Monday, November 25, 2013

Passion: You're Never Too Old, Or Too Young

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chelsea Adomaitis (far right) with company dancers in Concerto Barocco, choreography by George Balanchine © New York City Ballet.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

I've been thinking a lot lately about comings and goings, about transitions, and what inspires us to make changes in our lives. In part, that's a reflection of changes in my own career. You know how that can be; we see ourselves reflected in the world around us. For every person who decides to step away from something they're passionate about, a new and equally passionate person emerges.

Over the past year I've spent quite a bit of time contemplating Pacific Northwest Ballet's corps de ballet members. My preoccupation was sparked watching the inimitable Francia Russell working with some of these young dancers in rehearsal for Concerto Barocco, by George Balanchine. PNB was headed to New York, and Russell was diligent in her preparations. Normally I watch the principals or soloists at work, but for this dance, the women in the corps were key. I was struck by the feathery lightness of Elizabeth Murphy's limbs. It seems that her arms and legs float on a zephyr.

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chelsea Adomaitis (right) with Elizabeth Murphy in Concerto Barocco, choreography by George Balanchine © New York City Ballet.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

I was also captivated by Leta Biasucci; the jaunty angle of her chin just dares the audience not to look at her.
But it was in those Concerto Barocco rehearsals that I first really watched Chelsea Adomaitis. Tall, long-limbed and slim, Adomaitis fits into PNB's "tall girls" category, like a younger version of Laura Tisserand or the lovely Lindsi Dec. Unlike those two more experienced women, Adomaitis is just learning to tame her arms and legs. Russell periodically would call out to her, "Chelsea, watch your hips," in an effort to get Adomaitis to keep her long torso in line. Sweaty with concentration, the dancer would endeavor to comply.

What sets Chelsea Adomaitis apart, both in rehearsal and onstage at McCaw Hall, is the great joy that seems to radiate from her when she's moving. It could be sweat that makes her face shine, but I'm betting that it was equal parts passion that fueled her as one of the gold-clad Fates in Twyla Tharp's recent premier Waiting at the Station. That's her on the right, in the photo below. It's thrilling to watch Adomaitis as she learns to meld her passion with growing technical confidence; she has a full career ahead of her.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers (l-r) Elle Macy, Sarah Pasch, and Chelsea Adomaitis with company dancers in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

On the other end of the professional spectrum, and amid a different art form, is long-time Seattle gallery mainstay Francine Seders.  She'll close her eponymous Phinney Ridge gallery on Christmas Eve, after almost a half century in business. Like young Chelsea Adomaitis, Seders' passion for her art is visible. She lights up in conversation about the artists she represents, still enthusiastic about the talent she sees.

On a recent, sunny afternoon, I stopped by to talk with Seders. Her lovely main gallery space was empty of visitors, though not of art. The walls vibrated with Elizabeth Sandvig's brightly hued geometric paintings, and small pedestals displayed whimiscally delicate sculptures by Marita Dingus. Seders led me through the gallery to her office, where her huge Siamese cat dozed contentedly in a shallow cardboard box. Another of Elizabeth Sandvig's colorful paintings, a sort of landscape, dominated one wall.

Seders will be 81 in December, the nominal rationale for her to close her gallery now. She seems bemused by the media attention she's received since the news broke last summer. "Where were you before now?" she wonders, only half joking. Would more media attention have kept her in business longer? Who knows?

Seders' art gallery is a second chapter of sorts. She was trained as a lawyer in her native France. When she moved to Seattle, she enrolled in library science classes. But, in need of a job, she answered an ad for a secretary in a local gallery, and thus was born Seders' long-lived career as an art dealer.
"I love painting," she told me, and she's represented some of the best in the Northwest, including Sandvig's husband, Michael Spafford, along with the late Jacob Lawrence.

In the 1960's, when some galleries were opening in Pioneer Square, Seders resisted, and moved to her present location, an unpretentious house kiddy-corner from Red Mill Burgers on the top of Phinney Ridge. "I didn't like Pioneer Square," she confesses. For more than 45 years, Seders put together shows in this house; her Sunday afternoon openings were lovely affairs. Colleagues like Greg Kucera praise Seders for her generosity and support. But Seders told me members of the Seattle Art Dealers' Association were surprised when she decided to let her membership lapse. It had gotten too expensive, she explained, and it didn't make business sense to her. And an art gallery is a small business like any other commercial venture in our internet era. No matter how much passion you have for your inventory, you still have a bottom line. And you face the squeeze from new online retail outlets.

Even after she closes her gallery, Francine Seders plans to represent some of her "older" artists. No doubt a greater percentage of those transactions will happen online. She may not love it, but that's the new world order. And on this sunny late autumn afternoon, Seders seems to have made her peace with it.

"I'm starting the next chapter," she announces with a smile. "It will probably be a little shorter than the last one." And she starts to laugh, a bubbly sound that makes the Siamese cat raise his head.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Cooking Up Some Culture

I've been giving a lot of thought recently to the plethora of food blogs. I LOVE food blogs; they're so folksy. (Although I do wonder why so many of them read like romance novels. Have you noticed how many great cooks have met their beloveds through their food blogs?) Why aren't culture blogs as folksy?

This isn't an idle whim, actually. I've covered Seattle area arts for three decades, and the ongoing quandary seems to be how to make art more accessible. A few years back, for a series of radio reports I produced on arts funding, a longtime Seattle arts administrator talked to me about the differences she saw between audiences for sporting events and arts audiences. This woman believes that while we all make art when we're young, we don't so much as we get older. For instance, many adults participate in community soccer leagues, or running clubs, or rowing teams. Not so many of us sing, or dance or write. At least, not in a public way. Are we afraid of making fools of ourselves?

I think some people have the same fear when it comes to seeing art, whether that means a gallery show or an opera, or something more cutting edge at one of the many contemporary art venues. Any number of people have told me that art is intimidating; they don't know how they're supposed to respond to it, so they avoid it. Football? That makes sense, it's a contest, we understand what's at stake. What's at stake when you see a contemporary dance performance? It doesn't help that when we write about that performance or painting or installation, we tend to over-intellectualize our subjects.

I'm not saying everything we write should be simplistic; just, why can't we write about art in a way that opens the door for people who are curious? I'm going to try to do that with this blog. You may not like what you read; that's ok. But I think a good performance is just as tasty as a chocolate tart. At least it should be. And I hope I'll be able to describe things I love with the same loving touch as the best food blogger writes about pasta.

And, by the way, I did meet my long-term partner at an Arts Commission meeting.  But you're not going to read that story here!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Feeding The Beast, Or Why I Love Crystal Pite

Crystal Pite's Emergence at PNB
Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Crystal Pite’s "Emergence"
Photo © Angela Sterling
This is an essay about Crystal Pite's "Emergence" at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

I'll put my cards on the table upfront: I loved it. But I need to give you a little history before I explain why the dance was so great.

I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with dance. Like a lot of little girls, I took ballet classes. Frankly, I was too pudgy, too uncoordinated to pursue the art form. I do remember decorating endless school notebooks with drawings of feet in pointe shoes; no doubt I was trying to entertain myself during lectures I should have been avidly consuming. My hometown didn't have a resident ballet company, and Detroit wasn't a regular pitstop for touring dance troupes. But they must have trudged through there from time to time because I can recall a performance by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev: she, seated in a chair, while he spun a web of leaps around her.

Luckily, I transplanted myself to Seattle 35 years ago where a bounty of dance is on offer, like the sumptuous deli at Metropolitan Market. From Pat Graney's seminal work "Faith" to Zoe/Juniper's "A Crack in Everything" to Olivier Wever's "Monster" to Ezra Dickinson's "Mother for you I made this," local artists feed my addiction to dance. They continually push me to seek out another fix, something to propel my spirit to the dimension that the best art reveals.

And now we arrive at the crux of this essay: choreographer Crystal Pite. I first saw her company Kidd Pivot at Seattle's On the Boards (itself a gem of a place). My friend Jessica urged me to check out the show "Dark Matters." Despite a touch of food poisoning, I went. And to be a little melodramatic, the experience was mind altering. In that single performance Pite had distilled story, music, movement, and aesthetic, tied them together in a package that now defines great art for me. I was provoked to think, my senses were delighted, and I left On the Boards fully satisfied.

If you've followed me this far, you're probably thinking, "All right already, but what about 'Emergence?' "

You know Macklemore's song "Thrift Shop"?  Well, "Emergence" is more fucking awesome than popping some tags. More fucking awesome than most of the dance I've seen lately. (And as I've said, I think dance in general is fucking awesome.)

Andrew Bartee in Crystal Pite's "Emergence" at PNB
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer 
Andrew Bartee in Crystal Pite’s "Emergence"
Photo © Angela Sterling
"Emergence" is about the hive mentality, about the contradictions inherent in a society that exists on a communal cooperative ethic but where individual egos yearn to be noticed. Not unfamiliar ground for artists or for philosophers, or really for anyone.

What makes "Emergence" such an experience is how Pite translates these big questions to the human body. She re-envisions the hive mind literally: a dancer is hatched, angular and twitchy; she emerges with help into her world. It's an army of massed, fellow insects whose limbs pulsate up from the stage floor, counting their cadence out loud. The women, arms crooked at the elbows and held back behind their torsos, march on pointe across the stage like walking stick insects.

They line up, an Amazonian force field, to defy their hapless mates from penetrating their ranks. One breaks through in a menacing version of the child's game Red Rover. He shudders out a dervish solo to Owen Belton's hypnotic score.

Dance at its best is a primal, non-verbal portal to our emotions. The visceral experience of "Emergence" defies capture by words—or at least by my words. I brought a young friend to opening night, someone who told me before the show that dance just doesn't do it for her. She remained untouched by the three Jiri Kylian dances that preceded "Emergence" on Pacific Northwest Ballet's bill. But after "Emergence," she turned to me, eyes bright, a crack in her hipster cool facade, "That makes me want to see ballet again," she said.

Fucking awesome.