Monday, October 24, 2016

A Clear and Sweet Path to Grace

Dancers perform in Zoe/Juniper's "Clear and Sweet"
photo by James Morgan/Morgan Owens Photography
More than a year ago, Zoe Scofield and I sat down at her kitchen table to talk about the power of art. I’d been chasing an ephemeral scrap of an idea for months; how art functions as a conduit to the divine, to a state of grace, if you will. I thought Scofield might have some insights.

During our long conversation, Scofield, one of the smartest artists I’ve met, remarked that she and her husband/artistic partner Juniper Shuey, were hard at work on a new piece inspired by a musical tradition known as shape note, or sacred harp, singing.

The project goes back to 2014. Scofield was visiting her mother’s home in northern Georgia and happened upon a television broadcast that featured shape note singers. She felt an immediate emotional connection with the music.

In a nutshell, shape note singing is a communal, participatory tradition that dates back a couple of centuries in this country. Singers of all abilities gather on a regular basis to perform the music which is drawn from certain Protestant hymnals. The notes on the score are indicated by different shapes, to facilitate sight reading for the singers, hence the name “shape note singing.”
Singing with the audience, part of Zoe/Juniper's "Clear and Sweet"
photo by James Morgan/Morgan Owens Photography

The harmonies sound as if they've emerged, raw and resonant and primeval, from the Appalachian hills. The singers face inwards, and when they lift their voices together, the sound vibrates. You can almost feel it, the way you can feel the vibrations from a tuning fork.

When Scofield got back to Seattle, she and Shuey started to sing with a local shape note group. Their experience has led the couple on both a spiritual and artistic journey that most recently resulted in “Clear and Sweet.”

The work’s Seattle premiere at On the Boards October 20-23, featured ten shape note singers, five dancers, an original recorded score, plus video and visual art. It was a moving mix of intricate movement and music, and one of the most personal and vulnerable performances I’ve seen this year. At times "Clear and Sweet" brought me to tears, evoked laughter, gave me a sense of fellowship with the people in the room, both the artists and the audience members.

In “Clear and Sweet,” the line between performer and witness is quite permeable. The dancers and singers mingle and chat with the audience. Then,one by one, they drift off to begin the show. Regularly, they return to straight-backed wooden chairs placed in the first row of the audience seating, to rest, or sing, or watch along with the rest of us.
Zoe Scofield, in blindfold, with her dancers in "Clear and Sweet"
Photo by James Morgan/Morgan Owens Photography

One striking element of this show is that the dancers spend significant time blindfolded, either groping their way around the floor, or being guided by a fellow artist. They’re searching for something, in the same way we’re all searching for something in this life, whether it’s love, or money or something more existential: salvation, meaning, to leave our mark on this world.

I must tell you that all the dancers were technically polished, that the plaintive harmonies of the singers were haunting, that Shuey’s central installation-- a hanging circle of fringe on which he projected moving images--was a visual metaphor for the path to the divine. In all, “Clear and Sweet” is a stunning and accomplished work of art.

More than that, it's a springboard for reflection.

Juniper Shuey told me he’s been pondering the question “what do I believe in?” In this hip, progressive 21st century city, it’s not really cool to discuss one’s search for spiritual fulfillment. And yet, lately, in private conversations, you discover that we’re all searching for that exact same thing.
"Clear and Sweet" provided an opportunity to recognize that search in one another.

After the performance ended, the audience lingered, eager to talk about the experience, the work, where it resonated with each of us, like the lingering vibration of a tuning fork.

I’m still sitting with the power of "Clear and Sweet", turning it over and over in my mind, finding new meaning with each turn. And so grateful that Zoe/Juniper opened the door to contemplation.
Dancers in "Clear and Sweet"
Photo by James Morgan/Morgan Owens Photography

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Head or the Heart

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in Benjamin Millepied's "Appassionata" photo by Angela Sterling

Normally, I think it’s important to approach the world through a logical framework. Say, for example, when you cast your vote for President. This year’s campaign has been overflowing with emotion, rather than clear-eyed analysis. We’d probably be better off if every voter applied logic to their decisions.

But let’s put politics on the back burner for the moment. 

I try to check my logical brain at the door when I approach art. Sure, I can analyze composition, materials and themes. I can appreciate historical or cultural references (usually). But, to lay my bias out there, my favorite artistic encounters are those that touch my heart.

I want to look, but I need to see and to feel.

I’ve been mulling over this need as I consider "Tricolore," the opening program of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new artistic season.

“Tricolore” offers two recent works by Benjamin Millepied, capped by George Balanchine’s monumental “Symphony in C.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in George Balanchine's "Symphony in C" photo by Angela Sterling
Now, the Balanchine is certainly majestic, with a legion of women in white tutus spinning across the stage, periodically punctuated by their cavaliers in blue. On opening night “Symphony” was notable for the return of principal dancers Carrie Imler, paired with excellent corps de ballet member Steven Loch, and Rachel Foster with James Moore. 

"Symphony in C" is grand indeed, but I appreciate its beauty with my intellect, rather than my soul. Instead of losing myself in a transcendent, shivery experience, I found myself watching how Balanchine had deployed the corps de ballet, the way his movement embodies the music.

PNB company members in Balanchine's "Symphony in C", photo by Angela Sterling
It's a fascinating ballet, and beautifully performed, but at its end, I was unmoved.

I’m still parsing my thoughts about the two Millepied dances on the bill. The first, “3 Movements,” was created for PNB in 2008. It’s set to music by Steve Reich, and the dancers perform in murky lighting in subdued gray, black and brown costumes. 

I was thrilled to spy Lindsi Dec through the gloom, back from her maternity leave. And for my (meager) money, Sarah Orza continues to demonstrate both technique and artistry that deserve more notice. But this ballet reminds me a bit of a good Chinese meal. It’s delicious while you’re eating, or rather watching, but after you’re done, it doesn’t stick around long.

Sarah Ricard Orza and Lindsi Dec soar in Benjamin Millepied's "3 Movements", photo by Angela Sterling
On the other hand, I haven’t been able to get Millepied’s “Appassionata” (set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #23, the “Appassionata,” wonderfully performed by Allen Dameron) out of my mind.

This chamber ballet for six dancers is about relationships, about motion and music, about laying your soul bare so someone can scoop it up in the palm of their hand.

In the first half of this piece, the dancers take the stage in brightly colored costumes. They appear with partners in matching colors, but this isn’t a dance of monogamy. Instead, the dancers twine around one another, fluidly exchanging partners, even performing alone.

Leah Merchant and Elle Macy in Millepied's "Appassionata", photo by Angela Sterling
The movement seems infinite, and infinitely rigorous; at one point I wondered if PNB's staff kept towels, water, even oxygen on hand in the wings.

By the ballet's second half, the dancers have swapped their brightly colored costumes for black, grey or white pajama-like outfits that seem to hint that the dancers have moved into a more intimate relationship with one another, and with the audience.

Elizabeth Murphy and Karel Cruz were luminescent in their long pas de deux. Murphy seemed absolutely at ease with the elegant Cruz, as if they'd been partnered forever. I’m not sure if I’ve seen them dance together before this performance, but look forward to seeing them again.

PNB Principal Dancers Elizabeth Murphy and Karel Cruz in "Appassionata", photo by Angela Sterling
I also was delighted to see Elle Macy on opening night with William Lin-Yee, and Leah Merchant and Jerome Tisserand are always forces of nature.

I write this post three days after the “Tricolore” opening night, but the after-effects of “Appassionata” linger. I realize this is partly due to my excitement about the start of PNB's new artistic season. 

But I also believe “Appassionata” stays with me because something ephemeral in that ballet touched my heart, something beyond the technical skill of the dancers, beyond the lighting, the set and the costumes, beyond Dameron’s interpretation of the Beethoven. 

I joked to a friend that “Appassionata” is the ballet-version of an ear worm. And I meant that in the best possible way. I can’t stop thinking about this dance, and I can’t wait for the chance to see it again.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

Whim W'Him Inspires With New Choreography

Whim W'Him dancers, Patrick Kilbane center, in  Lauren Edson's "From Under the Cork Tree"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts
One of the things I like best about Olivier Wevers’ contemporary dance troupe Whim W’Him is the bounty of new choreographers it introduces to Seattle audiences.

From its formation in 2010, Whim W’Him has presented dance makers from around the globe; artists like Anabelle Lopez Ochoa, Penny Saunders and Ishan Rustem, as well as Wevers’ own work.

Last year, Whim W’Him introduced something called the Choreographic Shindig; the dancers selected three choreographers they wanted to work with, the company commissioned new dances from these artists, and produced the performance at Seattle’s Erickson Theatre Off Broadway.

This year, Wevers and company reprised the Shindig, offering works by three new choreographers: Joseph Hernandez’ “Saro,” “Swan Song,” by the New York duo Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz, collectively known as MADBOOTS, and “From Under the Cork Tree,” by Idaho-based Lauren Edson, a former dancer with Trey McIntire.
Justin Reiter and Patrick Kilbane in "From Under the Cork Tree"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts

The audience went wild for Edson’s work, which she says grew from her affinity for the classic children’s book about gentle Ferdinand the Bull, who’d rather smell the flowers than fight in the bull ring. “Cork Tree” features the amazing Patrick Kilbane as the quasi-Ferdinand. It’s truly a joy to watch Kilbane dance; his elegant epaulment, exquisite extensions and super human control over each muscle in his body are simply thrilling.

I wish I had been as thrilled by Edson’s dance as an overall composition. It starts out strong, with all seven dancers trudging in unison like Japanese company men on their way to work. Kilbane breaks from the pack, literally dancing against the crowd.

But Edson muddies her message mid-stream, introducing a silly Simon Says segment. From that point, she digresses from Ferdinand to a more light hearted, and generic, romp around the stage. The dancers were spot on, the audience gave it a standing ovation, but I wish Edson had been able to sustain her exploration of the iconoclast.
Tory Peil and Jim Kent  in MADBOOTS' "Swan Song"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts

From iconoclast to icon, MADBOOT'S' “Swan Song” was far more successful at maintaining its artistic through-line. Campbell and Diaz take the beloved balletic swan and turn her on her ear. 

Beautiful Tory Peil stands center stage, arms extended and crossed over at the wrists, a pose familiar to anyone who’s seen “Swan Lake.” Then, instead of the fluid fluttering arms of that19th century classic, Peil jerks and twitches to the flickering (at times painful) strobe lighting. Simple black and white costuming and thousands of blue faux rose petals add to the mood.

Again, Kilbane was a standout in the MADBOOTS work, along with new Whimmer Karl Watson, who drew applause for a sustained series of jumps.
Whim W'Him dancers in "Swan Song"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts

It’s hard to single out any of the seven fine dancers who comprise Whim W’Him. Peil is always technically and artistically strong, as is Jim Kent. And Mia Monteabaro continues to grow, as she demonstrated in Hernandez’ piece, “Saro.”Another great addition to this fine group is California native Liane Aung.  

Finally, is it too much to ask that choreographers throw more meaty work Justin Reiter’s way? He’s such a presence, but he’s often over shadowed by Kilbane.

All in all, Whim W’Him’s 2016 Choreographic Shindig is a must see. The Erickson Theatre Off Broadway is an intimate place to take in a performance, the dancers are dynamite, and it’s an opportunity to experience ambitious new work from fresh voices in the contemporary dance world.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Water Calls To Alice Gosti

"Bodies of Water" begins at Seattle Waterfront Park
Seattle’s Waterfront Park is home to a huge ferris wheel, a scattering of bistro tables, and, on a sunny Saturday in July, hordes of pedestrians who shamble along the noisy sidewalk. The cars and trucks that roar overhead on the Alaskan Way Viaduct provide an unrelenting drone, occasionally pierced every by jangly pop music blaring from the pedicabs that troll for tourists.

It seems an unlikely setting for Alice Gosti’s latest durational performance, “Bodies of Water.”
The Waterfront Park stage is a perfect staging area

And yet, at 5 p.m. on July 16th, Gosti’s troupe of white jumpsuit-clad dancers gathered on the sidewalk to begin the marathon five-hour event.

Like her last large-scale, site-specific work “How to be a Partisan,” "Bodies" is a calm, centered reverie. 

But, “Partisan’s” setting at St. Mark’s Cathedral allowed the audience to both take in the performance and be lulled by the essence of spirituality that pervades the huge Episcopal church. Waterfront Park, on the other hand, presented an endlessly evolving, and sometimes distracting, backdrop for the dancers and musicians. 

Calm was not a given; we had to find it in ourselves.

That task was often a challenge.
Alice Gosti's white-clad performers gaze west across the water as bemused audience members wonder where to look

Fifteen minutes into the performance, a couple of weary tourists, toddler in tow, sank down onto the concrete steps that encircled the dancers. Their curiosity turned to annoyance when they were asked to move a stroller out of the way. But the family stayed put for a few minutes, watching the performers deftly avoid collisions as they wove up and down the steps, like white salmon heading upstream to spawn.
The Alaskan Way Viaduct makes a noisy backdrop for Gosti's performers

Eventually, the dancers left the sidewalk and regrouped to the west, on the creosote-covered boardwalk. Dedicated audience members flowed down with them, craning our necks to watch as the performers clustered together, swaying slowly with the tide, like a bed of sea kelp. They held fast to their space as baseball fans pushed their way around them, heading south to the stadium.

Ultimately, I made my way up to a cement overhang, where I had a better view of the performers, the audience, and the relentless human parade that streamed through the space.
The dancers dipped their forearms in blue paint, before climbing onto a ledge above the boardwalk
They slowly undulated their arms, mimicking the movement of the water

Looking out at Elliott Bay, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between that waterway and Gosti’s performers. Despite the tanker ships, tugboats and ferries that roil the Bay on a daily basis, the water flows on, pulled by gravity and tides, the sun, moon and stars. 

The dancers, too, followed their own rhythms, despite the noise and commotion of a busy, urban thoroughfare. The contrast they provided to their surroundings amplified my experience of their performance, and has left me thinking about the uneasy interactions between people and our planet.

I marvel that Alice Gosti was able to realize her vision despite, or maybe because of, the obstacles the site presented. I understand she was invited to make a work specifically for this park, a challenge if there ever was one. 

Perhaps it wasn't what she would have created had she chosen the perfect venue, but for me "Bodies of Water" worked on so many levels that I went home more than satisfied by the experience. 

Traces of “Bodies of Water” beckon as I write this. Each trace is delicate and beautiful, like a shell washed up onto the shore. And, like the bowl of beach treasures I store on my windowsill, I’ll hold the memories of this performance close.

An enduring image from a mesmerizing performance, "Bodies of Water" by Alice Gosti

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