Friday, May 22, 2015

Kiyon Gaines, It's So Hard To Say Goodbye!

PNB's Kiyon Gaines soars as Puck in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kiyon Gaines says he didn’t find ballet; ballet found him.

The Baltimore native didn’t start dancing until he was 10 .  He studied tap and jazz. Somebody told him he needed to work on his port de bras; they said ballet would help. So his mother enrolled him in a local class.

He recalls the teacher pulled his mother aside. “Does Kiyon want to take more ballet classes?” the teacher asked. “He would be great at this.”

Gaines was 12 at the time; incredibly late to start ballet training. Despite the fact that he was the only boy in the class, he embraced the challenge.

“And I got hired at PNB when I was 19,” he laughs. “So in the span of seven years, there was a lot of improvement!”
PNB's Lesley Rausch and Kiyon Gaines in Susan Stroman's "Take Five...More or Less"
photo by Angela Sterling

Now, at the ripe old age of 33, Kiyon Gaines will retire at the end of PNB’s artistic season. Say it ain't so!

Gaines' decision to step away from ballet was not an easy one. Like every professional dancer, he knew he couldn’t continue to perform much past the age of 40. From the get go, he had this idea that he'd carve out a second career.

Plus, his mother had urged him to make contingency plans, in case this ballet thing didn’t pan out. 

So, early on, Gaines decided that age 35 would be the perfect time to step away.

“That’s me wanting to be in control of my own career. I wanted to be the one to make the decision when I wanted to stop dancing.”

Unfortunately, Kiyon Gaines’ body didn’t cooperate with his well-made plans.

“I’ve dealt with injuries,” he explains. Specifically, three surgeries in the past four years. “My entire soloist career has been plagued with surgeries.”

So, last fall, before PNB started the 2014-2015 artistic season, Gaines told PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal that this year would be his last.

As hard as that was for Gaines, it also was a loss for PNB audiences. The exuberant, energetic dancer has been a standout during his 15 years in Seattle. Anyone who's seen him perform knows how he lights up the stage with his zillion-watt smile and the joy he infuses into his powerful dancing.
PNB's Kiyon Gaines soars in Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station"
photo by Angela Sterling

We know that watching him now, but Kiyon Gaines had to fight to get here.

As a young, aspiring African American ballet dancer, Gaines had few role models. “Who do I look up to?” he remembers thinking. “Where do I get inspiration?”

After a stint in Pittsburgh, Gaines enrolled in  New York’s School of American Ballet, the feeder for the New York City Ballet. He recalls, at that time, Albert Evans was the only African American male dancing with NYCB. But even Evans wasn't the perfect role model.

Where Evans had the long, lean stereotypical ballet dancer’s body, Gaines is shorter and more compactly muscular. Not only was Gaines a black man in a predominantly white art form; he had the “wrong” body type for ballet. 

But Kiyon Gaines believed in himself. He kept working. In 2000, he came to Seattle as a PNB Professional Division student. Former PNB Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell hired him as a corps de ballet member the next year. He’s been in Seattle ever since. Gaines says he's the loyal type.

Kiyon Gaines believes the only way to challenge the traditional ballet aesthetic is to be a role model, to encourage “more people who look like me” to embrace ballet. And he'll have the chance to do that after he retires.

Starting next season, Kiyon Gaines will teach at the PNB school, and he'll work with PNB’s Dance Chance program. Dance Chance offers scholarships to kids who might not normally enroll in ballet classes, or even consider that ballet is something for them. Some of those kids have moved on to professional ballet careers, including Eric Hipolito, who also leaves PNB at the end of the season (not retiring, but heading to Ballet Arizona; our loss!)
Gaines does Balanchine at PNB
photo by Angela Sterling

Gaines also will continue to choreograph, in Seattle and for companies around the country. PNB will reprise his "Sum Stravinsky" in the 2015-2016 season.

Kiyon Gaines will give his final PNB performance on June 7th

But it won’t be his last onstage appearance. On Sunday, June 14th, Gaines will don cap and gown and stride across a platform at Key Arena to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from Seattle University. Not only did he get the college degree his mother hoped he'd puruse; on June 12th, he's being honored with SU's Fine Arts Department Buhr Award. It goes to the student with the highest GPA in his major. 

“Mom will be here, my aunt will be here,” he says with a smile. “They’re going to be so proud!”
Kiyon Gaines works with PNB dancers on "Sum Stravinsky"
photo courtesy PNB

Monday, May 18, 2015

I'm All About The Arts, Boss

PNB Principal Dancers Lesley Rausch (rear) and Lindsi Dec in David Dawson's "A Million Kisses to My Skin"
photo by Angela Sterling
Sometimes I wonder why I'm driven to write about art, especially dance.

Frankly, it's an impossible task, to translate my visceral response to an artist or her work into mere words. If those words were enough, we wouldn't have symphonies or ballets or great paintings, would we?

Besides, outside of people who already love and value art, the general reception for my mere words is pretty tepid.
PNB's Chelsea Adomaitis and Stephen Loch in William Forsythe's "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling

But I persist.

From time to time, people invite me to come give little talks about what I do. They want to know how I started out, or my opinions on burning issues of the day (I don't reveal those); most often, they want me to dish about famous people.

Inevitably, somebody asks what I most love to write about. The answer is automatic: dance. When they ask why, I am forced once again to ask that question of myself.
PNB Principal Dancer Jerome Tisserand with former Principal Kaori Nakamura in "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

The answer is always the same: a great artwork resonates with something deep in my heart. I imagine it's something like a spiritual tuning fork, and I start to vibrate with the same invisible frequency as the tones that emanate from that art.

All of the above is a long and windy preamble to some thoughts on this weekend's PBS American Masters' documentary about American Ballet Theatre.

The New York Times laid into this film. The critic said it didn't have enough specifics about ABT, not enough Baryshnikov (is there ever enough???).

I loved it.

Mostly for the fabulous commentary from Jennifer Homans, author of the great ballet history "Apollo's Angels." That book propelled me into what feels like a never-ending exploration of the connections between dance and grace. This film reminded me of the ineffable beauty that is ballet, the quest that dancers pursue to bring their technique and their artistry to a performance that can lift them (and the audience) beyond ourselves.
Former PNB Principal Dancers Lucien Postelwaite and Noelani Pantastico in Jean-Christophe Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Angela Sterling

Insert sigh of pure bliss right here!

Okay, now that I'm done waxing rhapsodic, some upcoming events of note:

Olivier Wevers' Whim W'him performs a new program called X-Posed, 5/29-31 at Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.

Pacific Northwest Ballet presents Kent Stowell's "Carmina Burana" and Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH" May 29-June 7th at McCaw Hall.

Catch the Seattle International Dance Festival June 12-27 all over town.
PNB Principal Carla Korbes in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling

And Sunday, June 7th, you can say goodbye to a slew of great PNB dancers: Principal Carla Korbes and Soloist Kiyon Gaines retire this year, at the ripe old age of 33; wonderful corps de ballet members Raphael Bouchard, Jahna Frantzikonis, Charles McCall and Eric Hippolito leave for greener pastures in the dance world. PNB said goodbye to corps member Brittany Reid earlier this spring.
PNB Soloist Kiyon Gaines in the studio
photo by Lindsay Thomas

Monday, April 27, 2015

Joy, Redemption And Sacred Spaces

This past weekend was what people refer to as an embarrassment of riches.

So much art, so much sunshine, Cornus Florida abloom, flat water to row on, and the planet I believe to be Jupiter gleaming in the deep blue twilit sky.

I've spent the past year or so ruminating on those small moments of grace we discover in our daily lives. Two performances really drove home to me the role that artists play in translating and communicating that grace, providing a bridge for us between the mundane and the sacred.

Donald Byrd and his excellent Spectrum Dance Theater premiered a new and poignant "Carmina Burana" at STG's Moore Theatre April 23-26.
Jose Rubio in Donald Byrd's "Carmina Burana"
photo by Tino Tran

Byrd cheerfully admits that Carl Orff's mid-1930's cantata is bombastic. But slimmed down for two pianos, percussion and a group of talented singers (particularly baritone Jose Rubio as the central figure), Byrd's "Carmina" was clear and intimate.

Byrd tells the story of a monk (Rubio) who loses his faith when seriously ill people he's tending to die. The monk casts off his robes, seeks refuge in booze and sex in a Kurt Weill-esque club; he is a shattered, hollow man. Ultimately, he rediscovers his faith, and finds redemption, through the pure love and joy he discovers in innocent children.
Spectrum Dance Company and singers in Donald Byrd's "Carmina Burana'
photo by Tino Tran

The dancers, the musicians, the singers: they all combined for an evening that was both beautiful and satisfying, and displayed Byrd as a masterful storyteller.
"How To Become a Partisan", April 25, 2015, St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle
photo by Sebastien Scandiuzzi

Where "Carmina Burana" was tightly honed, Alice Gosti's "How to Become a Partisan", produced by Velocity Dance Center at St. Mark's Cathedral on Saturday, April 25th, was a five-hour meditation.

I confess from the outset that I could only be present for two of those five hours, alas. What I had the privilege to witness was both stunning and thought provoking.
Composer/Performer Hanna Benn in Alice Gosti's "How To Become a Partisan"
photo by Liz Dawson

"Partisan" began with a procession through Capitol Hill, from Velocity to St. Mark's. The cathedral doors opened to reveal composer/singer Hanna Benn encased in a monumental white and black sculpture of a dress. Benn rose at eight ten feet above large, red rectangular blocks that turned out to be ice. As the blocks melted, blood-red moisture seeped up the fabric of her skirts.
Hanna Benn in "How to Become a Partisan"
photo by Liz Dawson

Gosti's dancers first appeared in black coveralls, hair tightly braided, red triangles painted below their jaws. They galloped, slid, slunk and cavorted through St. Mark's majestic sanctuary. Sometimes they sat, while Benn and her musicians took over our attention. Sound poured down on the audience from the organ loft; it enveloped us as singers circled the perimeter of the huge room, whitewashed cinder block walls bathed in refracted sunlight that entered through the soaring windows.

Gosti's starting point for what was billed as a durational performance was the story of the role Italian women played in resisting the Nazis during World War II. Serendipitously, April 25th marked the anniversary of Italy's liberation from fascism. In the simple program notes, Gosti and her collaborators asked audience members what it would take for us to be moved to action. After more than an hour at St. Marks, I wasn't think about overt action, I was thinking that Gosti had set up conditions for me to suspend my usual notions of time. She made a physical space that freed my mind up to think, to watch, to breath. I wrote in my notebook, "what does it take to create  a sacred space?"

Because truly, that is what Gosti created. Audience members tried to capture fleeting images of Benn and her red-soaked gown, or a womens' ensemble called the Beaconettes, who entered with towering day-glo beehive wigs on their heads, singing an Italian folk song. Professional photographers and videographers were also on hand, to document this five hour opus.

The scraps of their documentation exist; I've included some of those photos in this post. But really, how do you preserve a performance that is meant to be as fleeting as the blocks of melting ice?

I'm told as many as 500 people stayed for the whole five hours. I didn't want to leave; I was mesmerized by the dancers' movements, by the the reverberations of  the voices and instruments, by the way the light made each pastel yellow, blue and pink glass pane shine.

Alice Gosti created a magic, fleeting space in which I could contemplate, ruminate, meditate. We find that so rarely.
The experience of this moment of grace, this bridge to the sacred, now exists only in my mind.

It is indelible.

"How to Become a Partisan" by Alice Gosti, music by Hanna Benn
photo by Sebastien Scandiuzzi

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Transcendent Moments

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Carla Korbes in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling
We live in a day and age where everybody wants to quantify EVERYTHING.

Data are supposed to tell us how well kids are learning.
How our businesses are performing.
And, in my world of journalism, what impact our work has on our audience.

I’ve been contemplating that last one.

Bean-counters want to know whether or not the audience takes action after we read, or hear, or see something. In the data world, that’s the way you measure impact. But I’d argue the most powerful impact is not about the actions we take; it’s about the way we feel.

Look, you’ve probably experienced those moments in life that transport you from your humdrum rut. And chances are, you don’t really know WHY. For me, those moments sometimes come when I’m swimming along, and the water is gliding over my arms and legs and the sun is shining and everything just feels easy and rhythmic and happy and peaceful.

But more often, it’s a great artwork that catapults me into that realm. For example, the other day I was driving along listening to a recording of Chopin’s “Polonaise” on the car radio. Something about the way the pianist accented the notes he played gave the piece a sort of suspenseful syncopation. I don’t know, I found it thrilling.
PNB Principal Dancer Carla Korbes and Company dancers in "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling

I had that same sense of goose-bumpy thrill Friday, April 10, 2015, at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, as I watched Carla Korbes dance in Act 2 of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake.”

(You’ve probably heard of this ballet, even if you’ve never seen it. A handsome prince wanders out to a secluded lake one night. By the light of the full moon, he and his hunting buddies encounter a flock of beautiful swans. Turns out they’re actually beautiful women who’ve been bewitched by an evil sorcerer.
And, wouldn’t you know it, our hero falls in love with the loveliest member of the flock, a swan/woman named Odette. He can rescue her from her situation with a pledge of true love. I’m not giving anything away to say that things don’t end well. This is a 19th century ballet, after all.)
PNB Principal Dancers Karel Cruz and Carla Korbes in "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling

Carla Korbes didn’t just dance Kent Stowell’s choreography that evening; she embodied it. She floated across the mist-shrouded stage, her raised arms undulating behind her, as if they really were wings. It was astonishing to watch the wave of motion flow from a slight lift of Korbes’ shoulder, through her rippling forearm, and out through fingers that feathered through the air.
With each infinitesimal tuck of her chin, or tilt of her head, Korbes was less human than avian. I had no reason to question why this prince, danced by Karel Cruz, would be captivated by her. Who wouldn’t be?

Not long ago I sat down with Korbes to talk what it’s like when she’s onstage. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t make conscious choices when she performs. After more than 20 years of training, she says she doesn’t have to worry about the technique anymore.

Sure, when she has to dance the seemingly endless chain of fouette turns in Act 3, in the role of Odette’s evil alter-ego, the black swan Odile, Korbes must concentrate. It’s a daunting technical and artistic challenge. Korbes threw down 27 fouettes. By the way, I counted.

But a performance isn’t about the steps for Korbes; it’s about her relationships: with her partner, with the audience, and most of all, with her character. And that relationship is what she wants the audience to experience.

“I think it can touch people in a way that is not conscious.” Korbes believes the printed word doesn’t give readers the room to dream or to feel. “Dance is different. It depends on mood.”
PNB company members in "Swan Lake", choreographed by Kent Stowell
photo by Angela Sterling

The mood Korbes created in “Swan Lake” was ethereal, beyond words, and certainly beyond a data analysis of its impact. She elevated the beautiful mystery of that misty, moonlit lake, with her stunning attendant flock of 24 swans. She took me with her to someplace beyond Seattle’s McCaw Hall. I was conscious that she was Carla Korbes dancing a role, but at the same time I was touched by the magical possibility that a woman could be an enchanted swan.

Ultimately, I think that’s what a great artist can do: transmit the magic; the intangible, unquantifiable glory of what it means to be human and to dream and to hope and to create. Korbes managed to reveal to her delirious audience a sliver of the divine possibilities that lie within us all. The night was inspirational, and unforgettable.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Kate Wallich's Splurgeland

Lavinia Vago (left) and Kate Wallich in "Splurgeland"
photo by Tim Summers
We live in the information age.

Check that.

We live in an age of hyper-connectivity.

Friends, driving directions, emotional counseling. They’re all available with the swipe of the cool, impersonal screen on the tiny computer we carry with us everywhere. That accessibility flings us into a world of stimuli, entertainment, communication, and, ultimately, dis-connectivity.

At least, that’s a vision that choreographer Kate Wallich lays out for us in her newest work “Splurgeland,” premiered at Seattle’s On The Boards April 2-5, 2015.

Wallich and her company, The YC (co-director Lavinia Vago, Matt Drews, Waldean Nelson and Andrew Bartee) dance a dystopian, moody portrait of 21st century American society. Their world includes a surfeit of soft drinks and potato chips that promise bliss, a garden of perfect happiness, constant selfies, and a prevailing sense of joyless-ness.

Vago and Wallich knife a duet diagonally across the shiny white floor. They are mirror images of sharp arms and legs. Occasionally they touch one another’s bodies, but that touch only grazes the skin. Their faces are impenetrable masks, their human souls seemingly untouchable.
Lavinia Vago and Kate Wallich in "Splurgeland"
photo by Tim Summers

In a rare moment of peaceful beauty, Wallich, Vago, Drews and Nelson are prone onstage. In unison, they lift their torsos, arms arced overhead. Each dancer scissors her/his legs, swimming smoothly across the floor. That unison is lovely, but short-lived.

This  “splurge” culiminates not in calm, but in a cacophonous scene where Wallich, Drews, Nelson and Vago move to her/his own frenzied rhythm as Johnny Goss’ chaotic score gets louder and more discordant.
Waldean Nelson, Kate Wallich, Matt Drews and Lavinia Vago in "Splurgeland"
photo by Tim Summers

That’s not to say Wallich hasn’t thrown us some bones of relief. Bartee, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet standout now with Ballet BC, appears in a swath of white light as “Splurge God.” Stripped to turquoise briefs, he throws himself into a frantic solo that’s part gym workout, part exasperated disgust with what the four mortals have wrought. While it was great to see Bartee back on a Seattle stage, this particular scene felt shoe-horned into an otherwise self-consciously serious performance.

Special kudos to Amiya Brown for a splendid lighting design. The white floor reflects everything from a harsh white glare at the show’s onset, to a soft blue, to the eerie blacklight, neon strips, and a strobe.
Kate Wallich with Waldean Nelson
photo by Tim Summers

And how about Waldean Nelson! 
It was a pleasure to watch this dancer channel a grace that seemingly comes from somewhere beyond the music and choreography. I hope he becomes a YC/Seattle regular!

Ultimately, Kate Wallich paints a bleak picture of the 21st century legacy my baby boomer generation has bequeathed. “Splurgeland” is Wallich’s most ambitious work to date in her young career, and the audience loved it. I can’t help but think Wallich has a lot more to give us as an artist.  She’s smart and talented, and it will be interesting to watch her grasp on her choreography matures.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Visceral And Intellectual Thrill Of Forsythe

PNB soloists Leta Biasucci and Margaret Mullin in "Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude"
photo by Angela Sterling
Opening night at Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe," the first American all-Forsythe evening, I had this kind of tingly sensation as I took my seat. You know that feeling of anticipation when you're about to open a fabulous gift? Or maybe the way your stomach kind of churns with excitment when you're on an airplane that's about to take off for your Paris vacation?

I'd been waiting for this particular program ever since PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal announced it as part of the company's 2014-15 season.

Nothing like some heavy expectations, eh?

This all-Forsythe experience not only fulfilled those expectations; it reminded me of all the ways that dance can both thrill me with its energy and grace, while at the same time pushing me to consider what I'm watching.
Benjamin Griffiths and Carrie Imler in "Vertiginous Thrill..."
photo by Angela Sterling

The evening opener, "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude," is one wild ride. It's a non-stop dazzle of virtuosity, precision and, let's face it, fortitude from the five dancers who barely get a chance to stop to breathe.

The curtain goes up on two men in orange shorts and shirts. Jonathan Porretta and Benjamin Griffiths were more than capable of meeting the challenges Forsythe threw down for them. They executed the leaps, spins and chains of intricate footwork with panache and an exactitude that was, well, thrilling.

The three women-Carrie Imler, Leta Biasucci and Margaret Mullin, were equally up to the tasks at hand. Dazzling in acid-green tutus that looked nothing like the classical confections of tulle that we'll see in "Swan Lake," these dancers were marvels in motion. When I managed to snap my jaw shut, I scrawled down in my notebook 'wicked footwork.' Wicked indeed, and fabulous.

After a musical interlude to celebrate the PNB orchestra's 25th  anniversary, we were treated to "New Suite." The dance-first performed in 2012 at Dresden Semperoper Ballett, and no place else until now-is really a collection of nine pas de deux. Forsythe originally choreographed them for other dances that aren't performed any more. Four are set to music by George Frideric Handel, three to sections of Luciano Berio's mid-20th century "Duetti per due violins," one to a Bach chaconne, and the longest, the "Slingerland pas de deux," to Gavin Byars' 1985 "String Quartet no. 1."  The music was performed live.
PNB soloists William Lin-Yee and Elizabeth Murphy in Handel 1 from "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling

"New Suite" opens with a romantic Handel duet, performed with stunning elegance by soloists Elizabeth Murphy and William Lin-Yee. Murphy was at her best; her body seemed to arc and stretch as if made of some kind of delicate elastic. Lin-Yee, always an able dancer, mesmerized with his strength and solid partnering.

While the three opening Handel duets were charmers, the sharper-themed Berio pas de deux were the true highlights for me. Performed by Lesley Rausch and Raphael Bouchard, Lindsi Dec and Jerome Tisserand, and Chelsea Adomaitis and Steven Loch, these three gems highlight the nuance and sometimes jagged discord that most of us experience in romantic relationships.
PNB Principal Lindsi Dec with Jerome Tisserand in Berio 3 from "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling

It's the little details that elevate these dances beyond mere illustrations; the brief caress of a cheek, or a tug on a partner's knee to lift his leg off the floor. Adomaitis holds her arm out straight, hand tilted up with her palm to the audience. When Loch forms a circle with his arms, she undulates her head and torso through it, a fish swimming upstream. Knocked me out.
PNB corps de ballet members Chelsea Adomaitis and Steven Loch in Berio 2
photo by Angela Sterling

These details, these gestures, build on one another like wet sand dribbled to form a beautiful castle at the seaside.

The one sour note on opening night was "Slingerland." I had seen it performed five years ago and loved it. Laura Tisserand and Karel Cruz seemed rushed, out of synch with the music. Their Saturday matinee performance was infinitely better and I found out later that the live string quartet had been replaced with a recording.

"New Suite" ends with the fourth Handel pas de deux, and Forsythe saved the best Handel for last. Jahna Frantziskonis and Kyle Davis were adorable in what feels a bit like a balletic version of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." But in the Saturday matinee, Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta seized the stage and gave a textbook performance in what it means to combine confident technique with pure charisma. Wow. Be still, my heart!

The program ends with "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," part of PNB's repertoire since 2000, and a consistent crowd pleaser. This tour de force is still as captivating as I'm certain it was when it debuted at the Paris Opera Ballet 30 some years ago.
PNB Principal Jonathan Porretta and company dancers in "In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated"
photo by Angela Sterling

"In the Middle..." is an ensemble piece for nine dancers, set on a stage stripped bare to the back wall and wings, and lit eerily from overhead. You feel like you're watching the dancers after hours in an abandoned warehouse. That feeling is magnified by Thom Willem's powerful electronic score.

Every dancer on opening night brought something special to this dance, but Lindsi Dec, Lesley Rausch, Seth Orza, William Lin-Yee, Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta were standouts.

Every time I see Rausch in a contemporary ballet I think 'this is what she was born to do.' As a performer she brings a cool, almost haughty elegance to the stage. Think Grace Kelly. These traits, combined with her technical mastery, were stunning in this work.

Dec, with her amazing long lean body, brought a feral ferocity to the choreography. And Imler and Porretta? What can I say? They were brilliant. Just brilliant.

I saw "Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe" twice opening weekend. I'm so glad I have the opportunity to see the program one more time. It's like postponing the end of a long vacation, savoring one last cocktail in a Parisian boite.

The PNB dancers have been inspired and energized by the all-Forsythe program, and by the chance to work with this choreographer and his stagers. You will be inspired and energized when you see them perform this great program. You've got four more chances; "Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe" is at McCaw Hall March 19-22nd.
PNB corps de ballet members Jahna Frantziskonis and Ezra Thomson in Handel 2 from "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remembering Helen

Helen Strickland, 1989 (age 70)
photo by Carl Sander, courtesy Leslie Robison
You probably have at least one of these people in your life: somebody with a larger-than-life personality, a zest for adventure, compassion for those who need it and generosity for the rest of us.

I'm lucky to know many folks with these fine qualities. But I got the sad news this morning that one of them passed away over the weekend.

Helen Strickland was a teacher, a painter and an actress.

She wasn't particularly famous outside her sphere of influence, but that sphere was wide and varied. Helen collected people and experiences during her long life. And if you were lucky enough to meet her, she made your life the richer for that friendship.

I first ran into Helen years ago at a public swimming pool. I was standing, stark naked, in the shower, when this older woman came up and said with a smile "I'd love to paint you!"

What a pick up line!

That was Helen.

She was a wonderful painter. Her watercolors of childrens' swim lessons still hang in the lobby of a North Seattle community center.

She was also a long-time high school language arts teacher and a passionate theater artist who was a member of the Seattle Peace Theater group. She was as devoted to social justice issues as she was to the arts.

Helen made a guest appearance on the radio, when we put together a segment on what seniors gain from inter-generational social contacts. The producers wanted to bring in somebody who had benefited from a wide net of friendships. Helen was perfect.

One day Helen invited me to her house for tea and scones. She wanted to show me a painting she'd been inspired to make after a visit to the Edward Hopper show at the Seattle Art Museum. Helen had copied one of Hopper's works, and she'd inserted a self portrait of herself as a young woman in place of Hopper's figure. She told me Hopper's painting reminded her of a train trip she took decades ago. She was certain the artist had seen her on that train.

Not long after my visit, Helen left her home and moved into assisted living. She was over 90 at that point, and living alone was no longer feasible. That was several years ago, and I never saw her again, although I thought of her often.

Helen lived her life with grace and passion and an enthusiasm for the people she met. I wanted, and still want, to emulate her style.

Let me give you just one last taste of Helen.

One morning in the locker room, as I donned a bright sweater with a sparkly brooch, Helen stopped in front of me and sighed.

"Oh, I had a pin like that!" she exclaimed.

She went on to describe how it went with a swath of fabric she'd received from a Seattle Sister City Exchange. (Or perhaps it was a Peace Corps event. Helen had been involved in a wealth of activities.)

"I used to be hot," she said, with her wicked smile, and mimed tossing that fabric over a shoulder. The years vanished from her face in that instant, and I had a glimpse of the young Helen.

But at age 90, Helen Strickland still was smoking hot.
And that's how I will remember a life very, very well lived.
A bloom for Helen Strickland