carrie Imler stood out as the storyteller. Dec conveyed a wounded nobility, but Imler's agony oozed out through her rippling fingers, her splayed knees.
PNB soloist Elizabeth Murphy
in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement"
photo by Angela Sterling
"Rassemblement" is another Duato knockout of a dance; All the cast members were good, but ultimately, it's the image of Bathkhurel Bold that lingers in my mind.

"Director's Choice" opened, but should have closed, with David Dawson's wonderful "A Million Kisses to My Skin." Dawson created it as a love letter to both his fellow dancers and to the art form of ballet, and it never fails to captivate me.

The dance is set to J.S. Bach's "Concerto No. 1 in D Minor," performed superbly by the PNB orchestra and pianist/conductor Allan Dameron. It begins as an insouciant Sarah Ricard Orza strides downstage toward the audience then, bam, the music starts and she propels herself into a wickedly difficult solo.
PNB Principal Dancer Lindsi Dec with Soloist William Yin-Lee
in David Dawson's " A Million Kisses to My Skin"
photo by Angela Sterling
"Million Kisses" is full of sly, complex surprises. If you look away for a second, you might miss the way Orza drags one pointed toe across the floor, or Margaret Mullin's sideways stag leaps. Or the way Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta throw us cascades of pirouettes, their arms arched gracefully overhead.

From Porretta and Imler, to the elegant Lesley Rausch, every dancer in this ballet delivered. Rausch has such wonderful control over every muscle. The descent of her knee, then beautifully extended foot, then toe to the floor is as thrilling as Imler's jetes across the stage.
PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch
in David Dawson's "A Million Kisses to My Skin"
photo by Angela Sterling

I first saw "Million Kisses" in 2012, when PNB debuted it here. I loved it then, but this time around I was even more taken with the way Dawson deploys his cast, the patterns he creates with their bodies, and the ways he skillfully, and subtly, subverts the classical ballet vocabulary. This dance wowed the crowd as the opening number, but it would have been so much more powerful as the show closer. As much as I loved the variety of the 2014 "Director's Choice" bill, "Million Kisses" is the dance I keep thinking about.

One last note: three dancers are out on maternity leave and two principal men are injured. While I miss seeing them onstage, it's great to watch the younger dancers get a chance to perform in featured roles. Angelica Generosa is a tiny dynamo who seems to handle whatever choreography she's given; Raphael Bouchard, Price Suddarth, Kyle Davis and Chelsea Adomaitis all gave notable performances and make me excited for what lies ahead at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Fred Or Gene? Or Both...

Fred Astaire in "Daddy Long Legs", photo Creative Commons
A couple of weeks ago I flipped on the television. 

"An American in Paris" was on. I love Gershwin, and I love this film, so I got into bed and watched it for the umpteenth time.

This time around, I was taken by Gene Kelly's solo tap dance to "I Got Rhythm." It's cute at the beginning, with the bevy of grinning children. But almost at the very end of the dance, Gene lets loose with some fancy fancy dancing.

Which is a long-winded way of saying the man had serious chops.

But, so did that prince of smooth moves, Fred Astaire.

Fred had this upper body thing going on, where his arms just seemed to float along with his torso. I love watching how he makes those hard, hard routines look effortless.

I've always preferred Fred's smooth moves to Gene's muscular hoofing. But "I Got Rhythm" reminded me it takes all kind of dancers to make the world go round.

And thank goodness for all of them.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Artist's Impulse

"Opposing Forces" by Amy O'Neal
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
I freely admit I don't know heaps about hip hop culture or b-boys. But I do know when a dancer is technically skilled with a full-on commitment to his, or her, art form. That commitment was on full display on the parts of the performers in choreographer Amy O'Neal's 'Opposing Forces' at On The Boards, Saturday October 25th, 2014.

O'Neal assembled five of the Seattle area's most respected b-boys, along with musician/DJ WD4D, to create a performance that both opens the door to hip hop culture for a (mostly) non-hip hop audience, while at the same time allowing the cast members to explore both their art form and themselves as artists. The result was an electrifying evening.

B-boying (yeah, it's a noun), emerged as a way for dancers to demonstrate not only their performance prowess, but also to establish their macho creds. Dance crews compete; they win trophies around the world at this point. O'Neal explains in the program notes that she and the cast "needed to show their complexity as dancers, that they are not just machines or clowns who do tricks for entertainment purposes."

"Opposing Forces" begins with a competition. Members of O'Neal's "crew" line up against three guest performers from Dogg Pound Crew. Each side tries to top the other with everything from dizzying head spins to one-armed handstands to lightning-quick footwork. The audience's role is to cheer on our favorites.

From that opening, though, the performance slows down and starts to unfold into a kaleidoscope of solos and ensemble work. Each man has a chance to showcase his particular moves to the accompaniment of music and recorded voices that reveal to the audience tidbits about the dancers' personal lives and their thoughts about art and dance and hip hop culture.

We see Michael O'Neal Jr.'s brawn and beauty, as well as Mozeslateef's exploration of how to move beyond society's limits. Fever One shows us the meaning of gravity defiance, while Alfredo "Free" Vergara Jr. and Brysen "JustBe" Angeles define the meaning of smooth, oozing their bodies across the floor.

And while we continue to gasp in appreciation of their virtuosity and strength, we start to think about this particular art form in the context of other dance genres.
"Opposing Forces" by Amy O'Neal
photo by Gabriel Bienzycki

I spoke to Amy O'Neal and Brysen Angeles in September. At the time I was curious to know why they dance. O'Neal says she needs it for her spiritual and physical health. Angeles told me that, when he dances, when he's truly committed to the movement, there is no separation between his mind and his body, that he channels something deeper than himself. You can think of that as an artistic equivalent of yoga or meditation, I guess.

In November, Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform David Dawson's beautiful dance "A Million Kisses to My Skin." Dawson says the title refers to the way dancers feel when they are "in the zone"; Angeles doesn't use that same terminology, but I get the sense he feels the same way when he's dancing; that each movement is a caress.

I left "Opposing Forces" invigorated on so many levels. This tiny window into a form of cultural expression left me with huge appreciation for its practitioners. More than that, it left me thinking deeply about what drives any artist to create and to perform.

I was struck again by Amy O'Neal's unique vision and her unique choreographic expression of that vision. "Opposing Forces" can be enjoyed for its sheer physicality, for the contagious beat WD4D creates with his sound design. But O'Neal also pushes her audience beyond simply enjoyment. She wants us to question our assumptions about art, and about society. I left "Opposing Forces" thinking, which is perhaps the highest compliment I can pay any artist.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When Worlds Collide: Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces"

Amy O'Neal, photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
Amy O'Neal is a force of nature.

She's also a pillar of Seattle's dance community.

Trained at Cornish College of the Arts, O'Neal teaches regular classes at Velocity Dance Center; she's traveled around the country to present her choreography; she was a finalist for the 2013 Stranger Genius Award for dance.

But Amy O'Neal says she feels more at home with hip hop culture than she does with the Western dance traditions she studied at Cornish. And as she matures as an artist, she considers her work in the context of the larger culture. O'Neal is somebody who thinks a lot about gender, race and equity issues. Those questions find their way into the dance she makes and performs.

Two years ago, O’Neal prodded audiences to consider those issues through the lens of an evening-length solo work she called (rather audaciously and only half-facetiously) “The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade.” O'Neal performed everything from break dancing to pole dancing to twerking, in order to explore those traditional “sexy” dance genres, and how they define her as an artist and as a woman.
Amy O'Neal channels Ciara
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

Amy O’Neal’s newest dance explores gender and race from a different angle. “Opposing Forces” is a work for five acclaimed Seattle area b-boys: Fever One, Alfredo “Free” Vergara Jr., Brysen “JustBe” Angeles, Mozeslateef, and Michael O’Neal Jr. It's the first dance she's created for an all-male cast.

O’Neal says this new dance initially came out of her desire to work with male dancers. But she was also inspired by her increasing affinity for hip hop culture.

“I had been thinking a lot about the value systems between competitive dance, commercial dance, contemporary dance,” she says. “B-boy battling and hip hop specifically.”

Her ideas started to take shape when O’Neal met Brysen Angeles at The Beacon, a dance studio and school Angeles co-founded with other members of his award-winning Seattle dance crew, Massive Monkees. Angeles had seen one of O’Neal’s dances, and he was intrigued with her idea to create a work that would fuse hip hop and contemporary dance styles.
Massive Monkees crew
Brysen Angeles, center in fleece jacket

“I wasn’t completely sure what it was gonna be,” he confesses. But he was intrigued by the questions O'Neal asked him, both about movement and about race and gender identity in hip hop dance.

Brysen Angeles has been dancing since 1995, and competing with Massive Monkees since ’97 or ’98. The crew has won a slew of international competitions; posters, trophies and plaques decorate the walls of The Beacon. In 2007, Massive Monkees were honored with the Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award.

By the time they met, both Angeles and his crew and Amy O’Neal had forged respected artistic careers in their respective dance communities.

The thing is, those communities don’t often mix.

 O’Neal’s new dance, “Opposing Forces,” will bring Angeles and his fellow b-boys into the heart of Seattle’s contemporary art scene, On The Boards.
Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces"
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, courtesy On The Boards

Angeles says he’s been to OTB once before, part of a hip hop-specific performance, for a hip hop audience. This time he’ll be dancing in front of some of Seattle’s most insider-y art insiders. And he’s looking forward to the experience of broadening himself as a performer and a dancer.

“Getting involved with choreographers like Amy in places like On The Boards is a growing experience for myself and, I think, the other cast members.”

Brysen Angeles and four fellow b-boys appear in Amy O’Neal’s “Opposing Forces” October 23-16, at On The Boards.

It's gonna be some kind of awesome.
Amy O's "Opposing Forces"
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why I Love UW Chamber Dance Company (And More)

UW Chamber Dance Company
"Cloudless" by Susan Marshall
Why don’t more people go to see the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company’s

Led by Hannah Wiley, these MFA students-all former professional dancers-recreate important works from the last century of the modern dance canon. In its 20 plus years, Chamber Dance has presented the work of choreographers ranging from Isadora Duncan to Twyla Tharp and beyond. The idea is to reconstruct, perform, and archive these seminal dances.

If that sounds a bit academic, well, it is. But set on the bodies of Wiley’s experienced dancers, these works shine as bright as they did when the choreographers created them. And they give audiences a chance to see historic dances as living, breathing art. I have attended these performances for years, and each one is usually a thrilling experience.

Maybe the problem is that Chamber Dance presents only one program each year, just four performances every October, in the middle of a busy season for every Seattle area arts organization. Chamber Dance has to fight to be noticed amidst all the other activity. But the programs hold their own. If you haven’t seen a Chamber Dance performance, put a reminder into your calendar for 2015.

This year, Wiley selected 3 works, all relatively contemporary: excerpts from Susan Marshall’s 2006 evening-length “Cloudless”, Nacho Duato’s haunting 1983 dance “Jardi Tancat,” and Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith’s “To Have and To Hold,” choreographed in 1989.

Some Seattle audiences have seen Marshall’s “Kiss”, presented at both Pacific Northwest Ballet and UW Chamber Dance performances. “Cloudless” is equally inventive and emotional, with standout performances by all the dancers. It would be heavenly to see the entire dance!

Shapiro and Smith's “To Have and To Hold” is a rumination on love and loss. It is, in a word, stunning. Six dancers, in long sleeved white shirts and white pants, slither, vault and caress three plain wooden benches arrayed in parallel lines. This dance demands technical and timing precision, strength and artistry. All were present in abundance. It was a fitting end to a fabulous evening.

Seriously, if you love dance and you have never seen UW Chamber Dance Company, you owe it to yourself to be at a performance next fall. You won’t be sorry.

Autumn is always busy in Seattle’s dance community. Another gem this past weekend was the premier of Michele Miller’s revamped “I AM the Bully.” This piece for seven women is part rumble, a la Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story, and part prison yard shake down. It was like a dope slap upside the head, full of anger, fear and some very strong dancing.
Michele Miller's "I AM the Bully"
photo by Joseph Lambert, courtesy Michele Miller

“Bully” was part of an evening at Velocity Dance Center called “Modus Operandi.” Miller’s company Catapult Dance shared a bill with the Alana O Rogers Dance Company. Rogers’ premiered “Rewind,” a dance she calls “an ode to memory, slowing down, getting lost and running.” Her earlier work “Sight” opened the evening. Both works are abstracted narratives, featuring a strong ensemble of dancers. 

Miller is a longtime member of Seattle's dance community (Velocity co-founder, D-9 Dance Collective member, Cornish faculty member). She calls her work a mashup of contemporary dance, martial arts and contact improvisation. It is highly physical and, in the context of Velocity’s intimate performance space, very much in your face. Paired with composer Nico Tower’s live-mixed “Vox Humana,” “I AM the Bully” has stayed with me days beyond the performance. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Movin' On Up!

PNB company members in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Angela Sterling
Congratulations to Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers Leta Biasucci and Jerome Tisserand. PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal announced their promotions at the company's opening performance September 26, 2014.

Jerome Tisserand moves up to his (rightful) place as a principal dancer. Tisserand is one of those classically beautiful dancers, the kind of guy who looks exactly like the prince he portrays. PNB hasn't had anybody so princely in its principal ranks since Lucien Postelwaite left for Ballet de Monte Carlo.
Princely PNB Principal Dancer Jerome Tisserand
in Peter Boal's "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

Not only is Jerome Tisserand a beautiful dancer; he's one of the nicest people at PNB. I'm delighted that he'll finally own the title that fits the performances he gives. Woot Jerome!

I wrote about Leta Biasucci last spring. She's a tiny dynamo with a mighty stage presence. She is now a soloist with the ballet company, and in her opening night performance in George Balanchine's "Rubies", Biasucci dazzled with a charisma that was multiplied ten-fold by her partner, the effervescent Jonathan Porretta.
PNB Soloist Leta Biasucci as Clara in Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Porretta and Biasucci are an inspired partnership. Both dancers are compact and dark, so they make a nice physical match. But more than that, in this rendition of "Rubies", they sparkled and snapped and, for me, stole the show.

For those who haven't seen all three parts of "Jewels" on a single bill, briefly: "Rubies" is the savory, syncopated filling between the almost wistful grandeur of "Emeralds" and the full-scale splendor of "Diamonds". (By the way, Carla Korbes and Batkhurel Bold were splendor personified in their opening night performances).
PNB Principal Dancers Carla Korbes and Batkhurel Bold in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Angela Sterling

The audience went wild for "Diamonds", but for my money, Porretta and Biasucci stole the show in "Rubies." When Porretta smiles onstage, he lights up the cavernous McCaw Hall. He's at ease in "Rubies", and he clearly passed on some of that confidence to his young partner, Biasucci.
PNB's Leta Biasucci and Jonathan Porretta in George Balanchine's "Rubies"
photo by Angela Sterling

Early on, she was intent, almost serious, precisely executing Balanchine's choreography. Midway through, though, she relaxed, cracked a grin, and her performance took off.

What a excellent start to PNB's new artistic season. Dance on, ballet dudes!