Monday, July 9, 2018

We Are Not Small Women

Catapult dancers in Michelle Miller's 2018 dance, "Skin"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos

At the start of Michelle Miller’s newest dance, “Skin,” a woman in a tight beige tank top and shorts enters the stage, followed closely by another dancer dressed in a demure skirt. They engage in not so much a duet as a struggle that’s probably familiar to many women of my generation, the Baby Boom.

'Sit like this', the skirted woman seems to instruct the other. 'Don’t splay your legs, for god’s sake! Tilt your head like this, so seductive. Smile. Smile. Smile.'

As I watched this push/pull unfold, I was reminded of my mother’s instructions to my teenage self: 'if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Comb your hair off your face. Look how much prettier you are when you’re smiling. Do this, not that. Be agreeable. Don't take up space.'

“Skin” was the last of four dances in the evening length program “I am not a small woman,” performed by Miller’s company, Catapult dance, at Seattle's Erickson Theater. Taken as a whole, the program was an athletic and intriguing exploration of the relationship between women and contemporary American cultural norms.

“I am not a small woman” opened with a 2003 work, “The Lottery,” created by former Seattle dancer/choreographer Amii Legendre. I saw this dance when it premiered 15 years ago; it was still just as resonant as it was then. Legendre writes in the program she was inspired both by the onset of the Iraq War and by Shirley Jackson’s chilling story of the same name. "The Lottery" was well paired in the program's first half with Miller’s “I am the Bully,” an abstract rumination on power dynamics.
 
Catapult dance company members in Michelle Miller's "I am not the bully"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos
My favorite dance of the evening was “Resistance,” created in 2014 by Miller in collaboration with her cast. Like “Bully,” this dance explores power dynamics. Miller physically tethers pairs of dancers. As one woman pulls at her leash, she’s restrained by her partner/captor. But this physical restraint also allows some gravity-defying movements, akin to rock climbers who have spotters below them. 

Miller’s troupe of dancers are noticeably strong and technically adept. They seize her movements with what I can only describe as ferocity. Whether they are raising their fists into the air, yelling in unison, or trapped together inside the confines of a wooden box, “Resistance” offered a combination of movement and human interaction that was both engaging to watch and thought provoking when it ended.
 
Catapult Dance company members swing free in "Resistance"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos
“I am not a small woman” tackles cultural questions that face women--and men--in 21st century America, but instead of getting mired in didactic literalism, Miller spins out from her starting ideas with fresh energy and intriguing movements. I am a sucker for very physical dance, I admit, but with this program Miller and her dancers offer more than gravity defiance and gee-whiz moments. Miller has drawn on her many years as a dancer, healer and martial artist to create a very distinctive aesthetic. I’m eager to see what she and Catapult offer in the future.

Monday, June 25, 2018

More Reasons to Love Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chris D'Ariano in Donald Byrd's Wake the Neighbor
photo courtesy Seattle International Dance Festival

Despite the general misperceptions, ballet is much more than tutus, swans and sugar plums. You can see the art form’s dynamism at any of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s contemporary programs. Seattle International Dance Festival also provided a showcase in its Spotlight on Contemporary Ballet program June 19 and 20th.

Program curators packed six works into a fast-paced evening that not only turned the spotlight on contemporary ballet, it also showcased some of PNB's newest generation of talented performers and choreographers as part of a collaboration between SIDF and the Seattle-based ballet company. Of the six dances on the bill, only two did not involve PNB-based artists. Each of these pieces had something to recommend it, but I was particularly struck by two of the works, both in the evening's second half.

The first was a solo called Wake the Neighbor, created by Spectrum Dance Theatre Artistic Director Donald Byrd for PNB’s Next Step Outside/In and performed by PNB’s Chris D’Ariano. This solo displayed both D’Ariano’s promise, and Byrd’s mastery of his craft.

The action begins when D’Ariano struts onstage in black jeans and tee shirt, his dark curly hair tousled around his face. He is both handsome and a little arrogant, like every young man in his prime. At first, D’Ariano dances in silence, but once Kris Bowers’ energetic electric score begins, D’Ariano’s every move is perfectly in synch with each guitar strum, each downbeat.
 
Chris D'Ariano makes everything look easy in Donald Byrd's Wake the Neighbor at SIDF
photo courtesy SIDF
Some of his movements are elegant and balletic: controlled leg extensions from the hip, toe perfectly pointed, pirouettes that demonstrate his grace and his strength. Other moves are too-cool-for school, things you might see on a stroll through Capitol Hill. D’Ariano pushes back his unruly hair with both hands, or nods his head to the side, a cool acknowledgement of something we can’t see. No matter what he’s doing, D’Ariano maintains control over his body. That extended leg? He snaps it back to his body in an instant, never touching the floor with his foot. He stops dead after a pirouette, stock still, looking out at the audience. We can’t help but look back, because Chris D’Ariano is simply captivating.

I first saw this solo at the Next Step performance at McCaw Hall; I liked it even better onstage at SIDF, with moody lighting that enhanced the rock star/ballet dancer mashup that Byrd has created for D’Ariano. I’m so glad Wake the Neighbor got a second life with this festival.
 
PNB's Angelica Generosa and Christian Poppe left, Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and Kyle Davis, foreground.
in rehearsal for Eva Stone's Careless/Ruthless for Seattle International Dance Festival
photo courtesy SIDF
SIDF’s Spotlight on Contemporary Ballet ended with Eva Stone’s Careless/Ruthless, a work for four dancers, in this instance PNB soloists Kyle Davis and Angelica Generosa, along with PNB corps de ballet members Christian Poppe and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan.

If you’ve seen work created by William Forsythe or Ulysses Dove, you’ll have a sense of what Stone has crafted in her new ballet. This is an abstract piece, not a narrative, and it has clean, sharp movements. The four performers wear dark leotards and tights, the women are in pointe shoes. Edgy music by Ezio Bosso, John Cage and Forest Swords propel them. The emotion, if you will, originates in the energy of Stone’s choreography, which is onstage in abundance.
 
PNB soloist Kyle Davis, foreground, and fellow PNB company members in Eva Stone's Careless/Ruthless
photo courtesy SIDF
The dancers first appear one by one, then quickly pair off, curving sensuously around each other’s bodies. Ryan caresses Davis’ cheek, Poppe lifts Generosa with tenderness. Despite this intimacy, these are not romantic pas de deux. As the title of the dance suggests, the interpersonal encounters are just that—encounters, akin to casual hook ups. Two people meet casually and just as carelessly sever their ties.

Ultimately, we see the four dancers line up, moving simultaneously but not in unison. Each is locked into her or his own universe. I don’t know what Eva Stone had in mind, but I was reminded of the adult parallel play we see when a group of people sits together, their eyes glued to their individual cell phones.

Stone’s ballet was a strong ending for a strong evening. SIDF’s partnership with PNB was a real treat for festival-goers. Normally when we watch these fine dancers onstage at McCaw Hall, we sit a fair distance from the stage, unable to watch their faces or see the intricacies of the choreography. At the Broadway Performance Hall the audience was close enough to view both the effort and the artistry involved in ballet, leaving this ballet geek wanting even more.

By the way, PNB is headed to Paris this week, for a two-week stay with Les Etes de la Danse, a summer dance festival on the Seine River, southwest of the city. The first week the dancers join four other ballet companies in a salute to choreographer Jerome Robbins' centenary. Week Two, they'll present nine different ballets, included works by Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Millepied, Christopher Wheeldon, Ulysses Dove and Justin Peck. "A season in a box," PNB's Peter Boal calls it. Wish I was there!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Goodbye...and Hello

Tory Peil lets loose in Olivier Wevers' Silent Scream
photo @Bamberg Fine Arts

As Olivier Wevers’ company, Whim W’Him, wraps up its eighth season, once again I’m struck by the versatility of his seven dancers. From the longest tenured, Jim Kent, to newbies Cameron Birts and Adrian Hoffman, Whim W'Him dancers can deliver an array of technical goods.

And that’s exactly what they were called upon to do for the season's final program, a triple bill called Transfigurate. The offerings ranged from Danielle Agami’s whimsical (how fitting) Duck Sitting, a commentary on our contemporary digitally-obsessed culture, to Pascal Touzeau’s rigorous Stickers, to Wevers’ Silent Scream, part amusing take off on the silent film era, part social critique, and altogether a farewell showcase for long-time company member Tory Peil, who leaves the company after this season.

Touzeau’s dance opens the program. Set to a challenging violin composition by Sofia Gubaidulina, Stickers is the kind of work that tests both the dancers’ technical ability and their concentration. At a rehearsal earlier this month, I watched Touzeau push the cast to perfect their timing, to match their movements exactly to the irregular rhythms of the score. As he explained to me, if the timing isn't exact, the intent of the dance is obscured. I was eager to see how it would go in performance.

Onstage, with Michael Mazzola’s moody lighting design and sheer costumes by Nova Dobrev, Stickers transforms from studio discipline into a series of seemingly random encounters. But instead of humans interacting, the dancers were more like neurons firing in our brains. Touzeau’s movement vocabulary is spiky; feet point into the air, with toes flexing upward. Hands extend behind the back, fingers unfurled like nerve ends. 
Karl Watson finds a seat on Jim Kent in Pascal Touzeau's Stickers
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts



While much of the dance centers on Karl Watson and Jim Kent, who perform not so much a series of duets as a series of mechanical interactions, for me the highlight was watching fluid Liane Aung dance with Adrian Hoffman. Aung is one of those dancers who can deliver an array of movement with her silky limbs. Hoffman, new to the company this season, is equally supple in this pas.
 
Liane Aung and Adrian Hoffman in Pascal Touzeau's Stickers
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts
After a break, Agami’s Duck Sitting begins to throbbing percussion. The seven dancers look like Madison Avenue castaways, dressed in shreds of business suits. It feels a bit like the artistic collision of Gilligan's Island and Lord of the Flies. These castaways are angry, alienated, and they dance out their emotions.

WW company members in Danielle Agami's Duck Sitting
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts

Cameron Birts jumps forward, then continues to jump through the other six dancers, each of whom is moving to her own interior choreography. They clump into a pile center stage, and Hoffman, hair disheveled, looks out at the audience and waves in acknowledgement, prompting his fellow dancers to join in. The dance takes a light turn at this point, the dancers miming texting, distancing themselves from one another through the simulated light of their small smart phone screens. It was fun to watch but it felt as if the momentum at the start of Agami's creation sort of fizzled away.

The evening ends with Wevers’ Silent Scream, inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, as well as by pantomime. Each of the dancers is dressed as an archetypal figure: jail bird, femme fatale, working stiff, and Chaplin himself. Peil is the heart of this dance, eventually stripped from trousers and a work shirt to her white skivvies. As Chaplin's voice urges us to forge a kinder, more just society (a resonant message if there ever was one) Peil is the stand-in for everyone who’s being battered by incivility and hatred, by oppression and discrimination.
 
From left, Karl Watson, Adrian Hoffman, Jim Kent, Mia Monteabaro and Cameron Birts in Silent Scream
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts
I was struck in particular by her duet with Cameron Birts, who portrays the femme fatale, clad in a vintage polka dot dress. Peil is a tall cool blonde; Birts is compact and dark skinned, with incredibly long arms. As partners, Peil performs the traditional “male” role: lifting Birts up, taking the lead as they twirl together.

Artistic Director Wevers has taken great care over Whim W'Him's eight years to recruit technically excellent dancers. It's a small company; there are no official stars, but during her tenure he's called on Peil to portray everything from humor to emotional disintegration, to twist her long body into knots and to soar across the stage.

I’ll miss Peil; along with Jim Kent, she's helped to build the company, to present the array of choreography Whim W'Him has brought to dancer lovers in the region. Artistic departures are never easy, but I'm encouraged when I watch WW newcomers Adrian Hoffman and Cameron Birts. Along with Kent, Aung, Karl Watson and the ever-steady Mia Monteabaro they're the foundation of a  company that offers something unique to local dance lovers.

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Quiet, Enduring Artistry

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Karel Cruz
photo @Angela Sterling

When the lights come up on Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata, five dancers in brightly colored costumes take their positions at center stage.

Then they wait.

In a rush, dancer number six flies out from the wings to join them; pianist Allan Dameron dives into the Beethoven sonata that lends the ballet its name and the action begins.

On opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Love and Ballet, the final program of this artistic season, dancer six was Karel Cruz, in one of his final performances with PNB. As I watched him arrive onstage, I had to laugh. This is NOT a guy who's late. He's reliable, dependable and beloved by the entire company. Then, I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. This was going to be one of the last times I would savor Karel Cruz onstage.

Choreographer Millepied created Appassionata for three couples who spend two thirds of the ballet in fast-paced, lyrical flirtations. They literally bound with energy as they consort with their color-coded partners. Then it's time to trade in the original partner for somebody more interesting. (Principals Noelani Pantastico and Jerome Tisserand wind up with one another, and what luck for the audience. I haven’t seen these two as partners before, but their chemistry is masterful and magical.)
 
PNB Principal Dancers Elizabeth Murphy and Karel Cruz in Appassionata
photo @Angela Sterling

In the middle of this ballet, the tempo slows, and we are treated to a quiet and tender pas de deux for a couple in white: Cruz, and principal Elizabeth Murphy. As I watched them together, I was struck once again by Cruz’s confident presence. Murphy—and every other ballerina that has ever danced with Cruz during his 18 year tenure with PNB—always trusts that he will be there for her, lifting her high, catching her in a thrilling fish dive, even kissing her, in this case. Cruz elevates every partnership, it’s as simple as that.
 
Love the fish dive! Karel Cruz with Lesley Rausch in a photo by Angela Sterling
Each of PNB’s male principals has unique and wonderful qualities onstage; Tisserand can leap to great heights, then descend to the stage with the grace of a feather wafting on a gentle breeze. Jonathan Porretta (out with an injury, alas) is a firecracker, born to entertain, with more than his fair share of charisma. Lucien Postelwaite is a gifted dancer and dramatist, Seth Orza a symbol of strength; I could go on and on.

By contrast, Cruz’s artistry is quieter, more subtle, despite his 6’4” frame and a wingspan that seems to rival a Boeing 707. He shines in the classical roles, which he learned as a boy in his native Cuba. But I’ve heard tell that when he danced Christopher Wheeldon’s velvety, sensuous  After the Rain pas de deux with Lesley Rausch this past weekend, the audience went wild. (You have a chance to see them in it Saturday 6/9 at 7:30. Go, go go.)
Rausch and Cruz in Wheeldon's sublime After the Rain pas de deux
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB

As I looked through photos, I was reminded of how wonderful it was to watch Cruz and former principal dancer Carla Korbes together. Both of them have an innate musicality and a silken quality to their movements. Together, they were often sublime.
 
Cruz with Carla Korbes in Swan Lake. See what I mean about sublime? Look at their faces!
photo @Angela Sterling

While Cruz makes every partner shine, it’s pure joy to watch him dance with his wife, Lindsi Dec. I saw them perform the leads in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote a couple of years ago, a real treat. The love they showed for the dance and for each other radiated from them.
 
Cruz and Dec in Don Quixote. Fun, eh?
photo @Lindsay Thomas
A little more eye candy for you, Dec and Cruz in Crystal Pite's Emergence
photo @Angela Sterling
Karel Cruz is close to 40 now—150 in dancer years. I know his body says it’s time to retire, but I’m greedy, and selfish. Just one more dance. Oh, wait, I lied, I want another!

PNB’s Love and Ballet continues Thursday-Sunday matinee at McCaw Hall. The program also includes Wheeldon’s Tide Harmonic and Justin Peck’s effervescent Year of the Rabbit. Karel Cruz will dance his final Seattle performance Sunday evening, in PNB’s Encore program, a collection of highlights from the season, and from Cruz’s career. That should leave all of his fans weeping in our seats.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Even More Zoe Diaries: the power of ritual

Zoe/Juniper's "always now," installation for Part A
photo by Zoe Scofield



When we last met I was talking about Zoe/Juniper’s work-in-process “always now.” I just returned from a trip to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, in western Massachusetts, where the company had a two-week residency funded by the Princess Grace Foundation.

“always now” is a two-part creation, performed simultaneously in different sections of a theater. About two dozen audience members are split into two groups; one half views Part A, the second Part B, switching sections midway through the live event.
Balloons in Part B
photo courtesy Zoe Scofield

Visual designer Juniper Shuey and choreographer Zoe Scofield have dreamed up two very different environments. Part B involves audience members fully: we lie on faux sheepskin mats, face up, gazing at six dozen inflated dark balloons suspended in bunches from the ceiling. Some of these balloons are stippled with copper leaf. Five excellent dancers move among, above and through the supine audience members. You can read more here.

Part A provides a completely different experience for the audience. As we enter the space, a solo performance is already underway. Dancer Navarra Novy-Williams, in royal blue leggings and a dark shirt, moves slowly--very slowly-- across a butcher-papered floor, into an illuminated square space.
Navarra Novy-Williams literally chews the scenery in "always now" Part A
photo by Zoe Scofield

This square is delineated by curtains of fringe moored to thin wooden beams that hang from the ceiling. We can see Novy-Williams through the fringe, but also through staggered gaps in the curtains. Large silver bowls are placed at intervals on the floor. Novy-Williams approaches them from time to time, lowering her face to one large bowl to sip water, dipping her hands in another that’s filled with silver paint. She wipes it across the nape of her neck, like a collar.

Scofield wants the audience to move about the square. We’re invited to sit on the butcher paper, but sit at your own peril. Novy-Williams may come near to grab up a strip of paper between her teeth, like a dog grabs a bone. She crawls along, ripping the paper into a curving strip as she moves. Over more than an hour, Novy-Williams eventually removes the entire paper carpet, revealing another square beneath it, shiny silver, like the paint on her body.

A soundscape envelops this solo, rhythmic pulses interrupted by occasional children’s laughter, the reverberation of a gong, or simply silence.
Navarra Novy-Williams in "always now" Part A
photo courtesy Zoe Scofield

Scofield conceived of Part A as a durational performance, a counterpoint to the far more active Part B. Although we’re free to move about during Part A, we have to adjust our pacing to Novy-Williams, rather than the other way around. She may glance our way, but she doesn’t make eye contact per se. Instead, she’s enacting a very private ritual. Unlike Part B, where we are entwined in the performance, with Part A we are strictly spectators.

I’m still mulling over the relationship of the two sections of “always now.” They don’t share a movement vocabulary, and while the audience may move about in Part A, our perspective is still fairly traditional: audience watching performers. Part A is beautiful, but distant, and I left the Doris Duke Theater puzzling over what I'd seen.
Zoe Scofield takes a turn in "always now" Part A. Wish I could have seen her perform this.

Lucky for me, Jacob’s Pillow has a wonderful archives, overseen by a man named Norton Owen, Director of Preservation there. It’s thanks to him that I got to be in residence for three days, and thanks to him that I could watch Novy-Williams, then rush over to the archives. Owen found a book for me about the origins of dance as ritual. I settled into an armchair.
This red barn houses the Jacob's Pillow archives. It's awesome!

Ritual provides “access to the ineffable,” I read, “opening our psyches to that which we sense but cannot name.”

That struck me as exactly what Scofield has created in “always now,” particularly with Part A. I write and talk for a living, so I'm driven to translate, to explain, to discover inherent meaning in an artwork. Sometimes I see narrative where others don’t; sometimes a dance will have a more literal and evident story.

With “always now,” Scofield builds on her recent works like “A Crack in Everything,” and more recently “Clear and Sweet,” where she and Shuey use movement, imagery and video (along with music) to explore ideas. Unlike those works, “always now” is less issue driven and much more about creation of a sensate experience, both for the dancers and those of us who witness it as audience members.

Part B, for me, was elemental, as in earth, air, water (but not fire—yet). It’s primal in the way early humans used dance, or song, or story, to place themselves in their world.

I took my place in Scofield’s world, and now I find it very hard to leave.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

always now...the Zoe Diaries continue

Navarra Novy-Williams in the midst of part A of "always now" at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
photo from a video by choreographer Zoe Scofield
Each of us sees the world from a unique vantage point. And when our perspectives change, so do our perceptions of what we see around us. I'm sure there are reams of psychological treatises on this topic, but at this moment I'm contemplating the subject through the lens of my experience last weekend at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

I traveled to western Massachusetts to follow Seattle thinker and choreographer Zoe Scofield. She got a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation for a two week technical residency at the Pillow, to work with another choreographer, Bebe Miller, on a project called "always now."

As soon as I arrived I was escorted into the Doris Duke theater, a literal barn of a space. Zoe and her artistic partner Juniper Shuey transformed what had been a more traditional performance venue into two distinct sections, divided by a heavy black curtain.
Navarra Novy-Williams in "always now" part A
photo by Zoe Scofield

Once space--think of it as section A--was a shrine of sorts.  Eight "curtains' of white fringe hung from the ceiling, not quite touching the floor. Along with the lighting design by Thomas Dunn, this fringe formed boxes around several silver bowls, and a single dancer, Navarra Novy-Williams. I'll write a separate post about the durational ritual solo she performs over the course of more than 60 minutes.

For now, I'm going to focus on section B. Scofield had in her mind to play with the nature of perspective; how do we look at each other in news ways? How do we interact with one another when we're not standing toe to toe, or in a traditional audience/performer scenario? According to program notes, she wanted to explore how her dancers could integrate with the audience. For me, it was about how I, an audience member, was enfolded into the performance in ways I had never experienced.
Zoe/Juniper dancers in "always now" Part B
photo from a video by Zoe Scofield

"always now" is performed for a very small audience. Approximately a dozen people at a time can be in either room. In Part A, we enter to a solo in progress. We are in command of our shifting perspectives, walking around the dancer, choosing where and how to watch her.

In Part B, we enter the space and sit in chairs along the side, waiting for individual dancers to greet us and usher us to fleecy mats on the floor, where we lie supine for the duration of the performance, approximately 30 minutes. Once we're lying on our backs, we gaze up at six dozen large inflated balloons suspended in bunches overhead. These balloons are dark, and many are stippled with flecks of copper flakes. They are a bit sinister, but also pillow-y; once the lights come up on them I feel I have entered another world.

I have.

Five excellent dancers--Shane Donohue, Kim Lusk, Troy Ogilvie, Kevin Quinaou and Gilbert Small--perform in this room, but unless you eyes like a flounder, on the side of your head, there's no way to see everything they're doing. However, you do experience it through your other senses: you hear their feet as they shuffle or stomp around the supine bodies, and you feel the vibrations travel up your spine. You feel the whisper of air on your face as Ogilvie leaps over you. You shiver with a bit of apprehension as Small and Quinaou tangle above your head. When Small hoists Quinaou over his shoulder, Quinaou's hand dangles just a few inches from your nose. You smell his skin, the sweat that sheens it.
Audience and dancers merge in "always now" part B, at the Doris Duke Theater at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
photo from a video by choreographer Zoe Scofield

Every audience member has a different experience, depending on where we lie. But our perspective isn't only about our physical positions on the floor. It's also about our deeply held beliefs and the ideas we bring into the space with us, whether we're watching "always now" or a nightly newscast.

I have spent a couple of years thinking deeply about why art really matters in contemporary society. That comes out of my need to justify arts coverage to news editors. But it's more than job security; I  believe artists serve a vital purpose in our crazy world: they offer us insight into ourselves and our shared humanity; they give us new visions that can open us up to change of all types.

I have no idea if Scofield had these lofty goals in mind when she first conceived this performance. All I know is how it affected me. To use the word 'profound' would be an understatement.

I was lucky enough to experience "always now" several times over my stay at Jacob's Pillow. With each immersion into the piece, my mind traveled in different directions. First, I was conscious of the immediate sensations. Lying on a stage, in the middle of a dance, is nothing like watching a piece from a sitting or standing position several yards removed. I felt everything deeply. I left the Doris Duke theater shaking, with no words to describe what had overcome me.

After subsequent experiences, I began to think about something a fellow arts writer once told me. He approaches every performance with an open mind and an open heart, ready and willing to go where it takes him. Maybe even to shift ingrained opinions and perspectives. It's something I keep in mind, but don't always practice. I am an aspiring wordsmith; I have a need to use words to document and describe the world around me in the same way a choreographer like Zoe Scofield uses gestures, environments and her dancers to articulate what bubbles in her fertile mind.

Zoe/Juniper's residence at Jacob's Pillow was part of a new series there that cultivates work-in-process. I have no idea if, or when, the wider world will get a chance to experience "always now." I can only hope "always now" really will be here always.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Terrible and Disturbing Beauty

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico in "RAkU"
photo by Angela Sterling

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about “RAkU,” Yuri Possokhov’s 2011 work that had its Pacific Northwest Ballet premier on Friday, April 13th.

“RAkU” is loosely based on the true story of the 1950 burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion, but it really focuses on one woman, danced opening night by the always amazing Noelani Pantastico.

“RAkU” combines video projections designed by Alexander V. Nichols with Shinji Eshima’s powerful score to high, stylized, dramatic effect. A live, off-stage chorus performs Gary Wang’s libretto, creating an eerie aural web that seems to tighten around the onstage action.

The choreography is demanding; a meld of classical ballet inspired, according to program notes, by Japanese Butoh. The four warriors---Miles Pertl, Dylan Wald, Dammiel Cruz and Guillaume Basso, seem to move as one being. Seth Orza’s Samurai is strong and stoic; Kyle Davis’ monk is menacing and creepy. But this ballet is built around the woman, and as always, Pantastico invests her entire being in her character.
 
PNB Principal Dancer Seth Orza, foreground. Guillaume Basso, rear
photo by Angela Sterling
Possokhov has created a tragedy beyond a temple's destruction. This story chronicles a woman's demise. After her Samurai lover heads to battle, the woman is preyed on and ultimately assaulted by a temple monk. When the four warriors return the Samurai’s remains to her, she succumbs to a grief as fiery as the blaze the monk ignites.

Pantastico is beautiful and demure when we first meet her; after removing her kimono, she transforms into a passionate woman in love with her Samurai. As the ballet unfolds, Pantastico journeys through wariness, terror, despair and grief; as one of PNB’s best dramatic dancers, she delivers each authentic emotion with lyric, fluid movement.
 
Pantastico and Orza in "RAkU"
photo by Angela Sterling
“RAkU’s” story is disturbing, but watching it in 2018, it is also unsettling. In the moment of the performance, I was transported by the ballet’s theatricality. Afterwards, questions arose. Was this story Possokhov’s to tell?

An artist I know, a woman of Japanese descent, was part of the chorus, so I asked her about“RAkU;” was Possokhov's ballet another example of cultural appropriation. Her response was a delicate, and diplomatic, yes.

When, if ever, can artists take stories from other cultures and create new work? Can non-indigenous artists use native idioms? Can, or should, male authors create authentic female protagonists? Can Caucasian choreographers create work based on non-Western themes?

Is Possokhov's "RAkU"somehow less beautiful, less worthy of performance because he told the story? 

I found “RAkU” mesmerizing and completely different from other ballets I’ve seen at PNB. The closest comparison is to Jean Christopher Maillot’s intensely cinematic “Romeo et Julliette.” 

"RAkU" was sandwiched between two amazing works that I could watch a hundred times: Alejandro Cerrudo’s evocative “Little mortal jump,” featuring most of the stellar cast that premiered it at PNB two years ago.
PNB Principal Dancer Elizabeth Murphy with corps de ballet member Dylan Wald in "Little mortal jump"
photo by Angela Sterling


From Price Suddarth’s whimsical entrance, through Dylan Wald and Elizabeth Murphy’s poignant and beautiful pas de deux, “Little mortal jump” is dance full of promise and hope.

Crystal Pite’s epic “Emergence” caps the program, and if you haven’t yet seen this ballet, do yourself a favor and get tickets for one of this weekend’s four performances. It’s a ballet about group think, and in this case, the group includes dozens of dancers. But it’s also a ballet that features smaller moments: Rachel Foster “hatching;” Price Suddarth unfolding his wings and charging the phalanx of black-clad women; Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz moving together as if their two bodies are one. I could go on and on.
 
PNB company members in Crystal Pite's "Emergence"
photo by Angela Sterling
PNB will take both “Emergence” and “Little mortal jump” to Paris in early July. Artistic Director Peter Boal considers them signature company works, and in this iteration, they look fabulous.

So does “RAkU.” But I wonder whether it will become a signature work, or a beautiful ballet whose time in the PNB repertoire is as fleeting and ephemeral as an onstage video projection.