Monday, March 2, 2015

Dance To Melt The Stars

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lindsi Dec
photo by Angela Sterling
Last week somebody asked me why I write about dance. I had a quick answer: dance is my favorite art form.

Then, I started to wonder why. Why?

And here's where everything gets high falutin' and woo-woo. Great dance takes me to a place beyond words, to feelings that transcend my earth-bound self. I have that experience with some musical performances; I used to dance around my dorm room to Bach's "Brandenburg Concerti." Yes, I'm weird!!
PNB Principal dancers Ariana Lallone and Olivier Wevers in Forsythe's "Artifact"
photo by Angela Sterling

I have these specific memories of dance performances that have electrified me.
The one and only time I saw Rudolf Nureyev dance in person. To say his jetes were ferocious is an understatement.

The Stephen Petronio company, years ago, at On The Boards when it was located at Washington Hall. As the dancers moved across the floor, in that small, intimate space, I felt a primal rhythm come up through the floor boards. It still raises the hairs on the back of my neck to think about it.

Pat Graney's "Faith" blew my mind.

And then, there was the first time I saw William Forsythe's "In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated."

Pacific Northwest Ballet added this dance to the repertoire in 2000.
It's technically demanding for the dancers.
Ballet, but more than ballet. Their bodies angle, their feet are fulcra. It's kind of amazing.

It's fluid and jagged, thrilling and beautiful, a dance that challenges the audience the way one of the Three Musketeers might challenge a rival to duel with the slap of his leather riding glove on a wooden table.
PNB Principal Dancer Carla Korbes, "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated"
photo by Angela Sterling

On March 13, PNB revives "In the Middle," along with two dances Seattle area audiences haven't seen yet: "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" and "New Suite."  The latter is a series of Forsythe duets first combined into a single work in 2012.

I was beyond excited when PNB announced this all-Forsythe bill. I'm more excited now that opening night is almost here.

Last week I caught up with former Forsythe dancer and current Forsythe stager Laura Graham. I'd watched her work with the PNB dancers in late 2014, and I was blown away by her energy and enthusiasm for these dances.
Laura Graham works with dancers from Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Graham seems to glow from the inside when she talks about how it felt when she first danced one of Forsythe's pieces.  Honestly, I feel the same way watching them from the audience, or from the side of the rehearsal hall.

As I mentioned, great dance seems to defy my words. When I try to write about it, I'm reminded of something Gustave Flaubert wrote in "Madame Bovary."

"Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."

Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel about William Forsythe's work; I'm giving you some crude description of something that melts the stars for me.

Come find out what I'm talking about. "The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe" is at McCaw Hall March 13-22. On March 14th I'll be talking with PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal and dancers after the show. Here's a link for a ticket discount to that performance.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

They Make Me Feel Like Dancing!

Doris Tunney in the Daigre Dance Studio
photo by M. Sillman

Doris Tunney doesn’t even pretend to be offended when you ask how old she is.

“I’m 86,” she says proudly. “I’ll be 87 on March 26th.”

Tunney is petite, with cinnamon brown skin, short, curly white hair and perfect posture. Dressed in denim capris and a long sleeved cotton shirt, this octogenarian is ready to roll.

On a rainy Saturday morning, Tunney is one of a half dozen women gathered at a community center in Seattle’s Central Area to work with veteran dance teacher Edna Daigre. The youngest student is in her mid 50’s; Tunney takes the elder honors. She’s been studying with Daigre for decades. She loved to dance when she was younger.

“It made me feel like I was floating,” she recalls. “It made me feel so independent, made feel I could do anything I want to do.”

Keeping people like Doris Tunney in motion and independent has become a mission for Edna Daigre. She and her son, Chris (also a Seattle dance teacher) have developed a program that combines Pilates-style breathing, isolated muscle movements, and other dance techniques that Daigre has taught over her long career.
Dancer and Teacher Edna Daigre
photo by M. Sillman

Edna Daigre is in her 70’s now; she’s been dancing nearly as long as she’s been alive. She started at a community center in Gary, Indiana at the age of 3. Dance allowed her to express herself in a way that words didn’t. Daigre remembers dancing out nursery rhymes, which helped her to learn the stories.

“I would have a speech problem when I tried to communicate,” she explains.

She continued to study dance as a teen: calypso, Latin, and the contemporary technique of Katherine Dunham, which is rooted in African tradition but incorporates elements of ballet and mid-20th century modern dance. Daigre adored it, but her parents discouraged her from pursuing a dance career. She went into health care instead.

In the early 1970’s, Edna Daigre moved to Seattle with her former husband, who was in the military, and their two sons. When the marriage broke up, Daigre and the kids stayed in Seattle.

“To me, Seattle was like the last frontier,” she laughs.

Culturally, nothing was the same as what she’d left behind in the Midwest. Different music, theater and dance styles.

Instead of bemoaning what wasn’t available, Daigre set out to recreate it in her new community.
She went to talk with the artistic leaders of Black Arts West, and the Central Area Motivational Program. With their backing, Daigre began to teach what she knew to teens. When budget cuts forced CAMP to end her classes, Daigre opened Ewajo Dance Studio. That was 1975.

“I named it Ewajo because it means ‘come and dance’,” she says. 

The teenagers came; so did older people. “We started doing performances in different places like the library and Marymoor Park.”  

Some of Daigre’s students went on to pursue professional dance careers. Most, like Doris Tunney, simply enjoyed moving. Daigre says the community flocked to her studio. But in 2007, Daigre closed Ewajo. She was 65, and she had grown a bit weary of the constant struggle to keep things afloat financially.

Most people retire at 65, but not Daigre.

She wanted to meld her dance and health-care backgrounds.
 “I always had that health-body foundation. I know I wanted to keep dancing ‘til I was 80, 90, as long as I lived.”

Daigre knew that, as she aged, she had to modify the way she moved, and the way she taught older people to move. She was inspired by her own experiences.

“I had an accident that sort of immobilized me. I came back through a very simple technique of all this information that I had gathered for many years.”

Daigre wants older people to believe they can dance. “Dance has a bad stereotype. It’s for the young, it’s for when I get a little tipsy and a little loose.”

Back at the community center, none of Daigre’s Saturday morning students are young or tipsy, but midway through the class, they are all a little loose.
Edna Daigre, center, and Doris Tunney at Daigre Studio
photo by M. Sillman

Infectious R&B music flows out of a simple boom box; the women twitch their hips and roll their shoulders to it, arcing in a circle around Edna Daigre.

Suddenly Doris Tunney busts out a move, and Daigre smiles and claps her hands, urging her other students to copy Tunney.

The older woman just keeps on shakin’ her groove thing. Edna Daigre inspires her.

“Like this morning, I hated to get up,” she says, looking out at the gray skies. “But (I told myself) I’m going to see Edna, and Edna makes me feel good!”

Edna Daigre herself is still a bundle of energy, barely breaking a sweat as she puts her students through their paces. Teaching clearly gives her joy; but dance is her central passion. She says it makes her feel free.

“I love being who I am at this point in my life,” Daigre smiles. “I can do just about anything.”

Watching her navigate her circle of dancers, you don’t doubt that for a second.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fast Times On The Village Green...Don Quixote!

PNB Principal Dancers Karel Cruz and Lindsi Dec in "Don Quixote"
photo by Lindsay Thomas
I know I hyperventilated about Karel Cruz and Lindsi Dec a couple of weeks back. I couldn’t wait to see them dance the leads in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “Don Quixote.” Then, I started to second guess myself. Was I overly fulminous? Could any dancer live up to that hype?

Well, I’m here to say I had a blast watching Cruz and Dec, a real-life couple, dance Kitri and Basilio, the lovers in Alexei Ratmansky’s refreshing update of this 19th century ballet.

Saturday, January 31st was Dec’s debut as Kitri, a girl in love with a guy her father deplores. He’s fixed her up with a rich fop (the wonderfully hilarious Jonathan Porretta). So Kitri and Basilio run off to escape the intended betrothal, all the while dogged by Don Q and his sidekick Sancho Panza (Tom Skerrit and the perfectly cast Allen Galli).

The lavish production includes villagers galore, including Angelica Generosa and Leta Biasucci in the featured roles of Juanita and Piccilia. We’ve got cape twirling matador Batkhurel Bold and the sublime Carrie Imler as his inamorata, Mercedes. And there were a bevy of dream maidens, too, featuring Sarah Ricard Orza as the Queen of the Dryads, and Carli Samuelson as Cupid.

Everyone danced well, everyone looked great, but the night belonged to Cruz and Dec. The way they smiled at one another, the joy they found in their performance, the tender way Cruz held Dec aloft, or circled an arm around her waist. Sigh, it was dreamy, and so much fun to be in the audience!

They dance together in these roles again on Sunday the 8th; they will also appear as the Matador Espada and Mercedes in both performances Saturday, February 7th.

If you like story ballets, if you’re a fan of “Nutcracker” who has been meaning to widen your balletic horizons, this PNB production of “Don Quixote” is just the ticket. Trust me on this one.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ten Tiny Dances

Sara Jinks in Pat Graney's "Cowgirls"
photo by Teri Pieper
When you think about a dance performance, you may envision something grand and expansive, like “Nutcracker.” Or maybe a sparkly ballroom competition comes to mind, something akin to “Dancing With the Stars.” No matter the dance style, these performances are about bodies moving in space. In this case, people moving across large stages or big dance floors.

But what happens when a performance space is tightly circumscribed?

This weekend ten Seattle-area choreographers explore that question in a performance called “Ten Tiny Dances,” onstage at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill.

I've never attended one of these productions, and was curious what makes something a "tiny dance."

“There are a lot of things that are tiny about this show,” producer Sara Jinks told me. “The number one most notable thing is the stage itself.”
it really IS a tiny stage
photo by Kenneth Aaron

The ten dances are performed on a four foot by four foot, 18-inch high platform. Apparently, the audience sits very close to this tiny stage; they're so close, Jinks explains, that it can be unnerving for the dancers.

More than that, “the whole thing feels like the edge.” Jinks says anyone who’s performed onstage understand the sensation you get when you're within two feet from the edge. It’s a sense of unease, of being a just a little off-kilter. In a tiny dance, Jinks says you're always within two feet of the edge of the stage, always right next to the audience. “It’s a vulnerable performance.”

“Ten Tiny Dances” was first conceived in Portland by a dancer named Mike Barber. Seattle-based choreographer Crispin Spaeth collaborated with Barber on some bi-city productions, and eventually started a local 'franchise.'
Dayna Hanson in a Tiny Dance
photo courtesy Dayna Hanson

This year Sara Jinks takes on the producer mantle. She’s invited an array of choreographers to participate, including Spaeth, as well as other established local dancemakers,like Wade Madsen, Mark Haim and Diana Cardiff.

But Jinks wanted to expand the reach of the performance beyond the city’s contemporary dance community. This year’s program includes both Indian and African dances.

Most of all, Jinks wants to encourage people who are new to dance of any kind to attend Ten Tiny Dances, and to come with an open mind.

“I think people beat themselves up a bit when they’re watching contemporary dance,” she explains. “But I think some of those same people would go into Seattle Art Museum and they’d look at a piece of art on the wall, and they’d like it or not like it, and they don’t feel frustrated by that.”

But when live humans are moving, on a tiny platform or a huge stage, right in front of us, Jinks admits it can challenge the audience.

None of these dances lasts longer than eight minutes. In that sense, it’s the Whitman's Sampler of dance. And that makes it the perfect entry point for people who don’t know much about contemporary dance. “If you don’t like what you see, something different will come along very soon.”
wow, you can fit a lot of performers on the stage for one Tiny Dance!
photo by Kenneth Aaron

You can check out the 2015 edition of "Ten Tiny Dances" February 6-8 at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill. Ten Tiny Dances

Monday, January 26, 2015

Karel Cruz, Seattle's Cuban Heartthrob

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Karel Cruz in "Don Quixote", by Alexei Ratmansky
photo @ Angela Sterling
Okay, maybe Karel Cruz isn't everybody's heart throb. But dang, when you're sitting across from him asking about his childhood in Cuba, and he flashes that impossibly white smile at you, well, you are hooked.

Plus, he's a genuinely nice guy!

So, I was delighted to hear that he'll be dancing with his wife, the equally heart throbby Lindsi Dec, in the Saturday January 31st evening performance of Alexei Ratmansky's "Don Quixote" at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

If you've never seen him, Cruz is TALL: six feet, four inches, to be exact. And actually, that height is what landed him in the United States. He was fired from a job in the corps at Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Cruz told me he just didn't blend in with the other corps members. It's kind of hard to blend when you're a foot taller than the ballerinas.
PNB Principal Dancer Karel Cruz
photo @ Angela Sterling

His aunt got him a job in Venezuela, and when his dance company came on tour to the U.S., Cruz decided to check out job opportunities in Philadelphia. The Rock School at the Pennsylvania Ballet offered him a spot, and helped him with his visa applications. A year into his stay there, the school arranged for him to audition in Seattle, for PNB. That was 2002. Cruz is now a principal dancer with the company.

PNB is known for its legion of tall dancers: former Principals Ariana Lallone and Stanko Milov, and current principals Laura Tisserand and Lindsi Dec, just for starters. Cruz told me he was well aware of the "tall dancer" reputation here; he says he couldn't take another heartbreak like the one he suffered when he lost his Cuban job.

Cruz was sidelined with a knee injury most of last year. He rehabbed for months, and finally was back onstage last month. I caught him in the final performance of the Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker," opposite Laura Tisserand. He looked to be in fine form. But take it from me, when he's partnered with his wife, Dec, they take the performance to a smokin' hot level.
Can't wait!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Whim W'him's "Threefold"

Whim W'him company members Jim Kent and Justin Reiter in Olivier Wevers' "We Are Not The Same"
photo by Bamberg Fine Art
Wind. Rain. Dark.

That's what it was like on Saturday, January 17th. The kind of Seattle night where pools of water collect in every crevice and indentation on the roadways. The kind of night where passing cars kick up rooster tails that momentarily blind you on your way to a dance performance.

In other words, it was the kind of post-holiday night when even the most die-hard Pacific Northwesterner harbors hidden dreams of Palm Springs' sunshine.

But sun comes along in a myriad of forms. January 17th I found it at Whim W'him's "Threefold," a trio of new dances presented at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.

I saw Whim W'him's inaugural performance exactly five years ago at On The Boards. Olivier Wevers' company has grown and evolved tremendously in that time. Wevers started with a pick-up troupe, mainly colleagues from Pacific Northwest Ballet augmented by other talented dancers from the Seattle community.

Five years later, Whim W'him has seven company dancers, all technically proficient, all devoted to Whim W'him and, it appears from the performances, to one another. And, like the evolution of his company, Wevers' choreography has grown and become more sophisticated.
Jim Kent and Justin Reiter in Wevers' "We Are Not The Same"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

"Threefold" opened with Wevers' creation "We Are Not The Same." The dance is really a pair of interlocking duets, performed by (pair #1) Jim Kent and Justin Reiter, and (#2) Tory Peil and Kyle Johnson. The couples drift past one another, then engage, curling around their partners almost like koalas hugging gum trees. Then, wham, the connections break, and the duos uncouple, seemingly strangers to one another.

Designer Michael Mazzola lights the bare stage with defined squares or circles of light. The dancers move into and out of those illuminated areas, the way romantic partners experience highs and lows in their relationships.

I've watched Olivier Wevers' make dances for almost a decade; his pas de deux have been his strength and with "We Are Not The Same," he extends that facility for intimate communication between two dancers into a more complex, thought-provoking work.

Mia Monteabaro, Kent and Reiter in Loni Landon's "new year new you"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

New York-based dancemaker Loni Landon's "new year new you" is a trio for Kent, Reiter and the powerful Mia Monteabaro. The program notes don't reveal much about Landon's intentions or inspirations. Dylan Ward's ambient sound design provides a landscape for the three dancers. The piece is most effective when the trio moves in unison, face to face or front to back. Landon uses the phrase "abstract meditation," and that's true up until the very end of the dance.

The evening capper was Penny Saunder's lyrical and lovely "Soir Bleu," inspired by Edward Hopper's painting, with a new and wonderful score by Paul Moore augmented by additional instrumental music.
Mia Monteabaro in Penny Saunders' "Soir Bleu"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

I loved this dance.

Saunders' work is set on the full company. Tory Peil, Mia Monteabaro and the lovely Lara Seefeldt float and spin across the stage in gem-toned flowing dresses by costume designer Mark Zappone. The four men, Kent, Reiter, Johnson and Thomas Phelan, wear slacks, button down shirts and a variety of sweaters.

A large mirrored wall lets Monteabaro and Reiter dance duets with themselves. Reiter cuts loose with an amazing series of movements. He can control each muscle in his body; a hand moves or a shoulder lifts, seemingly in isolation from Reiter's torso and limbs. I miss former Whimmer Andrew Bartee terribly, but Justin Reiter is a dancer to watch and to savor.

Justin Reiter in Penny Saunders' "Soir Bleu"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts

"Soir Bleu" was balletic, it was melodic and it showed off the talents of all the company dancers. At one point, they line up single file behind a hanging window frame. The image of them executing a refined version of a sports stadium wave lingers in my mind.

When the dance ended, I overheard a woman behind me say to her companion "I liked that one the best of all."

I had to smile to myself. What "Soir Bleu" said to me is that Olivier Wevers has succeeded in assembling a company of artists as good as any in Seattle. And with "Threefold," he presented work to make you think, to inspire, and to delight on a dreary winter night. As I said, there's more than one kind of sunshine in Seattle in January.

Whim W'him company members in "Soir Bleu"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dancing Back In Time, Into The New Year

PNB's Jonathan Porretta in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness"
photo by Angela Sterling
Somebody told me last week that it's customary to post "best-of" lists at the end of a year. It hadn't occurred to me, but after 14 months of writing and thinking about mostly dance in this platform, I most definitely have some favorites. So, why not write about them? Plus, thinking back on the 2014 performances that stick out in my mind gets me excited for what 2015 will offer.

One of the standouts for me: Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Molissa Fenley's demanding solo "State of Darkness." To say I was electrified is an understatement.

Set to Stravinsky's entire "Rite of Spring," the dance is more an expression of emotion and passion than an evocation of peasants and ritual sacrifice. In other words, not a literal interpretation but a physical response to the music.
PNB Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta in "State of Darkness"
photo by Angela Sterling

I loved how Porretta gave himself over to the passion, fully and completely. And how his years of training and performance gave him the confidence to trust himself. (I have to say, PNB corps de ballet member Angelica Generosa's turn in the solo was also remarkable and I can't wait to see her perform again.)

Zoe/Juniper offered an evening in March at On The Boards that I really can't get out of my mind. A rumination on aging and memory and personal evolution, "Begin Again" really clicked for me. Plus, the performance had these fabulous paper cutout sets by Celeste Cooning. I understand they were lost in transit; I know Zoe/Juniper has been trying to raise funds to replace this amazing work. I contributed-you should, too.
"Begin Again" by Zoe/Juniper at On The Boards
Paper cutout set by Celeste Cooning

Rounding out my 2014 highlights, Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces." With her group of b-boys, O'Neal explored what it means to be male, and female. She brought an energy and a thoughtfulness that still resonates for me.
Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces" at On The Boards
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
These three dances are by no means the only interesting things I saw. I always love Whim W'him, as well as the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company's annual October performances.

Looking ahead this spring, I can't wait to see the all-William Forsythe program in March at Pacific Northwest Ballet. What about you?