Monday, June 5, 2017

Seriously, I Can't Stop Thinking About This Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer James Moore in Jerome Robbin's "Opus 19/The Dreamer"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
The final program in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2016-17 artistic season opens with a colorful showcase for retiring principal dancer Carrie Imler (on opening night), George Balanchine’s 1968 work, “La Source.” Alexei Ratmansky’s equally energetic “Pictures at an Exhibition,” for 10 dancers, closes the evening. 
PNB principal dancers Jerome Tisserand and Carrie Imler in Balanchine's "La Source"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Sandwiched in between these technicolor ballets is a much quieter jewel of a dance, Jerome Robbins’ 1979 “Opus 19/The Dreamer.” It is a stunner, and while I enjoyed the other two local premiers, "Opus" was the highlight of the evening for me.

Robbins’ originally created “Opus 19/The Dreamer” for Mikhail Baryshnikov, during the dancer’s only year with New York City Ballet. PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal later performed it, working directly with Robbins, and Boal has staged the ballet wonderfully for PNB. In its Seattle debut, principal dancer James Moore filled his predecessor's shoes, and admirably so.

Moore’s Dreamer is just what the name implies: dreamy. Dressed in white, he moves, sometimes lurches, through a delicate chorus of blue-clad dancers who seem to be wafted across the stage by Prokofiev’s strong score (performed by the wonderful PNB orchestra, featuring violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim). The dancers sway, the way plants on the ocean floor pulse with the rolling tide. Principal dancer Noelani Pantastico, in deep purple, emerges from their blue midst, approaching Moore with alternating gently graceful and spiky, angry movements.
PNB principal dancers Noelani Pantastico and James Moore in Robbins' "Opus 19/The Dreamer"
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
While Moore and Pantastico share an onstage chemistry, “Opus 19/The Dreamer” is no “Romeo et Juliette.” This ballet is all about The Dreamer, an inner journey that he dances out seemingly for himself. We in the audience get to peep into his mind but the Dreamer is not there to entertain us; he is searching for something intangible. Midway through the ballet, Moore moves upstage, his back to the audience. He extends his right hand toward the rich blue backdrop, reaching for something only he can see. On opening night, the audience erupted in applause, sensing that Moore’s journey had come to an end. Instead, Pantastico floated in from the wings to stand beside this dreamer, to guide him along another leg of his trip.
Noelani Pantastico, James Moore and company dancers' arms in "Opus 19/The Dreamer"
photo by Angela Sterling
Moore, Pantastico and the 12 corps de ballet members all shone in the opening night performance. As I sat rapt, I couldn’t help but think of George Balanchine’s 1934 ballet, “Serenade,” one of my favorite of his works. The dancers in both ballets are dressed in blue, but that's merely a superficial similarity. What they share is the quiet power that the best artworks bring. Both dances are serene and contemplative, packing emotional wallops that sneak up on you.
PNB dancers, Carla Korbes rear center, in George Balanchine's "Serenade"
photo by Angela Sterling

“Opus 19/The Dreamer” delivers a tapestry of beautiful images that wash over the audience like the lacy froth of ocean waves lapping on a sandy beach. From the sustained unison pointe work, to a tender moment when Moore and Pantastico gently cup one another’s faces in their single, extended palms, these images are indelibly etched in my memory. As soon as this ballet ended, I wanted to watch it again. You will, too.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Pacific Northwest Ballet soars with latest Director's Choice program

Pacific Northwest Ballet Soloist Sarah Ricard Orza in Jessica Lang's "Her Door to the Sky"
photo by Angela Sterling
In the end, it was all about two women: painter Georgia O’Keefe and choreographer Jessica Lang, who captures O’Keefe’s vivid Southwest light and saturated colors in an evocative ballet called “Her Door to the Sky.”

Lang’s new dance, commissioned by Pacific Northwest Ballet and Jacob’s Pillow, had its world premiere last year at the Pillow. But I can’t imagine summer dance fans there could appreciate this ballet the way we sun-deprived Seattleites did. It was a sensory cornucopia, from Benjamin Britten’s score to Bradon McDonald’s luscious costumes.

“Her Door to the Sky” capped an evening of glorious contemporary work, PNB’s latest “Director’s Choice” program.
PNB Principal Dancer Batkhurel Bold and Corps de Ballet member Elle Macy in David Dawson's "Empire Noir"
photo by Angela Sterling
The show opened with the American premier of David’s Dawson’s thrilling “Empire Noir,” a dance the choreographer describes in the program notes as “a relentless journey through the darkness of night, the color black and the void of madness.”

Relentless indeed, although I felt more spiritual uplift than void of madness when it ended.

“Empire Noir” is danced under an immense set piece created by John Otto. It looks a bit like the Nike swoosh, or a large dark ellipse, and looms over the dancers, just a bit off center. In many respects the choreography echoes the elliptical shape. Dancers orbit onstage from behind the ellipse. Their movements also swoop; from the dramatic lifts, to the repeated outstretched arms, hands bent at the wrists.
PNB Principal Dancers Karel Cruz and Lesley Rausch in "Empire Noir"
photo by Angela Sterling
“Empire Noir” demands ferocious energy and immaculate technique and PNB’s impressive cast delivered. No single performance stood out, although Lesley Rausch seems born to dance these contemporary works, and Batkhurel Bold looked as good as I’ve seen him in years.

If “Empire Noir” pushed the dancers’ stamina and strength, the second offering on the bill,  a reprise of William Forsythe’s lyrical “New Suite,” demands something subtler, and perhaps more difficult: a complete technical mastery and the confidence to perform without a net, or at least without a bevy of dancers to mask your mistakes.
PNB Principal Dancer Lindsi Dec with Corps de Ballet member Miles Pertl in "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling
“New Suite”is a sequence of eight duets set to music by Handel, Bach and Berio. PNB premiered this work in 2015, on an all-Forsythe bill. It was lovely then, and remains so, a bit of a palate cleanser after Dawson’s dynamic ballet.

On opening night principal dancers Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta demonstrated the benefits of their experience, artistry and mutual trust, in the final Handel pas de deux. Truly, these two are at the height of their skills. But at the Saturday matinee it was quite wonderful to see young corps de ballet members Angeli Mamon and Dammiel Cruz, and Cecelia Iliesiu and Miles Pertl, shine. Their prowess gives me great hope for PNB's future.

Speaking of hope brings me back to the program closer: Jessica Lang’s “Her Door to the Sky.”
PNB Soloists Sarah Richard Orza (leaning) and Leta Biasucci, with corps de ballet member Cecelia Iliesiu
in "Her Door to the Sky"
photo by Angela Sterling
As much as I loved the first two ballets, it’s Lang’s piece that I still see in my mind’s eye.  From the bright white of the mid-day sun, to the blueish-purple desert twilight, Lighting Designer Nicole Pearce evokes the New Mexican light so well that you feel the weight of Seattle’s wretched wet winter slide away.

The set, a recreation of the adobe wall that inspired O’Keefe’s patio paintings, is not a simple backdrop. Lang moves her dancers behind it, on it, and through it, setting up both moments of humor and poignant emotion.

“Her Door to the Sky” is an ensemble piece, but at its center is a woman, danced by soloist Sarah Ricard Orza, around whom the energy flows. Orza enters through a center window, drops back into the hands of five male dancers, who twirl her body like a baton, then raise it up, supplicants in awe of a higher power. Meanwhile the four other women enter behind the adobe wall, stopping at each window to look in on the action. 
PNB company members in Jessica' Lang's "Her Door to the Sky"
photo by Angela Sterling
Jessica Lang says this ballet is meant to celebrate the long history of female creativity. For me, it is also a gentle reminder of the ever-present beauty that surrounds us, if we only take a moment from our frenzied routines to stop, look, and soak it all in.

"Her Door to the Sky" couldn't be more different in tone from "Empire Noir," but taken together with Forsythe's "New Suite," this is a program that reminded me once again why the arts are so important in our lives.

Lucky you; “Director’s Choice” is at McCaw Hall March 23-26th.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Move over Walt Disney, there's a new Cinderella in town

PNB corps de ballet members Steven Loch, left and Miles Pertl flank Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch
in Jean Christophe Maillot's "Cendrillon" photo by Angela Sterling
When the last strains of Prokofiev's score  faded away, I felt sorry for Cinderella’s selfish, cruel stepmother.

How could she ever measure up to the faded memories of a dead wife who was seemingly so perfect that she’d transformed into a glittering fairy?

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of Jean Christophe Maillot’s “Cendrillon” is by no means the sticky-sweet version of "Cinderella" that most Americans know from Walt Disney’s 1950 cartoon. As PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal writes in the “Cendrillon” program, Maillot has no room for bibbidy bobbidy boo and enchanted mice.

Those of you familiar with Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette,” which PNB premiered in 2008, know the choreographer creates seamless ballet stories, with the emphasis on dramatic momentum. Cendrillon” may not have the heft of Shakespeare’s tragic love story, but Maillot has crafted a nuanced,  much darker, and ultimately more enjoyable version of the tale of the orphaned girl and her prince.
PNB Soloist Sarah Ricard Orza, left, with Principal Dancers Noelani Pantastico and Rachel Foster
in Maillot's "Cendrillon" photo by Angela Sterling

The “Cinderella/Cendrillon” fairy tale presents audiences with the archetypal blended family: a bereaved man discovers a second chance at love with a beautiful woman. She has no room in her heart for his daughter, and her own two girls ruthlessly mock and torment their new stepsister. Can you say dysfunction?

In Maillot’s version, Cendrillon craves any scrap of affection that comes her way; her heart opens again and again, despite the abuse that comes her way. No wonder she leaps to embrace the gilded Fairy who enters her wretched existence, offering an invitation to the ball, and a cleverly presented preview of the happiness that awaits the girl when she meets her Prince.
Prince James Moore meets Cinderella Noelani Pantastico
photo by Angela Sterling

Maillot’s Prince is not charming, at least not at first. He strides onstage, resplendent in a shiny gold doublet, trailed by four friends who alternately amuse and fawn over him. He's restless, virtually screaming "is that all there is, my friends?"

"Cendrillon" is tinged with melancholy, but Maillot also infuses it with humor: the stepmother’s purple gown features a scorpion tail that looks a bit like Barney the cartoon dinosaur; her daughters’ party wigs look like upside-down pastry horns.

Their party finery is presented to them by a pair of fops who Maillot dubs the Pleasure Superintendents. They simper and fuss, fluttering across the stage, but at times they seem robotic as well, their arms and legs bending into right angles at the joints. These superintendents keep the story in motion, herding the characters from scene to scene.

While story prevails in “Cendrillon,” the dancing is intriguing and often exquisite. Principal dancer Noelani Pantastico danced the role during her years with Maillot’s own company, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and she infuses the character with a tender yearning. From the ballet's prologue to her happy ending, Pantastico dances in bare feet. You can't take your eyes off of them as they are stomped on by her step sisters, dipped in glitter by the Fairy, and ultimately worshiped by the Prince.
Guest artist April Ball as Fairy, with Prince James Moore

The Mother/Fairy was danced on opening night by April Ball, visiting from Monte Carlo. What a treat for local audiences: Ball is elegant in a waltz of love with her stage husband, the equally elegant PNB Principal Seth Orza. As the Fairy, she twitches her way across the stage, extending an impossibly long, undulating index finger to beckon Cendrillon, or rubbing both sides of her nose, like Samantha on the old television show “Bewitched.”

On opening night James Moore was a feisty, passionate prince, rejecting the beauties who paraded before him, only to succumb to Pantastico’s simple allure. For her, he tosses aside his gold jacket, revealing the pure heart he’d hidden away beneath it.

[I had the great fortune to see former PNB Principal Lucien Postelwaite dance a one-night-only stint as the Prince. Postelwaite, now a member of Maillot’s company, has performed this role with Pantastico many times, and it showed on February 4th. Where Moore is spunky, Postelwaite is all lyrical grace, revealing royalty with a simple extension of his hands and the curve of his neck. He and Pantastico seem to melt into one another in their romantic pas de deux.]

Corps de ballet members Miles Pertl and Steven Loch excelled as the Pleasure Superindents; in fact, they seemed to revel in their silliness, as did the most excellent Step Sisters, Rachel Foster and Sarah Ricard Orza.

But back to their mother, as danced by Lesley Rausch. Her long legs and arms sliced through the air as she labored to sever Cinderella’s ties to her father. Rausch telegraphed haughty disdain for her stepdaughter, and everyone else, with imperious finger snaps, or an Edvard Munch-like scream (echoed by her daughters.)

Rausch’s Stepmother is indeed a selfish woman, but in Maillot’s ballet, she is also pitiable. When it becomes clear that she will never measure up to the memory of her predecessor, and she is ultimately spurned, Rausch stands flat footed, center stage, gazing out at the audience. Every trace of imperiousness is gone, and we recognize the profundity of her loss is equal to that of her husband.
Cinderella and the Prince might live happily ever after, but there is no joy ahead for their elders.

"Cendrillon"  may not offer the heft and emotional roller coaster of Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette,” but this lush, complex performance is worth repeated viewings.

PNB’s “Cendrillon” continues through February 12 at McCaw Hall, with several dancers rotating in the main roles.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Art is what makes us human

Whim W'Him dancers in Larry Keigwin's "Line Dance"
photo by Bamberg Fine Art
The day before the Seattle Womxn's March, a dear friend posted on social media a photo of the sign she planned to carry.

"Art is What Makes Us Human."

I couldn't help thinking of that sign at the closing performance of Whim W'Him's latest evening, "Sensation."

The crowd at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center gathered to watch dance, while thousands more descended on Sea-Tac airport to protest the latest Executive Order from the new president that resulted in detentions of hundreds of immigrants at airports across the country. The crowd was abuzz with the latest news.

That night, the audience clearly needed to be together; when Whim W'Him Artistic Director Olivier Wevers took the stage before the show, his voice shook as he told the packed house that art was not about building walls. They cheered wildly.

Indeed, the three dances on the "Sensation" bill were meant to open windows into universal human experiences. The evening was one of the strongest in Whim W'Him's history, with new works by three choreographers, including the premier of Wevers' dark and emotional "Catch and Release," which closed the evening.
Tory Peil and Karl Watson in rehearsal for Olivier Wevers' "Catch and Release"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts

Wevers' creation was preceded by "Line Dance," New York-based Larry Keigwin's first piece for the company, a quirky, evocative and ultimately lovely dance set to music by Philip Glass.

For me, the evening's highlight was a single pas de deux from the program's opening work, "play-by-play," choreographed by Penny Saunders.

At a media preview earlier in January, Saunders said this ensemble work is meant as an exploration of the creative process, from the initial idea, through the challenges involved in realizing it. The marvelously expressive Justin Reiter embodied The Idea.

Nestled in the middle of Reiter's journey from inspiration to realization is the remarkable pas de deux for Doubt, danced by Patrick Kilbane, and Grace, personified by Liane Aung.

They meet center stage, bodies inclined toward one and another from the waist, their arms raised at shoulder height behind them, elbows bent and fingers splayed. Their heads rest in the curve of one another's necks, tender yet tentative.
Liane Aung and Patrick Kilbane in Penny Saunders "play-by-play"
photo by Bamberg Fine Arts

Kilbane and Aung proceed to wind around each other like pliant strands of silk. Aung defies gravity as Kilbane lifts her into the air then gently pulls her across his torso. These two dancers are perfectly in synch with one another and with the music. They must have been conscious of the audience, but for the too-short duration of this duet, it felt as if they danced only for themselves. It was a rare and, for me, very necessary reminder of the power of art to lift the human spirit.

This past month I've pondered the role of the arts in the new political landscape. Artists can stand up to protest, to create work that comments directly on social injustice and inequity. But they can also give us moments like Penny Saunder's pas de deux; moments that make us shiver at the ineffable beauty of the human spirit.