Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Another Goodbye: Maria Chapman Leaves PNB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen to that.

Monday, November 9, 2015

This Guy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2015

Giving Kids A Chance To Dance

Second year DanceChance student in a PNB studio
If you read this weekend’s New York Times, you may have seen an article about how both big New York ballet companies are actively recruiting more kids of color to their school programs.

Long before Misty Copeland grabbed headlines when she became the first African American woman named principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet was scouting for young people like Copeland, potential dancers who might not find ballet on their own.

In 1994, PNB started a program called DanceChance.

Francia Russell, PNB’s founding co-artistic director, and the force behind DanceChance, says the idea was to go into Seattle elementary schools to identify young kids with the physical aptitude for ballet, then provide these kids with free classes, dancewear and transportation to the Phelps Center, on the Seattle Center campus.

Russell laughs at the audacity of the vision.

“We had no money!”

But PNB decided to forge ahead with the program, get it up and running, THEN try to raise funds to support DanceChance.
PNB's 2015 DanceChance audition
photo by Lindsay Thomas

Before that could happen, though, PNB had to convince local schools to buy into the idea.
Russell remembers making pitch after pitch. Finally, the principal at Seattle’s Martin Luther King elementary school said yes to the idea.

More than two decades later, DanceChance operates pretty much as it did the first year, albeit with a lot more funding in place.

Program manager Jennifer McLain and her teachers scouted for talent at 22 elementary schools this fall; they screened every third grader at each school.

McLain says they’re testing the kids’ flexibility and their bodies’ ability to move into the ballet positions. Not everyone is born with these innate physical attributes.

Ballet also requires coordination, a sense of rhythm, and above all, focus.

Current PNB corps de ballet member Angeli Mamon remembers her DanceChance audition, a decade ago at Seattle’s Beacon Hill elementary school.
Angeli Mamon, front row left, at 2005 DanceChance observation day
photo by Barry Thompson

“We thought we were going to the gym,” she explains. “And we sat on these little jelly pad things and did stretches. They didn’t tell us what we were doing.”

Mamon says if she’d known she was auditioning for a ballet program she would have tried to avoid it.

“I was really a tomboy,” she laughs.
Angela Mamon, 2014 Professional Division Next Step performance
photo by Angela Sterling

Mamon is the first female DanceChance student to be invited to dance with PNB. (Former corps member Eric Hippolito was the first DanceChance grad ever hired by PNB. He’s at Arizona Ballet this year.)
Mamon says “I absolutely love this program. I would not be where I am without it.”

But she concedes the transition from her home environment to the ballet world was jarring.
Her mother, who’s from Mexico, didn’t know much about ballet. Neither did Mamon.
And neither do most of the DanceChance kids who walk into PNB’s Phelps Center for the very first time.

Francia Russell remembers watching them the very first day of the program “kind of creep up the stairs into this big building. They think ‘ballet, what’s that?’”
Nazirah Taylor at DanceChance observation day
photo by Barry Thompson

“The cultural difference is huge,” acknowledges Najja Morris. Her 17-year old daughter, Nazirah Taylor, was picked for DanceChance 9 years ago. She’s now in the top ranks of the PNB school.

Morris was thrilled when her daughter was selected for DanceChance, but she had a lot of concerns.

“You hear horror stories about children in ballet, mean girls, cliques,” Morris says. “When Nazirah started, she had locks in her hair. Everyone was great pulling them into a bun, but she she didn’t look like everyone else.”

And as Nazirah has moved up the ranks, Morris says there were “fewer brown people” her daughter could look up to as role models.
Nazirah Taylor in PNB School Level 8 performance
photo by Angela Sterling

Former PNB soloist Kiyon Gaines knows exactly how that feels. He remembers his own days as an aspiring ballet dancer in Baltimore.

“There weren’t other people, role models, for me to look up to. There was no one else like me.”
Kiyon Gaines soars in PNB production of Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station"
photo by Angela Sterling

Gaines, who retired from PNB last spring, is now a DanceChance faculty member. DanceChance manager Jennifer McLain is thrilled to have him.

“The boys’ faces, seeing Kiyon at the screenings,” she says. “They were thinking this guy is awesome. He’s just like me!”
Former PNB soloist Kiyon Gaines with his DanceChance students

Gaines says “being able to influence the next generation of dancers is so important to me! I felt like I didn’t have a lot of champions in my corner when I was growing up.”

Not every DanceChance kid is destined to become a professional ballet dancer.
Program Manager Jennifer McLain is ok with that.

“Seeing them come and realize they’re special. They can be whatever they want.”

You can see former DanceChance student Angeli Mamon with the rest of the PNB dancers this weekend at "Emergence" at McCaw Hall.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Ballerina Returns

Former PNB Principal Dancer Patricia Barker
Former Pacific Northwest Ballet star Patricia Barker is back in town.

Well, she’s not onstage herself.

Barker is in Seattle with her Michigan-based company, Grand Rapids Ballet, and two distinctively different programs.

The stint at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center opened last night with a new twist on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” choreographed by former PNB principal dancer Olivier Wevers.
Wevers created this ballet for GRB; this is its Seattle debut.
Grand Rapids Ballet company members in Olivier Wevers' "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Barker’s company rounds out its Pacific Northwest visit with a mixed bill called MOVEMEDIA. In includes four contemporary works, by choreographers Anabelle Lopez Ochoa, David Parsons, Mario Radocovsky and Penny Saunders. Wevers’ company, Whim W’Him, has presented both Saunders and Lopez Ochoa here.
Grand Rapids Ballet company members

Patricia Barker had an acclaimed ballet career. She was known for her long elegance, and her commitment to technique. After she retired from PNB almost a decade ago, Barker spent time as an independent repetiteur, staging choreographer George Balanchine’s ballets around the world. She took her current position as Artistic Director at Grand Rapids Ballet in 2011.

This week’s performances mark Barker’s official return to Seattle. Her company performs just yards from the Phelps Center, where she built her career. It will be interesting to see if and how her dancers reflect that formidable past.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Mind Of Pat Graney

Jenny Peterson and Sara Jinks in Pat Graney's "Girl Gods"
photo courtesy of the choreographer
Over the years I’ve spent a fair amount of time navigating the rich pathways of Pat Graney’s mind.

It’s always an amazing journey.

Graney has been making dances in Seattle for more than two decades. Love them or hate them, they are always fascinating.

I happen to love her work, even when it’s not quite finished.

That’s the case with Graney's latest ambitious project, “Girl Gods,” which premiered October 1-4 at On the Boards in Seattle.

"Girl Gods" is billed as an exploration of women’s rage. Graney explained in a post-show talk-back that she initially planned to begin the piece with a tantrum. She decided that was too literal.

Instead, Sara Jinks walks agonizingly slowly across the stage, carefully placing each foot precisely in front of the other. With one hand, she guides herself along the uneven surface of what looks like a brick wall. In the other, Jinks balances a teacup and saucer. The porcelain chatters with each tremulous step, an audio reminder of the precarious path every woman weaves through her life, trying to balance her desires with other people’s expectations.

“Girl Gods” is a series of connected scenes that roll out in front of an elaborate wall made from what look like stacked white blocks. As the performance gets underway, we see that many of these “blocks” are actually cardboard storage boxes that contain everything from raw poultry to a blood red dress.
Jody Kuehner in Pat Graney's "Girl Gods"
photo courtesy of the choreographer

The scenes vary from tantrums--full body raging and writhing that Graney says exacts a physiological toll on each performer--to darkly humorous vignettes. Recent Stranger Genius-award winner Jody Kuehner (aka Cherdonna Shinatra) is particularly brilliant as she laboriously forces her body into a tiny pink tee shirt, capris and hoodie. Kuehner’s antics provoke laughter, but the message is far more serious: women must contort themselves, infantilize themselves, to fit the mold society has set out for us.

Frequent Graney collaborator Amy Denio created an audio score laced with snippets of interviews the dancers conducted with their own mothers. Like the movement on stage, it feels like a sonic quilt: varied and elaborate.

Longtime Graney audience members recognized some of the choreographer’s signature motifs and images: high heels, hand gestures that conjure American Sign Language, slowly drifting sand. The motifs are familiar, but this performance is not a regurgitation or revisitation of Graney's body of work. 

Instead, they remind us how this artist uses each creation to explore another facet of herself, and of what it means to be female in our culture. All of her performers touch on those themes; “Girl Gods” puts them squarely front and center. It's another step in Graney's artistic growth and maturity.
Sruti Desai and Cheryl Delostrinos in Pat Graney's "Girl Gods"
photo courtesy of the choreographer

Despite the high points it hit, “Girl Gods” felt unfinished, like a sweater that still needs its final neckline ribbing. Graney told the talk-back audience she envisions it in final form as an installation as well as an evening-length performance. She's touring the work, so no doubt it will evolve and fulfill her vision over time.

Despite that sense of incompletion, "Girl Gods" was thought provoking and intriguing;yet another confirmation of Pat Graney’s distinctive and unique artistic voice.
The cast of Pat Graney's "Girl Gods"
photo courtesy of the choreographer

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Timeless Prodigal Son

PNB principal dancers James Moore and Laura Tisserand in George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son"
photo by Angela Sterling
I’m haunted by George Balanchine’s 1929 ballet “The Prodigal Son.”

I saw it this past weekend as part of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s season-opening program “See The Music,” and ever since I haven’t been able to get this dance-and its maker-out of my mind.

Serge Diaghilev commissioned the 20-something Balanchine to create “Prodigal Son” for Diaghilev's Paris-based émigré troupe, Ballets Russes. And the thing is, the dance is just so…Russian.

The cavorting mob of green-clad, bald goonies who first mock, then rob, the naïve boy (excellent PNB principal James Moore on opening night) and his two sidekicks (Kyle Davis and Price Suddarth), bounce across the stage on bent knees, arms extended to the sides and crooked upwards at the elbows. The movements are simultaneously stylized modernism and straight out of the Russian folk dance traditions.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian tradition, so the Biblical overtones of this ballet are secondary for me to the story of this rebellious young man and his collision with the world outside his loving home. At its heart is a tour de force interaction (pas de deux is too mild a phrase to describe it) between the prodigal youth and the Siren who lures him with her sexuality, then, like a cold-hearted predator, she consumes him, spitting out the boy's shattered dregs for her henchmen to pick clean.
Former PNB principal dancer Lucien Postelwaite and company members in "Prodigal Son"
photo by Angela Sterling

Moore skillfully evolves from the clenched-fisted youth who stomps and leaps, ultimately vaulting over the fence to freedom, to a besotted boy ripe for exploitation, to the penitent who drags himself back to his father’s warm embrace. It was great to see Moore back onstage after what seemed like an interminable injury-related hiatus.

Laura Tisserand danced the Siren on this program’s opening night. She is all impossibly long legs with an imperious demeanor. Tisserand traps Moore in her legs and arms, all but smothering him. It’s pretty amazing. But this beautiful dancer is almost too pretty for the role of a man eater. I wished for a little bad girl energy, a scintilla more of an edge. A quibble…

Beyond the choreography itself, “Prodigal Son” made me dream of Paris in the 1920’s. All that creative energy, and pre-Great Depression money to fund it! Artists from around the globe converged on the City of Light, collaborating, experimenting, stewing up ideas like this ballet. And Balanchine, in his mid-20's! I imagine him trying new things, discarding them, a young artist caught up in the fervor of the time and the place.

“The Prodigal Son” survived because Balanchine brought it with him to America. It’s lasted so many decades because great dancers can inhabit the roles Balanchine created and make them their own. James Moore can trace his performance to PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, who performed it at Balanchine’s own New York City Ballet, where Boal learned the role from Jerome Robbins, who learned it from the choreographer himself. 
PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, coaching "Prodigal Son"

For me, "The Prodigal Son" is fresh, and in places, almost shocking in its sexuality. I try to imagine the 1929 audiences. Every generation has its cutting edge creators, like George Balanchine. It's wonderful to revisit their work and to recognize its genius.

Two other ballets share the bill with “Prodigal Son.” Neither wove the powerful spell that Balanchine cast. But, I have to shout out to PNB soloist Sarah Ricard Orza in Robbin’s own creation “The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody). Orza is a natural comedian, all the funnier because she is such a beautiful, graceful woman. Her turn in “The Concert” as a spirit as free as her flowing, curly hair, is one of the best performances I’ve seen her give at PNB.
Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers Ryan Cardea, Jerome Tisserand and wonderful Sarah Ricard Orza
in Jerome Robbin's "The Concert"

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fall, You're Killing Me!

Former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lucien Postelwaite in George Balanchine's "Prodigal Son"
photo by Angela Sterling

Fall, you're killin' me.

I mean that in the best possible way.

Summer was fun, lots of action outside and in, but once September hit us, it seemed like every dance company, every choreographer, every independent artist, had a show on tap. My calendar is filling up fast. 

Here are a few highlights.

This weekend Pacific Northwest Ballet opens its new season with a wildly diverse program of works by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Jerome Robbins. Across town, Velocity Dance Center presents a survey of works, plus its almost-annual Bash. Both programs should give you a good overview of the ballet and contemporary scenes, maybe whet your appetite for more.

And more there will be, folks.
Pat Graney dancers in "Girl Gods"
photo courtesy Pat Graney Dance Company

Next week, look for the world premiere of ferociously talented artist Pat Graney’s latest work, “Girl Gods.” On The Boards is presenting this piece, a rumination on women, ancestry, power and rage. I haven’t been able to catch any rehearsals, but expect Graney to fuse visual art and movement, plus a new score by Amy Denio. This show is selling out fast; I’ll be there for the post-show conversation with Graney on Friday, October 2nd.

I’m excited for the annual University of Washington Chamber Dance Company performances the weekend of October 15-18th at Meany Hall. If you’ve never seen Chamber Dance, you owe it to yourself to go. And this year, in particular, is a perfect time to dive in, because the company celebrates its 25th anniversary with a program that founder/director Hannah Wiley hopes will reflect the wide range of dances she’s brought to life over the past quarter of a century.
Portrait of Loie Fuller by Frederick Glasier, 1902

Wiley conceived Chamber Dance as a program within a program for graduate students; professional dancers who wanted to earn degrees that might prepare them for academia. At the same time, Wiley was interested in reviving some of the seminal works from more than 100 years of modern dance. The result was a graduate program in dance, plus this annual October performance.

What Wiley does that's so unusual, and inspiring, is to bring in older dances, sets them on her grad students (along with some undergrad dance majors), then videotapes them for a growing archives stored at the UW Libraries.

This year’s program, “A Century of Modern Dance,” includes eight dances by choreographers ranging from late 19th/early 20th century artist Loie Fuller to Martha Graham to Doug Elkins. 

Seriously, Chamber Dance is always great.

Also heading our way faster than a speeding bullet: Karin Stevens’ “KSD with Sam Boshnack Quintet” the weekend of October 23-25th.
PNB company members in Crystal Pite's "Emergence"
photo by Angela Sterling

And looking ahead a few months to November…the return of Crystal Pite’s “Emergence” at PNB. Oh my god, if you can see just one big ballet this season, this is IT.

I can already tell I won’t get much sleep this fall.

But what dreams I have will be filled with dance; who could ask for anything more than that?