Monday, April 27, 2015

Joy, Redemption And Sacred Spaces

This past weekend was what people refer to as an embarrassment of riches.

So much art, so much sunshine, Cornus Florida abloom, flat water to row on, and the planet I believe to be Jupiter gleaming in the deep blue twilit sky.

I've spent the past year or so ruminating on those small moments of grace we discover in our daily lives. Two performances really drove home to me the role that artists play in translating and communicating that grace, providing a bridge for us between the mundane and the sacred.

Donald Byrd and his excellent Spectrum Dance Theater premiered a new and poignant "Carmina Burana" at STG's Moore Theatre April 23-26.
Jose Rubio in Donald Byrd's "Carmina Burana"
photo by Tino Tran

Byrd cheerfully admits that Carl Orff's mid-1930's cantata is bombastic. But slimmed down for two pianos, percussion and a group of talented singers (particularly baritone Jose Rubio as the central figure), Byrd's "Carmina" was clear and intimate.

Byrd tells the story of a monk (Rubio) who loses his faith when seriously ill people he's tending to die. The monk casts off his robes, seeks refuge in booze and sex in a Kurt Weill-esque club; he is a shattered, hollow man. Ultimately, he rediscovers his faith, and finds redemption, through the pure love and joy he discovers in innocent children.
Spectrum Dance Company and singers in Donald Byrd's "Carmina Burana'
photo by Tino Tran

The dancers, the musicians, the singers: they all combined for an evening that was both beautiful and satisfying, and displayed Byrd as a masterful storyteller.
"How To Become a Partisan", April 25, 2015, St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle
photo by Sebastien Scandiuzzi

Where "Carmina Burana" was tightly honed, Alice Gosti's "How to Become a Partisan", produced by Velocity Dance Center at St. Mark's Cathedral on Saturday, April 25th, was a five-hour meditation.

I confess from the outset that I could only be present for two of those five hours, alas. What I had the privilege to witness was both stunning and thought provoking.
Composer/Performer Hanna Benn in Alice Gosti's "How To Become a Partisan"
photo by Liz Dawson

"Partisan" began with a procession through Capitol Hill, from Velocity to St. Mark's. The cathedral doors opened to reveal composer/singer Hanna Benn encased in a monumental white and black sculpture of a dress. Benn rose at eight ten feet above large, red rectangular blocks that turned out to be ice. As the blocks melted, blood-red moisture seeped up the fabric of her skirts.
Hanna Benn in "How to Become a Partisan"
photo by Liz Dawson

Gosti's dancers first appeared in black coveralls, hair tightly braided, red triangles painted below their jaws. They galloped, slid, slunk and cavorted through St. Mark's majestic sanctuary. Sometimes they sat, while Benn and her musicians took over our attention. Sound poured down on the audience from the organ loft; it enveloped us as singers circled the perimeter of the huge room, whitewashed cinder block walls bathed in refracted sunlight that entered through the soaring windows.

Gosti's starting point for what was billed as a durational performance was the story of the role Italian women played in resisting the Nazis during World War II. Serendipitously, April 25th marked the anniversary of Italy's liberation from fascism. In the simple program notes, Gosti and her collaborators asked audience members what it would take for us to be moved to action. After more than an hour at St. Marks, I wasn't think about overt action, I was thinking that Gosti had set up conditions for me to suspend my usual notions of time. She made a physical space that freed my mind up to think, to watch, to breath. I wrote in my notebook, "what does it take to create  a sacred space?"

Because truly, that is what Gosti created. Audience members tried to capture fleeting images of Benn and her red-soaked gown, or a womens' ensemble called the Beaconettes, who entered with towering day-glo beehive wigs on their heads, singing an Italian folk song. Professional photographers and videographers were also on hand, to document this five hour opus.

The scraps of their documentation exist; I've included some of those photos in this post. But really, how do you preserve a performance that is meant to be as fleeting as the blocks of melting ice?

I'm told as many as 500 people stayed for the whole five hours. I didn't want to leave; I was mesmerized by the dancers' movements, by the the reverberations of  the voices and instruments, by the way the light made each pastel yellow, blue and pink glass pane shine.

Alice Gosti created a magic, fleeting space in which I could contemplate, ruminate, meditate. We find that so rarely.
The experience of this moment of grace, this bridge to the sacred, now exists only in my mind.

It is indelible.

"How to Become a Partisan" by Alice Gosti, music by Hanna Benn
photo by Sebastien Scandiuzzi

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Transcendent Moments

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Carla Korbes in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling
We live in a day and age where everybody wants to quantify EVERYTHING.

Data are supposed to tell us how well kids are learning.
How our businesses are performing.
And, in my world of journalism, what impact our work has on our audience.

I’ve been contemplating that last one.

Bean-counters want to know whether or not the audience takes action after we read, or hear, or see something. In the data world, that’s the way you measure impact. But I’d argue the most powerful impact is not about the actions we take; it’s about the way we feel.

Look, you’ve probably experienced those moments in life that transport you from your humdrum rut. And chances are, you don’t really know WHY. For me, those moments sometimes come when I’m swimming along, and the water is gliding over my arms and legs and the sun is shining and everything just feels easy and rhythmic and happy and peaceful.

But more often, it’s a great artwork that catapults me into that realm. For example, the other day I was driving along listening to a recording of Chopin’s “Polonaise” on the car radio. Something about the way the pianist accented the notes he played gave the piece a sort of suspenseful syncopation. I don’t know, I found it thrilling.
PNB Principal Dancer Carla Korbes and Company dancers in "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling

I had that same sense of goose-bumpy thrill Friday, April 10, 2015, at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, as I watched Carla Korbes dance in Act 2 of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake.”

(You’ve probably heard of this ballet, even if you’ve never seen it. A handsome prince wanders out to a secluded lake one night. By the light of the full moon, he and his hunting buddies encounter a flock of beautiful swans. Turns out they’re actually beautiful women who’ve been bewitched by an evil sorcerer.
And, wouldn’t you know it, our hero falls in love with the loveliest member of the flock, a swan/woman named Odette. He can rescue her from her situation with a pledge of true love. I’m not giving anything away to say that things don’t end well. This is a 19th century ballet, after all.)
PNB Principal Dancers Karel Cruz and Carla Korbes in "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling

Carla Korbes didn’t just dance Kent Stowell’s choreography that evening; she embodied it. She floated across the mist-shrouded stage, her raised arms undulating behind her, as if they really were wings. It was astonishing to watch the wave of motion flow from a slight lift of Korbes’ shoulder, through her rippling forearm, and out through fingers that feathered through the air.
With each infinitesimal tuck of her chin, or tilt of her head, Korbes was less human than avian. I had no reason to question why this prince, danced by Karel Cruz, would be captivated by her. Who wouldn’t be?

Not long ago I sat down with Korbes to talk what it’s like when she’s onstage. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t make conscious choices when she performs. After more than 20 years of training, she says she doesn’t have to worry about the technique anymore.

Sure, when she has to dance the seemingly endless chain of fouette turns in Act 3, in the role of Odette’s evil alter-ego, the black swan Odile, Korbes must concentrate. It’s a daunting technical and artistic challenge. Korbes threw down 27 fouettes. By the way, I counted.

But a performance isn’t about the steps for Korbes; it’s about her relationships: with her partner, with the audience, and most of all, with her character. And that relationship is what she wants the audience to experience.

“I think it can touch people in a way that is not conscious.” Korbes believes the printed word doesn’t give readers the room to dream or to feel. “Dance is different. It depends on mood.”
PNB company members in "Swan Lake", choreographed by Kent Stowell
photo by Angela Sterling

The mood Korbes created in “Swan Lake” was ethereal, beyond words, and certainly beyond a data analysis of its impact. She elevated the beautiful mystery of that misty, moonlit lake, with her stunning attendant flock of 24 swans. She took me with her to someplace beyond Seattle’s McCaw Hall. I was conscious that she was Carla Korbes dancing a role, but at the same time I was touched by the magical possibility that a woman could be an enchanted swan.

Ultimately, I think that’s what a great artist can do: transmit the magic; the intangible, unquantifiable glory of what it means to be human and to dream and to hope and to create. Korbes managed to reveal to her delirious audience a sliver of the divine possibilities that lie within us all. The night was inspirational, and unforgettable.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Kate Wallich's Splurgeland

Lavinia Vago (left) and Kate Wallich in "Splurgeland"
photo by Tim Summers
We live in the information age.

Check that.

We live in an age of hyper-connectivity.

Friends, driving directions, emotional counseling. They’re all available with the swipe of the cool, impersonal screen on the tiny computer we carry with us everywhere. That accessibility flings us into a world of stimuli, entertainment, communication, and, ultimately, dis-connectivity.

At least, that’s a vision that choreographer Kate Wallich lays out for us in her newest work “Splurgeland,” premiered at Seattle’s On The Boards April 2-5, 2015.

Wallich and her company, The YC (co-director Lavinia Vago, Matt Drews, Waldean Nelson and Andrew Bartee) dance a dystopian, moody portrait of 21st century American society. Their world includes a surfeit of soft drinks and potato chips that promise bliss, a garden of perfect happiness, constant selfies, and a prevailing sense of joyless-ness.

Vago and Wallich knife a duet diagonally across the shiny white floor. They are mirror images of sharp arms and legs. Occasionally they touch one another’s bodies, but that touch only grazes the skin. Their faces are impenetrable masks, their human souls seemingly untouchable.
Lavinia Vago and Kate Wallich in "Splurgeland"
photo by Tim Summers

In a rare moment of peaceful beauty, Wallich, Vago, Drews and Nelson are prone onstage. In unison, they lift their torsos, arms arced overhead. Each dancer scissors her/his legs, swimming smoothly across the floor. That unison is lovely, but short-lived.

This  “splurge” culiminates not in calm, but in a cacophonous scene where Wallich, Drews, Nelson and Vago move to her/his own frenzied rhythm as Johnny Goss’ chaotic score gets louder and more discordant.
Waldean Nelson, Kate Wallich, Matt Drews and Lavinia Vago in "Splurgeland"
photo by Tim Summers

That’s not to say Wallich hasn’t thrown us some bones of relief. Bartee, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet standout now with Ballet BC, appears in a swath of white light as “Splurge God.” Stripped to turquoise briefs, he throws himself into a frantic solo that’s part gym workout, part exasperated disgust with what the four mortals have wrought. While it was great to see Bartee back on a Seattle stage, this particular scene felt shoe-horned into an otherwise self-consciously serious performance.

Special kudos to Amiya Brown for a splendid lighting design. The white floor reflects everything from a harsh white glare at the show’s onset, to a soft blue, to the eerie blacklight, neon strips, and a strobe.
Kate Wallich with Waldean Nelson
photo by Tim Summers

And how about Waldean Nelson! 
It was a pleasure to watch this dancer channel a grace that seemingly comes from somewhere beyond the music and choreography. I hope he becomes a YC/Seattle regular!

Ultimately, Kate Wallich paints a bleak picture of the 21st century legacy my baby boomer generation has bequeathed. “Splurgeland” is Wallich’s most ambitious work to date in her young career, and the audience loved it. I can’t help but think Wallich has a lot more to give us as an artist.  She’s smart and talented, and it will be interesting to watch her grasp on her choreography matures.