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.  

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