Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Through a Looking Glass

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling
I walked into a parallel universe as soon as I came through the McCaw Hall doors on the opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.” 

An hour before show time, and the lobby was already crammed; families posed in little scenes culled from the fanciful sets Ian Falconer designed for this production in 2015. Actors and magicians worked the crowd. Little girls twirled madly in their new holiday finery.

The energy was so palpable I felt like I was at the start of a marathon race. And in a way, I was. This November 24th opening was the first of 30+ PNB performances of this holiday classic.
A scary Mouse King fights the Nutcracker in PNB's version of the holiday classic
photo by Angela Sterling
I had planned to write a a learned screed about the Nutcracker’s history; how the legendary Marius Petipa conceived it in 1892, inspired by the French version of a German folktale (although most of the choreography was created by Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov).

I was curious why this particular story, this particular ballet, has become so beloved. It really wasn't intended to endure the way it has.

According to PNB’s resident dance historian Doug Fullington, composer Peter Tchaikovsky was less than thrilled with the whole concept of the Nutcracker; he says the ballet was intended as a divertissement to follow Tchaikovsky’s new opera, “Iolanthe.”

But 125 years later, Nutcrackers abound, from elaborately beautiful productions like PNB’s, to community performances at local dance schools. In the greater Seattle area alone you can choose from almost a dozen renditions. I’m excited about “Land of the Sweets: a Burlesque Nutcracker.”

Somehow, though, my serious intent was hijacked by the emotional response I have to this ballet.
Watch for this little girl, Samrawit Saleem, as Clara. She's dancing here with Dammiel Cruz
photo by Angela Sterling
First off, PNB’s three year old production of George Balanchine's Nutcracker, originally choreographed in 1954, is swell. This year I was impressed with the innate grace and stage presence of student Samrawit Saleem in the role of Clara. It was especially nice to hear she's a product of PNB's Dance Chance program. Dance Chance reaches out to kids with physical and artistic aptitude, kids who might not have an opportunity to study ballet, and offers them free ballet training for two years. If they like the discipline, and if their teachers agree, they can continue their training, often with the help of scholarships. The beautiful corps de ballet member Angeli Mamon is a Dance Chance alum.
Price Suddarth as a Toy Soldier in Act 1
photo by Angela Sterling
Also noteworthy for me on opening night: Price Suddarth as the Toy Soldier, Candy Cane James Moore, and the lovely Elizabeth Murphy who was born to dance the role of Dew Drop.
Elizabeth Murphy is a pretty pretty Dew Drop. BTW, that's Angeli Mamon (with the dimples) right in front of her
photo by Angela Sterling
And I can’t omit the dancing Orzas: Sarah and Seth, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier. Sarah was promoted to principal dancer in September and I can’t think of a dancer who deserved it more. In this ballet, she gets to twinkle around waving her wand, dressed in a sparkly purple outfit. I am certain every little girl in the hall went home and dreamed she got to trade places with Sarah.

In any case, when Sarah vaults backwards from the floor onto Seth’s shoulder, not once but TWICE, I held my breath. You really have to trust your partner will be there for you.

Many longtime Seattleites miss Kent Stowell’s darker Nutcracker, with costumes and sets by Maurice Sendak. They prefer it to Balanchine’s sugar coated confection. I confess I am Switzerland when it comes to this holiday chestnut.

Here’s why.

Every time I see the Nutcracker (too many to count) I’m like a little girl with my face pressed up to the plate glass window of a chocolate shop. So many tempting goodies that I don't get to eat.

The lavishly trimmed tree, the rich egg nog, the happy family gatherings; they’re all part of our country’s dominant religious tradition, one that I don’t share. I appreciate the artistry of PNB’s dancers and its orchestra under Emil de Cou; I’m dazzled by the people who build the fantastic costumes in Larae Theige Hascall’s costume shop. Truly, those waltzing flower skirts are miraculous to behold. 

But when I am in the middle of all that holiday cheer, I feel like an observer from outer space, or Margaret Mead on an island in the South Seas, observing very foreign cultural customs.

Ok, that's enough bah, humbug for one post.

If you can, go see The Nutcracker at Pacific Northwest Ballet, or at your favorite local dance company. Take a child, watch her face light up when the snowflakes start to waltz. Try to see the magic through her eyes. If nothing else, do what I do: dream of owning your own tiara someday. 
I confess, I miss the boat from the Kent Stowell Nutcracker, don't you?
photo by Angela Sterling

Monday, November 6, 2017


PNB Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico in Crystal Pite's 'Plot Point'
photo @ Angela Sterling

We toss that word around so cavalierly these days that sometimes, when we encounter a real genius, the accolade doesn’t feel strong enough.

Genius really is the only word that adequately describes choreographer Crystal Pite and the magical worlds she creates.

Perhaps you first encountered Pite at Seattle’s On the Boards. Or maybe in 2013, you saw Pacific Northwest Ballet’s presentation of her large-scale ballet ‘Emergence.’ Contemporary dance fans who thought they didn’t like ballet snapped up tickets; traditionalists were introduced to a new way of thinking about a classical art form.

Then local audiences got to see ‘Betroffenheit,’ a collaboration between Pite’s dance company Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theater. This harrowing performance about love, loss, grief, madness and redemption won Pite even more fans.
PNB Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico with company dancers in 'Plot Point'
photo @ Angela Sterling

If you have yet to discover Crystal Pite, get yourself tickets to one of this weekend’s performances of PNB’s latest program, ‘Her Story.’ In addition to satisfying dances by Jessica Lang and Twyla Tharp, you’ll get a chance to see the American premier of Pite’s intriguing ‘Plot Point,’ originally created in 2010 for Nederlands Dans Theater.

PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal says when he invited Pite back to the Seattle, she suggested revisiting this particular work, an exploration of the meaning of story.

With ‘Plot Point,’ Pite creates a mysterious, almost hazy, film noir aesthetic, animated by Bernard Herrmann’s famous score for Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 horror film, ‘Psycho,’ with additional sound design from Owen Belton.
PNB dancers in Crystal Pite's 'Plot Point'
photo @ Angela Sterling

The curtain goes up on two men in trench coats, running, semi-obscured by a gauzy scrim. Who are these two? What are they running from? We don’t know yet. And, are they really both men? One of the figures is pure white, from his fedora to his shoes; a white mask obscures his features

Soon, we meet an amorous couple, only to discover each is married to somebody else. A jealous husband seeks revenge; a spurned wife wants to end her own life. Each of these characters is ‘mirrored’ by another faceless white doppelganger. Sometimes the replicant moves in synch with her human partner; sometimes she watches then repeats the human’s movements. When the replicant moves, she is not human but something else entirely.
'Replicants' performed by PNB's Emma Love Suddarth and William Yin-Lee
photo @ Angela Sterling
The replicants move across the stage with exaggerated articulation of elbows and knees, ankles and wrists, so that we see the mechanics of each footstep or turn of the head. Their fingers are splayed and stiff, like Star Wars’ C3 PO. Are they robots, like him? Do they have free will? Do these replicants actually serve to set a story in motion?

Part of ‘Plot Point’s’ genius is that--although there is no real plot, only a series of instigating actions and the ramifications of those actions--Pite has opened the curtains and ushered us into the secrets of a hidden world. It’s mysterious and fascinating, demanding and rewarding.

PNB’s stellar dancers rise to Pite’s choreography. In a conversation after the Saturday, November 4th matinee, principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite explained that Pite has a clear idea of how every movement should look, and where it should begin in the dancer’s body. Sometimes, he said, the movement starts with the face; other times with the pelvis, or a foot, or a shoulder. This choreography is physically challenging, but thought provoking as well. Pite never throws in a gratuitous move, everything is where it is for a reason and the entire cast embraces it fully.
PNB Principal Dancer James Moore and company members in 'Plot Point'
photo @ Angela Sterling

It seems fitting that an artist as talented as Crystal Pite would explore the mechanics of storytelling. Every work of hers that I’ve had the good luck to see has carried me on a full journey. In my mind, her greatest gift is her ability to create non-traditional narratives that fully captivate her audiences. With‘Plot Point’ or ‘Emergence’ or ‘Betroffenheit,’ Pite transports me into new worlds both beautiful and strange, and always profoundly moving. I want to travel with her again, and again, and again.