Monday, June 9, 2014

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!

Kaori Nakamura as Kitri in Alexei Ratmansky's "Don Quixote"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet
One thing is constant in this world: change.

As much as we'd love to stop time, it just keeps marching on. And with time's passage, we experience the inevitable: people come into our lives. And then they leave.

On Sunday evening, June 8th, a packed audience in Seattle's McCaw Hall was witness to the inevitable, at Pacific Northwest Ballet's annual "Encore" performance.

Officially, "Encore" is a one-off season closer, an evening of greatest hits, if you will. But it's also the ballet company's send off for departing dancers. And every so often those who are departing are also dearly beloved company members.

That was the case this year-a royal farewell for veteran principal dancer Kaori Nakamura, spiced with fond farewells to PNB Executive Director D. David Brown, and corps de ballet dancers Andrew Bartee and Liora Neuville. Both Bartee and Neuville got their moment to shine for the enthusiastic audience, but the night belonged to Nakamura. More on that in a moment.
Liora Neuville in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Liora Neuville is a lovely, quiet dancer. She and Benjamin Griffiths performed the Bluebird pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty." It's a show piece that mixes some dazzling footwork with delicate choreography, a delicacy that Neuville herself always exhibited. Pretty steps for a pretty woman. Neuville leaves PNB to study nursing. As Artistic Director Peter Boal quipped, that almost makes you want to get sick.

Like Neuville, Andrew Bartee studied at the PNB school before he joined the company. Unlike Neuville, Bartee's neither pretty nor delicate. Instead, this lanky redhead is bold, elastic and has shone in work by contemporary choreographers, from Ulysses Dove to Twyla Tharp to, most recently, Crystal Pite, in her dance "Emergence." Bartee got a chance to reprise his solo from this large, challenging work, and it was a thrill to see him perform it once again.
Andrew Bartee in "Emergence" by Crystal Pite
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Bartee leaves for Ballet BC later this summer. As I've mentioned before, it's just a pleasant road trip from Seattle. I take that as a small consolation. I'm so sorry to see him leave.

And then there's Kaori Nakamura. As one dance fan mentioned to me on our way out of McCaw Hall: "what a way to go!" It's the kind of graceful exit everyone should hope to emulate.

Nakamura has appeared in every kind of ballet over her 17 years with PNB, but she won't hesitate to tell you her favorites are the classics: "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "Coppelia", "Romeo and Juliette." She loves them all. And that's what we got to see in this "Encore" program, snippets from these works, culminating in the Rose Adagio from "Sleeping Beauty." And what an emotional several minutes!

The stage was packed with Nakamura's long time PNB colleagues: all three ballet masters: Otto Neubert, Anne Dabrowski and Paul Gibson in period costume, plus a bevy of blue and white-clad ballerinas, including retired PNB soloist Chalnessa Eames.
Kaori Nakamura as Princess Aurora in PNB's "Sleeping Beauty"
photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB

And then, there were Nakamura's four suitors: Batkhurel Bold, James Moore, Jonathan Porretta and Jerome Tisserand. All four have danced with Nakamura, all four seemed honored to be part of her last dance. Just remembering it makes me a little teary. In her pink tutu (something she wished for as a little girl in Gumma, Japan) and sparkling tiara, Kaori Nakamura went out in a beautiful shimmer, surrounded by loving friends an adoring audience, and a mountain of flowers.

Time may pass, but if we're lucky, we hold onto our memories. Thank you Kaori Nakamura, for giving me plenty of wonderful images to hold on to.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Timeless Kaori Nakamura

Kaori Nakamura and Jerome Tisserand in Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling
She's been dancing for more than three decades, but on opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Peter Boal's "Giselle," Kaori Nakamura looked as fresh and radiant as a woman half her age (44!). In the demanding title role, Nakamura conveyed every nuance of the love-struck young girl driven to madness, then death, by the perfidy of her man. She also showed us what we'll miss next season; Nakamura retires June 8th.

Nakamura's Act I Giselle is a coquette-a grape-picking peasant who has her eye on the hunky guy in the hut across the town square. Luckily, he's also got his eye on her. They flirt, they dance, they get engaged. But the hunk, Albrecht, isn't who he seems to be. Turns out he's really a nobleman in disguise. Worse, he's already engaged to somebody else. When Giselle finds out the truth (from the guy she's spurned), she descends into a grief induced madness that ultimately kills her.
Jerome Tisserand as Albrecht in PNB's "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling
Jerome Tisserand took on the role of Albrecht opposite Nakamura's Giselle, and it was a great opportunity for this dazzling young dancer, and for the audience. Tisserand still holds the rank of soloist with the company, but to my eyes he's the most princely man to take the McCaw Hall stage since Lucien Postlewaite left PNB three years ago for Monte Carlo. For one thing, Jerome Tisserand looks like a prince: handsome, dark, with chiseled cheek bones. But he's got more than looks going for him. He dances with a grace and lightness that set him apart. Tisserand is unbound by the same gravity that encumbers the rest of us.
Jerome Tisserand with Kaori Nakamura in PNB's "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

In Act II, Giselle is dead. A grief-stricken Albrecht wanders into a spooky forest haunted by the ghosts of spurned women-the Wilis. When their queen, Myrtha, orders Albrecht to dance, Tisserand propels himself more than two feet straight off the ground, scissoring his feet like a hummingbird's wings. Then he does that a few more times for good measure. (If this ballet was set in the Wild West, the bad guy would be peppering his feet with bullets, goading him to 'dance, sucker.') Every time Tisserand's Albrecht staggers in exhaustion, Myrtha (danced by the ever astonishing Carrie Imler) points her finger at him, then mimes that he better keep going. So he does, circling the stage in continuous leaps. I'm sure Tisserand was thrilled when his character got to collapse to the stage floor; it was a good chance for him to catch his breath. I needed to catch mine, too.
Kaori Nakamura, Jerome Tisserand and PNB corps de ballet in "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

PNB's production of "Giselle" was first unveiled three years ago. It was recreated from original manuscripts and notation. The company borrowed sets and costumes for those performances. This time around, PNB built all new sets and costumes. Particularly interesting were large etchings projected on a scrim that was revealed when the curtain rose. But it's the dancing that stands out in this production, particularly in Act II. The corps de ballet women, in long, ethereal white gowns, are the Wilis: stern, disciplined and magnificent. They execute their choreography with a fearsome precision. At one point, in unison, they hop across the stage on one foot. Their bodies lean forward from the waist, one arm extended straight in front of them at shoulder height, the other straight to the rear. They are Myrtha's angry army, prepared to hound to the death any unsuspecting man who ventures into their path.
PNB corps de ballet members as Wilis in "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

All cylinders clicked in "Giselle", but opening night belonged to Kaori Nakamura. She made the dramatic evolution from flirtatious young girl, through hysterical madness, to defiant spectre seem effortless. Physically, Nakamura gave us her all: leaping and spinning with abandon, stalking across the floor en pointe, dangling almost weightless in Tisserand's arms, legs waving softly to and fro like a tree in a breeze.
Kaori Nakamura as Giselle
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

Lucky for us "Giselle" continues this weekend at McCaw Hall. Nakamura and Tisserand are schedule to perform the Saturday June 7th matinee. To mangle Shakespeare, get thee to the theater!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Leta Biasucci Has A Dream

PNB dancer Leta Biasucci in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Lindsay Thomas

Most people see only the sparkly side of ballet: the live performances, with dancers in costume, pointe shoes tied, orchestra in the pit. Whether it’s the annual holiday production of “Nutcracker” or an edgier, contemporary work, a performance is like a reward for many of the dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet. PNB corps de ballet member Leta Biasucci says “sharing an experience we hope the audience enjoys is what makes it worthwhile for most dancers.”

The “it” Biasucci refers to is the grueling training, the daily hours of practice essential for anyone to make it as a professional ballet dancer. Thousands of little girls (and maybe hundreds of little boys) dream of being on stage. The truth is, the sparkly, seemingly effortless performances are the result of years of constant hard work. Only a few dreamers have the talent and discipline it takes.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Biasucci and a roomful of her fellow PNB company members warm up before the daily 90 minute class that starts out each day at the ballet company. There are no tutus, no tiaras here. Most of the dancers wear ratty tights, leg warmers, tee shirts that advertise dance clothing companies or past arts festivals. At 10:15 sharp, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal comes to the front of the room to put his dancers through their paces.
Leta Biasucci and PNB company members in daily class
photo by Hannah Burn

“We’ll start with plies,” Boal says. Each dancer places a hand on the nearest barre, bending slowly at the knees until thighs are parallel to the floor, heels lifted. With arms gracefully arced overhead, they rise up from the deep bend, then sweep their torsos forward from the waist, heads stretched toward their toes. This is the first of a series of exercises that become increasingly complex as the class goes on. A pianist in the corner keeps up a steady accompaniment.

Leta Biasucci is positioned near Boal at the front of the studio, her curly dark hair pulled back from her face. At 24, Biassucci is one of the younger company members, but already she’s invested years training for this job. She started ballet classes as a five year old in Pennsylvania.

“I loved it, I loved it, it was what I wanted to do,” she explains. “It was what I did when I went home, I tapped around the house. I loved it.”

At 9, Biasucci enrolled in the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, considered a “serious” dance school. The young girl was attracted to the rigor of the daily classes. She spent every afternoon there. “Maybe I liked it because I was sort of good at it,” she laughs.

To succeed at ballet you need to be more than “sort of good” at it. According to Peter Boal “I don’t know that it has to do with the gifts that you receive when you’re born.”  More so, Boal believes a dancer’s success is built on determination and intelligence.

By the age of 16, Leta Biasucci thought she had what it takes to pursue a professional dance career. She was accepted to San Francisco Ballet’s trainee program, where she attended class and dreamed they might hire her when she finished the program. Most big companies like SF Ballet hire only a handful of trainees or apprentices every year. Biasucci didn’t make the cut. She consoled herself with a job at the smaller Oregon Ballet Theater. She was happy to be dancing professionally, but still, she dreamed of something more. After three years in Portland, Biasucci decided to audition for Pacific Northwest Ballet.

“I remember sending an email to Peter (Boal’s) assistant, Doug Fullington, saying if you’ll have me, I would love the opportunity to come up and take class.”

That’s ballet-speak for an audition.
Leta Biasucci attends company class in Vail
photo by Lindsay Thomas

The class Biasucci attended was much like the one Boal leads most mornings: a series of technical exercises progressing to step combinations, and finally to ballet’s signature jumps. Biasucci remembers it was fast paced, very challenging. “And I was, of course, very nervous.”

Boal says “Leta came, and I remember looking at her in company class and thinking, that’s not quite right, that’s not quite what I was looking for.”

But there was something about this girl that intrigued him.

“I asked Doug, can you ask that Leta girl, I can’t remember her last name, can you ask her if she can come back a second time?”

A few weeks later, Biasucci returned to PNB.  “I sort of willed myself to have this confidence,” she says. “I said, okay, I’m here, I’m doing it.”

She confesses, the second time around, she was better prepared for what Boal would demand of her.
As the head of one of the best known ballet companies in the nation, Peter Boal can make or break a young dancer’s career. He likes to remind his students that they shouldn’t take his rejection as a final say on whether or not they’ll make it as professional dancers. But Boal is a taste maker. And Leta Biasucci was a dancer to his taste.

“I haven’t been a speed dater, but I imagine with speed dating you click or you don’t.”

Boal clicked with Leta Biasucci. A month after her second visit to PNB, he offered her a job in the corps de ballet. The corps are the dancers you usually see grouped at the back or sides of the stage, framing the stars of each performance. They’re like supporting actors in a film, or the chorus in a big Broadway show. Each corps member dreams of being singled out from the crowd. Realistically, only a few will realize that dream. Sometimes it takes a lucky break.

For Leta Biasucci, that break came during a run of the classical ballet “Coppelia”. She’d studied the title role, but Biasucci wasn’t likely to get a chance to perform it.

“Leta was in the fifth cast,” says Boal. “But then, the dancer in the fourth cast couldn’t go on. I said, just step in for today, do what you know,” he laughs. “Well, she knew everything!”
Leta Biasucci as Cupid in Alexei Ratmanksy's "Don Quixote"
photo by Angela Sterling

Since that performance, Boal has selected Biasucci for a bevy of featured roles. She’s thrilled with the opportunities, but the spotlight can be scary. She has to deliver the goods in each performance, to prove she earned that spotlight.

Biasucci has been learning a new role for PNB’s upcoming production of “Giselle.” It’s a featured duet she’ll dance with company veteran (and audience favorite) Jonathan Porretta. At a recent rehearsal, Biasucci’s billowing tulle skirt throws her off.  She’s flustered and embarrassed by her mistakes. Porretta and ballet master Paul Gibson calm her down and the second run through goes much more smoothly.
The challenging role in “Giselle” is just the latest step in Leta Biasucci’s career ladder. You can’t rest on your past successes if you want to keep your job. “There’s always another rank,” she says, “you always want to be promoted, there’s always another role.”

Biasucci’s boss, Peter Boal, says the promotions are coming for Biasucci.

“In three months, six months.” But Boal defines success as more than a job title. “It’s about watching a fully accomplished artist develop into what they’re capable of.”

Sometimes Leta Biasucci has to remind herself that, whether or not she gets her promotions, this is the life she has worked for since she decided to become a ballerina at the age of 9.

“I feel I’m living the dream. This is it. And it’s great.”
 
Leta Biasucci, with James Moore, in Kent Stowell's "Nutcracker"
photo by Lindsay Thomas


Monday, May 19, 2014

Whim W'him: The Courage Of Conviction

Whim W'him company members in "Les Biches" by Anabelle Lopez Ochoa
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'him
It takes vision and passion to make art. It also takes discipline, resilience and maybe most of all, it takes courage. Courage to try to re-create what's in your mind's eye. Courage to ask friends, family, and strangers to give you money to make your dream into something tangible. Courage to put that artwork out for public comment, hoping it will resonate.Courage to push yourself beyond your last success, or your last failure.

Choreographer Olivier Wevers has spent more than five years propelled by the courage not only to make dances, but to forge a dance company in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. His company Whim W'him is in the midst of its spring program at Seattle's Erickson Theater. #unprotected is an evening of three new works by Wevers and two guest choreographers. They're a manifestation of not only Wevers' artistic vision; they're also the fruit of his courage and perseverance.

The evening opens with Belgian-Colombian choreographer (and longtime Whim W'him guest artist) Anabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Les Biches." It's a stunning exploration of femininity and other-worldliness, performed by the company's four female dancers.
Whim W'him dancers in "Les Biches"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'him

Dressed in flesh colored leotards and helmeted in retro swim caps, eyes accentuated by dark, almost sinister makeup, these women are hyper-females, using those eyes to seduce the audience. They beckon us with long red talons that extend their fingers several inches beyond the living hands. They are not the female deer the French word "biche" denotes. Instead, they are haunting creatures from some underwater realm.

Lighting designer Michael Mazzola creates a series of habitats for these sirens, alternating between eerie and accessible. The world of "Les Biches" isn't soon forgotten.

Andrew Bartee's latest piece, "I'm here but it's not the same" seems a manifestation of this young artist's search for his own identity. Five dancers in hoodies and jeans move slowly across the dark stage, shrouded from us and each other. One dancer breaks away from the line, throws off her hood to glimpse the world around her. Quickly, she flips that protective covering up. The wide world can be a scary place.

Andrew Bartee has spent the past six years in the corps de ballet at Pacific Northwest Ballet, as well as performing with Whim W'him and other Seattle contemporary choreographers. At 24, he's decided to pursue his interests in new work, both choreographically and in performance. This summer he leaves Seattle and PNB to join Ballet BC. He's dared to throw off that cozy hood for real. I'll miss him onstage and off, and I hope we still get to see the fruits of his choreographic vision from time to time.

The final dance on the #unprotected bill is Wevers' "Above the Cloud." Set to Francis Poulenc's ferocious "Organ Concerto," this dance is an exploration of personal, and interpersonal, transitions. The ferocity of the music is almost a counterpoint to the huge white pillows the dancers alternately embrace and discard. Tiny Lara Seefeldt is literally cushioned by the seven pillows as the dance begins, only to have them ripped out from under her, one by one, leaving her exposed and vulnerable to her changed circumstances. We can't hide from our lives, not matter how we try.
Olivier Wevers' "Above the Cloud"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'him

"Above the Cloud" reveals Wevers own transition as an artist. He's long been adept at creating intricate and emotional pas de deux ("Monster" and "Flower Festival" are just two examples). With this dance he demonstrates his growing ease with crafting movement for larger groups, as well as his ongoing fascination with inanimate props. An indelible image from this new piece is Seefeldt, held aloft by her six fellow dancers as if on a royal palanquin. She sits up, peers curiously around her, like a fledgling bird observing the world beyond the nest for the very first time.

Whim Whim's #unprotected is more than the three distinct and interesting dances. The program really shows us Olivier Wevers' successful melding of seven dancers into a single creative unit. Throughout his company's short history, Wevers has consistently assembled casts of great dancers to perform in his shows. But now he has a real company, on contract, and with this production we can really see why that matters for a choreographer. Not only are the company members technically proficient dancers, they are people who know and trust one another, who complement each other's movements and personalities. They are the tangible evidence of Wevers' courage. They are Whim W'him.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Heads Up Seattle Dance Fans!


Karin Stevens (Dieter Zander photo)
Seattle Dance Annual


What a treat for Puget Sound dance lovers! Seattle dance writer and designer Rosie Gaynor has assembled a wonderful compendium of 2013's dance highlights: favorite performers and performances of the year, a list of dance companies, and hundreds of photographs. The site goes live Sunday evening, May 18th: www.seattledanceannual.com.

You'll be able to access this book in several ways: as an online PDF, a high-res downloadable file, even as a soft-cover book available on Amazon. All that information will be available on the Dance Annual site.

Gaynor queried local dance writers (including yours truly) about our favorite moments from last year. Then she pulled those responses together into a beautifully designed book that includes scholarly essays as well as contact information for choreographers and dance organizations. She calls this labor of love part information, part celebration of the Puget Sound region's vibrant dance scene. If you don't find your faves, contact Gaynor at seattledanceannual@gmail.com.

Another heads up: Whim W'him's May performances at Seattle's Erickson Theater Off Broadway continue this weekend and next. I'll have a review of the show, #unprotected, on Monday 5/19. Also on tap this weekend and next, Spectrum Dance Theater's festival of American music and dance: Rambunctious! Check 'em both out.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Dribs And Drabs-The Rest Is Silence


Tanaquil Leclercq
Seattle ballet fans might want to check out the new documentary film "Afternoon of a Faun," about the late New York City Ballet dancer Tanaquil LeClercq.

Tanny, as she was known to her friends, was a rising star when she contracted polio in 1956. She was only 27 years old. "Afternoon of a Faun" shows us some ghostly footage of LeClercq as a young dancer. It also addresses the pain she faced as she came to grips with her physical situation. But more than that, the documentary provides a glimpse at Tanny's husband, George Balanchine, and the very complex relationships the choreographer formed with the women who inspired his art. As an added highlight, we see a bit of the complicated friendship between Tanny and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Most of all, it's food for thought on the fleeting life of a dancer, whether due to illness or the fact that a dancer's performance life is limited.
The film plays at Seattle's Varsity Theater. I can't imagine it'll stick around for a long run, but it's definitely worth checking out now.

Kaori Nakamura in Peter Boal's "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

In other ballet news: Pacific Northwest Ballet's eternally beautiful principal dancer Kaori Nakamura gives her farewell performance Sunday, June 8th. Nakamura announced last fall that this artistic season would be her last. Now in her early 40's, Nakamura is more lovely than ever onstage. But ballet's physical demands have taken their toll. Lucky PNB students: Nakamura will join the faculty of the company's dance school. You can also see Kaori Nakamura dance the title role in "Giselle", opening Friday May 30th at McCaw Hall.

Also taking their last Seattle bows June 8th: Liora Neuville, a lovely PNB corps de ballet member who has given us some gently pretty performances over her years with the company. According to PNB, Neuville will head to nursing school. A bigger loss to local audiences: corps member and emerging choreographer Andrew Bartee leaves the company when the season ends. The long, lanky redhead has shone in such contemporary work as Crystal Pite's "Emergence," (re-emerging on June 8th) and Ulysses Dove's "Dancing On The Front Porch Of Heaven." He's also been a semi-regular with Olivier Wevers' company Whim W'him. Lucky for us, Bartee is only a road trip away: he's joining Ballet BC. Good luck Andrew; how we will miss you!
PNB departing dancer Andrew Bartee, rehearsing in New York

Looking ahead to some other dance events in May: Whim W'him will be at Seattle's Erickson Theater, in a new program called #unprotected. Look for new work by Anabelle Lopez Ochoa, the aforementioned Andrew Bartee, and company Artistic Director Wevers. The show runs May 15-23rd.

And Donald Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theater presents "Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers and Dance" May 15-17th at Fremont Abbey Arts Center and May 22-24th at Washington Hall. The festival features seven new works with live accompaniment by Simple Measures chamber music ensemble. Byrd told me no two programs will be the same. Between "Rambunctious" and #unprotected, plus "Giselle" in late May, it looks like Seattle's in for a wild dance ride. Bring it on!
bonus Kaori photo!
in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake", photo by Angela Sterling

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dancing Beyond The Stage: It's A Revelation

Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"
courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
It's been years, probably decades, since I last saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform. No particular reason-mostly timing conflicts, I suspect. This year the stars aligned, and I had the good fortune to be part of the Seattle audience during Ailey's 2014 Spring tour. Not only was this performance an opportunity to watch some amazing dancers; it was also a thought-provoking experience. More about that second point in a bit.

The tour was more of a marathon: more than 20 cities over a couple of months. I believe Seattle was the 18th or 19th stop. The dancers didn't betray any particular exhaustion onstage. If anything, the adoration lavished on them by the capacity audience surely buoyed the performers' spirits.

We were treated to three works. Ronald K. Brown's 2013 "Four Corners" opened the Saturday evening show. Almost a dozen dancers (the women in flowing dresses and head scarves, the men in loose trousers and shirts) undulated across the floor to a musical pastiche. At times the dance felt vaguely African, but what was most remarkable was the dancers' prowess. Brown required of them a technical control that was breathtaking. Bent at the waist, arms extended, the dancers drew up through their backs, forming arches that they then mimicked with their arms and hands. They shimmied and shook, following the ebb and flow of the music. The dance ends with a line of dancers snaking out, one by one, from the wings, moving upstage, then back downstage and off. The movements passed from dancer to dancer down the line, like a relay runner passes a baton.
Dancer Yannick Lebrun, courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

The men, in particular, shone. Alas for the audience, the program offered us no photos, so it was hard to pick out our favorites by name. One man stood out for me. A bit of detective work identified him, I think, as Yannick Lebrun. He launched himself into each movement with his full being, exuding a sort of radiance that separated himself from his colleagues. "Four Corners" left me breathless, both in empathetic response to the nonstop energy of the performers, but also with respect to the scope and ambition of the choreography.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company members
in Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16"

After a short intermission, the show resumed with Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's high voltage 1999 work "Minus 16." I've seen Naharin's company, Batsheva Dance, perform this; the Ailey dancers were equally impressive. "Minus 16" began with a disarming front-of-curtain solo. Marcus Jarrell Willis stood, looking out at the audience, dressed in a dark suit, white button down shirt and dark lace-up shoes. The house lights remained up as Willis' elastic body seemed to collapse in on itself, then spring upright in one swooping movement. Willis never stopped regarding the audience regarding him, as he dropped down and slid across the stage floor, to end up, prone with his chin propped on his fists. The house lights slowly faded, and the stage erupted in a frenzy of music and movement, as 20 more dancers in suits and matching hats joined Willis.

"Minus 16" is more than a single dance: it's like a cavalcade of insistent energetic dances. Each is distinct, yet tied into the whole. Even a bittersweet pas de deux, a momentary lull in the action, was super charged. The hullabaloo culminated with an extended section that included the audience. Artists have broken the fourth wall before, but "Minus 16" heaves a load of TNT at it, smashing through with gusto.
Marcus Jarrell Willis in "Revelations"

The evening ended, as do most Ailey company tour performances, with Alvin Ailey's seminal 1960 dance "Revelations." And this is when my brain went into overdrive. Because "Revelations" is more than a dance; it's more than a tradition. Built in three sections, "Revelations" is steeped in a sensibility that comes out of Texas-reared Ailey's life, as well as the wider African American experience. From the exhaustion and torment of oppression, to anger and struggle, to a joyous affirmation of what it means to be alive, "Revelations" is an impressive work of art. But watching the audience response, it was clear that, to them, this was far more than a piece of choreography well executed. I needed to know more.

Choreographer and former Ailey student Donald Byrd graciously sat down with me to give me to talk about this. Byrd grew up in the Deep South, and he says as a young man he had a visceral negative reaction to spirituals (the soundtrack of "Revelations"), because they reminded him of slavery, a chapter of his heritage he preferred not to dwell on. When he left Florida to study in the Northeast, Byrd was a voracious consumer of dance performance. He says he went to see everything. On the recommendation of Tufts University classmate William Hurt, Byrd attended an Alvin Ailey performance. He says as "Revelations" ended, he was surprised to find himself on his feet, cheering with tears running down his cheeks. It was a personal and artistic revelation: Byrd told me he thought at the time "I want to make art that makes people feel like this."

Since those school days, Byrd has maintained a long and evolving relationship with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: he studied there, caught Ailey's eye, choreographed for both Ailey II and the main company. In particular, Byrd's dance "Shards" drew national acclaim. It was Alvin Ailey who, personally, validated Byrd's choreographic aspirations, his artistic sensibility, despite the fact that the younger man was more interested in New York's downtown, avant garde dance scene.

It's clear that the 2014 Seattle audience felt much the way Donald Byrd did more than 20 years ago: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is, for them, as much a symbol as an artistic institution. As such, it bears a weighty responsibility. Byrd says he believes the new Artistic Director Robert Battle wants to bring more contemporary dance pieces into the Ailey repertoire. But it's a delicate balance: too much new work overshadows the company legacy; too little relegates it to museum-status. And, it turns out, on these marathon cross-country tours, we audiences in the hinterlands are not exposed to the full artistic cornucopia that Ailey offers. For that, Donald Byrd says, I have to travel to New York in December.

Sounds like a plan.