Monday, November 5, 2018

Cerrudo's Little Gems

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Alejandro Cerrudo's Silent Ghost
photo @ Angela Sterling

In March, 2016, I was sitting in McCaw Hall, waiting for the curtain to go up on Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual contemporary bill, Director’s Choice.  A dear friend had passed away the day before, and I was filled with both sadness and anticipation for the program that was about to begin. I love contemporary ballet.

I don’t remember where it appeared on the bill, but when Price Suddarth ran through the house and jumped up on the stage, the beginning of Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump, I was shaken from my own moodiness and I set off on the kind of emotional journey I crave at a performance: I transcended my grief. Rather, I lost my self in what I saw to be a contemplation of all the possibilities that lay before us as human beings.

Does that sound high falutin’?

Maybe, but it’s an accurate description of my experience of Cerrudo’s work. And that’s why I was excited to learn that PNB would present another of his ballets, Silent Ghost, as part of its 2018 All Premiere program.
PNB Principal Dancer Leta Biasucci and company dancers in Kyle Davis' A Dark and Lonely Place
photo @ Angela Sterling

Ghost was sandwiched between PNB soloist Kyle Davis’ ambitious world premiere, A Dark and Lonely Place, and a hilarious sendup of pretentious arts writers like me called Cacti, from choreographer Alexander Ekman. Cerrudo’s work was quieter, far more intimate, a palate cleanser if you will.

PNB provided no choreographer’s statement or any other information about the ballet in its printed program, except to say Silent Ghost was the third piece by Cerrudo to be presented by the company. That left me free to experience it any way I wanted. That is to say, I could immerse myself in Michael Korsch’s exquisite and atmospheric lighting, and the cast’s equally exquisite and atmospheric performances.

I saw two different casts, but each included Lucien Postlewaite, Noelani Pantastico, Elizabeth Murphy and Dylan Wald performing two pas de deux that serve as bookends in this dance; for me they were also examples of how we humans interact with one another.
PNB Principal Dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite in Silent Ghost
photo @ Angela Sterling

The first duet featured a kind of powerful coming together, exemplified by an amazing lift: the male dancer bends at the waist, with the woman balanced on his back. She extends her legs back behind her, veed out from her body. Here’s a photo, but really, you need to see this in person. 

For me, this wasn’t only technically stunning; it really illustrated the kind of interplay that we bring to our relationships. (I should say that I saw both couples perform both pas de deux, in two separate performances; the effect was the same.)

Cerrudo has a great talent for creating interesting movements. I loved what I can only describe as a prone ‘wave.’ On opening night, Noelani Pantastico and Leah Merchant lay in a line, Merchant’s feet next to Pantastico’s head. Pantastico started to ripple, from her feet up through her legs, lower back, arms and head, then Merchant echoed this wave of movement.

The dancers kneel in a row facing the audience, then bend their arms at elbows with fingers pointed upwards. Forearms pass in front of faces, heads tilt in unison, then syncopation. It resembled a kind of sign language, but I couldn't translate it. No matter; it was fascinating to watch.
PNB dancers Dylan Wald and Elizabeth Murphy in Little mortal jump
photo @ Angela Sterling

Finally, as with Little mortal jump, Cerrudo creates an ending duet that reminded me how fragile our relationships can be. In Little mortal jump, Elizabeth Murphy and Dylan Wald dance a duet of possibilities; they spin around the floor, and soon the set begins to spin with them, opening wider and wider, inviting me to contemplate the next step in life. In Silent Ghost, the two dancers circled one another, establishing their bond and questioning it at the same time. This dance isn't really about hope and possibility; it's about our coming together then moving apart.
Wald and Murphy in Silent Ghost
photo @ Angela Sterling

Silent Ghost doesn’t really have a narrative; I’m prone to creating stories for myself where none exist, so this ballet might mean something completely different to you. Or maybe you'd simply enjoy the stellar performances PNB's dancers bring to the stage. This little gem of a ballet might be obscured by the pomp and scale of Kyle Davis’ opening work, or the tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness of Cacti (which I loved, for the record). But Silent Ghost is the dance I’m still pondering, a dance that left me wanting more.

Friday, November 2, 2018

RE:33/RE: Dance History

Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson, upside down in "The Uninvited," created 1994-96
photo @ Peter Mumford, courtesy Dayna Hanson

I’ve been watching Seattle artists for a long time. L.O.N.G., more than 30 years. Theater companies have come and gone (RIP Empty Space, Alice B., Group Theater etc). I’ve also seen the exponential growth of the city’s contemporary dance community.

Normally I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about past glories; so much is happening now, there isn’t really time to mourn what came before. But last month, the connection between our past and present, at least when it comes to dance, was illustrated beautifully, and thought-provokingly, by Dayna Hanson. If you don’t know Hanson’s work as a creator of live performance and film, you may know her as the co-founder of Base, a relatively new venue for experimental arts, located in the fabulous Equinox complex in Georgetown.
Dayna Hanson, left, with Gaelen Hanson, 33 Fainting Spells, in "The Uninvited"
photo @Peter Mumford, courtesy Dayna Hanson

More than 20 years ago, Hanson and fellow artist Gaelen Hanson (no relation) formed a dance/theater company called 33 Fainting Spells. At the time, Europe had its share of dance/theater artists; so did New York, but 33 Fainting Spells was the first of its kind here. The two women developed a distinctive movement vocabulary, and a distinctive look, complete with matching pairs of oxford shoes.

33 Fainting Spells eventually expanded to include Peggy Piacenza (also a Base co-founder); the group produced work until disbanding in 2006.

This year Dayna Hanson set about remounting 33 Fainting Spells’ body of work. Installment One looks back at the duo’s first piece, “The Uninvited.” As Hanson described it in a post-show conversation,this duet is the story of an unknown visitor whose appearance triggers a series of mysterious events. But that makes the piece sound very literal, and it’s not.
Dayna Hanson, front, with Gaelen Hanson in their piece "The Uninvited"
photo @ Peter Mumford, courtesy D. Hanson

The 2018 recreation picks up midway through the original, with Madison Haines and Julia Sloane reprising the roles Gaelen Hanson and Dayna Hanson created for themselves. These two young dancers were compelling in their own right; at the moment I have no photos of them.

When the audience enters the theater, Sloane is standing under a thin waterfall that drips from the ceiling. She collects the water in a glass, then carries it away, only to reappear with an empty container. She repeats the motions. Meanwhile, a stranger, Haines, comes in with a large bag, which she sets on the floor next to a chair. Repeatedly, she tries to attract Sloane’s attention, to no avail.

From this point forward, "The Uninvited" invites the audience into their mysterious world. They dance on a wooden table top, under a suspended chair, and across the floor. The work mesmerized me.

I couldn’t describe the entire piece to you, even if I remembered it from so long ago. What the recreation does so well is evoke the original: the lighting, the suspended, straight-backed chair, the wooden table. And those oxfords! The shoes are integral to the choreography. Sloane and Haines execute a sideways tap-shuffle: the dancers click their heels together, and that click propels their bodies sideways across the floor. Watching these young dancers transported me back in time, to when Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson were the heel-clickers.

The remounting of “The Uninvited,” or at least this portion of it, is the first in what could be a series that resurrects 33 Fainting Spells’ complete works. Or not. Either way, I was struck by the singular movement vocabulary, the vision, and the fact that the dance stood the test of time. It felt as fresh, or fresher, than a lot of what I see around town these days. 
Gaelen Hanson leads creative partner Dayna Hanson in 33 Fainting Spells' "The Uninvited"
photo @ Peter Mumford, courtesy D. Hanson

I’ve been thinking about "The Uninvited" since I saw it; so thankful to have had a chance to witness the past-made-present. More than a stroll down memory lane, RE/33: 33 Fainting Spells Revisited Installment One gave me the jolt I needed to consider the past, present and future of contemporary dance as one long, continuing strand, each bead beautiful on its own, but strung together forming a magnificent whole.

Monday, September 24, 2018

A Ballet Binge! It's PNB's Jerome Robbins Festival!

PNB Principal Dancers Seth Orza and Noelani Pantastico in Jerome Robbins' "Other Dances."
photo @ Angela Sterling

If you’re a regular at Pacific Northwest Ballet, you’ve had the chance to experience work by a bevy of choreographers. You’ve also gotten to dive more deeply into the dances of William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, and of course, George Balanchine. 

But PNB’s two-part celebration of Jerome Robbins' centenary, continuing this weekend at McCaw Hall, is something new and most welcome. Although PNB presented only seven of Robbin’s many ballets, the chance to see them in this format was exhilarating and illuminating.

PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, who worked with Robbins during Boal’s tenure at New York City Ballet, has designed two unique programs that share only one dance—a brief bit of cotton candy called “Circus Polka,” featuring 48 young girls and a ringmaster (Peter Boal on opening night).
From left, Laura Tisserand and William Lin-Yee, Benjamin Griffiths, and Jerome Tisserand lifting Noelani Pantastico
from Robbins' "In the Night," photo @ Angela Sterling

Program A features four other Robbins’ dances: “In the Night,” a work for three couples set to Chopin piano music, “Afternoon of a Faun,” a haunting pas de deux inspired by Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 work, the iconic “West Side Story Suites,” and a new to PNB pas de deux, “Other Dances,” originally created by Robbins in 1976 for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova.

I could write at length about any of these four ballets. Each is distinctive and we've seen most on other mixed bills. Seen consecutively on a single program, they provided so much insight into Robbins’ aesthetic.

“In the Night” is actually three separate duets about relationships. Leta Biasucci, (newly promoted to principal dancer) floated in new love with Ben Griffiths. Laura Tisserand and William Lin-Yee were more earthy; Jerome Tisserand with Noelani Pantastico were fireworks onstage, enacting a passionate and volatile couple.

Pantastico was equally dazzling with Seth Orza in “Other Dances.” It must be hard to tackle work created on such stars as Makarova and Baryshnikov, but that didn’t seem to daunt either PNB principal. Orza was solid as always; Pantastico moves across the stage like a smooth-flowing river. Watching her, I don’t think “wow, that’s hard,” or “wow, look at that intricate lift.” Well, I do think those things, but mostly I am awed by the way she owns the dance and the music, melding her body with it all so that the sum is greater than any single part. Watching a dancer at the height of her artistry performing work created by a choreographer at the height of his own is reason enough to go to the Robbins’ Festival.
From left William Lin-Yee, Leah Terada, Angelica Generosa, Dylan Wald, Leah Merchant and Dammiel Cruz
in "Dances at a Gathering" by Jerome Robbins. Photo @ Angela Sterling

Program B offers its own compelling draw: “Dances at a Gathering,” created for NYCB in 1969. Many dance writers acclaim this work for ten performers as Robbins’ ballet masterpiece. Set again to Chopin piano (performed by Christina Siemens), “Dances” examines human relationships and emotions in their varied forms.

From Lucien Postelwaite’s almost wistful entrance to Kyle Davis and Noelani Pantastico’s intricate and demanding scherzo, “Dances” provides the PNB dancers with an opportunity to shine. They didn’t disappoint. I expect PNB’s principal dancers to excel; in addition to Pantastico and Postelwaite, the family Orza (Seth and Sarah) provided some breathtaking work. I mean that literally. At one point, Sarah Orza is lifted into the air then spun around like a baton. She ends up head down, legs together straight up in the air. What??? In fact, the lifts, throws and carries in this work deserve their own essay. They are intricate, thrilling and, in the hands of these dancers, masterfully executed.

In addition to fine work by soloists Davis and Joshua Grant, company member Elle Macy demonstrated once again that she deserves every solo role offered her. Macy is all tensile strength, but she has a musicality and a charisma that really distinguish her work. (More Elle Macy!)
God I love this photo by @Angela Sterling!
This is from Robbins' "West Side Story Suite." Ezra Thomson, center in the white tee shirt, is dancing the role of Riff

Watching “Dances at a Gathering,” I couldn’t help but think about the prior evening’s performance of “West Side Story Suite,” when the entire ensemble takes the stage to the song “Somewhere.” In “Dances” the ensemble enter in a similar fashion, strolling to their marks, almost the way people walk into a room in non-ballet life. The pieces couldn’t really be more different, and yet, they share a freshness, almost an American-ness, if there is such a thing.

Years ago, a Frenchman I know told me he could always tell an American; he said we have open faces, we smile more than Europeans, we anticipate the possibilities. I don’t know if that’s still how he thinks about Americans, or if he meant only white Americans. I do know that Jerome Robbins’ dances have that same feeling of anticipation and possibility. Even the Part B closer, "The Concert (or The Perils of Everybody) has a silly, slapstick anything-goes quality. The characters in this dance are more "Fancy Free" than "West Side Story," but they share that quintessential American quality of hope for the future. If I had any quibble with PNB’s Robbins Festival, it’s that it’s not comprehensive enough. Where were “Glass Pieces” and “Fancy Free?” And the 60-odd other works we didn’t get to see?
Miles Pertl, with umbrella, and PNB company members in a scene from "The Concert"
photo @ Angela Sterling

That may have to wait until his bi-centenary. For now, you still have a chance to catch the Jerome Robbins’ Festival September 27-29th at McCaw Hall. By the way, Program A only has one performance, Saturday evening the 29th so get your tickets now.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Let the Arts...Begin

Whim W'Him dancers in Alice Klock's "Before/After"
photo courtesy Whim W'Him

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: one of the biggest gifts Whim W’Him Artistic Director Olivier Wevers brings to Seattle dance fans is the opportunity to see new works by contemporary choreographers from around the world. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Last weekend Wevers’ company kicked off its ninth season with its fourth annual ‘Choreographic Shindig,’ a program curated by Whim W’Him’s seven dancers. The three works on the program highlighted the dancers’ technical and artistic range, and they delighted Whim W’Him fans on opening night.

This Choreographic Shindig was bookended by two very kinetic works, each stunning in its own right.
Cameron Birts, kneeling in front of Mia Monteabaro and fellow Whim W'Him company members in Alice Klock's
photo courtesy Whim W'Him

Alice Klock’s “Before/After” opened the show. It’s a hauntingly evocative dance, enhanced by Michael Mazzola’s lighting design that seems to place the dancers in an undersea world where they tumble and float beneath his watery illumination. I say tumble, because from the get-go, when Karl Watson catapults onto the stage, these dancers energetically propel themselves across the floor: somersaulting, pushing up into handstands with bent knees and flexed feet.

There are also moments of stillness, moments where you feel as if the dancers embody ancient Greek or Egyptian mosaic murals. Whim W'Him newcomer Jane Cracovaner, slightly crouched, holds her arms bent out at the elbows, her hands nearly touching, face angled every so slightly. 

But moments of repose are few in this work, a chance for the dancers to breath before leaping, literally, up from the floor in sequence, each dancer tapping or butting the next into movement. It’s a bit like watching one of those domino lineups, where every tile tilts into its neighbor, causing it to fall down into the next and the next, until all the dominoes are flat on the floor. In this case, though, instead of falling to the floor, the dancers jump up, one by one, in kinetic unison.
Whim W'Him company members in "Welcome to Barrio Ataxia"
photo courtesy Whim W'Him

Omar Roman de Jesus ends the show with the equally kinetic “Welcome to Barrio Ataxia,” a rumination on the physical condition that causes imbalance and muscle tics, among other symptoms.
That sounds grim; “Barrio” is not. The dancers enter to peppy Latin dance music, shimmying and shaking and mouthing the song lyrics. The cheery song gives way abruptly to a slower, more introspective, sound track, and the shimmies evolve into something more deliberate as well: the dancers ooze across the floor, their hands slowly tapping out a rhythm on their upper thighs.
Adrian Hoffman and Jane Cracovaner separate themselves from the collective dance drone, performing a duet that serves as a highly physical counterpoint to the movements that surround them.

For me, though, Cameron Birts’ final solo is this work’s indelible moment. I wish I had a photograph to show you, but that wouldn't capture the magic of the live performance.

Birts is short, with disproportionately long arms for his torso. He’s able to isolate his limbs, imbuing them with independent motion. Have you ever seen those plastic human or animal figures, each limb connected to the other by elastic filaments, the whole figure mounted on a small pedestal? The ones where you press the pedestal and the figure sort of collapses, limbs jangling? Well, Birts can make his human body do something like this, long arms flapping independent of tilting shoulders and undulating lower back. 

Meanwhile, he’s transferring his weight slowly from leg to leg. All of this takes place under a ghostly white, diffuse spot light, while Birts’ fellow dancers slowly move upstage into the shadows.
As I said, indelible.

Equally indelible was the program’s third work, created by Brendan Duggan in collaboration with the dancers.

“Stephanie Knows Some Great People” begins with the house lights on, as Karl Watson mixes drinks for an upcoming house warming. We soon learn that Watson and his partner, Cracovaner, are two of the most pretentious people. They've thrown this party to show off; we see them herd their guests around their new digs, pointing out such highlights as vegan fur drapes and fancy appliances. Oh, and the view! Wow.

The guests are a mixed bag: from Jim Kent’s nerd who can scarcely believe his luck to snare a date with Mia Monteabaro’s gum-cracking hottie, to wonderful Liane Aung, so fizzy and tipsy that her long-suffering date (Birts) literally holds her up. I suppose I could carp on the implications of a drunken woman and the potential for sexual violence. I won't, because that's not the intent behind the imagery.
Karl Watson and Adrian Hoffman in "Stephanie Knows Some Great People"
photo courtesy Whim W'Him

The superficial chatter is smashed all at once when Adrian Hoffman’s odd-man out character boils over in frustration. And when the  mask cracks, we can see the person who hides behind it. Hoffman is actually Watson's alter ego. They move in tandem, not so much mirror images but rather a reminder that things--and people--are not always who they seem to be.

I’m writing this essay several days after seeing "Choreographic Shindig IV", and I can still see so much of the evening in my mind’s eye—always a sign of a successful performance. I love Whim W’Him’s Choreographic Shindigs, and this 4th installment may be the best one yet. It’s a great way for the company to start a season, and a great unofficial kickoff for the fall arts season. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

We Are Not Small Women

Catapult dancers in Michelle Miller's 2018 dance, "Skin"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos

At the start of Michelle Miller’s newest dance, “Skin,” a woman in a tight beige tank top and shorts enters the stage, followed closely by another dancer dressed in a demure skirt. They engage in not so much a duet as a struggle that’s probably familiar to many women of my generation, the Baby Boom.

'Sit like this', the skirted woman seems to instruct the other. 'Don’t splay your legs, for god’s sake! Tilt your head like this, so seductive. Smile. Smile. Smile.'

As I watched this push/pull unfold, I was reminded of my mother’s instructions to my teenage self: 'if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Comb your hair off your face. Look how much prettier you are when you’re smiling. Do this, not that. Be agreeable. Don't take up space.'

“Skin” was the last of four dances in the evening length program “I am not a small woman,” performed by Miller’s company, Catapult dance, at Seattle's Erickson Theater. Taken as a whole, the program was an athletic and intriguing exploration of the relationship between women and contemporary American cultural norms.

“I am not a small woman” opened with a 2003 work, “The Lottery,” created by former Seattle dancer/choreographer Amii Legendre. I saw this dance when it premiered 15 years ago; it was still just as resonant as it was then. Legendre writes in the program she was inspired both by the onset of the Iraq War and by Shirley Jackson’s chilling story of the same name. "The Lottery" was well paired in the program's first half with Miller’s “I am the Bully,” an abstract rumination on power dynamics.
Catapult dance company members in Michelle Miller's "I am not the bully"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos
My favorite dance of the evening was “Resistance,” created in 2014 by Miller in collaboration with her cast. Like “Bully,” this dance explores power dynamics. Miller physically tethers pairs of dancers. As one woman pulls at her leash, she’s restrained by her partner/captor. But this physical restraint also allows some gravity-defying movements, akin to rock climbers who have spotters below them. 

Miller’s troupe of dancers are noticeably strong and technically adept. They seize her movements with what I can only describe as ferocity. Whether they are raising their fists into the air, yelling in unison, or trapped together inside the confines of a wooden box, “Resistance” offered a combination of movement and human interaction that was both engaging to watch and thought provoking when it ended.
Catapult Dance company members swing free in "Resistance"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos
“I am not a small woman” tackles cultural questions that face women--and men--in 21st century America, but instead of getting mired in didactic literalism, Miller spins out from her starting ideas with fresh energy and intriguing movements. I am a sucker for very physical dance, I admit, but with this program Miller and her dancers offer more than gravity defiance and gee-whiz moments. Miller has drawn on her many years as a dancer, healer and martial artist to create a very distinctive aesthetic. I’m eager to see what she and Catapult offer in the future.

Monday, June 25, 2018

More Reasons to Love Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chris D'Ariano in Donald Byrd's Wake the Neighbor
photo courtesy Seattle International Dance Festival

Despite the general misperceptions, ballet is much more than tutus, swans and sugar plums. You can see the art form’s dynamism at any of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s contemporary programs. Seattle International Dance Festival also provided a showcase in its Spotlight on Contemporary Ballet program June 19 and 20th.

Program curators packed six works into a fast-paced evening that not only turned the spotlight on contemporary ballet, it also showcased some of PNB's newest generation of talented performers and choreographers as part of a collaboration between SIDF and the Seattle-based ballet company. Of the six dances on the bill, only two did not involve PNB-based artists. Each of these pieces had something to recommend it, but I was particularly struck by two of the works, both in the evening's second half.

The first was a solo called Wake the Neighbor, created by Spectrum Dance Theatre Artistic Director Donald Byrd for PNB’s Next Step Outside/In and performed by PNB’s Chris D’Ariano. This solo displayed both D’Ariano’s promise, and Byrd’s mastery of his craft.

The action begins when D’Ariano struts onstage in black jeans and tee shirt, his dark curly hair tousled around his face. He is both handsome and a little arrogant, like every young man in his prime. At first, D’Ariano dances in silence, but once Kris Bowers’ energetic electric score begins, D’Ariano’s every move is perfectly in synch with each guitar strum, each downbeat.
Chris D'Ariano makes everything look easy in Donald Byrd's Wake the Neighbor at SIDF
photo courtesy SIDF
Some of his movements are elegant and balletic: controlled leg extensions from the hip, toe perfectly pointed, pirouettes that demonstrate his grace and his strength. Other moves are too-cool-for school, things you might see on a stroll through Capitol Hill. D’Ariano pushes back his unruly hair with both hands, or nods his head to the side, a cool acknowledgement of something we can’t see. No matter what he’s doing, D’Ariano maintains control over his body. That extended leg? He snaps it back to his body in an instant, never touching the floor with his foot. He stops dead after a pirouette, stock still, looking out at the audience. We can’t help but look back, because Chris D’Ariano is simply captivating.

I first saw this solo at the Next Step performance at McCaw Hall; I liked it even better onstage at SIDF, with moody lighting that enhanced the rock star/ballet dancer mashup that Byrd has created for D’Ariano. I’m so glad Wake the Neighbor got a second life with this festival.
PNB's Angelica Generosa and Christian Poppe left, Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and Kyle Davis, foreground.
in rehearsal for Eva Stone's Careless/Ruthless for Seattle International Dance Festival
photo courtesy SIDF
SIDF’s Spotlight on Contemporary Ballet ended with Eva Stone’s Careless/Ruthless, a work for four dancers, in this instance PNB soloists Kyle Davis and Angelica Generosa, along with PNB corps de ballet members Christian Poppe and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan.

If you’ve seen work created by William Forsythe or Ulysses Dove, you’ll have a sense of what Stone has crafted in her new ballet. This is an abstract piece, not a narrative, and it has clean, sharp movements. The four performers wear dark leotards and tights, the women are in pointe shoes. Edgy music by Ezio Bosso, John Cage and Forest Swords propel them. The emotion, if you will, originates in the energy of Stone’s choreography, which is onstage in abundance.
PNB soloist Kyle Davis, foreground, and fellow PNB company members in Eva Stone's Careless/Ruthless
photo courtesy SIDF
The dancers first appear one by one, then quickly pair off, curving sensuously around each other’s bodies. Ryan caresses Davis’ cheek, Poppe lifts Generosa with tenderness. Despite this intimacy, these are not romantic pas de deux. As the title of the dance suggests, the interpersonal encounters are just that—encounters, akin to casual hook ups. Two people meet casually and just as carelessly sever their ties.

Ultimately, we see the four dancers line up, moving simultaneously but not in unison. Each is locked into her or his own universe. I don’t know what Eva Stone had in mind, but I was reminded of the adult parallel play we see when a group of people sits together, their eyes glued to their individual cell phones.

Stone’s ballet was a strong ending for a strong evening. SIDF’s partnership with PNB was a real treat for festival-goers. Normally when we watch these fine dancers onstage at McCaw Hall, we sit a fair distance from the stage, unable to watch their faces or see the intricacies of the choreography. At the Broadway Performance Hall the audience was close enough to view both the effort and the artistry involved in ballet, leaving this ballet geek wanting even more.

By the way, PNB is headed to Paris this week, for a two-week stay with Les Etes de la Danse, a summer dance festival on the Seine River, southwest of the city. The first week the dancers join four other ballet companies in a salute to choreographer Jerome Robbins' centenary. Week Two, they'll present nine different ballets, included works by Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Millepied, Christopher Wheeldon, Ulysses Dove and Justin Peck. "A season in a box," PNB's Peter Boal calls it. Wish I was there!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Goodbye...and Hello

Tory Peil lets loose in Olivier Wevers' Silent Scream
photo @Bamberg Fine Arts

As Olivier Wevers’ company, Whim W’Him, wraps up its eighth season, once again I’m struck by the versatility of his seven dancers. From the longest tenured, Jim Kent, to newbies Cameron Birts and Adrian Hoffman, Whim W'Him dancers can deliver an array of technical goods.

And that’s exactly what they were called upon to do for the season's final program, a triple bill called Transfigurate. The offerings ranged from Danielle Agami’s whimsical (how fitting) Duck Sitting, a commentary on our contemporary digitally-obsessed culture, to Pascal Touzeau’s rigorous Stickers, to Wevers’ Silent Scream, part amusing take off on the silent film era, part social critique, and altogether a farewell showcase for long-time company member Tory Peil, who leaves the company after this season.

Touzeau’s dance opens the program. Set to a challenging violin composition by Sofia Gubaidulina, Stickers is the kind of work that tests both the dancers’ technical ability and their concentration. At a rehearsal earlier this month, I watched Touzeau push the cast to perfect their timing, to match their movements exactly to the irregular rhythms of the score. As he explained to me, if the timing isn't exact, the intent of the dance is obscured. I was eager to see how it would go in performance.

Onstage, with Michael Mazzola’s moody lighting design and sheer costumes by Nova Dobrev, Stickers transforms from studio discipline into a series of seemingly random encounters. But instead of humans interacting, the dancers were more like neurons firing in our brains. Touzeau’s movement vocabulary is spiky; feet point into the air, with toes flexing upward. Hands extend behind the back, fingers unfurled like nerve ends. 
Karl Watson finds a seat on Jim Kent in Pascal Touzeau's Stickers
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts

While much of the dance centers on Karl Watson and Jim Kent, who perform not so much a series of duets as a series of mechanical interactions, for me the highlight was watching fluid Liane Aung dance with Adrian Hoffman. Aung is one of those dancers who can deliver an array of movement with her silky limbs. Hoffman, new to the company this season, is equally supple in this pas.
Liane Aung and Adrian Hoffman in Pascal Touzeau's Stickers
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts
After a break, Agami’s Duck Sitting begins to throbbing percussion. The seven dancers look like Madison Avenue castaways, dressed in shreds of business suits. It feels a bit like the artistic collision of Gilligan's Island and Lord of the Flies. These castaways are angry, alienated, and they dance out their emotions.

WW company members in Danielle Agami's Duck Sitting
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts

Cameron Birts jumps forward, then continues to jump through the other six dancers, each of whom is moving to her own interior choreography. They clump into a pile center stage, and Hoffman, hair disheveled, looks out at the audience and waves in acknowledgement, prompting his fellow dancers to join in. The dance takes a light turn at this point, the dancers miming texting, distancing themselves from one another through the simulated light of their small smart phone screens. It was fun to watch but it felt as if the momentum at the start of Agami's creation sort of fizzled away.

The evening ends with Wevers’ Silent Scream, inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, as well as by pantomime. Each of the dancers is dressed as an archetypal figure: jail bird, femme fatale, working stiff, and Chaplin himself. Peil is the heart of this dance, eventually stripped from trousers and a work shirt to her white skivvies. As Chaplin's voice urges us to forge a kinder, more just society (a resonant message if there ever was one) Peil is the stand-in for everyone who’s being battered by incivility and hatred, by oppression and discrimination.
From left, Karl Watson, Adrian Hoffman, Jim Kent, Mia Monteabaro and Cameron Birts in Silent Scream
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts
I was struck in particular by her duet with Cameron Birts, who portrays the femme fatale, clad in a vintage polka dot dress. Peil is a tall cool blonde; Birts is compact and dark skinned, with incredibly long arms. As partners, Peil performs the traditional “male” role: lifting Birts up, taking the lead as they twirl together.

Artistic Director Wevers has taken great care over Whim W'Him's eight years to recruit technically excellent dancers. It's a small company; there are no official stars, but during her tenure he's called on Peil to portray everything from humor to emotional disintegration, to twist her long body into knots and to soar across the stage.

I’ll miss Peil; along with Jim Kent, she's helped to build the company, to present the array of choreography Whim W'Him has brought to dancer lovers in the region. Artistic departures are never easy, but I'm encouraged when I watch WW newcomers Adrian Hoffman and Cameron Birts. Along with Kent, Aung, Karl Watson and the ever-steady Mia Monteabaro they're the foundation of a  company that offers something unique to local dance lovers.

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Quiet, Enduring Artistry

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Karel Cruz
photo @Angela Sterling

When the lights come up on Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata, five dancers in brightly colored costumes take their positions at center stage.

Then they wait.

In a rush, dancer number six flies out from the wings to join them; pianist Allan Dameron dives into the Beethoven sonata that lends the ballet its name and the action begins.

On opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Love and Ballet, the final program of this artistic season, dancer six was Karel Cruz, in one of his final performances with PNB. As I watched him arrive onstage, I had to laugh. This is NOT a guy who's late. He's reliable, dependable and beloved by the entire company. Then, I released a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. This was going to be one of the last times I would savor Karel Cruz onstage.

Choreographer Millepied created Appassionata for three couples who spend two thirds of the ballet in fast-paced, lyrical flirtations. They literally bound with energy as they consort with their color-coded partners. Then it's time to trade in the original partner for somebody more interesting. (Principals Noelani Pantastico and Jerome Tisserand wind up with one another, and what luck for the audience. I haven’t seen these two as partners before, but their chemistry is masterful and magical.)
PNB Principal Dancers Elizabeth Murphy and Karel Cruz in Appassionata
photo @Angela Sterling

In the middle of this ballet, the tempo slows, and we are treated to a quiet and tender pas de deux for a couple in white: Cruz, and principal Elizabeth Murphy. As I watched them together, I was struck once again by Cruz’s confident presence. Murphy—and every other ballerina that has ever danced with Cruz during his 18 year tenure with PNB—always trusts that he will be there for her, lifting her high, catching her in a thrilling fish dive, even kissing her, in this case. Cruz elevates every partnership, it’s as simple as that.
Love the fish dive! Karel Cruz with Lesley Rausch in a photo by Angela Sterling
Each of PNB’s male principals has unique and wonderful qualities onstage; Tisserand can leap to great heights, then descend to the stage with the grace of a feather wafting on a gentle breeze. Jonathan Porretta (out with an injury, alas) is a firecracker, born to entertain, with more than his fair share of charisma. Lucien Postelwaite is a gifted dancer and dramatist, Seth Orza a symbol of strength; I could go on and on.

By contrast, Cruz’s artistry is quieter, more subtle, despite his 6’4” frame and a wingspan that seems to rival a Boeing 707. He shines in the classical roles, which he learned as a boy in his native Cuba. But I’ve heard tell that when he danced Christopher Wheeldon’s velvety, sensuous  After the Rain pas de deux with Lesley Rausch this past weekend, the audience went wild. (You have a chance to see them in it Saturday 6/9 at 7:30. Go, go go.)
Rausch and Cruz in Wheeldon's sublime After the Rain pas de deux
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB

As I looked through photos, I was reminded of how wonderful it was to watch Cruz and former principal dancer Carla Korbes together. Both of them have an innate musicality and a silken quality to their movements. Together, they were often sublime.
Cruz with Carla Korbes in Swan Lake. See what I mean about sublime? Look at their faces!
photo @Angela Sterling

While Cruz makes every partner shine, it’s pure joy to watch him dance with his wife, Lindsi Dec. I saw them perform the leads in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote a couple of years ago, a real treat. The love they showed for the dance and for each other radiated from them.
Cruz and Dec in Don Quixote. Fun, eh?
photo @Lindsay Thomas
A little more eye candy for you, Dec and Cruz in Crystal Pite's Emergence
photo @Angela Sterling
Karel Cruz is close to 40 now—150 in dancer years. I know his body says it’s time to retire, but I’m greedy, and selfish. Just one more dance. Oh, wait, I lied, I want another!

PNB’s Love and Ballet continues Thursday-Sunday matinee at McCaw Hall. The program also includes Wheeldon’s Tide Harmonic and Justin Peck’s effervescent Year of the Rabbit. Karel Cruz will dance his final Seattle performance Sunday evening, in PNB’s Encore program, a collection of highlights from the season, and from Cruz’s career. That should leave all of his fans weeping in our seats.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Even More Zoe Diaries: the power of ritual

Zoe/Juniper's "always now," installation for Part A
photo by Zoe Scofield

When we last met I was talking about Zoe/Juniper’s work-in-process “always now.” I just returned from a trip to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, in western Massachusetts, where the company had a two-week residency funded by the Princess Grace Foundation.

“always now” is a two-part creation, performed simultaneously in different sections of a theater. About two dozen audience members are split into two groups; one half views Part A, the second Part B, switching sections midway through the live event.
Balloons in Part B
photo courtesy Zoe Scofield

Visual designer Juniper Shuey and choreographer Zoe Scofield have dreamed up two very different environments. Part B involves audience members fully: we lie on faux sheepskin mats, face up, gazing at six dozen inflated dark balloons suspended in bunches from the ceiling. Some of these balloons are stippled with copper leaf. Five excellent dancers move among, above and through the supine audience members. You can read more here.

Part A provides a completely different experience for the audience. As we enter the space, a solo performance is already underway. Dancer Navarra Novy-Williams, in royal blue leggings and a dark shirt, moves slowly--very slowly-- across a butcher-papered floor, into an illuminated square space.
Navarra Novy-Williams literally chews the scenery in "always now" Part A
photo by Zoe Scofield

This square is delineated by curtains of fringe moored to thin wooden beams that hang from the ceiling. We can see Novy-Williams through the fringe, but also through staggered gaps in the curtains. Large silver bowls are placed at intervals on the floor. Novy-Williams approaches them from time to time, lowering her face to one large bowl to sip water, dipping her hands in another that’s filled with silver paint. She wipes it across the nape of her neck, like a collar.

Scofield wants the audience to move about the square. We’re invited to sit on the butcher paper, but sit at your own peril. Novy-Williams may come near to grab up a strip of paper between her teeth, like a dog grabs a bone. She crawls along, ripping the paper into a curving strip as she moves. Over more than an hour, Novy-Williams eventually removes the entire paper carpet, revealing another square beneath it, shiny silver, like the paint on her body.

A soundscape envelops this solo, rhythmic pulses interrupted by occasional children’s laughter, the reverberation of a gong, or simply silence.
Navarra Novy-Williams in "always now" Part A
photo courtesy Zoe Scofield

Scofield conceived of Part A as a durational performance, a counterpoint to the far more active Part B. Although we’re free to move about during Part A, we have to adjust our pacing to Novy-Williams, rather than the other way around. She may glance our way, but she doesn’t make eye contact per se. Instead, she’s enacting a very private ritual. Unlike Part B, where we are entwined in the performance, with Part A we are strictly spectators.

I’m still mulling over the relationship of the two sections of “always now.” They don’t share a movement vocabulary, and while the audience may move about in Part A, our perspective is still fairly traditional: audience watching performers. Part A is beautiful, but distant, and I left the Doris Duke Theater puzzling over what I'd seen.
Zoe Scofield takes a turn in "always now" Part A. Wish I could have seen her perform this.

Lucky for me, Jacob’s Pillow has a wonderful archives, overseen by a man named Norton Owen, Director of Preservation there. It’s thanks to him that I got to be in residence for three days, and thanks to him that I could watch Novy-Williams, then rush over to the archives. Owen found a book for me about the origins of dance as ritual. I settled into an armchair.
This red barn houses the Jacob's Pillow archives. It's awesome!

Ritual provides “access to the ineffable,” I read, “opening our psyches to that which we sense but cannot name.”

That struck me as exactly what Scofield has created in “always now,” particularly with Part A. I write and talk for a living, so I'm driven to translate, to explain, to discover inherent meaning in an artwork. Sometimes I see narrative where others don’t; sometimes a dance will have a more literal and evident story.

With “always now,” Scofield builds on her recent works like “A Crack in Everything,” and more recently “Clear and Sweet,” where she and Shuey use movement, imagery and video (along with music) to explore ideas. Unlike those works, “always now” is less issue driven and much more about creation of a sensate experience, both for the dancers and those of us who witness it as audience members.

Part B, for me, was elemental, as in earth, air, water (but not fire—yet). It’s primal in the way early humans used dance, or song, or story, to place themselves in their world.

I took my place in Scofield’s world, and now I find it very hard to leave.