Monday, March 24, 2014

The Memory That Really Glows

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members Andrew Bartee and Leah Merchant in Alejandro Cerrudo's "Memory Glow."
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
I meant to write about Alejandro Cerrudo's new dance "Memory Glow," which premiered at Pacific Northwest Ballet as part of the Director's Choice program March 14-23, 2014. I really did. I saw it twice, just so I'd be certain of what I wanted to say. I meant to devote a whole post to this dance. I had the best intentions, but Molissa Fenley took over my brain. I'll tell you why in a second. First, "Memory Glow."

Alejandro Cerrudo, the choreographer-in-residence at  Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, created a lovely piece for the PNB dancers. Three women and seven men, clad in shades of cream and gray, with socks on their feet, move across a stage backlit by more than a dozen floor spots. "Memory Glow" starts with a duet (Andrew Bartee and Leah Merchant one night; Bartee and Elizabeth Murphy on another). Then the men enter. Bartee and Ezra Thomson in particular held my attention with their deft performances of Cerrudo's choreography. Repeatedly over the course of the dance, they hold one palm to their foreheads. Are they trying to forget? To remember? It's a poignant gesture.

PNB Principal Dancers James Moore and Rachel Foster (lovely in early pregnancy) really stole the dance. Contemporary choreography particularly suits Foster. She winds her body around Moore, hooking a long leg over his shoulder then suspending herself, head to the floor. Moore grabs her by the abdomen (I had to avert my eyes: she's pregnant!), swings her high into the air, then sets her lightly onto the stage. Foster seems lighter than a feather; Moore anchors her to this solid earth.

I truly enjoyed this dance, but as I mentioned, Molissa Fenley had already stolen my brain. "State of Darkness" preceded "Memory Glow" and it's a far more resonant piece. Fenley made the solo for herself in 1988. In the PNB production, it's set to a live performance of Igor Stravinsky's powerful 1913 "Rite of Spring." On opening night, Principal Jonathan Porretta poured a ferocious intensity into the 36 minute dance. As I've already written, Porretta brought his years of artistic and life experience to it, and his performance was masterful. On March 21st, I got the chance to see the solo in an entirely different way, performed by young corps de ballet dancer Angelica Generosa. The end result was equally intoxicating.

Generosa has never performed anything like "State of Darkness" on the McCaw Hall stage (at least not for a paying audience). Dressed in black, footless tights and a flesh-colored camisole (Fenley performed the solo bare-chested), hair scraped back into a tight knot at the back of her head, Generosa began the dance almost tentatively. "State of Darkness" is physically grueling; perhaps she was trying to pace herself for what she knew was ahead? However, as Stravinsky's powerful, rhythmic music built, Generosa began to unfold: she extended her long arms above her head, then swept them in huge arcs behind her as she circled the stage in a loping pace. It was as if she was preparing to catapult herself into the air. A tightness seemed to melt, and Generosa began to make this dance her own.

Where Jonathan Porretta knifed the air in front of him with straight arms, fingers held together, Generosa's fingers were splayed, each seeming to flutter independently of the others, the way Thai or Balinese dancers use their hands. Porretta conveyed a barely contained primal energy. He was a tight coil ready to spring loose at any moment. Generosa's performance was more deliberate, her energy meted out over 36 minutes. Porretta was wild, Generosa less feral. That didn't make her performance less rewarding.

Generosa's body knew the choreography from start to finish, but the longer she danced, the less it seemed she was carefully remembering, the more she seemed to give herself over to Stravinsky. At one point, Generosa bit her lower lip in concentration as she poured everything she had into this difficult solo. As the last notes faded, and the lights dimmed, the audience leapt to its feet with cheers and applause. Generosa beamed a huge smile: in celebration of her accomplishment, of course, but perhaps in relief as well.

PNB didn't make any public photographs of Generosa's performance. That's just as well. Dance is ephemeral; it's of the moment and of our memories of that moment. Perhaps that's the 'memory glow' that Alejandro Cerrudo refers to in the title of his world premiere? I don't know, but I do know that I carry the memories of Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness" with me, and their glow hasn't diminished. How I wish I could have been in the audience in 1988 when Fenley brought this piece to life for an audience for the first time! For now, I have to content myself with the memories.
It's not "State of Darkness," but here is Angelica Generosa rehearsing for Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station"
World premier, PNB, September 2013. Photo courtesy PNB

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