Monday, September 26, 2016

The Head or the Heart

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in Benjamin Millepied's "Appassionata" photo by Angela Sterling

Normally, I think it’s important to approach the world through a logical framework. Say, for example, when you cast your vote for President. This year’s campaign has been overflowing with emotion, rather than clear-eyed analysis. We’d probably be better off if every voter applied logic to their decisions.

But let’s put politics on the back burner for the moment. 

I try to check my logical brain at the door when I approach art. Sure, I can analyze composition, materials and themes. I can appreciate historical or cultural references (usually). But, to lay my bias out there, my favorite artistic encounters are those that touch my heart.

I want to look, but I need to see and to feel.

I’ve been mulling over this need as I consider "Tricolore," the opening program of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new artistic season.

“Tricolore” offers two recent works by Benjamin Millepied, capped by George Balanchine’s monumental “Symphony in C.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in George Balanchine's "Symphony in C" photo by Angela Sterling
Now, the Balanchine is certainly majestic, with a legion of women in white tutus spinning across the stage, periodically punctuated by their cavaliers in blue. On opening night “Symphony” was notable for the return of principal dancers Carrie Imler, paired with excellent corps de ballet member Steven Loch, and Rachel Foster with James Moore. 

"Symphony in C" is grand indeed, but I appreciate its beauty with my intellect, rather than my soul. Instead of losing myself in a transcendent, shivery experience, I found myself watching how Balanchine had deployed the corps de ballet, the way his movement embodies the music.

PNB company members in Balanchine's "Symphony in C", photo by Angela Sterling
It's a fascinating ballet, and beautifully performed, but at its end, I was unmoved.

I’m still parsing my thoughts about the two Millepied dances on the bill. The first, “3 Movements,” was created for PNB in 2008. It’s set to music by Steve Reich, and the dancers perform in murky lighting in subdued gray, black and brown costumes. 

I was thrilled to spy Lindsi Dec through the gloom, back from her maternity leave. And for my (meager) money, Sarah Orza continues to demonstrate both technique and artistry that deserve more notice. But this ballet reminds me a bit of a good Chinese meal. It’s delicious while you’re eating, or rather watching, but after you’re done, it doesn’t stick around long.

Sarah Ricard Orza and Lindsi Dec soar in Benjamin Millepied's "3 Movements", photo by Angela Sterling
On the other hand, I haven’t been able to get Millepied’s “Appassionata” (set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #23, the “Appassionata,” wonderfully performed by Allen Dameron) out of my mind.

This chamber ballet for six dancers is about relationships, about motion and music, about laying your soul bare so someone can scoop it up in the palm of their hand.

In the first half of this piece, the dancers take the stage in brightly colored costumes. They appear with partners in matching colors, but this isn’t a dance of monogamy. Instead, the dancers twine around one another, fluidly exchanging partners, even performing alone.

Leah Merchant and Elle Macy in Millepied's "Appassionata", photo by Angela Sterling
The movement seems infinite, and infinitely rigorous; at one point I wondered if PNB's staff kept towels, water, even oxygen on hand in the wings.

By the ballet's second half, the dancers have swapped their brightly colored costumes for black, grey or white pajama-like outfits that seem to hint that the dancers have moved into a more intimate relationship with one another, and with the audience.

Elizabeth Murphy and Karel Cruz were luminescent in their long pas de deux. Murphy seemed absolutely at ease with the elegant Cruz, as if they'd been partnered forever. I’m not sure if I’ve seen them dance together before this performance, but look forward to seeing them again.

PNB Principal Dancers Elizabeth Murphy and Karel Cruz in "Appassionata", photo by Angela Sterling
I also was delighted to see Elle Macy on opening night with William Lin-Yee, and Leah Merchant and Jerome Tisserand are always forces of nature.

I write this post three days after the “Tricolore” opening night, but the after-effects of “Appassionata” linger. I realize this is partly due to my excitement about the start of PNB's new artistic season. 

But I also believe “Appassionata” stays with me because something ephemeral in that ballet touched my heart, something beyond the technical skill of the dancers, beyond the lighting, the set and the costumes, beyond Dameron’s interpretation of the Beethoven. 

I joked to a friend that “Appassionata” is the ballet-version of an ear worm. And I meant that in the best possible way. I can’t stop thinking about this dance, and I can’t wait for the chance to see it again.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

Whim W'Him Inspires With New Choreography

Whim W'Him dancers, Patrick Kilbane center, in  Lauren Edson's "From Under the Cork Tree"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts
One of the things I like best about Olivier Wevers’ contemporary dance troupe Whim W’Him is the bounty of new choreographers it introduces to Seattle audiences.

From its formation in 2010, Whim W’Him has presented dance makers from around the globe; artists like Anabelle Lopez Ochoa, Penny Saunders and Ishan Rustem, as well as Wevers’ own work.

Last year, Whim W’Him introduced something called the Choreographic Shindig; the dancers selected three choreographers they wanted to work with, the company commissioned new dances from these artists, and produced the performance at Seattle’s Erickson Theatre Off Broadway.

This year, Wevers and company reprised the Shindig, offering works by three new choreographers: Joseph Hernandez’ “Saro,” “Swan Song,” by the New York duo Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz, collectively known as MADBOOTS, and “From Under the Cork Tree,” by Idaho-based Lauren Edson, a former dancer with Trey McIntire.
Justin Reiter and Patrick Kilbane in "From Under the Cork Tree"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts

The audience went wild for Edson’s work, which she says grew from her affinity for the classic children’s book about gentle Ferdinand the Bull, who’d rather smell the flowers than fight in the bull ring. “Cork Tree” features the amazing Patrick Kilbane as the quasi-Ferdinand. It’s truly a joy to watch Kilbane dance; his elegant epaulment, exquisite extensions and super human control over each muscle in his body are simply thrilling.

I wish I had been as thrilled by Edson’s dance as an overall composition. It starts out strong, with all seven dancers trudging in unison like Japanese company men on their way to work. Kilbane breaks from the pack, literally dancing against the crowd.

But Edson muddies her message mid-stream, introducing a silly Simon Says segment. From that point, she digresses from Ferdinand to a more light hearted, and generic, romp around the stage. The dancers were spot on, the audience gave it a standing ovation, but I wish Edson had been able to sustain her exploration of the iconoclast.
Tory Peil and Jim Kent  in MADBOOTS' "Swan Song"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts

From iconoclast to icon, MADBOOT'S' “Swan Song” was far more successful at maintaining its artistic through-line. Campbell and Diaz take the beloved balletic swan and turn her on her ear. 

Beautiful Tory Peil stands center stage, arms extended and crossed over at the wrists, a pose familiar to anyone who’s seen “Swan Lake.” Then, instead of the fluid fluttering arms of that19th century classic, Peil jerks and twitches to the flickering (at times painful) strobe lighting. Simple black and white costuming and thousands of blue faux rose petals add to the mood.

Again, Kilbane was a standout in the MADBOOTS work, along with new Whimmer Karl Watson, who drew applause for a sustained series of jumps.
Whim W'Him dancers in "Swan Song"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts

It’s hard to single out any of the seven fine dancers who comprise Whim W’Him. Peil is always technically and artistically strong, as is Jim Kent. And Mia Monteabaro continues to grow, as she demonstrated in Hernandez’ piece, “Saro.”Another great addition to this fine group is California native Liane Aung.  

Finally, is it too much to ask that choreographers throw more meaty work Justin Reiter’s way? He’s such a presence, but he’s often over shadowed by Kilbane.

All in all, Whim W’Him’s 2016 Choreographic Shindig is a must see. The Erickson Theatre Off Broadway is an intimate place to take in a performance, the dancers are dynamite, and it’s an opportunity to experience ambitious new work from fresh voices in the contemporary dance world.