Monday, December 29, 2014

The Last Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps members in Stowell-Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker.” Really, I can’t. I tried to count them up, but failed. Probably close to 20, but seriously, I don’t know!

I wasn’t in Seattle when this “Nutcracker” debuted more than 30 years ago, but since my arrival here in 1985, I’ve attended performances, rehearsals, auditions and more.

 I’ve watched the show from backstage, I’ve interviewed grown Claras and aspiring ballerinas. I spent one whole performance in the lobby, stalking little girls in party dresses, to find out what they love about this ballet. I even watched troupes of kids audition for the roles of baby mice. (fyi, Peter Boal told me that, in addition to being able to follow a beat, the kids have to fit into the existing costumes).

I’ve had a lot of experience with “Nutcracker.” 

So, I think I have sufficient cred to tell you I have never seen the joint jumping the way it did on Sunday, December 28th, before the very last performance of the venerable Stowell-Sendak production.
Me and my friend Nutcracker
photo by Alan Lande

Fans lined up to take photos with Maurice Sendak’s iconic sculptures; a local television crew cornered people to ask how they “felt;” carolers serenaded the crowds who jammed the lobby before this sold-out show. “Nutcracker” audiences are always festive, but this group was super-amped. Everyone was here to say goodbye.

If you’ve never seen it, “Nutcracker” is a ballet for people who think they don’t like ballet. It’s an all-ages confection, a holiday tradition. Think of“Nutcracker” as a kind of giant dance buffet. Cute kids? Check. Sophisticated ballerinas? Check, again. And, when Uko Gorter tackles the Drosselmeier role, as he did December 28th, there’s even a dash of comedy thrown into the mix.

People come because it’s “Nutcracker,” a way to celebrate the holiday. PNB hopes it will act like a gateway drug. You like this? Why not try “Swan Lake?”

After three decades, Maurice Sendak’s designs have become iconic in our region. As current PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal wrote in his program notes this year, if you grew up with this “Nutcracker,” you associate an “endless row of gleaming white teeth,” with the ballet company and the holiday season. So, it’s something of a risk for PNB to retire this beloved production and replace it next year with George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography and a new design by Ian Falconer. Boal says it’s time to refresh the production; some natives have dug in their heels in opposition. But hey, I didn’t grow up with any “Nutcracker,” so I’ll leave that fight to somebody else. I’m open to something new next year.

Back to this year. I confess it was bittersweet to watch the Stowell-Sendak version one last time. Prince Karel Cruz with his Clara Laura Tisserand were long, lovely and elegant. Lesley Rausch was an appropriately haughty peacock. I always love the Snowflakes at the end of Act I; was it my imagination, or did the stage crew dump a little extra snow on this final performance? It rivaled the annual “Nutty Nutcracker” for blizzard conditions onstage. But, it was beautiful.
PNB Corps de Ballet in the Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Act II has always confused me. Where have the Prince and Clara landed? Why is there a Pasha? Who are all these dancers? Why are they entertaining Clara and her Prince? This time, I tried to shut up my rational mind and just go with the flow of the thing. Chinese Tiger falls on his butt? I don’t remember that happening before, but it was cute. I really enjoyed the Commedia trio of Carli Samuelson, Benjamin Griffiths and Margaret Mullin. They were charming and precise. And what can I say about Carrie Imler as Flora in the Waltz of the Flowers? She can jump and spin with the best of the dancers, and she showed us her powers once again. 
Carrie Imler as Flora in PNB's Stowell-Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Did I imagine it, or did Imler have tears in her eyes when she took her final bows with the cast at the end of the production? She’s in the midst of her 20th season with PNB; think how many times she’s danced in the Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker!”

So next year, we’re on to something old/new. Same Tchaikovsky music. Same-ish story. New set, new choreography. As an old “Nutcracker” hand who has to think of a new angle to cover every year, selfishly I’m glad to have something new to dig into. But I confess that when the curtain came down one last time, with 3,000 people on their feet cheering, I was moved.


The moment marked a rite of passage in this city. New hands now control all of Seattle's major arts organizations, from Seattle Opera to Seattle Art Museum to PNB. We haven't seen huge tidal waves of programmatic change, but in a way, the upcoming Balanchine "Nutcracker" is like a shot across the bow. We'll have to wait and see what happens.

In the meantime, let me just say I'm with PNB on the gateway drug idea. If you liked "Nutcracker," try something else. Me? I am practically salivating over the upcoming all-William Forsythe program in March. Bring it on, PNB!
A toothy Sendak Nutcracker, photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Does It All Mean?

Tere O'Connor's "Bleed"
photo by Paula Court
A few years ago, my friend Christopher let me in on his approach to contemporary art.

"Just sit down in our seat," he instructed, "take a breath and open all your chakras to what you're about to experience."

 Indeed.

That's probably the best advice to heed before you see Tere O'Connor's "Bleed." This work for 11 dancers, and the three separate works that informed it, were all performed in Seattle November 20-23, 2014 at On The Boards and Velocity Dance Center.

"Bleed" is an abstract, hour-long dance. Choreographer O'Connor told dance writer Melody Datz Hansen of "The Stranger" that he doesn't make work to convey meaning. He wants us, the audience, to experience his dances at the moment we watch them. Somebody described this to me as akin to watching something from another planet; beautiful, but alien. Somebody else told me O'Connor's "Bleed" felt to him very much like the dance version of what happens on a New York street:  constant flow, and change and serendipitous events. A random beauty, if you will.
"Bleed" by Tere O'Connor
photo by Paula Court

Movement by movement; moment by moment. That's the frame of mind and body best suited for "Bleed" viewing. I am not much for meditation, but I imagine this to be something like sitting zazen. "Bleed" wasn't about analysis, or thought. It was about immediacy. I had a rowing coach who always counseled "don't think; FEEL."  Get those chakras open wide and be there in the moment. I did my best.

Interestingly, the night after I saw "Bleed," I went to Meany Theater to catch a performance of David Rousseve's "Stardust." Both works can be categorized as contemporary dance, but boy, are they different from one another.

If "Bleed" is abstraction, "Stardust" is fully committed to story. In this case, the tale of a young, African American gay man reaching out for human contact on what he calls the "Innernet." The actual story is written out for the audience in a series of faux text messages projected on the wall at the back of the stage. Rousseve's movement isn't an interpretive version of the words. It's more a physical punctuation of the mood those words express.
David Rousseve's "Stardust"
photo by Steven Gunther

Tere O'Connor wants us to experience. David Rousseve wants us to feel. You open your chakras wide for "Bleed." You might want to ratchet them back just a bit for "Stardust," so you're not overwhelmed by Rousseve's message.

These two performances pushed me to think about what I love about dance (and art in general).
As a writer, I suppose I'm always trying to figure out what things "mean." And then to try to convey that meaning in words. But the artworks I love best are those that move me viscerally, that defy me to capture and distill their essences. It's a constant push/pull; choreographers like O'Connor don't want to be parsed. But hey, that's all in a day's job for me.

When I think about art that really pushed me off my axis this year, two dance pieces stand out:
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again" and Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness" as performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta.
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo courtesy On The Boards

Neither work was narrative. But each succeeded in evoking a plethora of emotional and intellectual responses. They reflected aspects of what it means to be human. To (badly) misquote Gustave Flaubert, both succeeded in melting the stars for me.

I don't need an artist to hit me over the head with a story. And I tend to resent a blatant intent to manipulate my emotional responses. I want to art to challenge my assumptions and my responses to the world around me. I want it to make me look, to feel and to recognize humanity.
Oh yeah, and I promise to work on that open chakra thing.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta
in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness"
photo by Angela Sterling

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

PNB's Director's Choice-A Moving Feast


It's November, and I've got Thanksgiving on my mind. 'Tis the season to be thankful, and also to think about big smorgasbords. Pacific Northwest Ballet's November 2014 "Director's Choice" program is a lot like one of those Thanksgiving feasts. It offers an array of entrees, some tastier than others.

The evening is book-ended by two big works: David Dawson's "A Million Kisses to My Skin" (more about that later), and the new PNB commission "Debonair," by New York City Ballet choreographer-in-residence (and dancer) Justin Peck.

PNB billed "Debonair" as a world premiere, although New York audiences got a sneak peek in October at the Joyce Theater. It's a dance for 12 performers, set to American composer George Antheil's "Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1." As the evening's closing dance, it was meant as the program's capstone. It would have been better as an aperitif.
Korbes and Tisserand in PNB's production of "Debonair," choreographed by Justin Peck
photo by Angela Sterling

Peck constructed a ballet in three sections; two lively pieces sandwich the dance's strong center, a tender pas de deux performed on opening night by the beautiful Carla Korbes and Jerome Tisserand.

Korbes will retire in June, 2015, so every one of her performances is a bittersweet opportunity to see her dance. She doesn't disappoint in "Debonair." The role allows her to engage emotionally, something she excels at. Tisserand, too, is meant for this kind of romantic material. (On Saturday, November 8, Lindsi Dec and William Yin-Lee took on those roles. It was wonderful to see Dec  show this side of her dancing.)

The main problem with "Debonair" (aside from the men's costumes) was its placement on the "Director's Choice" bill. The dance is an amuse-bouche, not an elegant dessert. Despite the very lovely pas de deux, the work as a whole is light and fizzy; charming, but ultimately forgettable.

The meat and potatoes of this program are Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After" and Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement."
PNB Corps de Ballet members Raphael Bouchard and Angelica Generosa
in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After"
photo by Angela Sterling
I first saw "Before After" several years ago, presented by former PNB dancer Olivier Wevers' company "Whim W'him." Lopez Ochoa performed with former PNB principal Lucien Postelwaite. Their emotional connection was riveting.

PNB corps de ballet members Raphael Bouchard and Angelica Generosa give an electrifying and technically dazzling performance, but it lacks some of the oomph that would have lent this athletic duet  psychological depth. Soloist Elizabeth Murphy had been scheduled to perform opening weekend, but pulled out due to an injury. Generosa and Bouchard had one day to rehearse together before opening night. I'll chalk up the lack of rapport to that.
PNB's Angelica Generosa and Raphael Bouchard in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Before After"
photo by Angela Sterling
Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement," set to traditional Haitian songs, is a plaintive and powerful rumination on power, powerlessness and subjugation. And it was a showpiece for Batkhurel Bold on opening night.

Bold is one of those solid, and stolid, dancers. He is so strong and handsome, but he doesn't always emote. In this dance he positively mesmerized with feral energy. Lunging sideways across the stage, he's like a wild cat trying to evade his stalkers. When they finally capture him, he dangles upside down from their shoulders, abject and wretched. I had to shiver from the sense that his blood was actually dripping down.
PNB Principal Dancer Batkhurel Bold with Soloist Elizabeth Murphy
in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement"
photo by Angela Sterling
On opening night, Lindsi Dec danced the principal female role, the narrator of this sad story. Saturday evening Carrie Imler stood out as the storyteller. Dec conveyed a wounded nobility, but Imler's agony oozed out through her rippling fingers, her splayed knees.
PNB soloist Elizabeth Murphy
in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement"
photo by Angela Sterling
"Rassemblement" is another Duato knockout of a dance; All the cast members were good, but ultimately, it's the image of Bathkhurel Bold that lingers in my mind.

"Director's Choice" opened, but should have closed, with David Dawson's wonderful "A Million Kisses to My Skin." Dawson created it as a love letter to both his fellow dancers and to the art form of ballet, and it never fails to captivate me.

The dance is set to J.S. Bach's "Concerto No. 1 in D Minor," performed superbly by the PNB orchestra and pianist/conductor Allan Dameron. It begins as an insouciant Sarah Ricard Orza strides downstage toward the audience then, bam, the music starts and she propels herself into a wickedly difficult solo.
PNB Principal Dancer Lindsi Dec with Soloist William Yin-Lee
in David Dawson's " A Million Kisses to My Skin"
photo by Angela Sterling
"Million Kisses" is full of sly, complex surprises. If you look away for a second, you might miss the way Orza drags one pointed toe across the floor, or Margaret Mullin's sideways stag leaps. Or the way Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta throw us cascades of pirouettes, their arms arched gracefully overhead.

From Porretta and Imler, to the elegant Lesley Rausch, every dancer in this ballet delivered. Rausch has such wonderful control over every muscle. The descent of her knee, then beautifully extended foot, then toe to the floor is as thrilling as Imler's jetes across the stage.
PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch
in David Dawson's "A Million Kisses to My Skin"
photo by Angela Sterling

I first saw "Million Kisses" in 2012, when PNB debuted it here. I loved it then, but this time around I was even more taken with the way Dawson deploys his cast, the patterns he creates with their bodies, and the ways he skillfully, and subtly, subverts the classical ballet vocabulary. This dance wowed the crowd as the opening number, but it would have been so much more powerful as the show closer. As much as I loved the variety of the 2014 "Director's Choice" bill, "Million Kisses" is the dance I keep thinking about.

One last note: three dancers are out on maternity leave and two principal men are injured. While I miss seeing them onstage, it's great to watch the younger dancers get a chance to perform in featured roles. Angelica Generosa is a tiny dynamo who seems to handle whatever choreography she's given; Raphael Bouchard, Price Suddarth, Kyle Davis and Chelsea Adomaitis all gave notable performances and make me excited for what lies ahead at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Fred Or Gene? Or Both...


Fred Astaire in "Daddy Long Legs", photo Creative Commons
A couple of weeks ago I flipped on the television. 

"An American in Paris" was on. I love Gershwin, and I love this film, so I got into bed and watched it for the umpteenth time.

This time around, I was taken by Gene Kelly's solo tap dance to "I Got Rhythm." It's cute at the beginning, with the bevy of grinning children. But almost at the very end of the dance, Gene lets loose with some fancy fancy dancing.

Which is a long-winded way of saying the man had serious chops.

But, so did that prince of smooth moves, Fred Astaire.

Fred had this upper body thing going on, where his arms just seemed to float along with his torso. I love watching how he makes those hard, hard routines look effortless.

I've always preferred Fred's smooth moves to Gene's muscular hoofing. But "I Got Rhythm" reminded me it takes all kind of dancers to make the world go round.

And thank goodness for all of them.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Artist's Impulse

"Opposing Forces" by Amy O'Neal
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
I freely admit I don't know heaps about hip hop culture or b-boys. But I do know when a dancer is technically skilled with a full-on commitment to his, or her, art form. That commitment was on full display on the parts of the performers in choreographer Amy O'Neal's 'Opposing Forces' at On The Boards, Saturday October 25th, 2014.

O'Neal assembled five of the Seattle area's most respected b-boys, along with musician/DJ WD4D, to create a performance that both opens the door to hip hop culture for a (mostly) non-hip hop audience, while at the same time allowing the cast members to explore both their art form and themselves as artists. The result was an electrifying evening.

B-boying (yeah, it's a noun), emerged as a way for dancers to demonstrate not only their performance prowess, but also to establish their macho creds. Dance crews compete; they win trophies around the world at this point. O'Neal explains in the program notes that she and the cast "needed to show their complexity as dancers, that they are not just machines or clowns who do tricks for entertainment purposes."

"Opposing Forces" begins with a competition. Members of O'Neal's "crew" line up against three guest performers from Dogg Pound Crew. Each side tries to top the other with everything from dizzying head spins to one-armed handstands to lightning-quick footwork. The audience's role is to cheer on our favorites.

From that opening, though, the performance slows down and starts to unfold into a kaleidoscope of solos and ensemble work. Each man has a chance to showcase his particular moves to the accompaniment of music and recorded voices that reveal to the audience tidbits about the dancers' personal lives and their thoughts about art and dance and hip hop culture.

We see Michael O'Neal Jr.'s brawn and beauty, as well as Mozeslateef's exploration of how to move beyond society's limits. Fever One shows us the meaning of gravity defiance, while Alfredo "Free" Vergara Jr. and Brysen "JustBe" Angeles define the meaning of smooth, oozing their bodies across the floor.

And while we continue to gasp in appreciation of their virtuosity and strength, we start to think about this particular art form in the context of other dance genres.
"Opposing Forces" by Amy O'Neal
photo by Gabriel Bienzycki

I spoke to Amy O'Neal and Brysen Angeles in September. At the time I was curious to know why they dance. O'Neal says she needs it for her spiritual and physical health. Angeles told me that, when he dances, when he's truly committed to the movement, there is no separation between his mind and his body, that he channels something deeper than himself. You can think of that as an artistic equivalent of yoga or meditation, I guess.

In November, Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform David Dawson's beautiful dance "A Million Kisses to My Skin." Dawson says the title refers to the way dancers feel when they are "in the zone"; Angeles doesn't use that same terminology, but I get the sense he feels the same way when he's dancing; that each movement is a caress.

I left "Opposing Forces" invigorated on so many levels. This tiny window into a form of cultural expression left me with huge appreciation for its practitioners. More than that, it left me thinking deeply about what drives any artist to create and to perform.

I was struck again by Amy O'Neal's unique vision and her unique choreographic expression of that vision. "Opposing Forces" can be enjoyed for its sheer physicality, for the contagious beat WD4D creates with his sound design. But O'Neal also pushes her audience beyond simply enjoyment. She wants us to question our assumptions about art, and about society. I left "Opposing Forces" thinking, which is perhaps the highest compliment I can pay any artist.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When Worlds Collide: Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces"


Amy O'Neal, photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
Amy O'Neal is a force of nature.

She's also a pillar of Seattle's dance community.

Trained at Cornish College of the Arts, O'Neal teaches regular classes at Velocity Dance Center; she's traveled around the country to present her choreography; she was a finalist for the 2013 Stranger Genius Award for dance.

But Amy O'Neal says she feels more at home with hip hop culture than she does with the Western dance traditions she studied at Cornish. And as she matures as an artist, she considers her work in the context of the larger culture. O'Neal is somebody who thinks a lot about gender, race and equity issues. Those questions find their way into the dance she makes and performs.

Two years ago, O’Neal prodded audiences to consider those issues through the lens of an evening-length solo work she called (rather audaciously and only half-facetiously) “The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade.” O'Neal performed everything from break dancing to pole dancing to twerking, in order to explore those traditional “sexy” dance genres, and how they define her as an artist and as a woman.
Amy O'Neal channels Ciara
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

Amy O’Neal’s newest dance explores gender and race from a different angle. “Opposing Forces” is a work for five acclaimed Seattle area b-boys: Fever One, Alfredo “Free” Vergara Jr., Brysen “JustBe” Angeles, Mozeslateef, and Michael O’Neal Jr. It's the first dance she's created for an all-male cast.

O’Neal says this new dance initially came out of her desire to work with male dancers. But she was also inspired by her increasing affinity for hip hop culture.

“I had been thinking a lot about the value systems between competitive dance, commercial dance, contemporary dance,” she says. “B-boy battling and hip hop specifically.”

Her ideas started to take shape when O’Neal met Brysen Angeles at The Beacon, a dance studio and school Angeles co-founded with other members of his award-winning Seattle dance crew, Massive Monkees. Angeles had seen one of O’Neal’s dances, and he was intrigued with her idea to create a work that would fuse hip hop and contemporary dance styles.
Massive Monkees crew
Brysen Angeles, center in fleece jacket

“I wasn’t completely sure what it was gonna be,” he confesses. But he was intrigued by the questions O'Neal asked him, both about movement and about race and gender identity in hip hop dance.

Brysen Angeles has been dancing since 1995, and competing with Massive Monkees since ’97 or ’98. The crew has won a slew of international competitions; posters, trophies and plaques decorate the walls of The Beacon. In 2007, Massive Monkees were honored with the Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award.

By the time they met, both Angeles and his crew and Amy O’Neal had forged respected artistic careers in their respective dance communities.

The thing is, those communities don’t often mix.

 O’Neal’s new dance, “Opposing Forces,” will bring Angeles and his fellow b-boys into the heart of Seattle’s contemporary art scene, On The Boards.
Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces"
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, courtesy On The Boards

Angeles says he’s been to OTB once before, part of a hip hop-specific performance, for a hip hop audience. This time he’ll be dancing in front of some of Seattle’s most insider-y art insiders. And he’s looking forward to the experience of broadening himself as a performer and a dancer.

“Getting involved with choreographers like Amy in places like On The Boards is a growing experience for myself and, I think, the other cast members.”

Brysen Angeles and four fellow b-boys appear in Amy O’Neal’s “Opposing Forces” October 23-16, at On The Boards.

It's gonna be some kind of awesome.
 
Amy O's "Opposing Forces"
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki


Monday, October 13, 2014

Why I Love UW Chamber Dance Company (And More)

UW Chamber Dance Company
"Cloudless" by Susan Marshall
Why don’t more people go to see the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company’s
performances?

Led by Hannah Wiley, these MFA students-all former professional dancers-recreate important works from the last century of the modern dance canon. In its 20 plus years, Chamber Dance has presented the work of choreographers ranging from Isadora Duncan to Twyla Tharp and beyond. The idea is to reconstruct, perform, and archive these seminal dances.

If that sounds a bit academic, well, it is. But set on the bodies of Wiley’s experienced dancers, these works shine as bright as they did when the choreographers created them. And they give audiences a chance to see historic dances as living, breathing art. I have attended these performances for years, and each one is usually a thrilling experience.

Maybe the problem is that Chamber Dance presents only one program each year, just four performances every October, in the middle of a busy season for every Seattle area arts organization. Chamber Dance has to fight to be noticed amidst all the other activity. But the programs hold their own. If you haven’t seen a Chamber Dance performance, put a reminder into your calendar for 2015.

This year, Wiley selected 3 works, all relatively contemporary: excerpts from Susan Marshall’s 2006 evening-length “Cloudless”, Nacho Duato’s haunting 1983 dance “Jardi Tancat,” and Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith’s “To Have and To Hold,” choreographed in 1989.

Some Seattle audiences have seen Marshall’s “Kiss”, presented at both Pacific Northwest Ballet and UW Chamber Dance performances. “Cloudless” is equally inventive and emotional, with standout performances by all the dancers. It would be heavenly to see the entire dance!

Shapiro and Smith's “To Have and To Hold” is a rumination on love and loss. It is, in a word, stunning. Six dancers, in long sleeved white shirts and white pants, slither, vault and caress three plain wooden benches arrayed in parallel lines. This dance demands technical and timing precision, strength and artistry. All were present in abundance. It was a fitting end to a fabulous evening.

Seriously, if you love dance and you have never seen UW Chamber Dance Company, you owe it to yourself to be at a performance next fall. You won’t be sorry.

Autumn is always busy in Seattle’s dance community. Another gem this past weekend was the premier of Michele Miller’s revamped “I AM the Bully.” This piece for seven women is part rumble, a la Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story, and part prison yard shake down. It was like a dope slap upside the head, full of anger, fear and some very strong dancing.
Michele Miller's "I AM the Bully"
photo by Joseph Lambert, courtesy Michele Miller

“Bully” was part of an evening at Velocity Dance Center called “Modus Operandi.” Miller’s company Catapult Dance shared a bill with the Alana O Rogers Dance Company. Rogers’ premiered “Rewind,” a dance she calls “an ode to memory, slowing down, getting lost and running.” Her earlier work “Sight” opened the evening. Both works are abstracted narratives, featuring a strong ensemble of dancers. 

Miller is a longtime member of Seattle's dance community (Velocity co-founder, D-9 Dance Collective member, Cornish faculty member). She calls her work a mashup of contemporary dance, martial arts and contact improvisation. It is highly physical and, in the context of Velocity’s intimate performance space, very much in your face. Paired with composer Nico Tower’s live-mixed “Vox Humana,” “I AM the Bully” has stayed with me days beyond the performance. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Movin' On Up!

PNB company members in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Angela Sterling
Congratulations to Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers Leta Biasucci and Jerome Tisserand. PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal announced their promotions at the company's opening performance September 26, 2014.

Jerome Tisserand moves up to his (rightful) place as a principal dancer. Tisserand is one of those classically beautiful dancers, the kind of guy who looks exactly like the prince he portrays. PNB hasn't had anybody so princely in its principal ranks since Lucien Postelwaite left for Ballet de Monte Carlo.
Princely PNB Principal Dancer Jerome Tisserand
in Peter Boal's "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

Not only is Jerome Tisserand a beautiful dancer; he's one of the nicest people at PNB. I'm delighted that he'll finally own the title that fits the performances he gives. Woot Jerome!

I wrote about Leta Biasucci last spring. She's a tiny dynamo with a mighty stage presence. She is now a soloist with the ballet company, and in her opening night performance in George Balanchine's "Rubies", Biasucci dazzled with a charisma that was multiplied ten-fold by her partner, the effervescent Jonathan Porretta.
PNB Soloist Leta Biasucci as Clara in Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Porretta and Biasucci are an inspired partnership. Both dancers are compact and dark, so they make a nice physical match. But more than that, in this rendition of "Rubies", they sparkled and snapped and, for me, stole the show.

For those who haven't seen all three parts of "Jewels" on a single bill, briefly: "Rubies" is the savory, syncopated filling between the almost wistful grandeur of "Emeralds" and the full-scale splendor of "Diamonds". (By the way, Carla Korbes and Batkhurel Bold were splendor personified in their opening night performances).
PNB Principal Dancers Carla Korbes and Batkhurel Bold in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Angela Sterling

The audience went wild for "Diamonds", but for my money, Porretta and Biasucci stole the show in "Rubies." When Porretta smiles onstage, he lights up the cavernous McCaw Hall. He's at ease in "Rubies", and he clearly passed on some of that confidence to his young partner, Biasucci.
PNB's Leta Biasucci and Jonathan Porretta in George Balanchine's "Rubies"
photo by Angela Sterling

Early on, she was intent, almost serious, precisely executing Balanchine's choreography. Midway through, though, she relaxed, cracked a grin, and her performance took off.

What a excellent start to PNB's new artistic season. Dance on, ballet dudes!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Carrie Imler: Fierce Ballerina

PNB Principal Dancer Carrie Imler in Kiyon Gaines' "Sum Stravinsky"
photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet
Quick, what's the first word that comes to mind when somebody asks you to describe a ballerina?

Are you thinking ‘graceful’? What about ‘delicate’?

Would you believe ‘fierce’?

That's how friends and colleagues describe Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carrie Imler.

"I would honestly describe her as fierce in every definition and example of the word," says Imler’s good friend and fellow principal dancer, Jonathan Porretta. "She is an athlete, she is fearless, she's an artist."

"I kind of like fierce," Imler admits with a demure chuckle.
Carrie Imler in rehearsal for "Swan Lake"

At first glance, Carrie Imler looks anything but fierce. She has long dark hair and bangs (she pins them back when she's onstage), wide-set dark eyes and the elegant carriage of the longtime dancer she is. On this particular afternoon she's wearing a stiff white rehearsal tutu that's stained in spots, and a pair of tattered pink tights. She’s replaced her pink pointe shoes with a pair of flexible slippers. An oversize gray fleece jacket tops off this not-so-stylish ensemble. Imler is soft spoken, but quick to laugh. Particularly when you point out how many men in the audience describe her as their favorite PNB dancer.

"I see," she answers slowly. "Maybe it's because I am a strong athletic type. I'm not your rail thin ballerina."
PNB's Carrie Imler in George Balanchine's "Apollo"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

At 36, (an elder stateswoman when it comes to professional ballet dancers), Carrie Imler seems fit and ageless. Her shoulders are broad, her legs muscular, her energy unflagging.
Imler's boss, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, says not only is she strong, she's also versatile.

"Carries has broken the mold in some ways, because of the whole range of roles she can do. She's a jumper, and a turner, too."

Jonathan Porretta says from the first time he saw Imler, when he joined the company 15 years ago, he instantly noticed that she could jump as high as some of the men. “And she can turn,” he enthuses. “I mean, can we discuss her fouette turns in “Swan Lake,” with the swan arms? Nobody does that!”

Most recently, Imler wowed audiences and national dance critics with her performance in the classical story ballet "Giselle." Imler danced the role of Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis; a band of dead women who've been jilted at the altar. New York Times chief dance critic Alistair Macauley called Imler’s performance “shimmering.”
Carrie Imler as Myrtha in "Giselle" staged by Peter Boal for PNB
photo by Angela Sterling

Despite that kind of praise, Carrie Imler isn’t PNB’s version of Felix Hernandez, the star ballerina. Imler has been mostly content in her role as the dependable third starter in PNB’s version of baseball's pitching rotation.

“I think I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes kind of girl," she says.“You know, the media sees opening night, but there are 3,000 other people that see you every other night. So whether you’re doing opening night or an afternoon show, or the one in the middle of the week, somebody’s seeing you, and you’re making somebody’s day.”

Imler’s good friend Jonathan Porretta is more candid about what it’s like to be passed over for opening night.
Carrie Imler (with Kiyon Gaines) in "Midsummer Night's Dream"
photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet

“I don’t think it feels good,” he admits. But Porretta agrees with Imler that whether or not dancers are in the opening night cast, performance is the whole point of a ballet career.

“In the end, it’s about the fans that come to the show. It’s about what you put out on stage, and what you get back from the audience.”

Carrie Imler starts her 20th season in Pacific Northwest Ballet this month. She has, at most, another ten years before her body won’t be able to sustain the rigors of the daily hours of rehearsal. She pauses when asked about her legacy to her colleagues at PNB.

“I would like to think I’m a role model,” she says softly. “Somebody …who worked well, did their rehearsals, acted well, behaved well.”

Jonathan Porretta believes his friend has given more than that over her two decades at PNB.

“She’s the heart and soul, the ballerina of this company,” he stresses. “She is the senior-most dancer, the longest out of everybody. She is PNB!”
PNB Principal Dancer Carrie Imler in Jyrie Kylian's "Forgotten Lands"
photo by Angela Sterling for PNB

Seattle-area audiences have a chance to see Carrie Imler this weekend in George Balanchine’s “Jewels” at McCaw Hall.

 She'll dance in "Diamonds" at the Saturday matinee, September 27th, and Friday evening, October 3.
For more information, www.pnb.org.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Carla Korbes To Retire

Carla Korbes in PNB's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
Gosh, just when you think you're on top of the Seattle-area dance news, bam!

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carla Korbes says she'll retire at the end of this season.

Say it ain't so, Carla!

If you're a PNB fan, you know Korbes' work.
The ethereal Brazilian-born blonde is one of those dancers who elevates her roles simply with the extension of her arm, or the grace of her jete.
Plus, she is a warm and friendly person.
PNB Principal Dancer Carla Korbes
photo by Angela Sterling

In a release, Korbes said "my body is ready to move on, so I need to respect that."

Korbes was out with injuries for much of PNB's 2013-14 season.
She returned in Susan Marshall's "The Kiss," which she told me recently was a lot more fun than she'd anticipated.

Korbes will dance in PNB's opening night production of "Jewels;" according to a company media release, audiences will be able to see her perform throughout this artistic season. Her career will be celebrated at PNB's Encore performance in June, 2015.

Carla Korbes dances in "Jewels;"
She's a jewel herself.
It's been a privilege to spend these years with her.

Carla Korbes with Batkhurel Bold
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Fly On The Rehearsal Studio Wall

Jacques d'Amboise with Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch
Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
If you love dance, the most wonderful place in the world to hang out is a rehearsal studio.
I've spent hours watching patient (and not so patient) stagers and choreographers at work. I love to see how most dancers use the skill and experience stored in their bodies to replicate an idea, to make the dance bloom.

When you sit up close, you get to see all the hard work that goes into learning and perfecting a dance. By the time they're ready for a public performance, the dancers have practiced steps and gestures, polished and refined them, so that everything looks almost (almost) effortless to the audience.

Usually, rehearsal sessions involve a lot of movement; this is dance, after all. But recently I spent an hour watching a master transmit not so much the physical as the spiritual aspects of a dance; the all but intangible details that transform craft into artistry. It was fascinating.

Most ballet fans know the name Jacques d'Amboise. He danced for George Balanchine at New York City Ballet for more than three decades in the 1950's, '60's and '70's.  After his performing career ended, d'Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, a school that was documented in the Academy Award-winning film "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'."

Last week,d'Amboise was in Seattle to coach the Pacific Northwest Ballet company members for their upcoming performances of Balanchine's "Jewels." This is a dance d'Amboise performed often; it's one he helped Balanchine to create. "Jewels" is embedded in d'Amboise's long muscle memory bank.

Jacques d'Amboise is 80 years old now. His hair is white, his posture just a tiny bit stooped. But as he stepped over to the barre on a recent sunny afternoon, his feet in sensible brown shoes, the man's vitality flooded out through his broad smile and enveloped the whole studio.

D'Amboise didn't concern himself overly with the "Jewels" choreography. After PNB principals Carla Korbes and Bakhturel Bold briefly ran through a section, d'Amboise stopped the action and gestured them and the six other dancers to his side. He pulled over soloist Jerome Tisserand and asked him to stand in first position, heels together and toes pointed out. "Don't look at the floor," d'Amboise admonished. Tisserand grinned as he flowed through a series of basic barre exercises.
Jacques d'Amboise with PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch and Soloist Jerome Tisserand
photo by Lindsay Thomas

"I don't have anything to tell you, except that this is a performing art," he told the younger dancer. "Take the stage for others to look at you perform a skill they don't have."

Then d'Amboise demonstrated what he was after: a lifted chin, eye contact with an imaginary audience, an assured sweep of an arm upon entering the stage. And, when the final jump is landed, a shared moment with that same audience, an acknowledgement of what has just transpired.

"Be proud," d'Amboise told the dancers, who by now had re-donned fleece jackets and leg warmers, certain they weren't going to be moving around much during this particular rehearsal hour.

Corps de ballet member Steven Loch's turn came next. d'Amboise placed a folded dollar bill on the floor at Loch's feet. He asked the young dancer to jump and land crisply on that bill, feet held tight in fifth position. When Loch mastered that single jump to d'Amboise's satisfaction, the mentor asked his pupil to execute a series of four jumps around that dollar. Smiling, Loch did.

D'Amboise regaled his audience with tales of Balanchine, of the legendary choreographer's intentions, and about his experience taking Balanchine's work beyond a mere repetition of steps to create something bigger, an experience that would remain with the audience long after they filed from the hall. Remember, he told the PNB dancers, to "carry yourselves with a modesty that springs from the knowledge of what you are." In other words, a confidence in training, in experience, in abilities.

That confidence is what makes a particular dancer transcend the ordinary, what makes him or her stand out from the crowd. Most importantly, d'Amboise told the group, it's what transforms all the jumps and steps and waving arms from mere movement into art.

Jacques d'Amboise hobbled back to his chair at the front of the studio, a bit winded from his demonstrations, but his smile still broad, eyes twinkling.

"Okay," he said. "Now who's going to run through this next? Without looking at the floor?"

Everyone laughed.
PNB Principal Dancer shares a laugh with Jacques d'Amboise
photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
Pacific Northwest Ballet's season opening performances of "Jewels" begin Friday, September 26th at McCaw Hall in Seattle.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Guilty Pleasures And Other Summer Diversions

Contestants on Fox TV's "So You Think You Can Dance" photo courtesy Fox
Wow, summer is whizzing by and I haven't written a word since early June. I can only blame my lack of focus on Seattle's persistent sunshine. But, while it's true the Pacific Northwest is pretty much heaven on earth this time of year, I confess I have also been diverting myself with other, shall we say, less wholesome pastimes than enjoying Mother Nature.

For example, I find myself inexplicably drawn to mystery novels in the summer. Actually, I love them all year long, but summer means swimming followed by a leisurely read at the beach. This year, "The Silkworm", Robert Galbraith's (aka J.K. Rowling) latest offering, was a great diversion.

But reading sounds downright virtuous compared to my other vice this summer.

I confess.
I've developed an unhealthy addiction to a television reality show.

Every Wednesday evening at 8 you will find me glued to the latest edition of "So You Think You Can Dance."
"So You Think You Can Dance" routine; courtesy Fox Television

I tuned in the first time out of curiosity. I love dance, and a beloved cousin recommended I watch this program. And then, I kept watching. And watching. I consume this show the way I consume a bag of kettle corn-I just can't stop. And I watch with equal parts fascination and fury.

For those of you who have somehow missed SYTYCD (seriously, that's how they refer to it in print), the show works like this. A large pool of dancers auditions for a three-judge panel. From that pool, the judges select a group for the series competition. Each week, two of those dancers are paired up to perform what the show calls a "routine". These are bite-sized morsels of choreography, everything from ballroom to hip hip to tap. Each routine is set to a pop song, and none is longer than 3 or 4 minutes.

Each week two dancers are eliminated, voted off the dance floor if you will. That ouster is based on an online popular vote tally, and on input from the judges. For most of the summer, one of those judges was American Ballet Theater soloist (and Under Armour viral video star) Missy Copeland. If nothing else, Copeland's knowledgeable feedback was a great counterpoint to that of the semi-hysterical judge with the ballroom dance background.
Oo la la, it's ballet! Contestant Jacque on "So You Think You Can Dance"
photo courtesy Fox

As I write this, the dancers have been whittled down to six semi-finalists. And now, I have my favorites. Contestant Jacque has a ballet background. And recently they actually let her wear her pointe shoes and perform a teeny tiny contemporary ballet "routine." The audience, usually whooping with delight every time one of the contestants executes a grand jete, was stunned into silence at the end of this mini-ballet. The performance was lovely, however brief. The judges had nothing but praise for it, but poor Jacque didn't get the audience nod that night. Alas, I don't think my ballerina has a shot at winning.

Not to say the other contestants are chopped liver. One guy who came to dance later in life (we get to see snippets of their bios throughout the series) has amazing line, a sort of feline stage presence, and the seeming ability to perform whatever is thrown his way. I can't help but wonder what kind of ballet dancer he would have made.
"So You Think You Can Dance" contestant, courtesy Fox TV
Now that I think of it, SYTYCD reminds me a lot of that reality show set at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, "Breaking Pointe." That series had an endlessly tedious story line about relationships, cattiness and backstories. I just wanted to see the dancing. Which is kind of how I feel about SYTYCD. I want more dancing, producers!

I've found myself wondering if shows like this cheapen dance as an artform. The New York Times last year called SYTYCD "feckless" and "ignorable." With all the pop music, glittery costumes and makeup, and the brevity of each piece of choreography, it's a little like watching the fast food version of what I know can be a delicious meal in its full form.

 On the other hand, millions of people tune into SYTYCD every week. They're exposed to at least a taste of an art form that seems to baffle so many. Isn't there some way to build on that audience? I keep thinking that dance companies around the country should somehow ask their local Fox Television affiliates to sponsor tie-ins. "You like our reality show," a Fox host might say. "Well, check out Zoe Juniper at On The Boards. Or, what about Whim W'him? And hey, Seattle area, Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting an entire evening of work by choreographer William Forsythe next March. If you liked this hors d'oeuvre, you'll love the banquet!"

Lucky for me this guilty-pleasure summer has just about run its course. I will miss the sunshine, the beaches and the delectable mystery novels. But long after the contestants on "So You Think You Can Dance" have faded into distant memory, I've got a calendar full of live dance performances penciled in for this fall. And next spring. And, as Buzz Lightyear says, to infinity and beyond!

I can hardly wait.

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.