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
performances?

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!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Carrie Imler: Fierce Ballerina

PNB Principal Dancer Carrie Imler in Kiyon Gaines' "Sum Stravinsky"
photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet
Quick, what's the first word that comes to mind when somebody asks you to describe a ballerina?

Are you thinking ‘graceful’? What about ‘delicate’?

Would you believe ‘fierce’?

That's how friends and colleagues describe Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carrie Imler.

"I would honestly describe her as fierce in every definition and example of the word," says Imler’s good friend and fellow principal dancer, Jonathan Porretta. "She is an athlete, she is fearless, she's an artist."

"I kind of like fierce," Imler admits with a demure chuckle.
Carrie Imler in rehearsal for "Swan Lake"

At first glance, Carrie Imler looks anything but fierce. She has long dark hair and bangs (she pins them back when she's onstage), wide-set dark eyes and the elegant carriage of the longtime dancer she is. On this particular afternoon she's wearing a stiff white rehearsal tutu that's stained in spots, and a pair of tattered pink tights. She’s replaced her pink pointe shoes with a pair of flexible slippers. An oversize gray fleece jacket tops off this not-so-stylish ensemble. Imler is soft spoken, but quick to laugh. Particularly when you point out how many men in the audience describe her as their favorite PNB dancer.

"I see," she answers slowly. "Maybe it's because I am a strong athletic type. I'm not your rail thin ballerina."
PNB's Carrie Imler in George Balanchine's "Apollo"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

At 36, (an elder stateswoman when it comes to professional ballet dancers), Carrie Imler seems fit and ageless. Her shoulders are broad, her legs muscular, her energy unflagging.
Imler's boss, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, says not only is she strong, she's also versatile.

"Carries has broken the mold in some ways, because of the whole range of roles she can do. She's a jumper, and a turner, too."

Jonathan Porretta says from the first time he saw Imler, when he joined the company 15 years ago, he instantly noticed that she could jump as high as some of the men. “And she can turn,” he enthuses. “I mean, can we discuss her fouette turns in “Swan Lake,” with the swan arms? Nobody does that!”

Most recently, Imler wowed audiences and national dance critics with her performance in the classical story ballet "Giselle." Imler danced the role of Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis; a band of dead women who've been jilted at the altar. New York Times chief dance critic Alistair Macauley called Imler’s performance “shimmering.”
Carrie Imler as Myrtha in "Giselle" staged by Peter Boal for PNB
photo by Angela Sterling

Despite that kind of praise, Carrie Imler isn’t PNB’s version of Felix Hernandez, the star ballerina. Imler has been mostly content in her role as the dependable third starter in PNB’s version of baseball's pitching rotation.

“I think I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes kind of girl," she says.“You know, the media sees opening night, but there are 3,000 other people that see you every other night. So whether you’re doing opening night or an afternoon show, or the one in the middle of the week, somebody’s seeing you, and you’re making somebody’s day.”

Imler’s good friend Jonathan Porretta is more candid about what it’s like to be passed over for opening night.
Carrie Imler (with Kiyon Gaines) in "Midsummer Night's Dream"
photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

“I don’t think it feels good,” he admits. But Porretta agrees with Imler that whether or not dancers are in the opening night cast, performance is the whole point of a ballet career.

“In the end, it’s about the fans that come to the show. It’s about what you put out on stage, and what you get back from the audience.”

Carrie Imler starts her 20th season in Pacific Northwest Ballet this month. She has, at most, another ten years before her body won’t be able to sustain the rigors of the daily hours of rehearsal. She pauses when asked about her legacy to her colleagues at PNB.

“I would like to think I’m a role model,” she says softly. “Somebody …who worked well, did their rehearsals, acted well, behaved well.”

Jonathan Porretta believes his friend has given more than that over her two decades at PNB.

“She’s the heart and soul, the ballerina of this company,” he stresses. “She is the senior-most dancer, the longest out of everybody. She is PNB!”
PNB Principal Dancer Carrie Imler in Jyrie Kylian's "Forgotten Lands"
photo by Angela Sterling for PNB

Seattle-area audiences have a chance to see Carrie Imler this weekend in George Balanchine’s “Jewels” at McCaw Hall.

 She'll dance in "Diamonds" at the Saturday matinee, September 27th, and Friday evening, October 3.
For more information, www.pnb.org.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Carla Korbes To Retire

Carla Korbes in PNB's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
Gosh, just when you think you're on top of the Seattle-area dance news, bam!

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carla Korbes says she'll retire at the end of this season.

Say it ain't so, Carla!

If you're a PNB fan, you know Korbes' work.
The ethereal Brazilian-born blonde is one of those dancers who elevates her roles simply with the extension of her arm, or the grace of her jete.
Plus, she is a warm and friendly person.
PNB Principal Dancer Carla Korbes
photo by Angela Sterling

In a release, Korbes said "my body is ready to move on, so I need to respect that."

Korbes was out with injuries for much of PNB's 2013-14 season.
She returned in Susan Marshall's "The Kiss," which she told me recently was a lot more fun than she'd anticipated.

Korbes will dance in PNB's opening night production of "Jewels;" according to a company media release, audiences will be able to see her perform throughout this artistic season. Her career will be celebrated at PNB's Encore performance in June, 2015.

Carla Korbes dances in "Jewels;"
She's a jewel herself.
It's been a privilege to spend these years with her.

Carla Korbes with Batkhurel Bold
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Fly On The Rehearsal Studio Wall

Jacques d'Amboise with Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch
Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
If you love dance, the most wonderful place in the world to hang out is a rehearsal studio.
I've spent hours watching patient (and not so patient) stagers and choreographers at work. I love to see how most dancers use the skill and experience stored in their bodies to replicate an idea, to make the dance bloom.

When you sit up close, you get to see all the hard work that goes into learning and perfecting a dance. By the time they're ready for a public performance, the dancers have practiced steps and gestures, polished and refined them, so that everything looks almost (almost) effortless to the audience.

Usually, rehearsal sessions involve a lot of movement; this is dance, after all. But recently I spent an hour watching a master transmit not so much the physical as the spiritual aspects of a dance; the all but intangible details that transform craft into artistry. It was fascinating.

Most ballet fans know the name Jacques d'Amboise. He danced for George Balanchine at New York City Ballet for more than three decades in the 1950's, '60's and '70's.  After his performing career ended, d'Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, a school that was documented in the Academy Award-winning film "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'."

Last week,d'Amboise was in Seattle to coach the Pacific Northwest Ballet company members for their upcoming performances of Balanchine's "Jewels." This is a dance d'Amboise performed often; it's one he helped Balanchine to create. "Jewels" is embedded in d'Amboise's long muscle memory bank.

Jacques d'Amboise is 80 years old now. His hair is white, his posture just a tiny bit stooped. But as he stepped over to the barre on a recent sunny afternoon, his feet in sensible brown shoes, the man's vitality flooded out through his broad smile and enveloped the whole studio.

D'Amboise didn't concern himself overly with the "Jewels" choreography. After PNB principals Carla Korbes and Bakhturel Bold briefly ran through a section, d'Amboise stopped the action and gestured them and the six other dancers to his side. He pulled over soloist Jerome Tisserand and asked him to stand in first position, heels together and toes pointed out. "Don't look at the floor," d'Amboise admonished. Tisserand grinned as he flowed through a series of basic barre exercises.
Jacques d'Amboise with PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch and Soloist Jerome Tisserand
photo by Lindsay Thomas

"I don't have anything to tell you, except that this is a performing art," he told the younger dancer. "Take the stage for others to look at you perform a skill they don't have."

Then d'Amboise demonstrated what he was after: a lifted chin, eye contact with an imaginary audience, an assured sweep of an arm upon entering the stage. And, when the final jump is landed, a shared moment with that same audience, an acknowledgement of what has just transpired.

"Be proud," d'Amboise told the dancers, who by now had re-donned fleece jackets and leg warmers, certain they weren't going to be moving around much during this particular rehearsal hour.

Corps de ballet member Steven Loch's turn came next. d'Amboise placed a folded dollar bill on the floor at Loch's feet. He asked the young dancer to jump and land crisply on that bill, feet held tight in fifth position. When Loch mastered that single jump to d'Amboise's satisfaction, the mentor asked his pupil to execute a series of four jumps around that dollar. Smiling, Loch did.

D'Amboise regaled his audience with tales of Balanchine, of the legendary choreographer's intentions, and about his experience taking Balanchine's work beyond a mere repetition of steps to create something bigger, an experience that would remain with the audience long after they filed from the hall. Remember, he told the PNB dancers, to "carry yourselves with a modesty that springs from the knowledge of what you are." In other words, a confidence in training, in experience, in abilities.

That confidence is what makes a particular dancer transcend the ordinary, what makes him or her stand out from the crowd. Most importantly, d'Amboise told the group, it's what transforms all the jumps and steps and waving arms from mere movement into art.

Jacques d'Amboise hobbled back to his chair at the front of the studio, a bit winded from his demonstrations, but his smile still broad, eyes twinkling.

"Okay," he said. "Now who's going to run through this next? Without looking at the floor?"

Everyone laughed.
PNB Principal Dancer shares a laugh with Jacques d'Amboise
photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
Pacific Northwest Ballet's season opening performances of "Jewels" begin Friday, September 26th at McCaw Hall in Seattle.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Guilty Pleasures And Other Summer Diversions

Contestants on Fox TV's "So You Think You Can Dance" photo courtesy Fox
Wow, summer is whizzing by and I haven't written a word since early June. I can only blame my lack of focus on Seattle's persistent sunshine. But, while it's true the Pacific Northwest is pretty much heaven on earth this time of year, I confess I have also been diverting myself with other, shall we say, less wholesome pastimes than enjoying Mother Nature.

For example, I find myself inexplicably drawn to mystery novels in the summer. Actually, I love them all year long, but summer means swimming followed by a leisurely read at the beach. This year, "The Silkworm", Robert Galbraith's (aka J.K. Rowling) latest offering, was a great diversion.

But reading sounds downright virtuous compared to my other vice this summer.

I confess.
I've developed an unhealthy addiction to a television reality show.

Every Wednesday evening at 8 you will find me glued to the latest edition of "So You Think You Can Dance."
"So You Think You Can Dance" routine; courtesy Fox Television

I tuned in the first time out of curiosity. I love dance, and a beloved cousin recommended I watch this program. And then, I kept watching. And watching. I consume this show the way I consume a bag of kettle corn-I just can't stop. And I watch with equal parts fascination and fury.

For those of you who have somehow missed SYTYCD (seriously, that's how they refer to it in print), the show works like this. A large pool of dancers auditions for a three-judge panel. From that pool, the judges select a group for the series competition. Each week, two of those dancers are paired up to perform what the show calls a "routine". These are bite-sized morsels of choreography, everything from ballroom to hip hip to tap. Each routine is set to a pop song, and none is longer than 3 or 4 minutes.

Each week two dancers are eliminated, voted off the dance floor if you will. That ouster is based on an online popular vote tally, and on input from the judges. For most of the summer, one of those judges was American Ballet Theater soloist (and Under Armour viral video star) Missy Copeland. If nothing else, Copeland's knowledgeable feedback was a great counterpoint to that of the semi-hysterical judge with the ballroom dance background.
Oo la la, it's ballet! Contestant Jacque on "So You Think You Can Dance"
photo courtesy Fox

As I write this, the dancers have been whittled down to six semi-finalists. And now, I have my favorites. Contestant Jacque has a ballet background. And recently they actually let her wear her pointe shoes and perform a teeny tiny contemporary ballet "routine." The audience, usually whooping with delight every time one of the contestants executes a grand jete, was stunned into silence at the end of this mini-ballet. The performance was lovely, however brief. The judges had nothing but praise for it, but poor Jacque didn't get the audience nod that night. Alas, I don't think my ballerina has a shot at winning.

Not to say the other contestants are chopped liver. One guy who came to dance later in life (we get to see snippets of their bios throughout the series) has amazing line, a sort of feline stage presence, and the seeming ability to perform whatever is thrown his way. I can't help but wonder what kind of ballet dancer he would have made.
"So You Think You Can Dance" contestant, courtesy Fox TV
Now that I think of it, SYTYCD reminds me a lot of that reality show set at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, "Breaking Pointe." That series had an endlessly tedious story line about relationships, cattiness and backstories. I just wanted to see the dancing. Which is kind of how I feel about SYTYCD. I want more dancing, producers!

I've found myself wondering if shows like this cheapen dance as an artform. The New York Times last year called SYTYCD "feckless" and "ignorable." With all the pop music, glittery costumes and makeup, and the brevity of each piece of choreography, it's a little like watching the fast food version of what I know can be a delicious meal in its full form.

 On the other hand, millions of people tune into SYTYCD every week. They're exposed to at least a taste of an art form that seems to baffle so many. Isn't there some way to build on that audience? I keep thinking that dance companies around the country should somehow ask their local Fox Television affiliates to sponsor tie-ins. "You like our reality show," a Fox host might say. "Well, check out Zoe Juniper at On The Boards. Or, what about Whim W'him? And hey, Seattle area, Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting an entire evening of work by choreographer William Forsythe next March. If you liked this hors d'oeuvre, you'll love the banquet!"

Lucky for me this guilty-pleasure summer has just about run its course. I will miss the sunshine, the beaches and the delectable mystery novels. But long after the contestants on "So You Think You Can Dance" have faded into distant memory, I've got a calendar full of live dance performances penciled in for this fall. And next spring. And, as Buzz Lightyear says, to infinity and beyond!

I can hardly wait.