Friday, October 31, 2014

Fred Or Gene? Or Both...


Fred Astaire in "Daddy Long Legs", photo Creative Commons
A couple of weeks ago I flipped on the television. 

"An American in Paris" was on. I love Gershwin, and I love this film, so I got into bed and watched it for the umpteenth time.

This time around, I was taken by Gene Kelly's solo tap dance to "I Got Rhythm." It's cute at the beginning, with the bevy of grinning children. But almost at the very end of the dance, Gene lets loose with some fancy fancy dancing.

Which is a long-winded way of saying the man had serious chops.

But, so did that prince of smooth moves, Fred Astaire.

Fred had this upper body thing going on, where his arms just seemed to float along with his torso. I love watching how he makes those hard, hard routines look effortless.

I've always preferred Fred's smooth moves to Gene's muscular hoofing. But "I Got Rhythm" reminded me it takes all kind of dancers to make the world go round.

And thank goodness for all of them.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Artist's Impulse

"Opposing Forces" by Amy O'Neal
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
I freely admit I don't know heaps about hip hop culture or b-boys. But I do know when a dancer is technically skilled with a full-on commitment to his, or her, art form. That commitment was on full display on the parts of the performers in choreographer Amy O'Neal's 'Opposing Forces' at On The Boards, Saturday October 25th, 2014.

O'Neal assembled five of the Seattle area's most respected b-boys, along with musician/DJ WD4D, to create a performance that both opens the door to hip hop culture for a (mostly) non-hip hop audience, while at the same time allowing the cast members to explore both their art form and themselves as artists. The result was an electrifying evening.

B-boying (yeah, it's a noun), emerged as a way for dancers to demonstrate not only their performance prowess, but also to establish their macho creds. Dance crews compete; they win trophies around the world at this point. O'Neal explains in the program notes that she and the cast "needed to show their complexity as dancers, that they are not just machines or clowns who do tricks for entertainment purposes."

"Opposing Forces" begins with a competition. Members of O'Neal's "crew" line up against three guest performers from Dogg Pound Crew. Each side tries to top the other with everything from dizzying head spins to one-armed handstands to lightning-quick footwork. The audience's role is to cheer on our favorites.

From that opening, though, the performance slows down and starts to unfold into a kaleidoscope of solos and ensemble work. Each man has a chance to showcase his particular moves to the accompaniment of music and recorded voices that reveal to the audience tidbits about the dancers' personal lives and their thoughts about art and dance and hip hop culture.

We see Michael O'Neal Jr.'s brawn and beauty, as well as Mozeslateef's exploration of how to move beyond society's limits. Fever One shows us the meaning of gravity defiance, while Alfredo "Free" Vergara Jr. and Brysen "JustBe" Angeles define the meaning of smooth, oozing their bodies across the floor.

And while we continue to gasp in appreciation of their virtuosity and strength, we start to think about this particular art form in the context of other dance genres.
"Opposing Forces" by Amy O'Neal
photo by Gabriel Bienzycki

I spoke to Amy O'Neal and Brysen Angeles in September. At the time I was curious to know why they dance. O'Neal says she needs it for her spiritual and physical health. Angeles told me that, when he dances, when he's truly committed to the movement, there is no separation between his mind and his body, that he channels something deeper than himself. You can think of that as an artistic equivalent of yoga or meditation, I guess.

In November, Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform David Dawson's beautiful dance "A Million Kisses to My Skin." Dawson says the title refers to the way dancers feel when they are "in the zone"; Angeles doesn't use that same terminology, but I get the sense he feels the same way when he's dancing; that each movement is a caress.

I left "Opposing Forces" invigorated on so many levels. This tiny window into a form of cultural expression left me with huge appreciation for its practitioners. More than that, it left me thinking deeply about what drives any artist to create and to perform.

I was struck again by Amy O'Neal's unique vision and her unique choreographic expression of that vision. "Opposing Forces" can be enjoyed for its sheer physicality, for the contagious beat WD4D creates with his sound design. But O'Neal also pushes her audience beyond simply enjoyment. She wants us to question our assumptions about art, and about society. I left "Opposing Forces" thinking, which is perhaps the highest compliment I can pay any artist.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When Worlds Collide: Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces"


Amy O'Neal, photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
Amy O'Neal is a force of nature.

She's also a pillar of Seattle's dance community.

Trained at Cornish College of the Arts, O'Neal teaches regular classes at Velocity Dance Center; she's traveled around the country to present her choreography; she was a finalist for the 2013 Stranger Genius Award for dance.

But Amy O'Neal says she feels more at home with hip hop culture than she does with the Western dance traditions she studied at Cornish. And as she matures as an artist, she considers her work in the context of the larger culture. O'Neal is somebody who thinks a lot about gender, race and equity issues. Those questions find their way into the dance she makes and performs.

Two years ago, O’Neal prodded audiences to consider those issues through the lens of an evening-length solo work she called (rather audaciously and only half-facetiously) “The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade.” O'Neal performed everything from break dancing to pole dancing to twerking, in order to explore those traditional “sexy” dance genres, and how they define her as an artist and as a woman.
Amy O'Neal channels Ciara
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

Amy O’Neal’s newest dance explores gender and race from a different angle. “Opposing Forces” is a work for five acclaimed Seattle area b-boys: Fever One, Alfredo “Free” Vergara Jr., Brysen “JustBe” Angeles, Mozeslateef, and Michael O’Neal Jr. It's the first dance she's created for an all-male cast.

O’Neal says this new dance initially came out of her desire to work with male dancers. But she was also inspired by her increasing affinity for hip hop culture.

“I had been thinking a lot about the value systems between competitive dance, commercial dance, contemporary dance,” she says. “B-boy battling and hip hop specifically.”

Her ideas started to take shape when O’Neal met Brysen Angeles at The Beacon, a dance studio and school Angeles co-founded with other members of his award-winning Seattle dance crew, Massive Monkees. Angeles had seen one of O’Neal’s dances, and he was intrigued with her idea to create a work that would fuse hip hop and contemporary dance styles.
Massive Monkees crew
Brysen Angeles, center in fleece jacket

“I wasn’t completely sure what it was gonna be,” he confesses. But he was intrigued by the questions O'Neal asked him, both about movement and about race and gender identity in hip hop dance.

Brysen Angeles has been dancing since 1995, and competing with Massive Monkees since ’97 or ’98. The crew has won a slew of international competitions; posters, trophies and plaques decorate the walls of The Beacon. In 2007, Massive Monkees were honored with the Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award.

By the time they met, both Angeles and his crew and Amy O’Neal had forged respected artistic careers in their respective dance communities.

The thing is, those communities don’t often mix.

 O’Neal’s new dance, “Opposing Forces,” will bring Angeles and his fellow b-boys into the heart of Seattle’s contemporary art scene, On The Boards.
Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces"
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, courtesy On The Boards

Angeles says he’s been to OTB once before, part of a hip hop-specific performance, for a hip hop audience. This time he’ll be dancing in front of some of Seattle’s most insider-y art insiders. And he’s looking forward to the experience of broadening himself as a performer and a dancer.

“Getting involved with choreographers like Amy in places like On The Boards is a growing experience for myself and, I think, the other cast members.”

Brysen Angeles and four fellow b-boys appear in Amy O’Neal’s “Opposing Forces” October 23-16, at On The Boards.

It's gonna be some kind of awesome.
 
Amy O's "Opposing Forces"
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki


Monday, October 13, 2014

Why I Love UW Chamber Dance Company (And More)

UW Chamber Dance Company
"Cloudless" by Susan Marshall
Why don’t more people go to see the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company’s
performances?

Led by Hannah Wiley, these MFA students-all former professional dancers-recreate important works from the last century of the modern dance canon. In its 20 plus years, Chamber Dance has presented the work of choreographers ranging from Isadora Duncan to Twyla Tharp and beyond. The idea is to reconstruct, perform, and archive these seminal dances.

If that sounds a bit academic, well, it is. But set on the bodies of Wiley’s experienced dancers, these works shine as bright as they did when the choreographers created them. And they give audiences a chance to see historic dances as living, breathing art. I have attended these performances for years, and each one is usually a thrilling experience.

Maybe the problem is that Chamber Dance presents only one program each year, just four performances every October, in the middle of a busy season for every Seattle area arts organization. Chamber Dance has to fight to be noticed amidst all the other activity. But the programs hold their own. If you haven’t seen a Chamber Dance performance, put a reminder into your calendar for 2015.

This year, Wiley selected 3 works, all relatively contemporary: excerpts from Susan Marshall’s 2006 evening-length “Cloudless”, Nacho Duato’s haunting 1983 dance “Jardi Tancat,” and Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith’s “To Have and To Hold,” choreographed in 1989.

Some Seattle audiences have seen Marshall’s “Kiss”, presented at both Pacific Northwest Ballet and UW Chamber Dance performances. “Cloudless” is equally inventive and emotional, with standout performances by all the dancers. It would be heavenly to see the entire dance!

Shapiro and Smith's “To Have and To Hold” is a rumination on love and loss. It is, in a word, stunning. Six dancers, in long sleeved white shirts and white pants, slither, vault and caress three plain wooden benches arrayed in parallel lines. This dance demands technical and timing precision, strength and artistry. All were present in abundance. It was a fitting end to a fabulous evening.

Seriously, if you love dance and you have never seen UW Chamber Dance Company, you owe it to yourself to be at a performance next fall. You won’t be sorry.

Autumn is always busy in Seattle’s dance community. Another gem this past weekend was the premier of Michele Miller’s revamped “I AM the Bully.” This piece for seven women is part rumble, a la Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story, and part prison yard shake down. It was like a dope slap upside the head, full of anger, fear and some very strong dancing.
Michele Miller's "I AM the Bully"
photo by Joseph Lambert, courtesy Michele Miller

“Bully” was part of an evening at Velocity Dance Center called “Modus Operandi.” Miller’s company Catapult Dance shared a bill with the Alana O Rogers Dance Company. Rogers’ premiered “Rewind,” a dance she calls “an ode to memory, slowing down, getting lost and running.” Her earlier work “Sight” opened the evening. Both works are abstracted narratives, featuring a strong ensemble of dancers. 

Miller is a longtime member of Seattle's dance community (Velocity co-founder, D-9 Dance Collective member, Cornish faculty member). She calls her work a mashup of contemporary dance, martial arts and contact improvisation. It is highly physical and, in the context of Velocity’s intimate performance space, very much in your face. Paired with composer Nico Tower’s live-mixed “Vox Humana,” “I AM the Bully” has stayed with me days beyond the performance. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Movin' On Up!

PNB company members in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Angela Sterling
Congratulations to Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers Leta Biasucci and Jerome Tisserand. PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal announced their promotions at the company's opening performance September 26, 2014.

Jerome Tisserand moves up to his (rightful) place as a principal dancer. Tisserand is one of those classically beautiful dancers, the kind of guy who looks exactly like the prince he portrays. PNB hasn't had anybody so princely in its principal ranks since Lucien Postelwaite left for Ballet de Monte Carlo.
Princely PNB Principal Dancer Jerome Tisserand
in Peter Boal's "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

Not only is Jerome Tisserand a beautiful dancer; he's one of the nicest people at PNB. I'm delighted that he'll finally own the title that fits the performances he gives. Woot Jerome!

I wrote about Leta Biasucci last spring. She's a tiny dynamo with a mighty stage presence. She is now a soloist with the ballet company, and in her opening night performance in George Balanchine's "Rubies", Biasucci dazzled with a charisma that was multiplied ten-fold by her partner, the effervescent Jonathan Porretta.
PNB Soloist Leta Biasucci as Clara in Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Porretta and Biasucci are an inspired partnership. Both dancers are compact and dark, so they make a nice physical match. But more than that, in this rendition of "Rubies", they sparkled and snapped and, for me, stole the show.

For those who haven't seen all three parts of "Jewels" on a single bill, briefly: "Rubies" is the savory, syncopated filling between the almost wistful grandeur of "Emeralds" and the full-scale splendor of "Diamonds". (By the way, Carla Korbes and Batkhurel Bold were splendor personified in their opening night performances).
PNB Principal Dancers Carla Korbes and Batkhurel Bold in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Angela Sterling

The audience went wild for "Diamonds", but for my money, Porretta and Biasucci stole the show in "Rubies." When Porretta smiles onstage, he lights up the cavernous McCaw Hall. He's at ease in "Rubies", and he clearly passed on some of that confidence to his young partner, Biasucci.
PNB's Leta Biasucci and Jonathan Porretta in George Balanchine's "Rubies"
photo by Angela Sterling

Early on, she was intent, almost serious, precisely executing Balanchine's choreography. Midway through, though, she relaxed, cracked a grin, and her performance took off.

What a excellent start to PNB's new artistic season. Dance on, ballet dudes!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Carrie Imler: Fierce Ballerina

PNB Principal Dancer Carrie Imler in Kiyon Gaines' "Sum Stravinsky"
photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet
Quick, what's the first word that comes to mind when somebody asks you to describe a ballerina?

Are you thinking ‘graceful’? What about ‘delicate’?

Would you believe ‘fierce’?

That's how friends and colleagues describe Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carrie Imler.

"I would honestly describe her as fierce in every definition and example of the word," says Imler’s good friend and fellow principal dancer, Jonathan Porretta. "She is an athlete, she is fearless, she's an artist."

"I kind of like fierce," Imler admits with a demure chuckle.
Carrie Imler in rehearsal for "Swan Lake"

At first glance, Carrie Imler looks anything but fierce. She has long dark hair and bangs (she pins them back when she's onstage), wide-set dark eyes and the elegant carriage of the longtime dancer she is. On this particular afternoon she's wearing a stiff white rehearsal tutu that's stained in spots, and a pair of tattered pink tights. She’s replaced her pink pointe shoes with a pair of flexible slippers. An oversize gray fleece jacket tops off this not-so-stylish ensemble. Imler is soft spoken, but quick to laugh. Particularly when you point out how many men in the audience describe her as their favorite PNB dancer.

"I see," she answers slowly. "Maybe it's because I am a strong athletic type. I'm not your rail thin ballerina."
PNB's Carrie Imler in George Balanchine's "Apollo"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

At 36, (an elder stateswoman when it comes to professional ballet dancers), Carrie Imler seems fit and ageless. Her shoulders are broad, her legs muscular, her energy unflagging.
Imler's boss, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, says not only is she strong, she's also versatile.

"Carries has broken the mold in some ways, because of the whole range of roles she can do. She's a jumper, and a turner, too."

Jonathan Porretta says from the first time he saw Imler, when he joined the company 15 years ago, he instantly noticed that she could jump as high as some of the men. “And she can turn,” he enthuses. “I mean, can we discuss her fouette turns in “Swan Lake,” with the swan arms? Nobody does that!”

Most recently, Imler wowed audiences and national dance critics with her performance in the classical story ballet "Giselle." Imler danced the role of Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis; a band of dead women who've been jilted at the altar. New York Times chief dance critic Alistair Macauley called Imler’s performance “shimmering.”
Carrie Imler as Myrtha in "Giselle" staged by Peter Boal for PNB
photo by Angela Sterling

Despite that kind of praise, Carrie Imler isn’t PNB’s version of Felix Hernandez, the star ballerina. Imler has been mostly content in her role as the dependable third starter in PNB’s version of baseball's pitching rotation.

“I think I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes kind of girl," she says.“You know, the media sees opening night, but there are 3,000 other people that see you every other night. So whether you’re doing opening night or an afternoon show, or the one in the middle of the week, somebody’s seeing you, and you’re making somebody’s day.”

Imler’s good friend Jonathan Porretta is more candid about what it’s like to be passed over for opening night.
Carrie Imler (with Kiyon Gaines) in "Midsummer Night's Dream"
photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

“I don’t think it feels good,” he admits. But Porretta agrees with Imler that whether or not dancers are in the opening night cast, performance is the whole point of a ballet career.

“In the end, it’s about the fans that come to the show. It’s about what you put out on stage, and what you get back from the audience.”

Carrie Imler starts her 20th season in Pacific Northwest Ballet this month. She has, at most, another ten years before her body won’t be able to sustain the rigors of the daily hours of rehearsal. She pauses when asked about her legacy to her colleagues at PNB.

“I would like to think I’m a role model,” she says softly. “Somebody …who worked well, did their rehearsals, acted well, behaved well.”

Jonathan Porretta believes his friend has given more than that over her two decades at PNB.

“She’s the heart and soul, the ballerina of this company,” he stresses. “She is the senior-most dancer, the longest out of everybody. She is PNB!”
PNB Principal Dancer Carrie Imler in Jyrie Kylian's "Forgotten Lands"
photo by Angela Sterling for PNB

Seattle-area audiences have a chance to see Carrie Imler this weekend in George Balanchine’s “Jewels” at McCaw Hall.

 She'll dance in "Diamonds" at the Saturday matinee, September 27th, and Friday evening, October 3.
For more information, www.pnb.org.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Carla Korbes To Retire

Carla Korbes in PNB's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
Gosh, just when you think you're on top of the Seattle-area dance news, bam!

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carla Korbes says she'll retire at the end of this season.

Say it ain't so, Carla!

If you're a PNB fan, you know Korbes' work.
The ethereal Brazilian-born blonde is one of those dancers who elevates her roles simply with the extension of her arm, or the grace of her jete.
Plus, she is a warm and friendly person.
PNB Principal Dancer Carla Korbes
photo by Angela Sterling

In a release, Korbes said "my body is ready to move on, so I need to respect that."

Korbes was out with injuries for much of PNB's 2013-14 season.
She returned in Susan Marshall's "The Kiss," which she told me recently was a lot more fun than she'd anticipated.

Korbes will dance in PNB's opening night production of "Jewels;" according to a company media release, audiences will be able to see her perform throughout this artistic season. Her career will be celebrated at PNB's Encore performance in June, 2015.

Carla Korbes dances in "Jewels;"
She's a jewel herself.
It's been a privilege to spend these years with her.

Carla Korbes with Batkhurel Bold
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB