Monday, June 6, 2016

Don't Wait To Catch PNB's 'Waiting at the Station'

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer James Moore, surrounded by company dancers
in Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station" photo @Angela Sterling
A funny thing happened on the Bainbridge Island ferry this weekend.

It was a beautiful afternoon, with crystal clear views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker and pretty much any other Mt. you can think of. So, I was up on the top deck, along with dozens of other passengers, soaking it all in.

But one man was oblivious to the scenery. Instead, he was engrossed in the program for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s American Stories, the last offering of PNB's artistic season. Given that I’d just seen the show, I sidled over to ask what he thought of it.

“I loved the third dance,” he replied.

He told me he’s a ballroom dancer, and Twyla Tharp’s ebullient Waiting at the Station resonated with him.
PNB Principal Dancer James Moore, on bench, with company dancers in Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station"
photo @Angela Sterling

Frankly, this ballet, created in 2013 for PNB, resonated with almost everybody who saw it.

One of the big reasons is principal dancer James Moore’s knockout performance as a father who, realizing his life is nearing its end, tries to pass on his knowledge to his son (winningly danced by corps de ballet member Price Suddarth).
PNB Principal Dancer James Moore with corps de ballet members Elle Macy, Sarah Pasch,  and Chelsea Adomaitis
photo @Angela Sterling

This story sounds grim, but it’s actually quite exuberant. Moore and Suddarth’s relationship unfolds against the backdrop of a lively crowd of dancers who wait at the train station. Featured are two couples who make eyes at each other, plus a trio of long-legged Fates (Chelsea Adomaitis, Elle Macy and Sarah Pasch, so charming). And the action is performed to Allen Toussaint’s wonderful music, featuring pianist Allan Dameron, Todd Larsen on bass, and drummer Gunnar Folsom with the PNB orchestra.

This ballet fires on all cylinders: good story, great choreography, and accomplished dancing. But James Moore is the real jewel at the heart of Waiting at the Station.

Tharp created this dance with him three years ago. It doesn’t just suit him, it seems to be part of Moore’s very being. Whether he’s spinning like a top, executing a little soft-shoe shuffle, or trying to escape the Fates that surround him, Moore makes each move seem effortless, as if they come from his soul rather than the choreographer.

It’s thrilling to see a performance like this; while the entire cast was technically polished, and the dance itself is fun to watch, on opening night, Moore was transcendent. Through movement alone, he conveyed the story of a man filled with a zest for life, and a drive to pass on that passion to his son.
PNB Principal Dancer James Moore, left, with corps de ballet member Price Suddarth
photo @Angela Sterling

Waiting at the Station brought down the house, but the other two dances on the evening's bill were equally rewarding. Jerome Robbins’ 1944 work, Fancy Free, about three sailors on shore leave, is always fun. On opening night Moore danced it with fellow principals Seth Orza and Jonathan Porretta, plus Lesley Rausch and Noelani Pantastico as the two women that incite the sailors to fisticuffs.
PNB Principal Dancers Seth Orza, left, James Moore, center and Jonathan Porretta in Jerome Robbins'
"Fancy Free" photo@Angela Sterling

Sandwiched between these two stories was George Balanchine’s lovely, lyrical Square Dance.

When I asked my ferry boat acquaintance what he thought of those two works, he hesitated.
“They show the range of what ballet can be,” he finally responded.

He's absolutely right. PNB’s American Stories is a season-ending gift to dance fans. Three dances by three American masters. And a performance from James Moore that you won’t forget.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Mortal Jumps Big And Small

Pacific Northwest Ballet company member Price Suddarth in "Little mortal jump"
photo by Angela Sterling
A friend of mine died this weekend.

He was an artist and a scholar, a curator and a sensitive soul.

I’m telling you this because I couldn’t help but think of him as I watched two beautiful performances this weekend.

“Betroffenheit,” a collaboration by choreographer Crystal Pite and her company Kidd Pivot, and theater artist Jonathan Young, artistic director of Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre, explores Young’s own descent into depression and addiction after a tragic accident, and his difficult climb out of that abyss.
"Betroffenheit" by Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young

The performance is daring and emotional, at times funny, often shockingly raw. Ultimately, it is a profoundly moving story about one man’s battle back to the world of the living.

The Kidd Pivot dancers astound with their seemingly boneless bodies. They twist, jerk and spin as if pulled by an invisible puppeteer. And Young, well, what can I say? He is tender, powerful and powerless, all at the same time.

My friend, Jake, would have been engrossed by "Betroffenheit"; its searing narrative, the dark humor, its attention to each visual detail, the intricate sound design, and Pite’s captivating choreography. I wish he could have seen it.

“Betroffenheit” was presented in Seattle by On the Boards and Seattle Theater Group, and if you missed it, you’ll have to travel south to Portland. It’s worth the trip.

You still have another weekend to catch Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual Director’s Choice program. As PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal wryly noted on opening night, he’s the chooser, and what he chose were three contemporary works.

The biggest pre-show buzz was for New York City Ballet soloist Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit.” The piece was innovative and fresh, and exciting in its own way. But I was more moved by Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Little mortal jump.”
PNB's Elizabeth Murphy and Dylan Wald in "Little mortal jump"
photo by Angela Sterling

The ballet begins with a literal jump: company member Price Suddarth runs through the audience, climbs up onto the stage, then plunges into the orchestra pit. His leap is echoed upstage by James Moore, who descends into a dreamily dark and humorous world, accompanied by a musical mix that runs the gamut from Philip Glass to Tom Waits.

“Little mortal jump” unfolds in a series of duets, from Moore and Leah Merchant’s comically sultry intertwining, to Suddarth and Chelsea Adomaitis releasing themselves from their costumes which are velcroed to large black cubes, to Jerome Tisserand and Elle Macy, lovely as always, to the tenderly thrilling duo of Dylan Wald and Elizabeth Murphy.

Cerrudo’s “Little mortal jump” is about all the small joys of being alive; about laughter, and risk, and love. To me, he seems to be saying ‘You are born into this world, but to live fully, you need to take that jump, to seize the chances that come your way, to spin and whirl with the energy of your fellow human beings.’

My friend Jake seized his life by the lapels and lived it well. Alejandro Cerrudo’s dance reminded me to do the same thing.

See Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Director’s Choice” at McCaw Hall March 24-27.


Jake Seniuk, died 3/18/2016
photo by Alan Lande

Monday, February 8, 2016

It's Time For Romance

PNB's Noelani Pantastic and James Moore in Jean Christophe Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Angela Sterling
Ballet is built on a foundation of romantic stories; the art form is a natural conduit for tales of love and loss.

But there are few pas de deux more achingly, movingly romantic than Jean Christophe Maillot’s balcony scene from his 1996 “Romeo et Juliette.”

You know Shakespeare’s story: Romeo and Juliette are from two rival families; they meet at a dance; sparks fly. Romeo tracks his paramour to her house, where they swear their love to one another.
Maillot’s version of this classic tale, onstage now at Pacific Northwest Ballet, re-creates this scene as a dizzying, joyful and very steamy encounter.

Romeo (PNB principal James Moore on opening night) spies Juliette (principal Noelani Pantastico) atop her balcony—a long, white ramp in this production. He is oblivious as his white jacket drops from his hands to the ground. Leaping across the stage as if he can’t contain himself, he spins on one foot, arms extended loosely over his head, a dreamy smile on his face.
PNB's James Moore and Noelani Pantastico in "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Angela Sterling

When Juliette descends to meet him, we can see that her desire matches his. Her right hand flutters toward Romeo of its own accord, the physical manifestation of an attraction she can’t subdue. The hand pulls her to Romeo, like the proverbial moth to a flame. Their palms meet, and trace together a waving path, up into the air, like wisps of smoke from the flame itself.

The young lovers tease out their courtship dance. Romeo grabs for Juliette; she neatly evades his hands, and skitters away, only to sidle back to see why he hasn’t chased after her.

Finally, their coy flirtation ends. Juliette lies draped, supine, over Romeo’s outstretched legs. He bends from the waist to kiss her, his arms raised behind his back, elbows crooked like a bird’s wings. And that kiss is enchanted: Juliette’s back arches her up from the ground, her lips pressed to Romeo’s. Sigh…

PNB premiered Maillot’s ballet in 2008, and Noelani Pantastico danced the role of Juliette in every performance in that production. It must have enchanted her, because she followed Maillot to dance with his company, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. She danced Juliette many times over her seven years there. Now that she has returned to Seattle to finish her career with PNB, Pantastico brings her experience and her insight to the role. She embodies it.

Pantastico and her Romeo, Moore, are all strength and passion, fully committed both to their characters and to the choreography. That commitment shows in everything from the extension of their fingers and toes, to the frankly steamy kisses they exchange.
PNB's Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand in "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Lindsay Thomas

They alternate in the title roles with fellow PNB principal dancers Jerome Tisserand and Lesley Rausch. These two bring equal commitment to their performances, but a very different quality to Maillot’s choreography.

Where Moore is earthy and muscular, Tisserand is slim and elegant. His Romeo is almost other-worldly in his devotion to Rausch’s Juliette. And where Pantastico’s movements are defined, sometimes almost angular,Rausch’s long arms and legs seem to curve around the choreography. If Moore and Pantastico steam up McCaw Hall, Tisserand and Rausch’s love shimmers and floats like a rainbow-tinted soap bubble.

“Romeo et Juliette” is much more than this one pas de deux, of course. And the PNB dancers were uniformly strong opening weekend.
PNB's Seth Orza, l, as Tybalt and Jonathan Porretta as Mercutio in "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Angela Sterling

Three stand out: Principal Seth Orza looked sleek and menacing as Tybalt. He oozed seduction with Lady Capulet, venom with Mercutio (welcome back Jonathan Porretta!!!), and macho aggression around his minions.

Soloist Margaret Mullin excelled as Juliette’s Nurse. When she twitches her finger to summon her young charge, we’re amused by her spiky portrayal of the character, and somewhat awed by the fine control she exhibits over this single digit.

And last, but not least, there’s corps de ballet member Miles Pertl, dancing the pivotal role of Friar Laurence. The Friar’s job is to set the story in motion, and to foreshadow its tragic ending. Pertl threw himself into this task both physically and emotionally.
PNB corps de ballet member Miles Pertl as Friar Laurence, with Noelani Pantastico in "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Angela Sterling

These three dancers will appear in every performance of the current production. Lucky audiences.

I must also mention the beauty of Prokofiev’s score, ably performed by the PNB orchestra. And costumes by Jerome Kaplan, sets by Ernest Pignon-Ernest and lighting design by Dominique Drillot, all enhance our experience in the theater.

Ultimately, though, “Romeo et Juliette” is about the exultation of first love. Through Maillot’s choreography and the skill of the PNB dancers, we get to remember the heady, giddy joy of our own experiences. It’s simultaneously hauntingly beautiful, and achingly sad.

As my companion said to me when the curtain went down on Act I, after the balcony pas de deux, “I have no words for this!”


Indeed, words can't express what happens onstage in "Romeo et Juliette."
You just have to see it for yourself.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Whim W'Him Warms Up A Winter Night

Whim W'Him company members Tory Peil, left, and Mia Monteabaro in Olivier Wevers' "Brahms and Tights"
photo by Bamberg Fine Art
When you’re just about fed up with dark, wet January in the Pacific Northwest, there’s nothing like a bracing dance performance to shake you out of your doldrums.

Seattle’s Whim W’Him delivers on that score with its latest production, INspired.

When Artistic Director Olivier Wevers formed the company in 2009, most of Whim W’Him’s repertoire was Wevers’ own work. Early on, though, Wevers added dances by Anabelle Lopez Ochoa to his programs. Now “Whimmers” have come to expect a smorgasbord of work by different choreographers. This January's  production fit the bill to a tee.
Whim W'Him company members surround Patrick Kilbane, center, in Dominic Walsh's "The Ghost Behind Me"
photo by Bamberg Fine Art

The program, INspired, featured Wevers’ latest dance, “Brahms and Tights,” along with new work by Seattle-based favorite Mark Haim and Dominic Walsh’s “The Ghost Behind Me.”

I’d be grasping at straws to find any real connective tissue between these three pieces, other than the consistent excellence of the seven Whim W’Him company members who performed them. In particular, newcomer Patrick Kilbane, a Bainbridge Island native, dazzled with his ballet-honed technique. Kilbane can’t replace longtime company member Lara Seefeldt, who departed last fall, but he’s a welcome addition to the troupe.
Patrick Kilbane, front, in "The Ghost Behind Me"
photo by Bamberg Fine Art

The last dance on the INspired bill, Dominic Walsh’s work, “The Ghost Behind Me,” was perhaps the most ambitious of the three new works. Performed to live music by the Two Star Symphony, this piece centered around Kilbane as a character called Protagonist. His movements are orchestrated by Justin Reiter’s Puppet Master, and echoed by the other dancers as a Greek chorus of fellow puppets. Kyle Johnson appears as a challenge to this norm--The Man who tries to engage Kilbane’s heart. Or at least, that was my reading.

It’s always a treat to see strong work by choreographers who are new to me, and there was a lot to like about “The Ghost Behind Me.” The puppet characters in particular had the task of showing us their carefully articulated muscle movements, controlled by the Puppet Master. He was even given a hand-controlled spot light to highlight and follow the action onstage. Lighting Designer Michael Mazzola created a large forbidden rectangle mid-stage; the puppet/dancers edged around its perimeters, curious about what it held but somehow kept at bay.

As intrigued as I was by the mini-world Walsh created, I was puzzled by the choice to costume the musicians and Reiter’s Puppet Master in nondescript brown hoods and long, bizarre blue beards, ala ZZ Top. I’m not sure what those beards meant to convey, and to me, they only distracted from Reiter’s performance.
Whim W'Him company members in Mark Haim's "Overflow"
set designed by Corrie Befort, photo courtesy Bamberg Fine Art

Mark Haim’s new work, “Overflow”, is set to sonorous orchestral sections from Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde.” The music is measured and slow, a fitting accompaniment to an impressive set piece by Corrie Befort, which gradually unfurls behind the dancers.

Haim dedicates “Overflow” to “my mother, an immigrant, and my father, a refugee.” For me, this measured work was a melding of melancholy emotion with demanding movement. Perhaps it was Wagner’s music, but I felt a bit overwhelmed by heaviness as I watched the dance; almost as if I had succumbed to a hypnotic trance.
Patrick Kilbane and Tory Peil in "Brahms and Tights"
photo by Bamberg Fine Art

The program opened with the lightest of the three pieces, Wevers’ “Brahms and Tights.” For me, this sprightly ballet, with its bright blue and green costumes by Ronalee Wear, was the most successful dance on the bill.

Wevers spent most of his career as a principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and he returns to his roots with this work. Set to Johannes Brahms’ “Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77”, the dance moves through solos, pas de deux and set pieces for all seven Whim W’Him dancers. Kilbane, Reiter and Mia Monteabaro stand out in the work, leaping, pirouetting, then breaking the elegant ballet lines with a sickled foot or a pedestrian stroll across the stage.
Whim W'Him company members in Olivier Wevers' "Brahms and Tights"
photo by Bamberg Fine Art

I was struck by a Rube Goldberg-esque lineup near the end of the piece. One by one, each dancer takes a moment to perform alone, then taps the next in the line to take his or her turn in the spotlight.

“Brahms and Tights” doesn’t have a deep message to impart; it’s a well-made, well-performed romp of movement and music. On a wet, dark, winter evening, it was just the tonic I needed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Woo Hoo! A New Year, More New Dance!

Whim W'Him's elegant Tory Piel.
photo by Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'Him
I finally pulled my head out of the post-holiday sand in which it was hidden. I’ve spent months working on a long profile of PNB Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta. You can find that here
Jonathan Porretta in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

Now it’s time to see some dance. And, as always, there are many performances to choose from, starting this weekend.

Whim W’Him presents “IN-spired,” an evening of three new works; Whim W’Him founder Olivier Wevers has been back in the studio. The company also presents commissions by award-winning Seattle choreography Mark Haim, and by Texas-based Dominic Walsh, a former principal dancer with Houston Ballet. Really excited to see all three dances.

“IN-spired” is on this weekend and next at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.
Whim W'Him dancers rehearse for "IN-spired"
photo by Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'Him

Also this weekend: the University of Washington Dance Faculty performance, at the Meany Studio Theater.

Velocity’s Bridge Project is up next weekend, January 29-31 at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill. The show helps kick-off for Velocity’s 20th year in Seattle, and features four up and coming contemporary dance makers: Stephanie Liapis, ilvs strauss, Nathan Blackwell, and Ashleigh Miller.

The weekend of February 4-7th brings more notable dance our way. The Trisha Brown Dance Company will be at Meany Hall with a series of lectures, performances and other events. It’s the last time to see Brown’s stage work performed by her own company. I’m kind of excited to see Bandaloop’s Rachael Lincoln will perform Brown's 1970 work “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” on Friday morning, February 5th.  
PNB's Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postelwaite in "Romeo et Juliette", 2008
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Also February 5th, Pacific Northwest Ballet opens Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette.” Casting hasn’t been posted yet, but I’m crossing my fingers that newly-returned PNB Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico will appear opening night as Juliette, with James Moore as her Romeo. And, it could be the long-awaited return to the stage for Jonathan Porretta.


Okay, okay. That’s enough to fill up your calendars for now. Have fun!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

What Is 'It'?

Audrey Hepburn in her first film, "Roman Holiday"
Last weekend I pulled out a copy of Audrey Hepburn’s first film, “Roman Holiday.” If you’ve never seen it, I’ll briefly recap: Hepburn plays a princess on a goodwill tour. By the time she gets to Rome, she’s exhausted and sick of the insular life she leads. Her doctor administers a drug. Under its sedative influence, she flees her hotel, and meets cute with Gregory Peck’s character, a suave American newspaper man. I’ll let you watch the movie to find out what happens next.

The thing that really struck me was Hepburn’s on-screen aura: she glowed. It was almost as if her light was so bright, the cameras and crew couldn’t contain it. I imagined what the studio execs must have thought when they saw the dailies: ‘holy smokes, this kid is gonna be a star!’

Audrey Hepburn had ‘it’: that indefinable charisma and presence that make it almost impossible for us to avert our eyes. That ‘it’ factor is what makes stars stars, no matter their artistic medium.

I’ve been working on a profile of Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta; he has ‘It.’
Jonathan Porretta in PNB performance of "Fancy Free" by Jerome Robbins
photo by Angela Sterling

Audiences love Porretta. But he tells me he loves them more than they love him. And he wants to give them everything he's got. His boss, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, says when Porretta dances the role of Gamache, say, in “Don Quixote”, his aim is to steal the show. Oh, he does that!

Jonathan Porretta as Gamache in PNB production of "Don Quixote", choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky
photo by Angela Sterling

Gamache is the rich fop intended for the heroine Kitri. Of course, she only has eyes for the more virile Basilio. Gamache is a fool. Porretta chews the scenery, spits it out, and somehow draws every eye in the hall.

Which leads me to wonder: is ‘It’ in the eye of the beholder? Or is there something about certain people that just draws us to them?

Seattle’s stunning contemporary dance company Whim W’Him is made up of fine artists, but whenever I attend a performance, my eyes immediately follow dancer Justin Reiter. 
Whim W'Him's Justin Reiter, front, with Jim Kent
photo by Bamberg Fine Art

He throws himself whole-heartedly into the choreography, and his skill and dedication are obvious. But with Reiter, there’s also a frisson of electricity onstage, something that transcends the material.
Jade Solomon Curtis, performing with Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theatre

Former Spectrum Dance company member Jade Solomon Curtis had that same magnetism onstage. Andrew Bartee, who used to dance with both PNB and Whim W’Him and is now at Ballet BC, has it in spades.

A colleague and I recently had a conversation about the ‘It’ factor. She thought it would make a great feature story. She’s right, but actually, I’ve been talking to folks about it, and nobody can pin it down for me in a way that makes concrete sense.
Chow Yun Fat in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"

Maybe there are ‘It’ performances, rather than ‘It’ people? I’m quite partial to Chow Yun Fat in the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” And the possibility that British actor Idris Elba could succeed Daniel Craig as James Bond? Well, what can I say except, be still my heart?
Wouldn't hunky Idris Elba rock James Bond?


For now, I’ll get back to work on the Jonathan Porretta profile. And for his many fans who have missed him during his very prolonged recuperation from surgery, here’s a New Year’s gift: Porretta says he’ll “most def” be back at PNB in the company’s upcoming production of “Romeo and Juliette.” 
what a face!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Waiting Patiently

PNB Principal Dancers Jonathan Porretta and Carrie Imler dance William Forsythe
photo by Angela Sterling
This holiday season is daunting when it comes to the arts. Seriously, it’s next to impossible to take in all the offerings that Seattle arts organizations present to us. Music, theater, visual arts, dance…it would be great to have some of this rich meal portioned out over the next few months. But that's not how the holidays work.

I’m not going to wax eloquent here on which Messiah is the most mellifluous, or which chorus brings it when it comes to Christmas carols.

Nope. Here's a little peek at what I'm working on: a long profile of this guy:

[photo]
Jonathan Porretta (with bartender Glenn Kawasaki) in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free
photo by Angela Sterling


If you like ballet, you know him: Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta.

He’s been out of the spotlight since last March, when a serious foot injury forced him to stop dancing in the middle of PNB’s fab all-William Forsythe rep.

Porretta had major surgery last summer, and he’s been rehabbing like crazy in hopes of being back onstage for the company’s new Nutcracker. That December return is still up in the air. He says if (IF???) he’s back for this production, it’ll be at the end of the run.
PNB Principal Dancers Jonathan Porretta and Noelani Pantastico in George Balanchine's "Square Dance"
photo by Angela Sterlig

So now Porretta fans have their fingers crossed that this audience favorite will be back in February for the return of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s heartbreaker, “Romeo et Juliette.” No, Porretta won’t be dancing the role of Romeo; if you saw this ballet the last time PNB performed it, you’ll remember Porretta in the role of Mercutio. He was, as always, a scene stealer.

And, according to his good friend and former PNB dancer Jordan Pacitti, Porretta is persistent, in his work ethic and when it comes to getting himself back onstage. He’s had to be patient and dogged to work his way back to performance-shape. We've tried to be patient, too.

At 34, Porretta can glimpse retirement not too far down the track. And he says 'not yet.' Pacitti left PNB almost six years ago; last spring Porretta’s other good friend, Kiyon Gaines, gave a last bow to his performing career. Porretta plans to dance until he's 40, and with his dogged attitude, he may make it.
PNB Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room"
photo by Angela Sterling
The saddest part of a professional dancer’s life is how fleeting it is. Very few ballet dancers continue to perform past 40; recent notable exceptions in Seattle: PNB principals Kaori Nakamura and Louise Nadeau. Jonathan Porretta hopes to join their ranks.

In the meantime, audiences have to exercise our own patience. If I can't watch him dance, I guess I'll go back to writing about Jonathan Porretta. Look for that profile in the not-too-distant future.