Monday, November 6, 2017

Genius

PNB Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico in Crystal Pite's 'Plot Point'
photo @ Angela Sterling
Genius.

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.
PNB Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico with company dancers in 'Plot Point'
photo @ Angela Sterling

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.
PNB dancers in Crystal Pite's 'Plot Point'
photo @ Angela Sterling

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.
 
'Replicants' performed by PNB's Emma Love Suddarth and William Yin-Lee
photo @ Angela Sterling
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.
PNB Principal Dancer James Moore and company members in 'Plot Point'
photo @ Angela Sterling

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

What Keeps Me Up at Night

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.
 
Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in 'Emergence' by Crystal Pite
photo @ Angela Sterling for PNB
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.
 
From left, Wade Madsen, Ezra Dickinson, Kim Lusk and Amelia Reeber in 'The Event' by Peggy Piacenza
photo courtesy Peggy Piacenza
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.
 
Kim Lusk consumes part of the set of 'The Event.' Not something you see every day!
photo courtesy Peggy Piacenza
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

Saturday in the Theater with Arthur Miller


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.
 
Paul Morgan Stetler as John Proctor in 'The Crucible' at ACT Theatre
photo @Chris Bennion for ACT
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

It's a Pite-A-Palooza in Seattle!

Choreographer Crystal Pite at work with Pacific Northwest Ballet company members
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB
The first time I saw Crystal Pite’s company Kidd Pivot perform, I was sick to my stomach.

Literally.

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!

https://www.pnb.org/season/17-18/her-story/

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Kindness of Strangers

Clearly, I should always row in the daylight so I can see potential hazards!
These days it seems like we only hear horrific news.

Earthquakes.

Hurricanes.

The potential of war with North Korea, continued racial injustice, hostile and uncivil discourse.

So it's easy for us to overlook random acts of generosity; when people go out of their way to help one another.

I was reminded of inherent human kindness this morning.

I was rowing west in the Lake Washington Ship Canal, heading toward the Ballard Locks. The skies were clear, but mornings are very dark in Seattle this time of year, and it was about an hour before sunrise. So, not all that easy to spot potential hazards.

When you are in a rowing shell, you don't face the bow of the boat; you're looking back at the path you've taken. So you have to turn often to check the water ahead for obstacles. Unfortunately, in the dark, I didn't notice a large log that was partially submerged.

Smack, I crashed into it at full speed.

The real problem was that the log somehow wedged itself onto my boat's hull, snagged on the rudder I think. I couldn't free the boat myself, so I called out, repeatedly, for help. My fellow rowers didn't hear me, but somebody in a nearby marina did. A voice called out in the dark 'watch for the dinghy, we're coming!'"

A small white boat putted out toward me, a smiling man named Justin at the helm. Actually, I didn't know his name was Justin at the time, I just know he maneuvered gently around my oars, trying to free my boat. Fellow rowers saw the situation and paddled over to help; one of them asked for Justin's name after he succeeded in freeing my rowing shell.

Justin lives aboard a boat called the Argonaut, in a marina just east of the Ballard Locks in Seattle. He was asleep when I started yelling for help, but he answered my call. When I apologized for disturbing his sleep, he responded, 'that's what you were supposed to do.'"

Justin, I made it almost all the way back to my boathouse, about a mile and half east of your marina. Unfortunately, the collision put a large hole in the bow of my shell, and I took on so much water the boat started to sink. I had to jump off and swim to the dock, with a fellow rower named Tom helping keep my spirits, if not my boat, afloat.

In the grand scheme of things, a small boating collision isn't a catastrophe. But it might have been so much worse without Justin Who Lives Aboard the Argonaut, and Tom who called out to encourage me.

We all do rely on the kindness of strangers.

This morning reminded me how important those random acts of generosity can be.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Once I Loved Rubies, But Now Diamonds Are This Girl's Best Friends

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Angela Sterling
Dear Lesley Rausch,

Thanks for a wonderful time on opening night of George Balanchine's "Jewels."

Oh, I know it took a group effort to kick off Pacific Northwest Ballet's new season with a brand new production to celebrate "Jewels'" 50th anniversary. And I really did like Jerome Kaplan's new sets and costumes, especially the fabulous tiaras. (By the way, what did you guys do with the old ones? I've been dropping hints to Santa, ever since the new production of "Nutcracker" with all the sparkly head wear, but so far, no tiara in my holiday stocking).

Where was I? Oh, yes, I was telling you, Lesley, how much I enjoyed you in the "Diamonds" section of the evening. Before I get carried away, though, I do want to compliment the PNB orchestra, under Emil de Cou's baton. Faure! Stravinsky! Allen Dameron on piano! Tchaikovsky! Whew, what musicians! And your fellow dancers were pretty wonderful, too.
PNB Principal Dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite sizzle in George Balanchine's "Emeralds"
photo by Angela Sterling

Half that opening night audience had come specifically to see Noelani Pantastico reunite with Lucien Postlewaite in "Emeralds." Hoo boy, they gave a little heat to that cool, elegant choreography. And three cheers for Sarah Ricard Orza, promoted to Principal Dancer at long last! I was also pretty stoked to see all-round talent Ezra Thomson get named Soloist. Oh, and Ben Griffiths and Rachel Foster were pretty saucy in "Rubies."
PNB Principal Dancers Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths in Balanchine's "Rubies"
photo by Angela Sterling

But really, Lesley Rausch, when you came onstage with that tall drink of water Karel Cruz, well, be still my heart! You always look regal, you always nail the technique. But in this production of "Diamonds", girl, you had me in the palm of your hand. Every extension of your feet and hands, every spin you took, I felt like you opened your heart to us. You brought your authentic self to the stage and by doing so, you elevated your artistry to new heights.
PNB Principal Dancers Karel Cruz and Lesley Rausch in Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Angela Sterling

Frankly, I've always been a "Rubies" fan, but Lesley, if you're dancing, "Diamonds" are this girl's new best friend.

With great admiration--and a tip of the hat to some great performances by Leta Biasucci, Kyle Davis, Lindsi Dec and Angelica Generosa--thanks again,

Marcie
Noelani Pantastico, Lucien Postlewaite and Sarah Ricard Orza, foreground
Leta Biasucci, Kyle Davis and Angelica Generosa rear, William Yin Lee Center
photo by Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet's new production of George Balanchine's "Jewels" continues through October 1 at McCaw Hall.

https://www.pnb.org/season/17-18/jewels/

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why I'm Not So Sad About Getting Old


Wade Madsen in the studio, @Gregory Bartning, from "Beauty is Experience:Dancing 50 and Beyond"
The other day I met a friend for coffee and we got to talking about being older women in this culture.

“Sometimes I feel invisible,” she said.

I know exactly what she means. As we talked, I remembered something that struck me last spring, when Wade Madsen appeared in KT Niehoff’s “Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds.” At one point, fairly late in the performance, Niehoff and Madsen sat down for a chat, and she asked him what it feels like to be an older dancer. I can’t remember his exact reply, but the gist was: awful. Then he said something that has stuck with me: a body in motion stays in motion.
Christian Swenson makes Human Jazz
@Gregory Bartning

Keep moving, keep writing, keep following your heart.

It's not always easy. 

The older I get, the more life experience I garner, the more I feel that I’m ‘old fashioned,’ or out of step with the world around me. I know a hell of a lot more about the world now than I did when I started out as a journalist 35 years ago, but somehow I still feel like I am an impostor. So I just keep plugging away and take huge inspiration from older artists, especially dancers, who imbue their work with all of their own life experience.
Tara Stepenberg, @Gregory Bartning


So I was thrilled to get a copy of Emmaly Wiederholt and Gregory Bartning’s new book “Beauty is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond.” It’s a collection of short interviews and photographs of a number of older dancers talking about their career highlights, their limitations and their thoughts on their futures as dancers.

Five Seattle artists are included in this book: Madsen, along with Mark Haim, Shirley Jenkins, Christian Swenson and Tara Stepenberg. The book doesn’t delve deep into the connections between aging and artistry; instead, those insights grow on you as you go through the many stories Wiederholt and Bartning include.
Mark Haim in the studio, photographed by Gregory Bartning

Mark Haim cited a song that I totally relate to, Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” If you’re drawing a blank, find a version online, preferably performed by the inimitable Elaine Stritch. It’s an anthem to growing older and wiser, a musical flip of the bird to a folks who might discount us.

I saw myself in something Shirley Jenkins told Wiederholt.

“I battle the sense that people have put me out to pasture, or that I’m old school, or not what’s ‘in,’” Jenkins said. “That’s something I’m constantly fighting.
 
Shirley Jenkins, @Gregory Bartning
Oh, me too!

But ultimately, this book is about the triumph of the creative spirit, and the joy these artists derive from dancing. It reminds me the take a deep breath whenever pessimism starts to drown me, that I live the life that passion drives me towards.

Wade Madsen says it better than me:

“Sometimes I’ve woken up and thought to myself, ‘Wade, you’ve created the life you wanted!”


Emmaly Wiederholt launches her book  at Cornish College of the Arts’ Main Gallery this Sunday, September 24th from 5-7 p.m. You can find out more about the book at her website stanceondance.com.