Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What Keeps Me Up at Night

Kim Lusk and Amelia Reeber, from Peggy Piacenza's 'The Event'
photo @ Peggy Piacenza
I’ve been mulling over something for the past couple of years,something that directly affects anything I write for this blog: how do I balance the intrinsic merits of a work of art with my own personal reaction to said work?

This is a thorny matter. We all have preferences, right? Ketchup versus mustard, cats versus dogs, movement-heavy dance versus more theatrically-based works. Contemporary choreography versus story ballets.

As I write this, I note my use of that word “versus.” This isn’t a contest, there’s no right or wrong. I’ve set up a false dichotomy.

Nevertheless, I sometimes struggle to separate my aesthetic preferences from a truly open response to art I see, and art I write about here. Given that I post what I write for potential (albeit minimal) public consumption, I wonder whether I have to hold myself to a higher bar? I think the answer is yes, particularly if I’m holding the art to a similar high standard.
Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in 'Emergence' by Crystal Pite
photo @ Angela Sterling for PNB
If you’ve read anything I post, you probably know I have an affinity for choreography that challenges dancers to bring a high level of technical training; for work that brings a cogent beginning, middle and end (harder than it sounds); for dancers who reveal their authentic selves in their performances. I like art that has something to say but doesn’t hit me over the head with a message. I yearn for work that I think about for days afterwards.

This is an incredibly long preamble to some short thoughts about Peggy Piacenza’s recent evening-length piece, ‘The Event,’ produced at Base in Georgetown in mid-October, a performance that I've been mulling over for a couple of weeks.
From left, Wade Madsen, Ezra Dickinson, Kim Lusk and Amelia Reeber in 'The Event' by Peggy Piacenza
photo courtesy Peggy Piacenza
This multi-media work featured four exceptional dancers (Ezra Dickinson, Kim Lusk, Wade Madsen and Amelia Reeber) in addition to Piacenza, some evocative videos, and a fabulous cloud-like wall partially constructed of cotton candy. From the first video of Lusk and Reeber blowing cotton balls across a smooth surface at one another, to images of dandelions gone to seed, to Lusk pulling a hank of cotton from the wall and stuffing it into her mouth, Piacenza strives to remind us of the ephemeral nature of our lives and our world.
Kim Lusk consumes part of the set of 'The Event.' Not something you see every day!
photo courtesy Peggy Piacenza
Even the use of hand bells emphasized this for me. In one beautiful section, each dancer held a small bell in each hand, ringing them in a meticulously choreographed set of patterns. The sweet soprano peals overlapped, ultimately fading away in the small space. 

‘The Event’ is packed with strong sections like that: Lusk and Dickinson perform a duet in perfect synch; Madsen and Dickinson lie on the floor, making snow angels; Piacenza stands on a ladder watching the other dancers as they repeat almost ritualistic hand movements. So many beautiful moments, like beads threaded onto a necklace.

I hope Piacenza gets to revisit this work, because to me the beads on that strand were out of order.

Somehow, the final bead had been swapped with another and the ending had been placed within the body of the work. When 'The Event' ended, I was left feeling a little muddled, rather than with a sense of having watched a clear arc that reached an understandable conclusion. 

And that’s where my personal aesthetic preferences come in; many others in the audience loved the ambiguity of the ending. They preferred it, in fact, to a more traditional ‘story’ arc. And who am I to tell an artist that she should be creating a piece that speaks more to me than to these other audience members?

Frankly, I am always in awe of any artist who has the confidence and the persistence to realize her vision in public. Our community (our world!) is richer for this creativity, and this courage. Peggy Piacenza literally put her heart into this work, and I admire what she has achieved. 

So, dear artists, now you know some of my own biases, some of what gnaws on me after every show I see. I figure I’ll just keep watching and writing and trying to make sense of your work, for myself and anyone else who wants to follow my thoughts.
From left, Lusk, Madsen, Reeber, Dickinson and Piacenza contemplate
photo courtesy of Peggy Piacenza

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Saturday in the Theater with Arthur Miller

Paul Morgan Stetler as John Proctor in 'The Crucible' at ACT Theatre
photo @Chris Bennion, courtesy ACT
A well-made artwork is one of life’s great pleasures.

That’s exactly what Seattle’s ACT Theatre offers up with its new production of the Arthur Miller classic ‘The Crucible,’ directed by John Langs.

Maybe, like me, you’ve never seen an actual live stage production of this play. And maybe, like me, you’ve been scared away from seeking one out because you had a heavy-handed high school English teacher with a ramrod stiff interpretation of Miller’s script.

I advise you now to toss that baggage aside and give this play the chance it so deserves.

Langs’ production is a revelation; a complex examination of mob mentality, fear of ‘the other,’ of women and sexuality, of self respect and of love.

Every actor in the large cast was stellar, but at the heart of the play was a performance that is so stunning that I can’t get it out of my mind.

Paul Morgan Stetler came out of retirement to tackle the complex role of John Proctor, a man who commits the sin of adultery and is then forced to wrestle with the ramifications of his actions.

From the first moment Stetler takes the stage until the heart wrenching final scenes, he completely inhabits the man he portrays. It’s a remarkable performance in a remarkable production, and reminded me that nobody (whether we agree with them or not) can be reduced to a one-dimensional being.
Paul Morgan Stetler as John Proctor in 'The Crucible' at ACT Theatre
photo @Chris Bennion for ACT
Like the best artworks, ‘The Crucible’ left me shaking inside and out. Although it is almost 65 years old, this play is in no way ready for retirement. In fact, in our current political climate, it’s more relevant than ever.

Friday, October 20, 2017

It's a Pite-A-Palooza in Seattle!

Choreographer Crystal Pite at work with Pacific Northwest Ballet company members
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB
The first time I saw Crystal Pite’s company Kidd Pivot perform, I was sick to my stomach.


I had a stomach bug but a friend insisted I go see Pite's show 'Dark Matters' at Seattle’s On the Boards. Oh my god, was I happy I went!

First of all, the Kidd Pivot dancers are mesmerizing movers. Their bodies bend, twist and float in ways that seem inhuman. But more than phenomenal dance, “Dark Matters” is one of those rare, complete gems. Pite created a world, a dramatic arc, a narrative without an explicit plot that always moved forward. It was thrilling and is a benchmark for me when I watch other dance theater.

When the show ended, I was both drained and exhilarated, and a convert to Pite-ism. I wanted more, more, more.

Lucky me, and lucky Seattle dancer lovers, because this fall we’ve just entered the Pite-a-Palooza of dance seasons.
Crystal Pite works with PNB dancers before the company's local premiere of  'Emergence' 2013
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB 

Last weekend, the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company presented a fragment from 'Dark Matters,' just to whet our appetites. Next April, Pacific Northwest Ballet brings back Pite’s incredible ballet 'Emergence,' inspired by the social world of bees, and featuring a cast of thousands. Well, dozens, but they really do fill. I’ve seen this ballet at least five or six times and I find something new with every viewing.
PNB company members perform Pite's 'Emergence'
photo @ Angela Sterling for PNB

As if that’s not enough Pite for you, On the Boards and Seattle Theatre Group will present her monumental piece, ‘Betroffenheit,’ in late March. This is a not-to-be missed performance about extreme loss, grief, madness and redemption and IT IS AMAZING.

But we don’t have to wait until next Spring to enter Pite’s world.
From Nederlands Dans Theatre's 2010 premiere of 'Plot Point'
photo @Joris-Jan Bos for NDT

In early November, PNB presents the American premiere of 'Plot Point,' a work Pite created for Nederlands Dans Theatre in 2010. 'Plot Point' was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film ‘Psycho,’ and is set to the 1960 score by Bernard Herrmann, with additional music by Owen Belton.

I recently had the opportunity to watch Crystal Pite work with her PNB cast in the studio. Although she’s now a mother in her 40’s, Pite is still as nimble as dancers half her age, watching a video of the original production then demonstrating the movements with unflagging energy. She’s not only teaching this ballet; she’s tweaking and refining her choreography, making changes to both fit the PNB dancers and her own new perspectives on an older work. The dance promises to be as eerie and potentially violent as the Hitchcock on which it was based.
Elle Macy with Josh Grant, rehearsing Crystal Pite's 'Plot Point' for PNB
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB

It’s fascinating to watch traditionally trained ballet dancers approach Pite's most non-traditional movement vocabulary. Where most ballet choreographers ask for long extensions of legs and feet, arms and hands, creating beautiful lines, Pite looks for angles and bending torsos, swooping limbs and lots of theatricality.

A tight clump of dancers slinks across the stage, bearing a cake for a waiting woman, wide rictus grins on their faces. Another woman moves away from the group, shoulder slumped, almost trudging, carrying some type of burden.
NDT production of "Plot Point"
photo @Joris-Jons Bos for NDT

After two hours of demanding rehearsal, PNB Principal Lucien Postlewaite was beaming. He says Pite has asked him and his fellow dancers to transcend their training, and it was clear he loved the challenge. Judging by the rehearsal, and these photos from Nederland Dans Theatre, 'Plot Point' is sure to bring PNB audiences something altogether new.

The American premiere of Crystal Pite’s ‘Plot Point’ is part of PNB’s ‘Her Story’ program, opening at McCaw Hall on Friday, November 3rd. It shares the bill with Twyla Tharp’s ‘Afternoon Ball,’ created for PNB in 2008, and Jessica Lang’s evocation of painter Georgia O’Keefe, ‘Her Door to the Sky.’ If you come to the Saturday, November 4th matinee, I'll be moderating the post-show talk with PNB's Peter Boal and selected dancers. It should be a blast!