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?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Hunting For Moments Of Grace(fulness)

photo @ Alan Lande
Happy 2015!

That feels good to say. Fresh starts are always great-whether it's a blank computer screen, clean sheets on the bed, or a semi-New Year's resolution.

I've embarked on a large, ungainly project: to write about the connections between the spiritual concepts of grace and the more quotidian aspects of grace and gracefulness in our daily and creative lives.

This year I've decided to keep a daily log/journal of the small moments of grace I encounter as I go about my daily routines. Just simple things that make me think, that give me pleasure, that make the world feel like it's humming.

Yesterday, for instance, I took an early morning walk in the glorious sunshine. My destination was a hilltop vantage point to view the snowy mountains. On the way, I happened upon a small shelf tucked into a picket fence. Have you ever seen those neighborhood lending libraries? Leave a book, take a book? Well, this little shelf was "Take a toy, leave a toy." And a row of plastic dinosaurs, along with a baseball, were arrayed there for somebody's pleasure. Made me smile.

If you read this blog (somebody must, right?), you know that dance and dancers make me smile, too. A great performance touches me in a place beyond words, and I think of it as another small moment of grace. And that got me to wondering if dancers feel that grace, too.

I'm looking for dancers to talk about how you feel when you are dancing. Seattle b-boy Brysen Angeles told me recently that dancing, at its best for him, feels like he's tapped into a universal energy. British choreographer David Dawson's "A Million Kisses To My Skin" is a dance that sets out to show us how a classical ballet dancer feels when he or she is really lost in the onstage experience.

I'd love to hear your stories, if you're willing to share them. Leave a comment here, or find me on Facebook.

Oh, and a grace-filled new year to you all.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Last Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps members in Stowell-Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker.” Really, I can’t. I tried to count them up, but failed. Probably close to 20, but seriously, I don’t know!

I wasn’t in Seattle when this “Nutcracker” debuted more than 30 years ago, but since my arrival here in 1985, I’ve attended performances, rehearsals, auditions and more.

 I’ve watched the show from backstage, I’ve interviewed grown Claras and aspiring ballerinas. I spent one whole performance in the lobby, stalking little girls in party dresses, to find out what they love about this ballet. I even watched troupes of kids audition for the roles of baby mice. (fyi, Peter Boal told me that, in addition to being able to follow a beat, the kids have to fit into the existing costumes).

I’ve had a lot of experience with “Nutcracker.” 

So, I think I have sufficient cred to tell you I have never seen the joint jumping the way it did on Sunday, December 28th, before the very last performance of the venerable Stowell-Sendak production.
Me and my friend Nutcracker
photo by Alan Lande

Fans lined up to take photos with Maurice Sendak’s iconic sculptures; a local television crew cornered people to ask how they “felt;” carolers serenaded the crowds who jammed the lobby before this sold-out show. “Nutcracker” audiences are always festive, but this group was super-amped. Everyone was here to say goodbye.

If you’ve never seen it, “Nutcracker” is a ballet for people who think they don’t like ballet. It’s an all-ages confection, a holiday tradition. Think of“Nutcracker” as a kind of giant dance buffet. Cute kids? Check. Sophisticated ballerinas? Check, again. And, when Uko Gorter tackles the Drosselmeier role, as he did December 28th, there’s even a dash of comedy thrown into the mix.

People come because it’s “Nutcracker,” a way to celebrate the holiday. PNB hopes it will act like a gateway drug. You like this? Why not try “Swan Lake?”

After three decades, Maurice Sendak’s designs have become iconic in our region. As current PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal wrote in his program notes this year, if you grew up with this “Nutcracker,” you associate an “endless row of gleaming white teeth,” with the ballet company and the holiday season. So, it’s something of a risk for PNB to retire this beloved production and replace it next year with George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography and a new design by Ian Falconer. Boal says it’s time to refresh the production; some natives have dug in their heels in opposition. But hey, I didn’t grow up with any “Nutcracker,” so I’ll leave that fight to somebody else. I’m open to something new next year.

Back to this year. I confess it was bittersweet to watch the Stowell-Sendak version one last time. Prince Karel Cruz with his Clara Laura Tisserand were long, lovely and elegant. Lesley Rausch was an appropriately haughty peacock. I always love the Snowflakes at the end of Act I; was it my imagination, or did the stage crew dump a little extra snow on this final performance? It rivaled the annual “Nutty Nutcracker” for blizzard conditions onstage. But, it was beautiful.
PNB Corps de Ballet in the Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Act II has always confused me. Where have the Prince and Clara landed? Why is there a Pasha? Who are all these dancers? Why are they entertaining Clara and her Prince? This time, I tried to shut up my rational mind and just go with the flow of the thing. Chinese Tiger falls on his butt? I don’t remember that happening before, but it was cute. I really enjoyed the Commedia trio of Carli Samuelson, Benjamin Griffiths and Margaret Mullin. They were charming and precise. And what can I say about Carrie Imler as Flora in the Waltz of the Flowers? She can jump and spin with the best of the dancers, and she showed us her powers once again. 
Carrie Imler as Flora in PNB's Stowell-Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Did I imagine it, or did Imler have tears in her eyes when she took her final bows with the cast at the end of the production? She’s in the midst of her 20th season with PNB; think how many times she’s danced in the Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker!”

So next year, we’re on to something old/new. Same Tchaikovsky music. Same-ish story. New set, new choreography. As an old “Nutcracker” hand who has to think of a new angle to cover every year, selfishly I’m glad to have something new to dig into. But I confess that when the curtain came down one last time, with 3,000 people on their feet cheering, I was moved.

The moment marked a rite of passage in this city. New hands now control all of Seattle's major arts organizations, from Seattle Opera to Seattle Art Museum to PNB. We haven't seen huge tidal waves of programmatic change, but in a way, the upcoming Balanchine "Nutcracker" is like a shot across the bow. We'll have to wait and see what happens.

In the meantime, let me just say I'm with PNB on the gateway drug idea. If you liked "Nutcracker," try something else. Me? I am practically salivating over the upcoming all-William Forsythe program in March. Bring it on, PNB!
A toothy Sendak Nutcracker, photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Does It All Mean?

Tere O'Connor's "Bleed"
photo by Paula Court
A few years ago, my friend Christopher let me in on his approach to contemporary art.

"Just sit down in our seat," he instructed, "take a breath and open all your chakras to what you're about to experience."


That's probably the best advice to heed before you see Tere O'Connor's "Bleed." This work for 11 dancers, and the three separate works that informed it, were all performed in Seattle November 20-23, 2014 at On The Boards and Velocity Dance Center.

"Bleed" is an abstract, hour-long dance. Choreographer O'Connor told dance writer Melody Datz Hansen of "The Stranger" that he doesn't make work to convey meaning. He wants us, the audience, to experience his dances at the moment we watch them. Somebody described this to me as akin to watching something from another planet; beautiful, but alien. Somebody else told me O'Connor's "Bleed" felt to him very much like the dance version of what happens on a New York street:  constant flow, and change and serendipitous events. A random beauty, if you will.
"Bleed" by Tere O'Connor
photo by Paula Court

Movement by movement; moment by moment. That's the frame of mind and body best suited for "Bleed" viewing. I am not much for meditation, but I imagine this to be something like sitting zazen. "Bleed" wasn't about analysis, or thought. It was about immediacy. I had a rowing coach who always counseled "don't think; FEEL."  Get those chakras open wide and be there in the moment. I did my best.

Interestingly, the night after I saw "Bleed," I went to Meany Theater to catch a performance of David Rousseve's "Stardust." Both works can be categorized as contemporary dance, but boy, are they different from one another.

If "Bleed" is abstraction, "Stardust" is fully committed to story. In this case, the tale of a young, African American gay man reaching out for human contact on what he calls the "Innernet." The actual story is written out for the audience in a series of faux text messages projected on the wall at the back of the stage. Rousseve's movement isn't an interpretive version of the words. It's more a physical punctuation of the mood those words express.
David Rousseve's "Stardust"
photo by Steven Gunther

Tere O'Connor wants us to experience. David Rousseve wants us to feel. You open your chakras wide for "Bleed." You might want to ratchet them back just a bit for "Stardust," so you're not overwhelmed by Rousseve's message.

These two performances pushed me to think about what I love about dance (and art in general).
As a writer, I suppose I'm always trying to figure out what things "mean." And then to try to convey that meaning in words. But the artworks I love best are those that move me viscerally, that defy me to capture and distill their essences. It's a constant push/pull; choreographers like O'Connor don't want to be parsed. But hey, that's all in a day's job for me.

When I think about art that really pushed me off my axis this year, two dance pieces stand out:
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again" and Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness" as performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta.
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo courtesy On The Boards

Neither work was narrative. But each succeeded in evoking a plethora of emotional and intellectual responses. They reflected aspects of what it means to be human. To (badly) misquote Gustave Flaubert, both succeeded in melting the stars for me.

I don't need an artist to hit me over the head with a story. And I tend to resent a blatant intent to manipulate my emotional responses. I want to art to challenge my assumptions and my responses to the world around me. I want it to make me look, to feel and to recognize humanity.
Oh yeah, and I promise to work on that open chakra thing.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta
in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness"
photo by Angela Sterling

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

PNB's Director's Choice-A Moving Feast

It's November, and I've got Thanksgiving on my mind. 'Tis the season to be thankful, and also to think about big smorgasbords. Pacific Northwest Ballet's November 2014 "Director's Choice" program is a lot like one of those Thanksgiving feasts. It offers an array of entrees, some tastier than others.

The evening is book-ended by two big works: David Dawson's "A Million Kisses to My Skin" (more about that later), and the new PNB commission "Debonair," by New York City Ballet choreographer-in-residence (and dancer) Justin Peck.

PNB billed "Debonair" as a world premiere, although New York audiences got a sneak peek in October at the Joyce Theater. It's a dance for 12 performers, set to American composer George Antheil's "Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1." As the evening's closing dance, it was meant as the program's capstone. It would have been better as an aperitif.
Korbes and Tisserand in PNB's production of "Debonair," choreographed by Justin Peck
photo by Angela Sterling

Peck constructed a ballet in three sections; two lively pieces sandwich the dance's strong center, a tender pas de deux performed on opening night by the beautiful Carla Korbes and Jerome Tisserand.

Korbes will retire in June, 2015, so every one of her performances is a bittersweet opportunity to see her dance. She doesn't disappoint in "Debonair." The role allows her to engage emotionally, something she excels at. Tisserand, too, is meant for this kind of romantic material. (On Saturday, November 8, Lindsi Dec and William Yin-Lee took on those roles. It was wonderful to see Dec  show this side of her dancing.)

The main problem with "Debonair" (aside from the men's costumes) was its placement on the "Director's Choice" bill. The dance is an amuse-bouche, not an elegant dessert. Despite the very lovely pas de deux, the work as a whole is light and fizzy; charming, but ultimately forgettable.

The meat and potatoes of this program are Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After" and Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement."
PNB Corps de Ballet members Raphael Bouchard and Angelica Generosa
in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After"
photo by Angela Sterling
I first saw "Before After" several years ago, presented by former PNB dancer Olivier Wevers' company "Whim W'him." Lopez Ochoa performed with former PNB principal Lucien Postelwaite. Their emotional connection was riveting.

PNB corps de ballet members Raphael Bouchard and Angelica Generosa give an electrifying and technically dazzling performance, but it lacks some of the oomph that would have lent this athletic duet  psychological depth. Soloist Elizabeth Murphy had been scheduled to perform opening weekend, but pulled out due to an injury. Generosa and Bouchard had one day to rehearse together before opening night. I'll chalk up the lack of rapport to that.
PNB's Angelica Generosa and Raphael Bouchard in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After"
photo by Angela Sterling
Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement," set to traditional Haitian songs, is a plaintive and powerful rumination on power, powerlessness and subjugation. And it was a showpiece for Batkhurel Bold on opening night.

Bold is one of those solid, and stolid, dancers. He is so strong and handsome, but he doesn't always emote. In this dance he positively mesmerized with feral energy. Lunging sideways across the stage, he's like a wild cat trying to evade his stalkers. When they finally capture him, he dangles upside down from their shoulders, abject and wretched. I had to shiver from the sense that his blood was actually dripping down.
PNB Principal Dancer Batkhurel Bold with Soloist Elizabeth Murphy
in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement"
photo by Angela Sterling
On opening night, Lindsi Dec danced the principal female role, the narrator of this sad story. Saturday evening Carrie Imler stood out as the storyteller. Dec conveyed a wounded nobility, but Imler's agony oozed out through her rippling fingers, her splayed knees.
PNB soloist Elizabeth Murphy
in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement"
photo by Angela Sterling
"Rassemblement" is another Duato knockout of a dance; All the cast members were good, but ultimately, it's the image of Bathkhurel Bold that lingers in my mind.

"Director's Choice" opened, but should have closed, with David Dawson's wonderful "A Million Kisses to My Skin." Dawson created it as a love letter to both his fellow dancers and to the art form of ballet, and it never fails to captivate me.

The dance is set to J.S. Bach's "Concerto No. 1 in D Minor," performed superbly by the PNB orchestra and pianist/conductor Allan Dameron. It begins as an insouciant Sarah Ricard Orza strides downstage toward the audience then, bam, the music starts and she propels herself into a wickedly difficult solo.
PNB Principal Dancer Lindsi Dec with Soloist William Yin-Lee
in David Dawson's " A Million Kisses to My Skin"
photo by Angela Sterling
"Million Kisses" is full of sly, complex surprises. If you look away for a second, you might miss the way Orza drags one pointed toe across the floor, or Margaret Mullin's sideways stag leaps. Or the way Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta throw us cascades of pirouettes, their arms arched gracefully overhead.

From Porretta and Imler, to the elegant Lesley Rausch, every dancer in this ballet delivered. Rausch has such wonderful control over every muscle. The descent of her knee, then beautifully extended foot, then toe to the floor is as thrilling as Imler's jetes across the stage.
PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch
in David Dawson's "A Million Kisses to My Skin"
photo by Angela Sterling

I first saw "Million Kisses" in 2012, when PNB debuted it here. I loved it then, but this time around I was even more taken with the way Dawson deploys his cast, the patterns he creates with their bodies, and the ways he skillfully, and subtly, subverts the classical ballet vocabulary. This dance wowed the crowd as the opening number, but it would have been so much more powerful as the show closer. As much as I loved the variety of the 2014 "Director's Choice" bill, "Million Kisses" is the dance I keep thinking about.

One last note: three dancers are out on maternity leave and two principal men are injured. While I miss seeing them onstage, it's great to watch the younger dancers get a chance to perform in featured roles. Angelica Generosa is a tiny dynamo who seems to handle whatever choreography she's given; Raphael Bouchard, Price Suddarth, Kyle Davis and Chelsea Adomaitis all gave notable performances and make me excited for what lies ahead at Pacific Northwest Ballet.