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."


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.