|Tom Weinberger and Kate Wallich in "Dream Dances"|
photo by Stefano Altamura
Monday, December 11, 2017
A few years ago I asked the inimitable Amy O’Neal which young choreographers she had her eye on. O’Neal rattled off a list that included Kate Wallich.
It just so happened that Wallich and her dancers, a fledgling group called the YC, were set to perform a short piece as part of that year’s Bumbershoot festival. I went to check it out and was most impressed (in all ways) by the dancers’ unbridled energy.
I finally met Wallich in 2014, before the premier of “Super Eagle” at Velocity Dance Center. I was struck by her intelligence and her self-confidence and by her vision for herself and the YC. I was less impressed with the dance, although it did whet my curiosity about where Wallich would take her art. Each of her subsequent works for the YC tantalized with moments of originality, and with the talents of her troupe. But I left each performance dissatisfied, sure that Wallich had more in her.
Fast forward to 2017, and “Dream Dances,” which Wallich and the YC performed December 7-10 at On The Boards. This work for five dancers and two live musicians has been more than a year in development, and it reveals that the promise O’Neal saw in Wallich was not misplaced.
“Dream Dances” begins unobtrusively; so unobtrusively that it takes the audience a while to realize the performance has begun. We’re lit by bright white strips overhead, while the stage is left in relative darkness. So we don’t immediately notice the young man lying on his side, gently moving his extended arm across the floor. The other dancers enter, one by one, and lie down as well, taking up his movements.
Arms and legs brush across the floor. A leg is bent at the knee, the foot lifted. A dancer arches her back, in yoga’s cobra pose. Another rises into downward dog. None of these movements is done in unison; it's more like the movements reverberate across the bodies on the stage in a very slow, dreamy, wave.
As the dancers rise up to their feet, the music shifts from a gentle drone to a louder throb. The lights over the audience (I hesitate to call these house lights) dim and the stage lights come up. Individual dancers step forward, most notably Wallich’s longtime collaborator Lavinia Vago. This tall, lean woman seems made of rubber rather than skin and bones. Her body bends in every direction with, to me, astounding flexibility and control. She is mesmerizing. But her fellow dancers, David Harvey, Thomas House, Tom Weinberger and Wallich herself, are equally skilled.
One signature of Wallich’s work which continues to perplex me is the isolation of her dancers from one another. Even when performing duets, often they don’t look one another in the eye, and rarely do they acknowledge the audience. I’ve often wondered what this says about contemporary America and our increasing reliance on social media and virtual community.
This social isolation is again apparent in “Dream Dances,” with two notable exceptions. First, Wallich has created an intimate sexual duet for herself and her newest dancer, Tom Weinberger. And she’s choreographed haunting, extended unison work for the other two men in the YC, Thomas House and David Harvey. These two men move together toward the audience, as a bright white rod of light lowers to bisect the wall behind them. They seem like ghosts, partly because they're dancing in front of the white light and my eyes had a hard time focusing on them. That served to make me concentrate even harder on them, though.
“Dream Dances” can be tightened a bit; a section with a spray hose and a misshapen wading pool felt interminable. But this work is Kate Wallich and the YC’s most sophisticated to date. I am partial to movement-driven dance, and this piece delivers that. It also doesn’t wallow in trendiness, or take aim at a meta-message for the audience. By eschewing those paths, Kate Wallich succeeds in delivering a more nuanced piece of art, one that allows each audience member to to take it on on their own terms.
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
|excerpt from Zoe/Juniper's "A Crack in Everything"|
If you love contemporary dance in Seattle, then you already know Zoe/Juniper, the artistic duo of Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey. Last year they presented their evening length dance “Clear and Sweet” at On The Boards. In addition to some amazing dance plus Shuey's video projected on long strands of material, a group of shape note singers performed live, creating an all together other worldly experience for me, at least. The show gets a New York debut this month. If you live near there you should go see it.
|Zoe/Juniper's "Clear and Sweet"|
Zoe herself is in the middle of a couple other big projects. She recently got a Princess Grace Fellowship to collaborate with choreographer Bebe Miller on a dance about how we see and perceive people (and things). They’ll work long distance, and then convene next spring at Jacob’s Pillow.
Zoe is also the recipient of the inaugural Kawasaki Artist Residency at the University of Washington Dance Department. She’s creating a work for more than 20 undergraduate dance students. The three-year residency project continues next year with another Northwest choreographer; the third season brings an artist from out of the region.
Zoe’s (and Juniper’s) work fascinates me, and this seemed like a perfect time to commit to follow her creative process. I’m going to try to document it for this blog, and maybe other outlets. So, voila installment #1!
On a rainy Saturday I went over to a UW studio to watch Zoe work with the students. It’s not a totally novel experience for her (she’s worked with students at both Velocity and Cornish, I believe), but perhaps not for such an extended period of time.
Given her hectic pace, it’s not surprising that Zoe was felled by the nasty upper respiratory virus that’s been circulating around town. So she showed up that morning still coughing and with very little voice. Somehow, she summoned the energy to corral the young women and start rehearsal.
Every choreographer I’ve watched has a different studio method; Zoe is incredibly analytical, even studious. She keeps detailed notes, including some drawings and movement notation. Some choreographers stand up and move through their ideas, a very kinetic approach. If that's part of Zoe's practice, I didn't witness it that morning.
Just before the students were set to run through the piece, Zoe and Juniper gathered them together, to remind them that movement is only part of a performance. Intent, attitude and approach are just as important and for this work, the young women needed to own their power. Some of the young women seemed doubtful, but most looked ready to tackle the work at hand.
This dance begins with the full cast standing, spread evenly across the stage. Zoe has started a digital metronome; she’s still weighing music possibilities, and will bring in what she calls 'ballet music' at some point, to judge how it fits with the movements. This was interesting to me; some choreographers draw their inspiration directly from a musical composition. Others collaborate in real time with composers. Another way to approach movement!
The students start slowly, shifting their weight from foot to foot. There is a distinctive “Zoe” foot that I’ve seen in some of her other dances. It’s flexed, rather than pointed, with toes splayed. Some of these young women have it down; a few others still point rather than flex. Here's that photo from "A Crack in Everything" so you can look at the feet again.
|I'm putting this photo back in: look at the dancer on the left, who may or may not be Zoe. Check out those toes!|
Zoe isn’t focused on anybody's feet, though. She’s looking at the spacing, counting movement repetitions, talking to Juniper and UW Dance Department Director Jennifer Salk about musical options.
I can’t help but be reminded of a scientist in her lab, carefully monitoring experiment results. Especially when she put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. So studious!
This dance is still very much a work in progress, but you get a sense of what she sees in her mind’s eye. There is power in the sheer number of dancers; there's also a raw emotion in the movement, and a sophisticated syncopation that emerges as the run-through unfolds. Zoe has crafted a section of overlapping solos; each soloist is carried onstage by two of her classmates. One particular entrance amazed me: the soloist is perched atop her colleagues’ shoulders. She looks like a carousel horse. That image gave me chills.
And it made me excited to follow the progression of this work. The students will perform it for an audience, and I plan to go see it. But I’m also eager to watch this artist create, the collaboration with Bebe Miller, and to try to get a glimpse inside Zoe Scofield’s amazing mind.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
|Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"|
photo by Angela Sterling
I walked into a parallel universe as soon as I came through the McCaw Hall doors on the opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
An hour before show time, and the lobby was already crammed; families posed in little scenes culled from the fanciful sets Ian Falconer designed for this production in 2015. Actors and magicians worked the crowd. Little girls twirled madly in their new holiday finery.
The energy was so palpable I felt like I was at the start of a marathon race. And in a way, I was. This November 24th opening was the first of 30+ PNB performances of this holiday classic.
I had planned to write a a learned screed about the Nutcracker’s history; how the legendary Marius Petipa conceived it in 1892, inspired by the French version of a German folktale (although most of the choreography was created by Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov).
I was curious why this particular story, this particular ballet, has become so beloved. It really wasn't intended to endure the way it has.
According to PNB’s resident dance historian Doug Fullington, composer Peter Tchaikovsky was less than thrilled with the whole concept of the Nutcracker; he says the ballet was intended as a divertissement to follow Tchaikovsky’s new opera, “Iolanthe.”
But 125 years later, Nutcrackers abound, from elaborately beautiful productions like PNB’s, to community performances at local dance schools. In the greater Seattle area alone you can choose from almost a dozen renditions. I’m excited about “Land of the Sweets: a Burlesque Nutcracker.”
Somehow, though, my serious intent was hijacked by the emotional response I have to this ballet.
First off, PNB’s three year old production of George Balanchine's Nutcracker, originally choreographed in 1954, is swell. This year I was impressed with the innate grace and stage presence of student Samrawit Saleem in the role of Clara. It was especially nice to hear she's a product of PNB's Dance Chance program. Dance Chance reaches out to kids with physical and artistic aptitude, kids who might not have an opportunity to study ballet, and offers them free ballet training for two years. If they like the discipline, and if their teachers agree, they can continue their training, often with the help of scholarships. The beautiful corps de ballet member Angeli Mamon is a Dance Chance alum.
Also noteworthy for me on opening night: Price Suddarth as the Toy Soldier, Candy Cane James Moore, and the lovely Elizabeth Murphy who was born to dance the role of Dew Drop.
And I can’t omit the dancing Orzas: Sarah and Seth, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier. Sarah was promoted to principal dancer in September and I can’t think of a dancer who deserved it more. In this ballet, she gets to twinkle around waving her wand, dressed in a sparkly purple outfit. I am certain every little girl in the hall went home and dreamed she got to trade places with Sarah.
In any case, when Sarah vaults backwards from the floor onto Seth’s shoulder, not once but TWICE, I held my breath. You really have to trust your partner will be there for you.
Many longtime Seattleites miss Kent Stowell’s darker Nutcracker, with costumes and sets by Maurice Sendak. They prefer it to Balanchine’s sugar coated confection. I confess I am Switzerland when it comes to this holiday chestnut.
Every time I see the Nutcracker (too many to count) I’m like a little girl with my face pressed up to the plate glass window of a chocolate shop. So many tempting goodies that I don't get to eat.
The lavishly trimmed tree, the rich egg nog, the happy family gatherings; they’re all part of our country’s dominant religious tradition, one that I don’t share. I appreciate the artistry of PNB’s dancers and its orchestra under Emil de Cou; I’m dazzled by the people who build the fantastic costumes in Larae Theige Hascall’s costume shop. Truly, those waltzing flower skirts are miraculous to behold.
But when I am in the middle of all that holiday cheer, I feel like an observer from outer space, or Margaret Mead on an island in the South Seas, observing very foreign cultural customs.
Ok, that's enough bah, humbug for one post.
If you can, go see The Nutcracker at Pacific Northwest Ballet, or at your favorite local dance company. Take a child, watch her face light up when the snowflakes start to waltz. Try to see the magic through her eyes. If nothing else, do what I do: dream of owning your own tiara someday.
|I confess, I miss the boat from the Kent Stowell Nutcracker, don't you?|
photo by Angela Sterling
Monday, November 6, 2017
|PNB Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico in Crystal Pite's 'Plot Point'|
photo @ Angela Sterling
We toss that word around so cavalierly these days that sometimes, when we encounter a real genius, the accolade doesn’t feel strong enough.
Genius really is the only word that adequately describes choreographer Crystal Pite and the magical worlds she creates.
Perhaps you first encountered Pite at Seattle’s On the Boards. Or maybe in 2013, you saw Pacific Northwest Ballet’s presentation of her large-scale ballet ‘Emergence.’ Contemporary dance fans who thought they didn’t like ballet snapped up tickets; traditionalists were introduced to a new way of thinking about a classical art form.
Then local audiences got to see ‘Betroffenheit,’ a collaboration between Pite’s dance company Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theater. This harrowing performance about love, loss, grief, madness and redemption won Pite even more fans.
If you have yet to discover Crystal Pite, get yourself tickets to one of this weekend’s performances of PNB’s latest program, ‘Her Story.’ In addition to satisfying dances by Jessica Lang and Twyla Tharp, you’ll get a chance to see the American premier of Pite’s intriguing ‘Plot Point,’ originally created in 2010 for Nederlands Dans Theater.
PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal says when he invited Pite back to the Seattle, she suggested revisiting this particular work, an exploration of the meaning of story.
With ‘Plot Point,’ Pite creates a mysterious, almost hazy, film noir aesthetic, animated by Bernard Herrmann’s famous score for Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 horror film, ‘Psycho,’ with additional sound design from Owen Belton.
The curtain goes up on two men in trench coats, running, semi-obscured by a gauzy scrim. Who are these two? What are they running from? We don’t know yet. And, are they really both men? One of the figures is pure white, from his fedora to his shoes; a white mask obscures his features
Soon, we meet an amorous couple, only to discover each is married to somebody else. A jealous husband seeks revenge; a spurned wife wants to end her own life. Each of these characters is ‘mirrored’ by another faceless white doppelganger. Sometimes the replicant moves in synch with her human partner; sometimes she watches then repeats the human’s movements. When the replicant moves, she is not human but something else entirely.
The replicants move across the stage with exaggerated articulation of elbows and knees, ankles and wrists, so that we see the mechanics of each footstep or turn of the head. Their fingers are splayed and stiff, like Star Wars’ C3 PO. Are they robots, like him? Do they have free will? Do these replicants actually serve to set a story in motion?
Part of ‘Plot Point’s’ genius is that--although there is no real plot, only a series of instigating actions and the ramifications of those actions--Pite has opened the curtains and ushered us into the secrets of a hidden world. It’s mysterious and fascinating, demanding and rewarding.
PNB’s stellar dancers rise to Pite’s choreography. In a conversation after the Saturday, November 4th matinee, principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite explained that Pite has a clear idea of how every movement should look, and where it should begin in the dancer’s body. Sometimes, he said, the movement starts with the face; other times with the pelvis, or a foot, or a shoulder. This choreography is physically challenging, but thought provoking as well. Pite never throws in a gratuitous move, everything is where it is for a reason and the entire cast embraces it fully.
It seems fitting that an artist as talented as Crystal Pite would explore the mechanics of storytelling. Every work of hers that I’ve had the good luck to see has carried me on a full journey. In my mind, her greatest gift is her ability to create non-traditional narratives that fully captivate her audiences. With‘Plot Point’ or ‘Emergence’ or ‘Betroffenheit,’ Pite transports me into new worlds both beautiful and strange, and always profoundly moving. I want to travel with her again, and again, and again.
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
|Kim Lusk and Amelia Reeber, from Peggy Piacenza's 'The Event'|
photo @ Peggy Piacenza
I’ve been mulling over something for the past couple of years,something that directly affects anything I write for this blog: how do I balance the intrinsic merits of a work of art with my own personal reaction to said work?
This is a thorny matter. We all have preferences, right? Ketchup versus mustard, cats versus dogs, movement-heavy dance versus more theatrically-based works. Contemporary choreography versus story ballets.
As I write this, I note my use of that word “versus.” This isn’t a contest, there’s no right or wrong. I’ve set up a false dichotomy.
Nevertheless, I sometimes struggle to separate my aesthetic preferences from a truly open response to art I see, and art I write about here. Given that I post what I write for potential (albeit minimal) public consumption, I wonder whether I have to hold myself to a higher bar? I think the answer is yes, particularly if I’m holding the art to a similar high standard.
If you’ve read anything I post, you probably know I have an affinity for choreography that challenges dancers to bring a high level of technical training; for work that brings a cogent beginning, middle and end (harder than it sounds); for dancers who reveal their authentic selves in their performances. I like art that has something to say but doesn’t hit me over the head with a message. I yearn for work that I think about for days afterwards.
This is an incredibly long preamble to some short thoughts about Peggy Piacenza’s recent evening-length piece, ‘The Event,’ produced at Base in Georgetown in mid-October, a performance that I've been mulling over for a couple of weeks.
This multi-media work featured four exceptional dancers (Ezra Dickinson, Kim Lusk, Wade Madsen and Amelia Reeber) in addition to Piacenza, some evocative videos, and a fabulous cloud-like wall partially constructed of cotton candy. From the first video of Lusk and Reeber blowing cotton balls across a smooth surface at one another, to images of dandelions gone to seed, to Lusk pulling a hank of cotton from the wall and stuffing it into her mouth, Piacenza strives to remind us of the ephemeral nature of our lives and our world.
Even the use of hand bells emphasized this for me. In one beautiful section, each dancer held a small bell in each hand, ringing them in a meticulously choreographed set of patterns. The sweet soprano peals overlapped, ultimately fading away in the small space.
‘The Event’ is packed with strong sections like that: Lusk and Dickinson perform a duet in perfect synch; Madsen and Dickinson lie on the floor, making snow angels; Piacenza stands on a ladder watching the other dancers as they repeat almost ritualistic hand movements. So many beautiful moments, like beads threaded onto a necklace.
I hope Piacenza gets to revisit this work, because to me the beads on that strand were out of order.
Somehow, the final bead had been swapped with another and the ending had been placed within the body of the work. When 'The Event' ended, I was left feeling a little muddled, rather than with a sense of having watched a clear arc that reached an understandable conclusion.
And that’s where my personal aesthetic preferences come in; many others in the audience loved the ambiguity of the ending. They preferred it, in fact, to a more traditional ‘story’ arc. And who am I to tell an artist that she should be creating a piece that speaks more to me than to these other audience members?
Frankly, I am always in awe of any artist who has the confidence and the persistence to realize her vision in public. Our community (our world!) is richer for this creativity, and this courage. Peggy Piacenza literally put her heart into this work, and I admire what she has achieved.
So, dear artists, now you know some of my own biases, some of what gnaws on me after every show I see. I figure I’ll just keep watching and writing and trying to make sense of your work, for myself and anyone else who wants to follow my thoughts.
|From left, Lusk, Madsen, Reeber, Dickinson and Piacenza contemplate|
photo courtesy of Peggy Piacenza
Tuesday, October 24, 2017
|Paul Morgan Stetler as John Proctor in 'The Crucible' at ACT Theatre|
photo @Chris Bennion, courtesy ACT
A well-made artwork is one of life’s great pleasures.
That’s exactly what Seattle’s ACT Theatre offers up with its new production of the Arthur Miller classic ‘The Crucible,’ directed by John Langs.
Maybe, like me, you’ve never seen an actual live stage production of this play. And maybe, like me, you’ve been scared away from seeking one out because you had a heavy-handed high school English teacher with a ramrod stiff interpretation of Miller’s script.
I advise you now to toss that baggage aside and give this play the chance it so deserves.
Langs’ production is a revelation; a complex examination of mob mentality, fear of ‘the other,’ of women and sexuality, of self respect and of love.
Every actor in the large cast was stellar, but at the heart of the play was a performance that is so stunning that I can’t get it out of my mind.
Paul Morgan Stetler came out of retirement to tackle the complex role of John Proctor, a man who commits the sin of adultery and is then forced to wrestle with the ramifications of his actions.
From the first moment Stetler takes the stage until the heart wrenching final scenes, he completely inhabits the man he portrays. It’s a remarkable performance in a remarkable production, and reminded me that nobody (whether we agree with them or not) can be reduced to a one-dimensional being.
Like the best artworks, ‘The Crucible’ left me shaking inside and out. Although it is almost 65 years old, this play is in no way ready for retirement. In fact, in our current political climate, it’s more relevant than ever.
Friday, October 20, 2017
|Choreographer Crystal Pite at work with Pacific Northwest Ballet company members|
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB
I had a stomach bug but a friend insisted I go see Pite's show 'Dark Matters' at Seattle’s On the Boards. Oh my god, was I happy I went!
First of all, the Kidd Pivot dancers are mesmerizing movers. Their bodies bend, twist and float in ways that seem inhuman. But more than phenomenal dance, “Dark Matters” is one of those rare, complete gems. Pite created a world, a dramatic arc, a narrative without an explicit plot that always moved forward. It was thrilling and is a benchmark for me when I watch other dance theater.
When the show ended, I was both drained and exhilarated, and a convert to Pite-ism. I wanted more, more, more.
Lucky me, and lucky Seattle dancer lovers, because this fall we’ve just entered the Pite-a-Palooza of dance seasons.
|Crystal Pite works with PNB dancers before the company's local premiere of 'Emergence' 2013|
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB
Last weekend, the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company presented a fragment from 'Dark Matters,' just to whet our appetites. Next April, Pacific Northwest Ballet brings back Pite’s incredible ballet 'Emergence,' inspired by the social world of bees, and featuring a cast of thousands. Well, dozens, but they really do fill. I’ve seen this ballet at least five or six times and I find something new with every viewing.
|PNB company members perform Pite's 'Emergence'|
photo @ Angela Sterling for PNB
As if that’s not enough Pite for you, On the Boards and Seattle Theatre Group will present her monumental piece, ‘Betroffenheit,’ in late March. This is a not-to-be missed performance about extreme loss, grief, madness and redemption and IT IS AMAZING.
But we don’t have to wait until next Spring to enter Pite’s world.
|From Nederlands Dans Theatre's 2010 premiere of 'Plot Point'|
photo @Joris-Jan Bos for NDT
In early November, PNB presents the American premiere of 'Plot Point,' a work Pite created for Nederlands Dans Theatre in 2010. 'Plot Point' was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film ‘Psycho,’ and is set to the 1960 score by Bernard Herrmann, with additional music by Owen Belton.
I recently had the opportunity to watch Crystal Pite work with her PNB cast in the studio. Although she’s now a mother in her 40’s, Pite is still as nimble as dancers half her age, watching a video of the original production then demonstrating the movements with unflagging energy. She’s not only teaching this ballet; she’s tweaking and refining her choreography, making changes to both fit the PNB dancers and her own new perspectives on an older work. The dance promises to be as eerie and potentially violent as the Hitchcock on which it was based.
|Elle Macy with Josh Grant, rehearsing Crystal Pite's 'Plot Point' for PNB|
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB
It’s fascinating to watch traditionally trained ballet dancers approach Pite's most non-traditional movement vocabulary. Where most ballet choreographers ask for long extensions of legs and feet, arms and hands, creating beautiful lines, Pite looks for angles and bending torsos, swooping limbs and lots of theatricality.
A tight clump of dancers slinks across the stage, bearing a cake for a waiting woman, wide rictus grins on their faces. Another woman moves away from the group, shoulder slumped, almost trudging, carrying some type of burden.
|NDT production of "Plot Point"|
photo @Joris-Jons Bos for NDT
After two hours of demanding rehearsal, PNB Principal Lucien Postlewaite was beaming. He says Pite has asked him and his fellow dancers to transcend their training, and it was clear he loved the challenge. Judging by the rehearsal, and these photos from Nederland Dans Theatre, 'Plot Point' is sure to bring PNB audiences something altogether new.
The American premiere of Crystal Pite’s ‘Plot Point’ is part of PNB’s ‘Her Story’ program, opening at McCaw Hall on Friday, November 3rd. It shares the bill with Twyla Tharp’s ‘Afternoon Ball,’ created for PNB in 2008, and Jessica Lang’s evocation of painter Georgia O’Keefe, ‘Her Door to the Sky.’ If you come to the Saturday, November 4th matinee, I'll be moderating the post-show talk with PNB's Peter Boal and selected dancers. It should be a blast!