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:

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.

Monday, November 30, 2015


Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling
For millions of people around the world, this time of year is magical.

Tis’ the season of hope and faith and the gossamer web of traditions that surround and reinforce them.

Annual holiday arts are an integral strand in that web, from Handel’s “Messiah” to “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.

On Sunday, November 29th, ACT Theatre opened its 40th annual production of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Gregory Falls. This year’s frisky production, directed by ACT’s incoming Artistic Director John Langs, features outgoing AD Kurt Beattie and Seattle veteran Charles Leggett alternating in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Kurt Beattie as Ebenezer Scrooge in ACT Theatre's "A Christmas Carol"
photo courtesy ACT Theatre

I caught Beattie at the early afternoon matinee, and he was everything you want from Scrooge: first irascible and nasty as he snaps at poor Bob Cratchit, then terrified by the visions presented to him by the three Spirits, ultimately frothily giddy when he realizes the possibility of redemption.

The rest of the cast was solid, but I was particularly happy to see G. Valmont Thomas scaring both Scrooge and the audience as a zombie-like Jacob Marley.

Director John Langs notes in the program that many people have asked if he will choose a new holiday offering next year when he’s in charge of ACT’s programming. “I think it’s a good question, and one we must never stop asking, as the challenge of any art is to stay relevant”, he writes.

But Langs goes on to say that Dickens’ tale endures, and continues to resonate in peoples’ hearts every year. And in his own. It’s a tradition for both theater company and theater patrons. I get the impression “A Christmas Carol” will be around at ACT. At least, I hope so.

Across town, at Pacific Northwest Ballet, one venerated tradition has replaced another. It’s a risky move for a company that depends on a holiday classic for more than a third of its annual ticket revenues.
Uko Gorter as Drosselmeir with Isabelle Rookstool as Clara in PNB's production of "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Four years ago, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal decided to mothball his predecessor, Kent Stowell’s, production of “Nutcracker,” designed by the venerated children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Boal grew up with legendary choreographer George Balanchine’s version. That’s what inspired him to take up ballet and he performed in that Nutcracker production throughout his long tenure at New York City Ballet. For Boal, it’s the tradition that resonates in his heart and the one he wanted to bring to Northwest audiences.

So, this year, PNB premiered a sparkly new production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” with sets and costumes by another celebrated children’s author and illustrator, Ian Falconer, creator of the Olivia the Pig series of books.

Four days after seeing the show on opening night, I’m still not sure how I feel about the change.

Don’t get me wrong: this Nutcracker is a stunner, from the opening video that whisks us over a snowy New England landscape into the Stahlbaum’s house, to Clara’s final exit (I won't spoil it for you.)
PNB company members in the Nutcracker Snow Scene
photo by Angela Sterling

Falconer’s costumes range from whimsical to sublime: a dozen golden angels glide like human bells across the stage; the orange-hued Flowers look like a field of marigolds when they begin to waltz. And Tchaikovsky’s lush score is, in a word, divine.
PNB Principal Dancer Laura Tisserand as Dew Drop, surrounded by the Flowers in "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

There’s a lot to love in this ballet: in addition to the beautiful Flower and Snowflake scenes, Clara and her Nutcracker are taken to the Land of Sweets in the second act. A Sugar Plum Fairy clad in bright purple greets the children and introduces them to a bevy of performances. Soloist Benjamin Griffiths nailed a difficult hoop dance; Elle Macy beguiled as “Coffee,” (although she’s dressed as a peacock, so why is she called Coffee?) And Sarah Ricard Orza and William Yin Lee were delightful leading the Hot Chocolate section.

Jerome Tisserand’s appearance as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier was all too brief. This dancer was born to the princely roles: he seems to defy gravity as he whirls across the stage. His Sugar Plum Fairy, Elizabeth Murphy, newly promoted to Principal on opening night, was less confident in her role. Maybe all she needs is a little more time to get used to the new choreography?

For me, the night belonged to Joshua Grant in the role of Mother Ginger. Trussed into a 60-pound, ten-foot long Airstream trailer of a skirt, Grant minces onto the stage on a pair of stilts hidden under the skirt along with eight children. As the kids emerge, one by one, Grant camps it up for the audience. His Ginger added some welcome spice to all the sweetness of this production.
PNB soloist Joshua Grant as Mother Ginger in PNB's "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Longtime PNB audiences may need some time to fully embrace this new Nutcracker production. I know I want to see it a few more times before it gels for me. But judging by the opening night audience’s roaring standing ovation, the ballet has a hit on its hands.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Another Goodbye: Maria Chapman Leaves PNB

PNB Principal Dancer Maria Chapman
photo by Angela Sterling
Oh No!!!

That was my first response when I heard the news that Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Maria Chapman has decided to retire.

Just last week I was in a studio at PNB’s home, the Phelps Center, watching Chapman and soloist Joshua Grant rehearse a pas de deux for the company’s new Nutcracker. Three couples worked on the choreography, but it was hard to tear my eyes away from Chapman and Grant. She radiated confidence and displayed artistry beyond anyone in that room.

Chapman, whose daughter Eleanor was born last summer, is one of a slew of new mothers at the ballet company (Rachel Foster and Kylee Kitchens also had babies last year; Sarah Ricard Orza’s daughter was born in 2013, and principals Lindsi Dec and Carrie Imler will welcome new babies early in 2016.)

In a statement PNB released this week, Chapman says she wants to be a full time mom, and that she’s happy to go out on a high after the recent “Emergence” program.

A high indeed.
PNB Principal Dancer Maria Chapman with Soloist Joshua Grant
in Christopher Wheeldon's "Tide Harmonic"
photo by Angela Sterling

The willowy, dark-haired Chapman has never seemed as fluid and elegant as she was in Kiyon Gaines’ “Sum Stravinsky,” the first dance on the “Emergence” bill. Partnered with the equally elegant Karel Cruz, Chapman seemed to float across the stage, her long arms wafting behind her. She was as good as I’ve ever seen her onstage.

A friend of mine has a theory that motherhood somehow intensifies artistry; that seemed to be the case with former principals Kaori Nakamura and Louise Nadeau, and Sarah Ricard Orza has shone in recent performances. Coincidence? Probably. But there’s also a case to be made for the impact of an artist’s personal life on her artistic expression.  

Mother love is fierce and profound, tender and all-encompassing. It certainly changes all aspects of your home life, and that has to spill over into artistic expression, doesn’t it?

Maria Chapman has been with PNB for more than two decades, her entire career. She’s danced Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake”, and Myrtha in “Giselle.” She’s suffered and recovered from serious injury, and Chapman has helped to spear head PNB’s Second Stage program, an opportunity for dancers to plan for their careers after retirement.

PNB Artistic Director writes that “we will miss Maria on our stage and in our studio.”

Amen to that.

Monday, November 9, 2015

This Guy!

PNB corps de ballet member Dylan Wald in "The Calling"
photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet could have called its November 2015 program ‘Emergence of Dylan Wald’ instead of "Emergence."

When the curtain rose on the 19 year old corps de ballet member, alone at the center of the stage, draped in the voluminous white skirt that is his only partner for Jessica Lang’s spell-binding dance, “The Calling,” you could feel thousands of audience members inhale in anticipation.

They weren’t disappointed.
PNB corps de ballet member Dylan Wald in "The Calling"
photo by Angela Sterling

I’d been hearing about this young dancer for several months. Throughout the PNB offices and rehearsal studios, company employees pointed to Wald as “one to watch.” This season is his first as a full-fledged company member; he was an apprentice dancer last year. Watching him side by side with principal dancer Jerome Tisserand in this program, I could easily envision Wald the equal to Tisserand as Romeo, or Giselle’s Albrecht. And that’s saying a lot, because Jerome Tisserand is one of my favorite dancers.

PNB premiered “The Calling” last June; Carla Korbes danced it in her final performance with the company. It was exquisite then, and it was exquisite this time around. One of my friends remarked that Wald is the new Carla Korbes. One can only hope.

Dylan Wald is certainly not the only PNB corps de ballet member to shine in this four-ballet program.

Price Suddarth ably danced a featured role in Crystal Pite’s “Emergence” (a solo that former PNB corps member Andrew Bartee tore into when the company first produced this amazing ballet in 2012). Suddarth not only danced; he also choreographed an ambitious piece called “Signature.”
PNB corps de ballet member Price Suddarth in the studio
photo by Lindsay Thomas

While the ballet features stellar performances from its large cast, and establishes Suddarth as a promising dancemaker, the piece didn’t quite gel for me as a whole. Most interesting were Suddarth’s sections for the men. Corps members Wald, Kyle Davis and Ezra Thomson were as compelling as principals Tisserand, Karel Cruz and Batkhurel Bold.

Corps members Chelsea Adomaitis and Angelica Generosa were among the dancers featured in Kiyon Gaines’ “Sum Stravinsky.” I love how Adomaitis moves with her heart on her sleeve, or rather, on the straps of her tutu. And Generosa is always a multi-faceted gem of a dancer.
PNB Principal Dancers Karel Cruz and Laura Tisserand in Price Suddarth's "Signature"
photo by Angela Sterling

Soloists and principals were also spot-on Friday evening. Maria Chapman was all tensile strength and grace; Laura Tisserand was ferocious in “Emergence,” and Margaret Mullin was a phenomenon as the hatching insect in that same ballet.
PNB Principal Dancer Maria Chapman in Kiyon Gaines' "Sum Stravinsky"
photo by Angela Sterling

But for me, this program was all about the younger dancers, and the promise they hold for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s future. I can’t wait to see Suddarth, Adomaitis, Davis and Generosa again. And I’ll be watching for Dylan Wald’s next appearance. You should, too.