Monday, September 28, 2015

A Timeless Prodigal Son

PNB principal dancers James Moore and Laura Tisserand in George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son"
photo by Angela Sterling
I’m haunted by George Balanchine’s 1929 ballet “The Prodigal Son.”

I saw it this past weekend as part of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s season-opening program “See The Music,” and ever since I haven’t been able to get this dance-and its maker-out of my mind.

Serge Diaghilev commissioned the 20-something Balanchine to create “Prodigal Son” for Diaghilev's Paris-based émigré troupe, Ballets Russes. And the thing is, the dance is just so…Russian.

The cavorting mob of green-clad, bald goonies who first mock, then rob, the naïve boy (excellent PNB principal James Moore on opening night) and his two sidekicks (Kyle Davis and Price Suddarth), bounce across the stage on bent knees, arms extended to the sides and crooked upwards at the elbows. The movements are simultaneously stylized modernism and straight out of the Russian folk dance traditions.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian tradition, so the Biblical overtones of this ballet are secondary for me to the story of this rebellious young man and his collision with the world outside his loving home. At its heart is a tour de force interaction (pas de deux is too mild a phrase to describe it) between the prodigal youth and the Siren who lures him with her sexuality, then, like a cold-hearted predator, she consumes him, spitting out the boy's shattered dregs for her henchmen to pick clean.
Former PNB principal dancer Lucien Postelwaite and company members in "Prodigal Son"
photo by Angela Sterling

Moore skillfully evolves from the clenched-fisted youth who stomps and leaps, ultimately vaulting over the fence to freedom, to a besotted boy ripe for exploitation, to the penitent who drags himself back to his father’s warm embrace. It was great to see Moore back onstage after what seemed like an interminable injury-related hiatus.

Laura Tisserand danced the Siren on this program’s opening night. She is all impossibly long legs with an imperious demeanor. Tisserand traps Moore in her legs and arms, all but smothering him. It’s pretty amazing. But this beautiful dancer is almost too pretty for the role of a man eater. I wished for a little bad girl energy, a scintilla more of an edge. A quibble…

Beyond the choreography itself, “Prodigal Son” made me dream of Paris in the 1920’s. All that creative energy, and pre-Great Depression money to fund it! Artists from around the globe converged on the City of Light, collaborating, experimenting, stewing up ideas like this ballet. And Balanchine, in his mid-20's! I imagine him trying new things, discarding them, a young artist caught up in the fervor of the time and the place.

“The Prodigal Son” survived because Balanchine brought it with him to America. It’s lasted so many decades because great dancers can inhabit the roles Balanchine created and make them their own. James Moore can trace his performance to PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, who performed it at Balanchine’s own New York City Ballet, where Boal learned the role from Jerome Robbins, who learned it from the choreographer himself. 
PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, coaching "Prodigal Son"

For me, "The Prodigal Son" is fresh, and in places, almost shocking in its sexuality. I try to imagine the 1929 audiences. Every generation has its cutting edge creators, like George Balanchine. It's wonderful to revisit their work and to recognize its genius.

Two other ballets share the bill with “Prodigal Son.” Neither wove the powerful spell that Balanchine cast. But, I have to shout out to PNB soloist Sarah Ricard Orza in Robbin’s own creation “The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody). Orza is a natural comedian, all the funnier because she is such a beautiful, graceful woman. Her turn in “The Concert” as a spirit as free as her flowing, curly hair, is one of the best performances I’ve seen her give at PNB.
Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers Ryan Cardea, Jerome Tisserand and wonderful Sarah Ricard Orza
in Jerome Robbin's "The Concert"

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fall, You're Killing Me!

Former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lucien Postelwaite in George Balanchine's "Prodigal Son"
photo by Angela Sterling

Fall, you're killin' me.

I mean that in the best possible way.

Summer was fun, lots of action outside and in, but once September hit us, it seemed like every dance company, every choreographer, every independent artist, had a show on tap. My calendar is filling up fast. 

Here are a few highlights.

This weekend Pacific Northwest Ballet opens its new season with a wildly diverse program of works by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Jerome Robbins. Across town, Velocity Dance Center presents a survey of works, plus its almost-annual Bash. Both programs should give you a good overview of the ballet and contemporary scenes, maybe whet your appetite for more.

And more there will be, folks.
Pat Graney dancers in "Girl Gods"
photo courtesy Pat Graney Dance Company

Next week, look for the world premiere of ferociously talented artist Pat Graney’s latest work, “Girl Gods.” On The Boards is presenting this piece, a rumination on women, ancestry, power and rage. I haven’t been able to catch any rehearsals, but expect Graney to fuse visual art and movement, plus a new score by Amy Denio. This show is selling out fast; I’ll be there for the post-show conversation with Graney on Friday, October 2nd.

I’m excited for the annual University of Washington Chamber Dance Company performances the weekend of October 15-18th at Meany Hall. If you’ve never seen Chamber Dance, you owe it to yourself to go. And this year, in particular, is a perfect time to dive in, because the company celebrates its 25th anniversary with a program that founder/director Hannah Wiley hopes will reflect the wide range of dances she’s brought to life over the past quarter of a century.
Portrait of Loie Fuller by Frederick Glasier, 1902

Wiley conceived Chamber Dance as a program within a program for graduate students; professional dancers who wanted to earn degrees that might prepare them for academia. At the same time, Wiley was interested in reviving some of the seminal works from more than 100 years of modern dance. The result was a graduate program in dance, plus this annual October performance.

What Wiley does that's so unusual, and inspiring, is to bring in older dances, sets them on her grad students (along with some undergrad dance majors), then videotapes them for a growing archives stored at the UW Libraries.

This year’s program, “A Century of Modern Dance,” includes eight dances by choreographers ranging from late 19th/early 20th century artist Loie Fuller to Martha Graham to Doug Elkins. 

Seriously, Chamber Dance is always great.

Also heading our way faster than a speeding bullet: Karin Stevens’ “KSD with Sam Boshnack Quintet” the weekend of October 23-25th.
PNB company members in Crystal Pite's "Emergence"
photo by Angela Sterling

And looking ahead a few months to November…the return of Crystal Pite’s “Emergence” at PNB. Oh my god, if you can see just one big ballet this season, this is IT.

I can already tell I won’t get much sleep this fall.

But what dreams I have will be filled with dance; who could ask for anything more than that?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Feeling Lucky?

Whim W'Him dancers Justin Reiter, Lara Seefeldt and Jim Kent in Ihsan Rustem's "The Road to Here"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art
Anytime you buy a ticket to a performance, it’s kind of a crap shoot, right?  You never really know what will happen, whether or not you’ll like the show, even if that show is something you see every year, like “Nutcracker.” 

That’s the joy of live performing arts.

It’s an even bigger gamble when, say, you decide to see new works by three choreographers you’ve never heard of. That was the case this past weekend at Whim W’Him’s “Choreographic Shindig.”

The seven company dancers, with a little guidance from Artistic Director Olivier Wevers, chose the three dance makers from more than 95 applicants. And the dances that showed up on the evening’s bill couldn’t have been more different.

Whim W'Him's Jim Kent, center, surrounded by Mia Monteabaro, Tory Peil and Lara Seefeldt
in Joshua Peugh's "Short Acts on the Heartstrings"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

Joshua Peugh’s show opener, “Short Acts on the Heartstrings” was a slight but engaging bit of whimsy. The rumination on love and relationships, set to a medley of mainly mid-20th century pop ballads, was as light as the sea foam green chiffon dresses the three female dancers wore with their tan ankle socks. Light, sweet fun.

San Francisco-based choreographer Maurya Kerr’s offering, by contrast, was dark and brooding. Set on six of Whim W’Him’s seven dancers, “into the wide welcome” centered on a duet performed by Tory Peil and Kyle Johnson. Peil’s long, elegant limbs twitched and spasmed, a portrait of a creature who longs for human contact but whose body seemingly reacts against it. “wide welcome” had its moments, but in the end, it just felt a little murky.

Tori Peil and Kyle Johnson in "into the wide welcome" by Maurya Kerr
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

The real highlight of “Choreographic Shindig,” the dance not to be missed, is Ihsan Rustem’s “The Road to Here.”

Lyrical and physically demanding at the same time, this short gem has it all: strong performances by the entire company, inventive choreography, a touch of humor, but most of all, “The Road to Here” has an emotional resonance that sits with you long after the lights come up and the audience files out.

Whim W'Him company members in Rustem's "The Road to Here"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

I know, I know, I’m gushing a little bit. But (bear with me), I was thinking about the tuning fork that my third-grade music teacher had. She’d tap it, the metal would vibrate and produce a set of harmonic tones, and then she’d bring that fork close to our 8-year old bodies. You could feel the sound inside you. That’s how Rustem’s dance affected me. I could feel what he had to say through the choreography he created.

Normally I find the insertion of text into a dance a little off-putting. Either it’s too obscure (or I’m too linear) to figure out why the text is there. Or else, it seems like the artist is trying to bludgeon me with a MESSAGE.

When a man starts speaking in the middle of the melodic score in Rustem’s dance, though, I was all ears. I can’t remember his exact words, but they melded seamlessly with the dancers’ movements. What that man had to say resonated with me the way Miss McNelly’s tuning fork did all those years ago.
Choreographer Ihsan Rustem in the studio with Whim W'Him dancers
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

In an epigraph printed in the program, Rustem quotes Alan Watts. “Choice is the act of hestitation that we make before making a decision.” Leap into the unknown, take a risk, this dance shows us.

And that’s what we do every time we experience art. We buy our tickets hoping the investment will be worth it. In the case of Ishan Rustem’s “The Road to Here,” my gamble paid off big time.

You can catch Whim W’Him’s “Choreographic Shindig” Wednesday through Saturday, September 16-19, at the Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Olivier Wevers: Dance Is More Than A Whim

Whim W'Him dancers in rehearsal
Running a contemporary dance company is not for the faint of heart. 

Just ask Whim W’Him founder and Artistic Director Olivier Wevers.

The former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer knew it would be a lot of work to have his own company. He resisted his friends’ lobbying for several years before making the transition from performer to choreographer/administrator. 

Six years after Whim W’Him’s debut, Wevers’ ruefully confesses he really had no idea what he was in for: choreography, along with everything from schmoozing with potential donors to designing costumes, to shopping for socks.
Choreographer Maurya Kerr working with Whim W'Him company members. Photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

These days Wevers runs his seven-member troupe with Executive Director Catherine Bombico at his side. Last year, for the first time, they were able to offer the dancers season contracts. Most contemporary dancers in Seattle move from job to job, choreographer to choreographer.
Whim W’Him company members are signed for a 31-week season for 2015-16; that’s second only to Pacific Northwest Ballet in terms of contract length.

For Wevers, this season contract provides reliability and familiarity. He doesn’t create all the company’s dances, but when he is in the midst of choreographing a new work, he says having a known group of dancers is like having a home base. He compares it to the way other artists work.

“When you’re a painter, you start with your own colors that you’ve used before. You know what to expect so you can already go further with your ideas,” he explains. Wevers knows what his dancers can handle; when to push and when to stop. He also trusts them enough to solicit their input. Hence, the latest addition to the Whim W'Him season: "Choreographic Shindig."
Choreographer Maurya Kerr working with Whim W'Him, @ Bamberg Fine Art

The upcoming two-weekend show is the first Whim W’Him production to be curated by the dancers rather than Wevers. “Choreographic Shindig” features three new dances, by Joshua Peugh of Texas, San Francisco-based choreographer Maurya Kerr, and Ihsan Rustem, an award-winning dance maker now based in Zurich, Switzerland.
Whim W'Him dancers in rehearsal for Choreographic Shindig, @ Bamberg Fine Art

“It was kind of a big step for me,”Wevers confesses. “In the beginning I did a lot of the choreography because I was cheap, I was free!” 

But he says he always intended to make Whim W’Him a platform for collaboration with a range of artists. So Wevers was thrilled to be able to put out a call for interested choreographers. More than 95 submissions came in, from all over the world. Wevers provided guidance, but he says the dancers chose these three distinctly different artists. That’s exactly what he hoped they’d do.

“We need to be an ambassador for contemporary dance,” Wevers stresses. “We need to align ourselves with the global perspective of what contemporary dance can be, and should be!”
Whim W'Him dancers in rehearsal @ Bamberg Fine Art

In addition to his work with Whim W'Him, Wevers travels a lot as a choreographer-for-hire. (His version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” created for Grand Rapids Ballet, comes to Seattle in October). He also spends time in Monaco where his husband, the dancer Lucien Postelwaite, is based. Wevers sees a lot of different dance companies and dance styles. That’s part of what he wants to bring with him back to Seattle.

“It’s a big world, there’s a lot of things happening. There’s a lot of things I haven’t seen that I would love to see.” He sighs. “I’m trying to keep my vision really open, to what I can see, what I can encounter, and bring that to Seattle.”

Wevers also would love to find more opportunities for his dancers to tour regionally, but that's hard to balance with his desire to bring in more choreographers, and to provide season contracts for his dancers. At some point, the small but feisty company had to choose where to focus its energy; this year that choice was to add a third program to its performance schedule.

As Whim W’Him prepares to launch its 6th season, Wevers reflects on his more than full-time job.

“I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but I didn’t know it was going to be that much work.” He pauses. “I’m just so naïve that I think oh, next year it’s going to be easier! No.” 

But he wouldn't have it any other way.

Whim W’Him’s “Choreographic Shindig” runs Friday September 11th through Sunday the 13th and Wednesday September 16-Saturday the 19th at the Erickson Theatre on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.