Monday, March 16, 2015

The Visceral And Intellectual Thrill Of Forsythe

PNB soloists Leta Biasucci and Margaret Mullin in "Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude"
photo by Angela Sterling
Opening night at Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe," the first American all-Forsythe evening, I had this kind of tingly sensation as I took my seat. You know that feeling of anticipation when you're about to open a fabulous gift? Or maybe the way your stomach kind of churns with excitment when you're on an airplane that's about to take off for your Paris vacation?

I'd been waiting for this particular program ever since PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal announced it as part of the company's 2014-15 season.

Nothing like some heavy expectations, eh?

This all-Forsythe experience not only fulfilled those expectations; it reminded me of all the ways that dance can both thrill me with its energy and grace, while at the same time pushing me to consider what I'm watching.
Benjamin Griffiths and Carrie Imler in "Vertiginous Thrill..."
photo by Angela Sterling

The evening opener, "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude," is one wild ride. It's a non-stop dazzle of virtuosity, precision and, let's face it, fortitude from the five dancers who barely get a chance to stop to breathe.

The curtain goes up on two men in orange shorts and shirts. Jonathan Porretta and Benjamin Griffiths were more than capable of meeting the challenges Forsythe threw down for them. They executed the leaps, spins and chains of intricate footwork with panache and an exactitude that was, well, thrilling.

The three women-Carrie Imler, Leta Biasucci and Margaret Mullin, were equally up to the tasks at hand. Dazzling in acid-green tutus that looked nothing like the classical confections of tulle that we'll see in "Swan Lake," these dancers were marvels in motion. When I managed to snap my jaw shut, I scrawled down in my notebook 'wicked footwork.' Wicked indeed, and fabulous.

After a musical interlude to celebrate the PNB orchestra's 25th  anniversary, we were treated to "New Suite." The dance-first performed in 2012 at Dresden Semperoper Ballett, and no place else until now-is really a collection of nine pas de deux. Forsythe originally choreographed them for other dances that aren't performed any more. Four are set to music by George Frideric Handel, three to sections of Luciano Berio's mid-20th century "Duetti per due violins," one to a Bach chaconne, and the longest, the "Slingerland pas de deux," to Gavin Byars' 1985 "String Quartet no. 1."  The music was performed live.
PNB soloists William Lin-Yee and Elizabeth Murphy in Handel 1 from "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling

"New Suite" opens with a romantic Handel duet, performed with stunning elegance by soloists Elizabeth Murphy and William Lin-Yee. Murphy was at her best; her body seemed to arc and stretch as if made of some kind of delicate elastic. Lin-Yee, always an able dancer, mesmerized with his strength and solid partnering.

While the three opening Handel duets were charmers, the sharper-themed Berio pas de deux were the true highlights for me. Performed by Lesley Rausch and Raphael Bouchard, Lindsi Dec and Jerome Tisserand, and Chelsea Adomaitis and Steven Loch, these three gems highlight the nuance and sometimes jagged discord that most of us experience in romantic relationships.
PNB Principal Lindsi Dec with Jerome Tisserand in Berio 3 from "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling

It's the little details that elevate these dances beyond mere illustrations; the brief caress of a cheek, or a tug on a partner's knee to lift his leg off the floor. Adomaitis holds her arm out straight, hand tilted up with her palm to the audience. When Loch forms a circle with his arms, she undulates her head and torso through it, a fish swimming upstream. Knocked me out.
PNB corps de ballet members Chelsea Adomaitis and Steven Loch in Berio 2
photo by Angela Sterling

These details, these gestures, build on one another like wet sand dribbled to form a beautiful castle at the seaside.

The one sour note on opening night was "Slingerland." I had seen it performed five years ago and loved it. Laura Tisserand and Karel Cruz seemed rushed, out of synch with the music. Their Saturday matinee performance was infinitely better and I found out later that the live string quartet had been replaced with a recording.

"New Suite" ends with the fourth Handel pas de deux, and Forsythe saved the best Handel for last. Jahna Frantziskonis and Kyle Davis were adorable in what feels a bit like a balletic version of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." But in the Saturday matinee, Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta seized the stage and gave a textbook performance in what it means to combine confident technique with pure charisma. Wow. Be still, my heart!

The program ends with "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," part of PNB's repertoire since 2000, and a consistent crowd pleaser. This tour de force is still as captivating as I'm certain it was when it debuted at the Paris Opera Ballet 30 some years ago.
PNB Principal Jonathan Porretta and company dancers in "In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated"
photo by Angela Sterling

"In the Middle..." is an ensemble piece for nine dancers, set on a stage stripped bare to the back wall and wings, and lit eerily from overhead. You feel like you're watching the dancers after hours in an abandoned warehouse. That feeling is magnified by Thom Willem's powerful electronic score.

Every dancer on opening night brought something special to this dance, but Lindsi Dec, Lesley Rausch, Seth Orza, William Lin-Yee, Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta were standouts.

Every time I see Rausch in a contemporary ballet I think 'this is what she was born to do.' As a performer she brings a cool, almost haughty elegance to the stage. Think Grace Kelly. These traits, combined with her technical mastery, were stunning in this work.

Dec, with her amazing long lean body, brought a feral ferocity to the choreography. And Imler and Porretta? What can I say? They were brilliant. Just brilliant.

I saw "Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe" twice opening weekend. I'm so glad I have the opportunity to see the program one more time. It's like postponing the end of a long vacation, savoring one last cocktail in a Parisian boite.

The PNB dancers have been inspired and energized by the all-Forsythe program, and by the chance to work with this choreographer and his stagers. You will be inspired and energized when you see them perform this great program. You've got four more chances; "Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe" is at McCaw Hall March 19-22nd.
PNB corps de ballet members Jahna Frantziskonis and Ezra Thomson in Handel 2 from "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remembering Helen

Helen Strickland, 1989 (age 70)
photo by Carl Sander, courtesy Leslie Robison
You probably have at least one of these people in your life: somebody with a larger-than-life personality, a zest for adventure, compassion for those who need it and generosity for the rest of us.

I'm lucky to know many folks with these fine qualities. But I got the sad news this morning that one of them passed away over the weekend.

Helen Strickland was a teacher, a painter and an actress.

She wasn't particularly famous outside her sphere of influence, but that sphere was wide and varied. Helen collected people and experiences during her long life. And if you were lucky enough to meet her, she made your life the richer for that friendship.

I first ran into Helen years ago at a public swimming pool. I was standing, stark naked, in the shower, when this older woman came up and said with a smile "I'd love to paint you!"

What a pick up line!

That was Helen.

She was a wonderful painter. Her watercolors of childrens' swim lessons still hang in the lobby of a North Seattle community center.

She was also a long-time high school language arts teacher and a passionate theater artist who was a member of the Seattle Peace Theater group. She was as devoted to social justice issues as she was to the arts.

Helen made a guest appearance on the radio, when we put together a segment on what seniors gain from inter-generational social contacts. The producers wanted to bring in somebody who had benefited from a wide net of friendships. Helen was perfect.

One day Helen invited me to her house for tea and scones. She wanted to show me a painting she'd been inspired to make after a visit to the Edward Hopper show at the Seattle Art Museum. Helen had copied one of Hopper's works, and she'd inserted a self portrait of herself as a young woman in place of Hopper's figure. She told me Hopper's painting reminded her of a train trip she took decades ago. She was certain the artist had seen her on that train.

Not long after my visit, Helen left her home and moved into assisted living. She was over 90 at that point, and living alone was no longer feasible. That was several years ago, and I never saw her again, although I thought of her often.

Helen lived her life with grace and passion and an enthusiasm for the people she met. I wanted, and still want, to emulate her style.

Let me give you just one last taste of Helen.

One morning in the locker room, as I donned a bright sweater with a sparkly brooch, Helen stopped in front of me and sighed.

"Oh, I had a pin like that!" she exclaimed.

She went on to describe how it went with a swath of fabric she'd received from a Seattle Sister City Exchange. (Or perhaps it was a Peace Corps event. Helen had been involved in a wealth of activities.)

"I used to be hot," she said, with her wicked smile, and mimed tossing that fabric over a shoulder. The years vanished from her face in that instant, and I had a glimpse of the young Helen.

But at age 90, Helen Strickland still was smoking hot.
And that's how I will remember a life very, very well lived.
A bloom for Helen Strickland

Monday, March 9, 2015

William Forsythe Rocks My World

Choreographer William Forsythe, left, with Pacific Northwest Ballet Corps member Ezra Thomson.
photo by Angela Sterling
I admit it.

Freely and cheerfully.

I am a fan girl.

Last week, I got to sit down with one of my choreographic heroes-William Forsythe.
(And, in case you wondered: no, I didn’t drool and I wasn't totally inarticulate!)
Instead, we had a friendly conversation. I came away from it with renewed admiration for both Forsythe’s dance, and his respect and love for his dancers.

William Forsythe has been in residence at Pacific Northwest Ballet since the start of March, in preparation for the March 13th opening of the first American all-Forsythe evening, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe.”
PNB Principal Dancer Jerome Tisserand and Soloist Elizabeth Murphy rehearse for PNB's "Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe"
photo by Angela Sterling

The bill includes one dance Northwest audiences have seen, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.”  But PNB also will present the American premiere of “New Suite,” a 2012 compilation of pas de deux that Forsythe says he “rescued” from works that had fallen by the wayside. “New Suite” has been performed only by Germany's Dresden Semperoper Ballett before this Seattle production.

If you Google videos of Forsythe ballets, you’ll come up with some hits, but many of those videos are fragmentary, or of poor quality. Forsythe believes that people need to see his work in the arena for which it was created: live, in person.
PNB Principal Dancer Lindsi Dec, in costume for "Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe"
photo by Angela Sterling

I suppose that’s why he’s made his first professional trip to Seattle to work with the PNB dancers, to ensure this American first is as good as it can possibly be.

Forsythe is American, but he's spent most of his professional career in Frankfurt, Germany, first with Frankfurt Ballet, then, after he was forced out, with the dance company that currently bears his name.

Many American companies have Forsythe ballets in their repertoires, and the choreographer has worked with some of those companies.

“I would say one thing about Americans, there’s a very can-do mentality, and I like that.”

When you watch Forsythe in the PNB studios, you understand that part of the ‘can-do’ mentality is fostered by the evident affection and respect that Forsythe has for the dancers.
William Forsythe and stager Kathryn Bennetts, in rehearsal at PNB
photo by Angela Sterling

“Gather ‘round, my dears!” he beckons with a smile at a recent rehearsal.

The dancers are like sunflowers bending to the warm light as they form a large circle around him. After a few explanatory words, he sets to work. He and stager Kathryn Bennetts do some individual coaching before a planned run-through of “In the Middle…”

 “I’m really interested in building good dancers in the process of setting the work, not just setting the work,” he explains.

But it’s the work that really seems to thrill dancers.

Laura Graham danced for Forsythe at Frankfurt Ballet. Now she travels the world staging his ballets. She's at PNB to teach "New Suites." Graham believes Forsythe’s choreography pushes the borders of traditional ballet, technically, stylistically and emotionally.

“Pas de deux, created by Bill, there’s no comparison to any other choreographer. It’s challenging, stimulating, oh, add all the adjectives you want!” she laughs.
PNB Principal Dancers Jonathan Porretta and Carrie Imler in "In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated"
photo by Angela Sterling

It’s clear most of the PNB dancers agree with Graham’s assessment. Principals Seth Orza and Jerome Tisserand wore huge smiles during a recent rehearsal break. Orza, just back from an injury, is still regaining his strength and energy, so he has to push himself hard to meet Forsythe's expectations. And his own. That effort doesn’t seem to faze him.

“It’s great,” he says simply. 

Corps de ballet member Chelsea Adomaitis is more effusive. “It’s the best!” she says with her incandescent smile.

The PNB dancers have worked with many of the world’s best living choreographers: Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky, to name just a few. But it’s clear that William Forsythe has inspired them to take their work ethic, and their artistry, to a new level. 

“I try to give them…a kind of ownership or authority,” Forsythe says. “Usually I say at the beginning of rehearsal, listen, all of us in this room are experts. So let’s just start from that point.”

Wow. The man inspires ME! I hope my bosses sit up and pay attention.

You can check out Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe” March 13-22 and McCaw Hall.
Here’s a link for a discount for the March 14th matinee performance.  Hope to see you there!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Dance To Melt The Stars

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lindsi Dec
photo by Angela Sterling
Last week somebody asked me why I write about dance. I had a quick answer: dance is my favorite art form.

Then, I started to wonder why. Why?

And here's where everything gets high falutin' and woo-woo. Great dance takes me to a place beyond words, to feelings that transcend my earth-bound self. I have that experience with some musical performances; I used to dance around my dorm room to Bach's "Brandenburg Concerti." Yes, I'm weird!!
PNB Principal dancers Ariana Lallone and Olivier Wevers in Forsythe's "Artifact"
photo by Angela Sterling

I have these specific memories of dance performances that have electrified me.
The one and only time I saw Rudolf Nureyev dance in person. To say his jetes were ferocious is an understatement.

The Stephen Petronio company, years ago, at On The Boards when it was located at Washington Hall. As the dancers moved across the floor, in that small, intimate space, I felt a primal rhythm come up through the floor boards. It still raises the hairs on the back of my neck to think about it.

Pat Graney's "Faith" blew my mind.

And then, there was the first time I saw William Forsythe's "In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated."

Pacific Northwest Ballet added this dance to the repertoire in 2000.
It's technically demanding for the dancers.
Ballet, but more than ballet. Their bodies angle, their feet are fulcra. It's kind of amazing.

It's fluid and jagged, thrilling and beautiful, a dance that challenges the audience the way one of the Three Musketeers might challenge a rival to duel with the slap of his leather riding glove on a wooden table.
PNB Principal Dancer Carla Korbes, "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated"
photo by Angela Sterling

On March 13, PNB revives "In the Middle," along with two dances Seattle area audiences haven't seen yet: "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" and "New Suite."  The latter is a series of Forsythe duets first combined into a single work in 2012.

I was beyond excited when PNB announced this all-Forsythe bill. I'm more excited now that opening night is almost here.

Last week I caught up with former Forsythe dancer and current Forsythe stager Laura Graham. I'd watched her work with the PNB dancers in late 2014, and I was blown away by her energy and enthusiasm for these dances.
Laura Graham works with dancers from Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Graham seems to glow from the inside when she talks about how it felt when she first danced one of Forsythe's pieces.  Honestly, I feel the same way watching them from the audience, or from the side of the rehearsal hall.

As I mentioned, great dance seems to defy my words. When I try to write about it, I'm reminded of something Gustave Flaubert wrote in "Madame Bovary."

"Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."

Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel about William Forsythe's work; I'm giving you some crude description of something that melts the stars for me.

Come find out what I'm talking about. "The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe" is at McCaw Hall March 13-22. On March 14th I'll be talking with PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal and dancers after the show. Here's a link for a ticket discount to that performance.