Monday, March 17, 2014

Nice Choices, Mr. Boal!

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Jonathan Porretta in "State of Darkness,"
choreography by Molissa Fenley, photo by Angela Sterling
Every March, Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal and his company present a program called "Director's Choice." It's usually a mixed repertory, with a healthy dose of contemporary choreography on the bill. After watching the opening night performance of this year's edition, my friend turned to me and said "tell Peter Boal for me, good choices, Director!" Amen to that, sister!

Four dances were on the evening's bill, all made within the last 25 years, including a world premier by Hubbard Street Dance choreographer-in-residence Alejandro Cerrudo. (More on that after I get a chance to see it a second time). The four works were vastly different from one another, from Susan Stroman's jazzy crowd pleaser, "Take Five...More or Less," set to Dave Brubeck's jazz standard, to Molissa Fenley's intensely powerful solo "State of Darkness," danced on opening night by Jonathan Porretta.

"Take Five" is breezy and upbeat, and featured a lively opening solo from Kaori Nakamura. Scene stealers Kiyon Gaines and Lesley Rausch got an ebullient response from the crowd. "Take Five" is bubbly and fun, but it was Jonathan Porretta's work on opening night that had me up on my feet.
PNB dancers Lesley Rausch and Kiyon Gaines in Susan Stroman's "Take Five...More or Less"
photo by Angela Sterling
Molissa Fenley made "State of Darkness" for herself in 1988. She was inspired by Igor Stravinsky's 1913 masterpiece, "Rite of Spring." Fenley writes that, at first, she played a recording in her studio and simply moved to the music. Then she realized she was creating a full blown dance. The PNB performance is accompanied by a live orchestra. The lush, full sound is an interesting juxtaposition to the solo dancer onstage, bare-chested and dressed in a simple pair of black capri-length pants.

Fenley is very slim, and in a videotaped performance from 1992, with her hair cropped short, she presents an androgynous, almost elfin persona. PNB's Jonathan Porretta, on the other hand, is solid and compact. With his dark hair hanging loose almost below his ears, Porretta commands the stage with a barely contained ferocity. Sometimes it was like watching a caged, semi-feral animal as he kicked his legs and slashed his arms to Stravinsky's percussive passages. In the dance's gentler moments, Porretta pulled back inside himself. He seemed to withhold his intensity for a few minutes, (and maybe gather more energy) only to unleash himself later on.
PNB Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness"
Photo by Angela Sterling
Porretta lends a vast quantity of charisma and drama to any material he performs. (Go see him dance the role of Mercutio, for example, in Jean-Christophe Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette.) In "State of Darkness," he undulates from mid-torso, steps gently in circles, forcefully swings his head down and up, whipping his hair across his face. Fenley has created a series of precise arm and hand movements for this dance. At times, Porretta extends his arm toward the floor, his hand palm up, then flipped down, then up again, as if he's a farmer sowing seeds. At other moments, Porretta dances laterally across the stage, facing the audience. The movements evoke the images I've seen from Nijinsky's 1913 Paris version of "Rite of Spring."

As the musical energy builds, you hold your breath, waiting for Porretta to let loose one of his technically dazzling jetes across the stage. And you keep waiting, because Fenley doesn't give us that release until later in the dance. The tension escalates, the caged animal paces, then finally explodes with a burst into the air.
PNB's Jonathan Porretta in "State of Darkness", choreographed by Molissa Fenley.
Photo by Angela Sterling
"State of Darkness" demands endurance: it's 36 minutes long. It also demands intellectual concentration. Jonathan Porretta delivered both on opening night. At times, he surveyed the audience, his dark eyes almost ferocious, daring us to keep watching him. Porretta is an audience favorite: his technical abilities coupled with his dramatic skills make him stand out on stage. But with this performance, I felt like I was watching an artist who had marshaled all his training, his life experience and his talents.What a transcendent dance experience!

Also of note for all PNB fans: opening night of "Director's Choice" marked Carla Korbe's return to the stage, after months of recuperation from an injury. Korbes and fellow Principal Dancer James Moore performed Susan Marshall's "Kiss." It's an all-too-brief, poignant duet, with the dancers harnessed to sturdy ropes that are anchored high above the McCaw Hall stage. Moore is smoldering and sexy; Korbes, as always, shimmers like an ephemeral shooting star. The audience welcomed her back with ecstatic and sustained applause.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancers Carla Korbes and James Moore
in "Kiss" by Susan Marshall. Photo by Angela Sterling
 I know this program probably isn't everybody's cup of tea when it comes to ballet. Some of you may read this and say, "wow, was she at the same production as me?" But, seriously, the 2014 edition of "Director's Choice" rocked. You'll kick yourself if you're the only one in town to miss it.

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