Monday, January 27, 2014

Kaori Nakamura: Incandescent Ballerina

Kaori Nakamura in Twyla Tharp's "Water Baby Bagatelles". Photo @ Angela Sterling
Kaori's Nakamura's close friend Olivier Wevers calls her a true ballerina. Over almost 20 years, Seattle audiences have watched Kaori inhabit, seemingly without effort, every major ballet role. From Princess Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty," to Juliette in Jean-Christophe Maillot's stupendous "Romeo et Juliette," Kaori has transformed herself into love-struck princess, artistic muse, curious village girl. But this June, Kaori Nakamura will give her last official performance at Pacific Northwest Ballet. The 43-year old ballerina says it's time to retire.
Kaori Nakamura as Juliette, with her Romeo, James Moore. Photo@Angela Sterling
One of the saddest things about ballet is that by the time a dancer has the life experience to invest in a performance, the kind of knowledge she can combine with her technical prowess to really illuminate the dance from the inside, it's just about time for her ballet career to end. Ballet dancers spend their lives training, learning how to make us believe they are floating on air with every leap or pirouette. The goal is to make it look easy, but it's hard, hard work, and it takes a toll on the body. I once asked Kaori's PNB colleague and friend Jonathan Porretta what he wanted audiences to know. His answer: "we're athletes as well as artists." At some point, an athlete's body says "time to rest." 
Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta in PNB's "Nutcracker" photo @Angela Sterling

If you've ever seen Kaori Nakamura dance, you know this tiny woman has delicate grace braced by tensile steel strength. Like former PNB principal Louise Nadeau, Kaori has just gotten better and better over her years at PNB. Audiences take for granted that Kaori will execute, flawlessly, the technical demands of every role. What makes her so special is that Kaori can also imbue her Juliette with a gamine sassiness, bring a flair to her Kitri, a pathos to Giselle. It's clear from her performances that she loves each story ballet, that she's an actress as well as a technician.
Kaori Nakamura as Kitri in Ratmansky's "Don Quixote" photo @ Angela Sterling
Although those beautiful classical ballets fit Kaori's dancing style, she is equally capable of performing contemporary work. Twyla Tharp created the role of a savvy street urchin for her in "Afternoon Ball." Kaori was a ferocious figure in Ulysses Dove's "Red Angel", and she's premiered work by her former colleague Olivier Wevers for his company Whim W'him.
Kaori Nakamura in Ulysses Dove's "Red Angels" Photo@ Angela Sterling

Kaori Nakamura's retirement is a loss for the Seattle audience, but a huge gain for the PNB School. Artistic Director Peter Boal says Kaori will join the faculty there, to help transmit her artistry to a new generation.
Before that happens you still have a few chances to see Kaori dance.She will perform Princess Aurora on opening night of PNB's "Sleeping Beauty," January 31, 2014, and she's scheduled to dance the title role in "Giselle" later this spring.
After a farewell tribute in June, Kaori steps out of the spotlight. Thanks for your spectacular work, Kaori.

Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postelwaite in "Swan Lake" photo@Angela Sterling

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Olivier Wevers: The Benefits Of Baggage

You can take the boy out of the ballet company, but you can't remove years of immersion in ballet culture from the boy's psyche. In the case of choreographer Olivier Wevers, that's a great thing.
Choreographer Olivier Wevers, @ Bamberg Fine Art

Wevers calls his years as a classical ballet dancer the "baggage" he brings to his four-year old contemporary dance company, Whim W'him. That baggage was evident in Wevers' recent deliriously loopy reworking of Michel Fokine's early 20th century ballet "Les Sylphides," part of the program "Instantly Bound", January 17-19, 2014 at Seattle's Cornish Playhouse.

Although you can talk about Wevers' "Sylphides" on its own merits, a little background on the original helps a bit. Fokine's ballet, billed as a "one-act romantic reverie" at its 1909 Paris premiere, is set to a beautiful Chopin score. A bevy of dancers in long, white tulle skirts moves about the stage as a lone man, the "Poet", romances the prima ballerina. The two dancers waltz, they glide, they linger in one another's arms. It's all very beautiful.

Wevers says he was inspired by Chopin's lush music. But instead of a romantic reverie, an abstract fantasy, Olivier Wevers brings us a very modern dinner party. Inebriated by lust, jealousy, revenge and the general excitement of a social gathering, the six dinner guests plus one late arrival, weave their way across the stage. They mingle, they fight, they gossip, they flirt, all the time manipulating a large white table. The only set piece, the table transforms from the front door to a boudoir, a settee, and of course, a dining table. And that table, like the centerpiece of Wevers' earlier dance, "Sofa," is a foil for the humans who prance around it.
Choreographer Olivier Wevers, in red, works with Whim W'him company dancers.
Photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

Lara Seefeldt is a preposterous drunk, enamoured of her date, Jim Kent. They are a daffy couple, hot for one another but still slightly innocent. That's not the case for the evening's hostess, danced by Tory Peil. She and her partner are clearly at odds when the evening begins. That irritation is exacerbated by the arrival of another man who captures Peil's interest and eventually her body. Meanwhile, late arrival Geneva Jenkins delicately spins around the party, as she tries to reorganize the scene to her liking.

Wevers' version of "Les Sylphides" is a sly, puckish, very 21st century ballet. His dancers (the first on season contract for Whim W'him), stagger drunkenly around the stage, but their every limb twitch is carefully thought out, and meticulously planned. This ballet builds on Wevers' earlier "Flower Festival." That strong duet is also a hilarious reimagination of classical ballet, but with "Sylphides", Wevers demonstrates his growth as a choreographer. He confidently deploys seven dancers instead of only two, creating multiple concurrent scenarios on stage, and, all in all, gives the audience the gift of both laughter and beauty.

"Les Sylphides" closed out the evening, which opened with the title dance, "Instantly Bound." A reworking of a piece Wevers choreographed in 2013 for Philadelphia's Ballet X, this abstract exploration of the impact of gun violence had some powerful moments. In particular, the middle section features all six dancers moving in unison, shrugging first one shoulder then the other as their feet tap out a repeated rhythm: Ta-da, Ta-da, Ta Ta, a little like a cha cha. They are strangers who've come together, reeling from experience violence, sharing a common beat.
Choreographer Olivier Wevers works with Whim W'him dancer Geneva Jenkins. Photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

Several years ago, Wevers told me ballet as a dance form wouldn't survive unless it moved beyond the canon of works that are still performed in theaters around the world. His company, Whim W'him, is most definitely a contemporary dance ensemble. But Wevers' background positions him as someone poised to enliven ballet, to build on the past artistry and transform it for the 21st century.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Fred Astaire...What Else Can I Say?

Over the winter holidays, we have a movie tradition. Your family probably has a bunch of old chestnuts you watch for variou reasons. For me,"It's a Wonderful Life" is a must because it always makes me cry. And my son and I usually watch the entire extended version of Peter Jackson's epic "Lord of the Rings." Just because.

This year, I pulled out an old VHS copy of "Holiday Inn," with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. They play New York song and dance men, hoofing up a storm until Bing decides he's had it with show business. He buys a New England farm, where he plans to settle down with the third member of the act, a comely dancer. Surprise, that doesn't work out. Bing is stuck on the farm with no visible means of support. Until he decides to transform his adorable farmhouse into a nightclub. A nightclub that's only open on holidays.

The plot has a few more twists:  boy and girl meet cute, girl leaves, girl returns. It also has a classic score by Irving Berlin. But what really transforms "Holiday Inn" is Fred Astaire's dancing. I have loved Fred Astaire since girlhood. Even when he's paired with a woman who's as technically adept as him, Fred tends to steal the spotlight. It's not that he's particularly handsome, because he's not. It's the way he moves.

I hadn't really been able to pinpoint what about that movement was so alluring until I watched this particular film again. It's almost like Fred's torso is moving on a hydraulic suspension above his legs, which are doing something entirely separate. And he looks as light as a feather while he spins around the shiny floors. (Incidentally, I've heard all the stories about how tyrannical he was about keeping those floors shiny. I'm sure it was a pain for the film crews, but boy does it pay off for the audience.)

What really sings in "Holiday Inn" is this number:
Fred is dancing, cigarette in his mouth, hands in his pockets, and fists full of firecrackers. Give it a watch and you'll almost feel like strapping on some tap shoes yourself

.Fred Astaire in "Holiday Inn"