Friday, December 9, 2016

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, PNB

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carrie Imler in Balanchine's "Apollo"
photo by Angela Sterling
My brain knows that ballet dancers have a short shelf life.

But that doesn’t stop my heart from cracking a tiny bit every time I hear about an impending retirement.

This week, Pacific Northwest Ballet announced a double whammy: two longtime principal dancers, Batkhurel Bold and Carrie Imler, will step down next June.
PNB principal dancers Batkhurel Bold and Elizabeth Murphy in "Rassemblement"
photo by Angela Sterling

Bold, a native of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, has been in Seattle since 1996. You may have seen him in Peter Boal’s restaging of “Giselle,” in “After the Rain” pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, or, my personal favorite, as a menacing Tybalt in Jean Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette.” Bold is big and strong, technically fierce and a great partner.
Batkhurel Bold as Tybalt in Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Angela Sterling

I’ve been hanging around the PNB studios for years now, but I haven’t ever said more than hello to Bold. Frankly, he’s always seemed a little menacing in real life, too. But over the past year, this strong dancer has had a smile on his face. He and his frequent partner, Lesley Rausch, were married over the summer. I wish him, and them, the best.
Batkhurel Bold with Lesley Rausch in the PNB studio
photo by Lindsay Thomas

Bold’s departure will leave a hole; Carrie Imler’s retirement will leave a chasm. Really, there is nobody like her at PNB.

Imler came to the company as an apprentice in 1995. Former PNB co-artistic director Francia Russell once told me that Imler has it all: musicality, technical ability, and discipline. I would add strength and ferocity to that list.
Carrie Imler as Myrtha in "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

Carrie Imler is fearless both physically and dramatically. Whether she and her close friend Jonathan Porretta are hamming it up in Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” or she’s taking a more commanding turn as Myrtha in “Giselle,” Imler gives herself over to the role.

That was never more clear than last season, when PNB presented an all-William Forsythe program. I attended an open rehearsal at McCaw Hall. Imler and Porretta were among four or five couples called on to demonstrate particular choreography for the audience. Time and again, Forsythe pointed them out as exemplary role models for their fellow company members.
Carrie Imler as Titania in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
photo by Angela Sterling

And if you haven't seen Carrie Imler whip off a chain of fouette turns, prepare to be dazzled.

Carrie Imler is not willowy or wispy, and I think that’s why she’s a favorite of so many women. Imler has shown us that you don’t have to be fragile to be beautiful, that a woman can execute thrilling jumps and spins, and, most of all, that when you give yourself completely to your art form, you can create magic onstage.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Sublime Genius of Noelani Pantastico

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Noelani Pantastico as Dewdrop
in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." photo by Angela Sterling
I mean no disrespect to my colleagues at The Stranger, but Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Noelani Pantastico deserved to win your 2016 Genius Award for performance. Is she the edgy type of artist who usually gets your attention? Well, no. But she’s a performer who can infuse even the most pedestrian of roles with real grace and authenticity.

Take, for example, her turn as Dewdrop in PNB’s opening night performance of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.”

For those of you who haven’t seen this particular version of the holiday classic, Dewdrop comes in to lead a bevy of Flowers in the lyrical Waltz of the Flowers. In PNB's production, Dewdrop wears a bright green tutu to contrast with the marigolds behind her onstage. The role requires technical ability, stamina and a twinkly presence on stage.
Dewdrop Noelani Pantastico and her bevy of Flowers
photo by Angela Sterling

Pantastico delivered those in spades, but more than that, she put her emphatic personal stamp on Dewdrop. This seasoned performer managed to isolate particular gestures; to my eye they appeared almost in syncopation to the Tchaikovsky score. I marveled at her ability to embody both the music and the character in ways that transcended the traditional performance. Pantastico wasn’t performing the role of Dewdrop; she was Dewdrop.

That shouldn’t have felt so remarkable.

If you haven’t seen Pantastico in Jean Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette,” get thee to McCaw Hall the next time PNB presents this great ballet. When the company premiered the work in 2008, Pantastico and retired PNB principal dancer Carla Korbes were set to alternate in the role of Juliette. Korbes injured herself, so Pantastico danced all 8 performances. She was so amazing that Maillot stole her away from Seattle to dance for his Ballets de Monte Carlo. She returned last autumn to finish her career at PNB.
Noelani Pantastico and James Moore in Jean Christophe Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Angela Sterling

Pantastico probably danced Juliette dozens of times during her tenure with Maillot, but when she and PNB Romeo James Moore performed the tragic story last winter in Seattle, they electrified the audience. Truly, we were on the edge of our seats. Those star-crossed lovers had chemistry and heat!

In February, PNB debuts Maillot’s version of Cinderella, “Cendrillon.” While the story doesn’t carry the dramatic heft of a Shakespearean tragedy, I hope Pantastico will be featured in a dance she no doubt performed during her tenure with its choreographer.

Noelani Pantastico and former PNB principal dancer Lucien Postelwaite as "Romeo et Juliette", 2008
photo by Angela Sterling

But you don’t have to wait until next year to see Pantastico shine onstage. She’s scheduled to perform the role of Sugar Plum Fairy with James Moore as her Cavalier this Saturday evening, December 3rd, at McCaw Hall. Surely they can’t be as steamy in a G-rated ballet as they were onstage in “Romeo et Juliette.”  Or can they? 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Need a little holiday cheer?

Kurt Beattie as Ebeneezer Scrooge in ACT's "A Christmas Carol"
photo courtesy ACT Theatre
Thanksgiving arrives this week, and along with the turkey and carbo-overload, get ready for more holiday-themed art than you can digest.

Seattle's biggest productions: "ACT's 'A Christmas Carol," and "The Nutcracker" at Pacific Northwest Ballet, will draw the usual large crowds hungry for tradition and a little holiday cheer. No matter how many times I see Charles Dickens' tale about the spiritual conversion of Ebeneezer Scrooge, I always leave the theater full of hope that virtue trumps petty greed and hate every time. I'm in need of that reminder this year.

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Across town from ACT, PNB presents the second edition of its new production of "George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker.'" (Yes, that's the official title, including a trademark!). The show is lavish, sweet, and the opening video is great. I'm partial to the snowflake tiaras, part of designer Ian Falconer's colorful, fanciful vision for this classic ballet.

Nutcrackers of all genres abound every year; I counted more than 15 versions in the central Puget Sound region. No doubt I overlooked one or two. If you're restless for something slightly different, you might want to check out "Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker," presented at Seattle's Triple Door by Lily Verlaine and Jasper McCann.
Who wouldn't want to see Wade Madsen in the role of God in "Buttcracker?"
photo courtesy Luna Photo/Karen Garrett de Luna

The folks who brought you the original Buttrock Suites have their own twisted take on Nutcracker; Diana Cardiff, Sara Jinks and their pals have created "Buttcracker," featuring the music of a bevy of 80's and 90's rockers. This mashup of tutus and Journey is most definitely NOT PG, so leave your children at home. Or, get them tickets to the strictly sweet PNB version of the holiday classic.
Buttcracker cast members
photo by Luna Photo/Karen Garrett de Luna

Finally, seeing as it's Thanksgiving week, I want to give some public thanks for all the artists in this community and beyond. Your courage and vision bring me solace when I grieve, laughter when I weep, and beauty in these uncertain times. Much love and happy holidays to you all.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Clear and Sweet Path to Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Head or the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

Whim W'Him Inspires With New Choreography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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