Monday, December 30, 2013

They Make Me Feel Like Dancing!

PNB Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta in "State of Darkness" by Molissa Fenley. Photo @ Angela Sterling
You know that feeling you get when the theater lights go down? It's a shiver of anticipation about what's in store, the prospect of something that could be thrilling, maybe even life-altering. I confess, the reality doesn't always meet the buildup; but still, I can't help but hold out hope every time the curtain is about to go up, or the spotlight turns on. What magic will unfold this time? And for somebody who earns her living churning out words like a short-order cook slinging hashbrowns, what really sends that thrill down my spine is altogether non-verbal. Dance. Done well, it has the power to transport me.

Many years ago, a fellow journalist took me out for coffee. He was planning to write a profile of Seattle-based choreographer Pat Graney, and he wanted my advice on how to watch dance. Graney's "Faith" is one of those works that changed my life. I didn't have any sage words for him then. I do now, though. Today I'd tell my colleague you need to watch dance from your heart. Watch dance from your heart. I have a friend in Memphis who says he likes to settle into his seat, open all his chakras, and let the art pour in. Same idea.

One of the great privileges I've enjoyed throughout my career is access to art-in-progress. It's a little like peeking behind L. Frank Baum's curtain at the Wizard of Oz. What appears so effortless on a stage requires hours, weeks, even months of construction. Great dance is the result of learning, rehearsing, then, ultimately, embracing movement and making it your own. And the process is as fascinating as the final performance.
Choreographer Molissa Fenley performing her solo "State of Darkness" photo courtesy PNB

In late December I got a chance to peek behind the curtain at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Choreographer Molissa Fenley was in Seattle to teach her 1988 solo "State of Darkness" to several company members.
It's a complex dance, set to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Fenley made it for herself originally; other dancers have performed it since, including PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal.

On this particular winter afternoon, as weak sun streamed through the windows of the PNB rehearsal room, Fenley, Boal and three company principal dancers had gathered to work their way through Fenley's intricate choreography. As I watched Rachel Foster, James Moore and Jonathan Porretta try to absorb each jump, leg extension and delicate swirl of the hand, I didn't have open chakras or open heart. I had open jaw. I was watching three artists with three distinct and highly personal learning processes.
Choreographer Molissa Fenley working with PNB Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta. Photo @ Angela Sterling

To help teach this solo,Fenley had a 1990 videotape of one of her own performances. She said it was made early enough that the dance was still "pure." Because, of course, a dance changes every time it's performed. A videotape is a document of an ephemeral, singular moment in time. Clearly, this was one document Fenley believed to be accurate. As she played the tape and explained her solo for Foster, Moore and Porretta, Peter Boal moved through the steps himself, as if trying to remind his limbs, his torso and his mind what "State of Darkness" felt like when he danced it in 2000.

For Jonathan Porretta, this rehearsal was also a reminder. He performed Fenley's solo at PNB in 2007. As Porretta listened to Stravinsky's score, it seemed to prod his corporal memory, and he began to move, gaining confidence as the rehearsal went along. James Moore, on the opposite side of the studio, worked his way through the learning process with equal physicality. He'd watch the tape, then propel his muscular body through the steps he'd seen. By contrast to both men, Rachel Foster's process seemed far more cerebral. Brow furrowed, she studied the video intently, as if trying to absorb every last detail in her mind before it could travel to her body. Then she asked question and after question, to pin down the elusive and complex patterns Fenley had created. It was a reminder to me that while dance is transmitted from body to body, the artists also use their intellect to interpret and re-enact what they see.
PNB Principal Jonathan Porretta in "State of Darkness." Photo @ Angela Sterling

After more than an hour of concentrated effort, Fenley suggested the three dancers run through what they'd gone over, this time without stops and starts. With their boss, Boal, dancing away in front of them, Moore, Porretta and Foster began to move. There were mistakes, omissions, timing issues, sure. But there was also that ineffable thrill of witnessing how the artists were able to imbue their unique essences into this one dance. Each version was slightly different; no better or worse. Distinct.

As the music ended, Jonathan Porretta started to laugh. "Good thing we have six weeks," he said.

Six weeks for me to anticipate, to get those chakras ready to open.
Molissa Fenley 

You can see "State of Darkness" on  Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Director's Choice" program. It will be onstage at McCaw Hall March 14-23.

Friday, December 20, 2013

In With The New

Matt Drews' "bardo" photo @ Tim Summers
I've been thinking a lot about a recent performance at Seattle's Velocity Dance Center. "Touch" was part of Velocity's NextFest NW 2013, a showcase for dance cinema and new choreography. In the program, Executive/Artistic Director Tonya Lockyer explains that "Touch" was inspired by Velocity's year-round commitment to "exploring what it means to build meaning collectively." In the context of this performance, that included a curatorial panel that chose young choreographers, allowed them to create, and provided feedback on their work. The program of six new dances provided audiences bursts of youthful energy and glimpses of promise. But, at least for me,it also posed a question. What does it take to bridge the gap between promise and fulfillment when it comes to artistry? There's no doubt that some of these choreographers showed promise.

In her live audience introduction, Lockyer singled out choreographer Dylan Ward, creator of the large group piece "Melody Nelson." Lockyer noted that Ward was new to dance, but told us we'd be seeing a lot more of him. So I looked forward to his dance. As a work in progress it was tantalizing, but I think it suffered from the pre-show hype."Melody Nelson" featured a cast of more than a dozen, peppy music and a lot of running and jumping (the youthful energy I mentioned). There were also a few moments I wish had been more carefully organized, involving hand held lights. It could have been transcendent; instead I was disappointed. I loved the enthusiasm of the crowd and yearned for a little discipline, to wrangle all that energy into a manageable whole.
NextFest "Melody Nelson" by Dylan Ward photo @ Tim Summers

After an intermission, the audience was ushered into a smaller studio to watch Matt Drews, in butoh-white, writhe his way out of a stunningly lit mesh tube. This was one of those dances that titillated with possibility, and started my rumination on the choreographic creative process. Was the Japanese art form Drews' inspiration? What, besides an arresting visual image and the implication of captivity, did Drews want to convey? Does dance have the equivalent of an editor? I'd love to see this piece after a thorough reworking.

"Sight", by Alana O Rogers and her dancers (identified only by color in the program), was far more orderly, quite beautiful, and more traditional structurally than anything else on the "Touch" bill. I was particularly taken by Yellow, a tall young woman whose limbs seemed to be controlled by an invisible Gepetto-like puppet master. Of all the evening's dances, "Sight" was the most accessible.
Yellow dancer, in "Sight" by Alana O Morris, photo @ Tim Summers

The last work on the program, Coleman Pester's "30 unsure steps to my seat", actually started before the show, when audience members could opt for a blindfolded experience involving one of Pester's dancers. The entire audience was blindfolded before the dance itself, an incredibly relaxing experience after all the energy that had preceded. We could only hear Pester's dancers, as they moved about the large space that was encircled by the blinded audience.When we finally removed our eye shades, we watched the dancers in pairs seem to challenge each other to movement duels. Pester's choreography is brawny and athletic, and in your face. Which is ironic, given that we couldn't see it for half the piece. As relaxed as I was with my blindfold, I wished I could have watched the entire dance.

I don't know if these choreographers will go back to rework their dances, or whether they consider what they've made to be complete. According to Velocity spokeswoman Leah Vendl, all six of the artists had several opportunities for pre-performance feedback. Vendl told me via email that providing feedback mechanisms for young artists is part of the Velocity mission. It's something everybody needs: a critical, honest eye and some trustworthy input. How the artist uses that input is another story.

A third variable is finding that balance between self expression and communication. As a choreographer, what do you want me as your audience member to take away when I see your dance? We bring the accumulation of our personal lives to the singular experience of a performance. We'll interpret what we see through whatever has shaped us. But if the role of an artist is to be the mirror that reflects our lives back to us, then there has to be some legibility in the final work, some portal that allows the audience more than a glimpse of what the artist has to say.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Clay Duke: A Kaleidoscopic Look At Gun Violence

The Clay Duke cast; photo courtesy On The Boards
Somebody, I can't remember who, once said that it's the artist's job to hold up a mirror that reflects our human experience. If that's true, then I wonder if there's a special gene that allows us to recognize the reflections from those mirrors. And I suspect that gene is missing in me when it comes to contemporary performance. Often, I feel like somebody has put a kaleidoscope to my eye, turning it so the colored shards inside shift and reconfigure. I admire the pretty colors as they move about: "ooh, nice! Wait ,what am I looking at?"

Dayna Hanson's new performance piece, "The Clay Duke," at On The Boards December 5-8, 2013, was that kind of experience for me. So many lovely shards, so many moments of exquisite beauty or humor: the doppelganger Clay Dukes: Wade Madsen and Thomas Graves, with their top-knotted hair and curled mustaches; Madsen slithering demonically in snakeskin patterned pants and a glittering shirt as he methodically broke the necks of his fellow cast members; Peggy Piacenza carefully unpacking and cataloging the contents of her furry handbag. Alas, these fragments never coalesced in a coherent whole.

Mostly what shone in "The Clay Duke" was the divine Sarah Rudinoff. Even in drag as a Florida school board president, Rudinoff mesmerized every time she took center stage.  She rattled out her words like bullets from a rapid fire semi-automatic gun,skittered across the floor pantless in a fox mask, supplicant paws bent in front of her white button-down shirt. These moments, and more from Rudinoff, were like beautiful, unstrung beads on a jeweler's work bench. How I longed to see them as part of a finished necklace!

After the show, somebody in the lobby remarked how she'd loved the humor, and how "The Clay Duke" made her miss Hanson's late company 33 Fainting Spells. In fact, just across the lobby, a video monitor played a looped tape of some of that company's early performances. The tape served as a reminder that choreography is one of Hanson's biggest strengths. The snippets of dance in "The Clay Duke" resonated. They left me wanting more movement, fewer words, in this piece. Which is an ironic admission from somebody who makes her living talking and writing.

Ultimately, "The Clay Duke" felt like a messy head of hair in need of a firm brushing, and perhaps the attention of a sharp pair of scissors. Or, as I freely admit, it could be that I simply lack the genetic predisposition to discern the beautiful whole that lurked in that mass of wild curls.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Andrew Bartee: Complacency Is Not An Option

Andrew Bartee, in rehearsal at New York’s City Center
photo@Lindsay Thomas
It's hard to miss Pacific Northwest Ballet's Andrew Bartee, once you know where to look. He's the thin one, with the long, long arms and the red hair. Even when the 23 year old is spinning his partner with the rest of his fellow corps de ballet members, he's a distinctive presence. But lately, you're just as likely to find Bartee center stage, dancing a solo in Crystal Pite's recent "Emergence", or paired with soloist Jerome Tisserand last spring in Ulysses Dove's stark and moving "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven."

Andrew Bartee came to ballet later than many of his fellow dancers. He was 10 when he saw a friend dancing in a Christmas pageant. "It really struck me," he remembers. "I started dancing around the hallways." So Bartee's parents enrolled him in a weekly ballet class. At $50 a month, it was expensive, and Bartee says his folks kept asking if he was really serious about dance.

By the time Bartee hit 13, his Everett dance teacher told him he should move on. "I think my mom looked in the newspaper and found some ad for PNB," he recalls. PNB's ballet school was holding auditions, so Andrew Bartee went. He was accepted and offered a scholarship, but Bartee says he had no expectations about making dance a career. Bartee had never even attended a ballet performance.

"I wasn't even that serious about it," he says earnestly. "I knew I liked moving, but I didn't have the concept of the life it could be, that I could make it something."

Ten years later, Andrew Bartee has indeed made dance "something." As a student, he won the prestigious Princess Grace award. After moving up through the PNB school, Bartee spent a year in the Professional Division before Artistic Director Peter Boal hired him. I first met Bartee when he was still a PD student. He was a shy and deliberate talker, weighing each word before he actually said it.

After more than six years with PNB, Andrew Bartee is still soft spoken, but he navigates his world with more self confidence. Bartee is still thin and long-limbed, but his increased technical confidence is obvious, and it really shines in contemporary dances. Bartee's angular limbs distinctively captured the jagged choreography of Ulysses Dove's "Front Porch" and as a swarm member straining to break free in Crystal Pite's "Emergence," Bartee was perfectly cast.
Andrew Bartee with Jerome Tisserand in Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” photo@Angela Sterling


Andrew Bartee has pushed himself beyond PNB, though. Since 2010 he's performed regularly with Olivier Wevers' company, Whim W'him. He was a standout this past summer in a solo choreographed by guest artist Anabel Lopez Ochoa. Wevers has created work for Bartee as well, including the well-received pas de deux "Flower Festival", that Bartee performed with Lucien Postelwaite.
Andrew Bartee and Lucien Postelwaite in Olivier Wevers’ “Flower Festival”

"I've grown so much from having the experience of having work made on me," Bartee enthuses. That's experience he brings to creating his own dances. Last season, Bartee's "arms that work" was one of four new dances Peter Boal grouped together on a program that was part of PNB's season. The dance featured a large set piece, and a specially commissioned score. "arms that work" was edgy, raw and not quite complete, but it demonstrated Bartee's promise as a dancemaker. That promise has been stoked, in part, by Bartee's budding collaboration with contemporary dancer Kate Wallich. The young artist was trained at Cornish College of the Arts, and her work is most definitely not  ballet.

"I've appreciated working with Kate over the last year," Bartee says. Wallich has exposed him to dance that is more about ideas than movement. "It was bizarre to me at first, " he laughs. But not so bizarre that he backed away from the artistic partnership. Bartee and Wallich will premier their new dance, "Super Eagle", in February at Velocity Dance Center.

Contemporary dance is clearly where Andrew Bartee's heart lies. He acknowledges that his boss, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, has pushed him to strengthen his classical ballet chops. Bartee says the more Boal pushes him, though, the more the young dancer resists. In fact, when you ask Bartee where he sees himself in five years, he'll tell you he wants to dance with a company that specializes in creating new work.

"That really excites me," he says, eyes shining. "Yeah, I like being part of something that's moving forward."
Andrew Bartee in rehearsal for “arms that work”, photo@Lindsay Thomas

The thing that angers him most when he thinks about Seattle's dance scene is complacency. When Bartee looks around he doesn't see a lot of dancers who push themselves beyond the limits of the choreography they're performing. "There's so much more space to touch," he explains. Physically and metaphorically.