Monday, November 30, 2015

Tradition

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling
For millions of people around the world, this time of year is magical.

Tis’ the season of hope and faith and the gossamer web of traditions that surround and reinforce them.

Annual holiday arts are an integral strand in that web, from Handel’s “Messiah” to “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.

On Sunday, November 29th, ACT Theatre opened its 40th annual production of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Gregory Falls. This year’s frisky production, directed by ACT’s incoming Artistic Director John Langs, features outgoing AD Kurt Beattie and Seattle veteran Charles Leggett alternating in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Kurt Beattie as Ebenezer Scrooge in ACT Theatre's "A Christmas Carol"
photo courtesy ACT Theatre

I caught Beattie at the early afternoon matinee, and he was everything you want from Scrooge: first irascible and nasty as he snaps at poor Bob Cratchit, then terrified by the visions presented to him by the three Spirits, ultimately frothily giddy when he realizes the possibility of redemption.

The rest of the cast was solid, but I was particularly happy to see G. Valmont Thomas scaring both Scrooge and the audience as a zombie-like Jacob Marley.

Director John Langs notes in the program that many people have asked if he will choose a new holiday offering next year when he’s in charge of ACT’s programming. “I think it’s a good question, and one we must never stop asking, as the challenge of any art is to stay relevant”, he writes.

But Langs goes on to say that Dickens’ tale endures, and continues to resonate in peoples’ hearts every year. And in his own. It’s a tradition for both theater company and theater patrons. I get the impression “A Christmas Carol” will be around at ACT. At least, I hope so.

Across town, at Pacific Northwest Ballet, one venerated tradition has replaced another. It’s a risky move for a company that depends on a holiday classic for more than a third of its annual ticket revenues.
Uko Gorter as Drosselmeir with Isabelle Rookstool as Clara in PNB's production of "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling


Four years ago, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal decided to mothball his predecessor, Kent Stowell’s, production of “Nutcracker,” designed by the venerated children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Boal grew up with legendary choreographer George Balanchine’s version. That’s what inspired him to take up ballet and he performed in that Nutcracker production throughout his long tenure at New York City Ballet. For Boal, it’s the tradition that resonates in his heart and the one he wanted to bring to Northwest audiences.

So, this year, PNB premiered a sparkly new production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” with sets and costumes by another celebrated children’s author and illustrator, Ian Falconer, creator of the Olivia the Pig series of books.

Four days after seeing the show on opening night, I’m still not sure how I feel about the change.

Don’t get me wrong: this Nutcracker is a stunner, from the opening video that whisks us over a snowy New England landscape into the Stahlbaum’s house, to Clara’s final exit (I won't spoil it for you.)
PNB company members in the Nutcracker Snow Scene
photo by Angela Sterling


Falconer’s costumes range from whimsical to sublime: a dozen golden angels glide like human bells across the stage; the orange-hued Flowers look like a field of marigolds when they begin to waltz. And Tchaikovsky’s lush score is, in a word, divine.
PNB Principal Dancer Laura Tisserand as Dew Drop, surrounded by the Flowers in "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

There’s a lot to love in this ballet: in addition to the beautiful Flower and Snowflake scenes, Clara and her Nutcracker are taken to the Land of Sweets in the second act. A Sugar Plum Fairy clad in bright purple greets the children and introduces them to a bevy of performances. Soloist Benjamin Griffiths nailed a difficult hoop dance; Elle Macy beguiled as “Coffee,” (although she’s dressed as a peacock, so why is she called Coffee?) And Sarah Ricard Orza and William Yin Lee were delightful leading the Hot Chocolate section.

Jerome Tisserand’s appearance as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier was all too brief. This dancer was born to the princely roles: he seems to defy gravity as he whirls across the stage. His Sugar Plum Fairy, Elizabeth Murphy, newly promoted to Principal on opening night, was less confident in her role. Maybe all she needs is a little more time to get used to the new choreography?

For me, the night belonged to Joshua Grant in the role of Mother Ginger. Trussed into a 60-pound, ten-foot long Airstream trailer of a skirt, Grant minces onto the stage on a pair of stilts hidden under the skirt along with eight children. As the kids emerge, one by one, Grant camps it up for the audience. His Ginger added some welcome spice to all the sweetness of this production.
PNB soloist Joshua Grant as Mother Ginger in PNB's "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling


Longtime PNB audiences may need some time to fully embrace this new Nutcracker production. I know I want to see it a few more times before it gels for me. But judging by the opening night audience’s roaring standing ovation, the ballet has a hit on its hands.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Another Goodbye: Maria Chapman Leaves PNB

PNB Principal Dancer Maria Chapman
photo by Angela Sterling
Oh No!!!

That was my first response when I heard the news that Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Maria Chapman has decided to retire.

Just last week I was in a studio at PNB’s home, the Phelps Center, watching Chapman and soloist Joshua Grant rehearse a pas de deux for the company’s new Nutcracker. Three couples worked on the choreography, but it was hard to tear my eyes away from Chapman and Grant. She radiated confidence and displayed artistry beyond anyone in that room.

Chapman, whose daughter Eleanor was born last summer, is one of a slew of new mothers at the ballet company (Rachel Foster and Kylee Kitchens also had babies last year; Sarah Ricard Orza’s daughter was born in 2013, and principals Lindsi Dec and Carrie Imler will welcome new babies early in 2016.)

In a statement PNB released this week, Chapman says she wants to be a full time mom, and that she’s happy to go out on a high after the recent “Emergence” program.

A high indeed.
PNB Principal Dancer Maria Chapman with Soloist Joshua Grant
in Christopher Wheeldon's "Tide Harmonic"
photo by Angela Sterling

The willowy, dark-haired Chapman has never seemed as fluid and elegant as she was in Kiyon Gaines’ “Sum Stravinsky,” the first dance on the “Emergence” bill. Partnered with the equally elegant Karel Cruz, Chapman seemed to float across the stage, her long arms wafting behind her. She was as good as I’ve ever seen her onstage.

A friend of mine has a theory that motherhood somehow intensifies artistry; that seemed to be the case with former principals Kaori Nakamura and Louise Nadeau, and Sarah Ricard Orza has shone in recent performances. Coincidence? Probably. But there’s also a case to be made for the impact of an artist’s personal life on her artistic expression.  

Mother love is fierce and profound, tender and all-encompassing. It certainly changes all aspects of your home life, and that has to spill over into artistic expression, doesn’t it?

Maria Chapman has been with PNB for more than two decades, her entire career. She’s danced Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake”, and Myrtha in “Giselle.” She’s suffered and recovered from serious injury, and Chapman has helped to spear head PNB’s Second Stage program, an opportunity for dancers to plan for their careers after retirement.

PNB Artistic Director writes that “we will miss Maria on our stage and in our studio.”


Amen to that.

Monday, November 9, 2015

This Guy!

PNB corps de ballet member Dylan Wald in "The Calling"
photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet could have called its November 2015 program ‘Emergence of Dylan Wald’ instead of "Emergence."

When the curtain rose on the 19 year old corps de ballet member, alone at the center of the stage, draped in the voluminous white skirt that is his only partner for Jessica Lang’s spell-binding dance, “The Calling,” you could feel thousands of audience members inhale in anticipation.

They weren’t disappointed.
PNB corps de ballet member Dylan Wald in "The Calling"
photo by Angela Sterling


I’d been hearing about this young dancer for several months. Throughout the PNB offices and rehearsal studios, company employees pointed to Wald as “one to watch.” This season is his first as a full-fledged company member; he was an apprentice dancer last year. Watching him side by side with principal dancer Jerome Tisserand in this program, I could easily envision Wald the equal to Tisserand as Romeo, or Giselle’s Albrecht. And that’s saying a lot, because Jerome Tisserand is one of my favorite dancers.

PNB premiered “The Calling” last June; Carla Korbes danced it in her final performance with the company. It was exquisite then, and it was exquisite this time around. One of my friends remarked that Wald is the new Carla Korbes. One can only hope.

Dylan Wald is certainly not the only PNB corps de ballet member to shine in this four-ballet program.

Price Suddarth ably danced a featured role in Crystal Pite’s “Emergence” (a solo that former PNB corps member Andrew Bartee tore into when the company first produced this amazing ballet in 2012). Suddarth not only danced; he also choreographed an ambitious piece called “Signature.”
PNB corps de ballet member Price Suddarth in the studio
photo by Lindsay Thomas

While the ballet features stellar performances from its large cast, and establishes Suddarth as a promising dancemaker, the piece didn’t quite gel for me as a whole. Most interesting were Suddarth’s sections for the men. Corps members Wald, Kyle Davis and Ezra Thomson were as compelling as principals Tisserand, Karel Cruz and Batkhurel Bold.

Corps members Chelsea Adomaitis and Angelica Generosa were among the dancers featured in Kiyon Gaines’ “Sum Stravinsky.” I love how Adomaitis moves with her heart on her sleeve, or rather, on the straps of her tutu. And Generosa is always a multi-faceted gem of a dancer.
PNB Principal Dancers Karel Cruz and Laura Tisserand in Price Suddarth's "Signature"
photo by Angela Sterling

Soloists and principals were also spot-on Friday evening. Maria Chapman was all tensile strength and grace; Laura Tisserand was ferocious in “Emergence,” and Margaret Mullin was a phenomenon as the hatching insect in that same ballet.
PNB Principal Dancer Maria Chapman in Kiyon Gaines' "Sum Stravinsky"
photo by Angela Sterling


But for me, this program was all about the younger dancers, and the promise they hold for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s future. I can’t wait to see Suddarth, Adomaitis, Davis and Generosa again. And I’ll be watching for Dylan Wald’s next appearance. You should, too. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Giving Kids A Chance To Dance

Second year DanceChance student in a PNB studio
If you read this weekend’s New York Times, you may have seen an article about how both big New York ballet companies are actively recruiting more kids of color to their school programs.

Long before Misty Copeland grabbed headlines when she became the first African American woman named principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet was scouting for young people like Copeland, potential dancers who might not find ballet on their own.

In 1994, PNB started a program called DanceChance.

Francia Russell, PNB’s founding co-artistic director, and the force behind DanceChance, says the idea was to go into Seattle elementary schools to identify young kids with the physical aptitude for ballet, then provide these kids with free classes, dancewear and transportation to the Phelps Center, on the Seattle Center campus.

Russell laughs at the audacity of the vision.

“We had no money!”

But PNB decided to forge ahead with the program, get it up and running, THEN try to raise funds to support DanceChance.
PNB's 2015 DanceChance audition
photo by Lindsay Thomas


Before that could happen, though, PNB had to convince local schools to buy into the idea.
Russell remembers making pitch after pitch. Finally, the principal at Seattle’s Martin Luther King elementary school said yes to the idea.

More than two decades later, DanceChance operates pretty much as it did the first year, albeit with a lot more funding in place.

Program manager Jennifer McLain and her teachers scouted for talent at 22 elementary schools this fall; they screened every third grader at each school.

McLain says they’re testing the kids’ flexibility and their bodies’ ability to move into the ballet positions. Not everyone is born with these innate physical attributes.

Ballet also requires coordination, a sense of rhythm, and above all, focus.

Current PNB corps de ballet member Angeli Mamon remembers her DanceChance audition, a decade ago at Seattle’s Beacon Hill elementary school.
Angeli Mamon, front row left, at 2005 DanceChance observation day
photo by Barry Thompson

“We thought we were going to the gym,” she explains. “And we sat on these little jelly pad things and did stretches. They didn’t tell us what we were doing.”

Mamon says if she’d known she was auditioning for a ballet program she would have tried to avoid it.

“I was really a tomboy,” she laughs.
Angela Mamon, 2014 Professional Division Next Step performance
photo by Angela Sterling

Mamon is the first female DanceChance student to be invited to dance with PNB. (Former corps member Eric Hippolito was the first DanceChance grad ever hired by PNB. He’s at Arizona Ballet this year.)
Mamon says “I absolutely love this program. I would not be where I am without it.”

But she concedes the transition from her home environment to the ballet world was jarring.
Her mother, who’s from Mexico, didn’t know much about ballet. Neither did Mamon.
And neither do most of the DanceChance kids who walk into PNB’s Phelps Center for the very first time.

Francia Russell remembers watching them the very first day of the program “kind of creep up the stairs into this big building. They think ‘ballet, what’s that?’”
Nazirah Taylor at DanceChance observation day
photo by Barry Thompson

“The cultural difference is huge,” acknowledges Najja Morris. Her 17-year old daughter, Nazirah Taylor, was picked for DanceChance 9 years ago. She’s now in the top ranks of the PNB school.

Morris was thrilled when her daughter was selected for DanceChance, but she had a lot of concerns.

“You hear horror stories about children in ballet, mean girls, cliques,” Morris says. “When Nazirah started, she had locks in her hair. Everyone was great pulling them into a bun, but she she didn’t look like everyone else.”

And as Nazirah has moved up the ranks, Morris says there were “fewer brown people” her daughter could look up to as role models.
Nazirah Taylor in PNB School Level 8 performance
photo by Angela Sterling

Former PNB soloist Kiyon Gaines knows exactly how that feels. He remembers his own days as an aspiring ballet dancer in Baltimore.

“There weren’t other people, role models, for me to look up to. There was no one else like me.”
Kiyon Gaines soars in PNB production of Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station"
photo by Angela Sterling

Gaines, who retired from PNB last spring, is now a DanceChance faculty member. DanceChance manager Jennifer McLain is thrilled to have him.

“The boys’ faces, seeing Kiyon at the screenings,” she says. “They were thinking this guy is awesome. He’s just like me!”
Former PNB soloist Kiyon Gaines with his DanceChance students

Gaines says “being able to influence the next generation of dancers is so important to me! I felt like I didn’t have a lot of champions in my corner when I was growing up.”

Not every DanceChance kid is destined to become a professional ballet dancer.
Program Manager Jennifer McLain is ok with that.

“Seeing them come and realize they’re special. They can be whatever they want.”


You can see former DanceChance student Angeli Mamon with the rest of the PNB dancers this weekend at "Emergence" at McCaw Hall.