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.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

always now...the Zoe Diaries continue

Navarra Novy-Williams in the midst of part A of "always now" at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
photo from a video by choreographer Zoe Scofield
Each of us sees the world from a unique vantage point. And when our perspectives change, so do our perceptions of what we see around us. I'm sure there are reams of psychological treatises on this topic, but at this moment I'm contemplating the subject through the lens of my experience last weekend at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

I traveled to western Massachusetts to follow Seattle thinker and choreographer Zoe Scofield. She got a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation for a two week technical residency at the Pillow, to work with another choreographer, Bebe Miller, on a project called "always now."

As soon as I arrived I was escorted into the Doris Duke theater, a literal barn of a space. Zoe and her artistic partner Juniper Shuey transformed what had been a more traditional performance venue into two distinct sections, divided by a heavy black curtain.
Navarra Novy-Williams in "always now" part A
photo by Zoe Scofield

Once space--think of it as section A--was a shrine of sorts.  Eight "curtains' of white fringe hung from the ceiling, not quite touching the floor. Along with the lighting design by Thomas Dunn, this fringe formed boxes around several silver bowls, and a single dancer, Navarra Novy-Williams. I'll write a separate post about the durational ritual solo she performs over the course of more than 60 minutes.

For now, I'm going to focus on section B. Scofield had in her mind to play with the nature of perspective; how do we look at each other in news ways? How do we interact with one another when we're not standing toe to toe, or in a traditional audience/performer scenario? According to program notes, she wanted to explore how her dancers could integrate with the audience. For me, it was about how I, an audience member, was enfolded into the performance in ways I had never experienced.
Zoe/Juniper dancers in "always now" Part B
photo from a video by Zoe Scofield

"always now" is performed for a very small audience. Approximately a dozen people at a time can be in either room. In Part A, we enter to a solo in progress. We are in command of our shifting perspectives, walking around the dancer, choosing where and how to watch her.

In Part B, we enter the space and sit in chairs along the side, waiting for individual dancers to greet us and usher us to fleecy mats on the floor, where we lie supine for the duration of the performance, approximately 30 minutes. Once we're lying on our backs, we gaze up at six dozen large inflated balloons suspended in bunches overhead. These balloons are dark, and many are stippled with flecks of copper flakes. They are a bit sinister, but also pillow-y; once the lights come up on them I feel I have entered another world.

I have.

Five excellent dancers--Shane Donohue, Kim Lusk, Troy Ogilvie, Kevin Quinaou and Gilbert Small--perform in this room, but unless you eyes like a flounder, on the side of your head, there's no way to see everything they're doing. However, you do experience it through your other senses: you hear their feet as they shuffle or stomp around the supine bodies, and you feel the vibrations travel up your spine. You feel the whisper of air on your face as Ogilvie leaps over you. You shiver with a bit of apprehension as Small and Quinaou tangle above your head. When Small hoists Quinaou over his shoulder, Quinaou's hand dangles just a few inches from your nose. You smell his skin, the sweat that sheens it.
Audience and dancers merge in "always now" part B, at the Doris Duke Theater at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
photo from a video by choreographer Zoe Scofield

Every audience member has a different experience, depending on where we lie. But our perspective isn't only about our physical positions on the floor. It's also about our deeply held beliefs and the ideas we bring into the space with us, whether we're watching "always now" or a nightly newscast.

I have spent a couple of years thinking deeply about why art really matters in contemporary society. That comes out of my need to justify arts coverage to news editors. But it's more than job security; I  believe artists serve a vital purpose in our crazy world: they offer us insight into ourselves and our shared humanity; they give us new visions that can open us up to change of all types.

I have no idea if Scofield had these lofty goals in mind when she first conceived this performance. All I know is how it affected me. To use the word 'profound' would be an understatement.

I was lucky enough to experience "always now" several times over my stay at Jacob's Pillow. With each immersion into the piece, my mind traveled in different directions. First, I was conscious of the immediate sensations. Lying on a stage, in the middle of a dance, is nothing like watching a piece from a sitting or standing position several yards removed. I felt everything deeply. I left the Doris Duke theater shaking, with no words to describe what had overcome me.

After subsequent experiences, I began to think about something a fellow arts writer once told me. He approaches every performance with an open mind and an open heart, ready and willing to go where it takes him. Maybe even to shift ingrained opinions and perspectives. It's something I keep in mind, but don't always practice. I am an aspiring wordsmith; I have a need to use words to document and describe the world around me in the same way a choreographer like Zoe Scofield uses gestures, environments and her dancers to articulate what bubbles in her fertile mind.

Zoe/Juniper's residence at Jacob's Pillow was part of a new series there that cultivates work-in-process. I have no idea if, or when, the wider world will get a chance to experience "always now." I can only hope "always now" really will be here always.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Terrible and Disturbing Beauty

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico in "RAkU"
photo by Angela Sterling

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about “RAkU,” Yuri Possokhov’s 2011 work that had its Pacific Northwest Ballet premier on Friday, April 13th.

“RAkU” is loosely based on the true story of the 1950 burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion, but it really focuses on one woman, danced opening night by the always amazing Noelani Pantastico.

“RAkU” combines video projections designed by Alexander V. Nichols with Shinji Eshima’s powerful score to high, stylized, dramatic effect. A live, off-stage chorus performs Gary Wang’s libretto, creating an eerie aural web that seems to tighten around the onstage action.

The choreography is demanding; a meld of classical ballet inspired, according to program notes, by Japanese Butoh. The four warriors---Miles Pertl, Dylan Wald, Dammiel Cruz and Guillaume Basso, seem to move as one being. Seth Orza’s Samurai is strong and stoic; Kyle Davis’ monk is menacing and creepy. But this ballet is built around the woman, and as always, Pantastico invests her entire being in her character.
 
PNB Principal Dancer Seth Orza, foreground. Guillaume Basso, rear
photo by Angela Sterling
Possokhov has created a tragedy beyond a temple's destruction. This story chronicles a woman's demise. After her Samurai lover heads to battle, the woman is preyed on and ultimately assaulted by a temple monk. When the four warriors return the Samurai’s remains to her, she succumbs to a grief as fiery as the blaze the monk ignites.

Pantastico is beautiful and demure when we first meet her; after removing her kimono, she transforms into a passionate woman in love with her Samurai. As the ballet unfolds, Pantastico journeys through wariness, terror, despair and grief; as one of PNB’s best dramatic dancers, she delivers each authentic emotion with lyric, fluid movement.
 
Pantastico and Orza in "RAkU"
photo by Angela Sterling
“RAkU’s” story is disturbing, but watching it in 2018, it is also unsettling. In the moment of the performance, I was transported by the ballet’s theatricality. Afterwards, questions arose. Was this story Possokhov’s to tell?

An artist I know, a woman of Japanese descent, was part of the chorus, so I asked her about“RAkU;” was Possokhov's ballet another example of cultural appropriation. Her response was a delicate, and diplomatic, yes.

When, if ever, can artists take stories from other cultures and create new work? Can non-indigenous artists use native idioms? Can, or should, male authors create authentic female protagonists? Can Caucasian choreographers create work based on non-Western themes?

Is Possokhov's "RAkU"somehow less beautiful, less worthy of performance because he told the story? 

I found “RAkU” mesmerizing and completely different from other ballets I’ve seen at PNB. The closest comparison is to Jean Christopher Maillot’s intensely cinematic “Romeo et Julliette.” 

"RAkU" was sandwiched between two amazing works that I could watch a hundred times: Alejandro Cerrudo’s evocative “Little mortal jump,” featuring most of the stellar cast that premiered it at PNB two years ago.
PNB Principal Dancer Elizabeth Murphy with corps de ballet member Dylan Wald in "Little mortal jump"
photo by Angela Sterling


From Price Suddarth’s whimsical entrance, through Dylan Wald and Elizabeth Murphy’s poignant and beautiful pas de deux, “Little mortal jump” is dance full of promise and hope.

Crystal Pite’s epic “Emergence” caps the program, and if you haven’t yet seen this ballet, do yourself a favor and get tickets for one of this weekend’s four performances. It’s a ballet about group think, and in this case, the group includes dozens of dancers. But it’s also a ballet that features smaller moments: Rachel Foster “hatching;” Price Suddarth unfolding his wings and charging the phalanx of black-clad women; Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz moving together as if their two bodies are one. I could go on and on.
 
PNB company members in Crystal Pite's "Emergence"
photo by Angela Sterling
PNB will take both “Emergence” and “Little mortal jump” to Paris in early July. Artistic Director Peter Boal considers them signature company works, and in this iteration, they look fabulous.

So does “RAkU.” But I wonder whether it will become a signature work, or a beautiful ballet whose time in the PNB repertoire is as fleeting and ephemeral as an onstage video projection.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Space, Time, Communion...and Art

Cast members in Alice Gosti's "Material Deviance in Contemporary American Culture" at On the Boards
photo by Tim Summers
This past weekend I had the good fortune to experience two vastly different artworks that drove home similar, albeit subliminal, messages for me. Alice Gosti's "Material Deviance in Contemporary American Culture," at On the Boards, and John Luther Adams' "Become Desert," at the Seattle Symphony, each reminded me of the elemental necessity of slowing down, of existing in each moment as it arrives, of setting aside the inane and often frustrating drone of daily life that seems to stifle my spirit these days.

Gosti and her collaborators, including composer Hanna Benn and dancers Alyza DelPan-Monley, Sruti Arun Desai, Imana Gunawan, Tess Keesling, Lorraine Lau and Kaitlin MCcarthy, unveiled "Material Deviance" after months of development and refinement.

Unlike many hipper art lovers in Seattle, I came relatively late to Gosti's immersive dance/installation/performance pieces. I went to see her 2015 durational work "How to be a Partisan," at St. Mark's Cathedral intending to stay for an hour. I was transfixed, and wound up staying for almost three. In this, and subsequent durational works, Gosti wove together seemingly disparate vignettes into a performance that left me no choice but to slow down and settle into her world.

With "Material Deviance," Gosti had to distill her usual artistic trajectory into just over an hour, no easy feat. Like the set for this show--an installation of rolling shelves jam-packed with the detritus of our consumer culture--Gosti has a lot she wants to say. The program includes pages of text, reflections on the power that our objects hold over us. The performance itself was not nearly so cluttered (aside from the set).
"Material Deviance in Contemporary American Culture"
photo by Devin Munoz

"Material Deviance" begins with one dancer, Gunawan, standing still in front of the shelves, Benn's slow drone framing her. One by one, the other cast members emerge from darkness and strike their own poses, their stillness a contradiction to the noise of all that stuff.

Like Gosti's earlier durational pieces, "Material Deviance" is episodic. The dancers move the shelving to signal new scenes; they unfold tables and chairs, snip newspapers into shreds, pull tote bags and backpacks off the shelves.

What lingers in my memory are evocative moments that seemingly had not so much to do with stuff: five women lying prone on the stage, passing Gunawan between them, balanced her on the soles of their feat and the palms of their hands; a transcendent Lau dressed in a tangerine dress that floats behind her as she moves in a slow arc, gazing up into the lights.

"Material Deviance in Contemporary American Culture" left me thinking not about our obsession with objects so much as it reminded me of our fundamental human nature. To appreciate Gosti's work, we must slow down, match our heartbeats to her rhythms.

Material Deviance in Contemporary American Culture
photo by Tim Summers

Across town, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of composer John Luther Adams' "Become Desert," companion to his Pulitzer Prize-winning work "Become Ocean." Both were commissioned by SSO.

Like "Material Deviance," "Become Desert" is an immersive experience, with some of the orchestra members arrayed above the main floor, and a choir above us in the highest balcony. Onstage, Ludovic Morlot leads the musicians in a slow sonic recreation of the Sonoran Desert, beginning with daybreak--crisp violins and clear bells.

The sound builds around us as the winds, then brass, then choir add their separate sections to the whole. Suddenly, the audience is in full daylight under cerulean blue skies. Clouds arrive, a stormy percussive duet that ultimately delivers us back into stillness, the day ending as it began. Morlot, baton in the air, holds the audience in silence for many seconds, then slowly lowers his arms. We exhale as one.

The New York Times' music critic described "Become Desert" as meditative. I'd use the words like commanding or captivating. Like Gosti, Adams requires the audience to slow down and accept each section of his music as it arrives, to let the sounds seep into our psyches. He says each note is carefully planned, but the immediate experience of "Become Desert," like my experience of "Material Deviance," was visceral, not intellectual.

In a pre-show interview, Adams said his work begins in solitude and is completed in community. He was, I believe, referring to working with Morlot and the orchestra; he could easily have been talking about the audience experiencing together in Benaroya Hall.

Adams eagerly seizes opportunities to record his music, but I think the power of  live performance cannot be overstated. Sitting in the proverbial room where it happens, we come into synch with the art, the artists, our fellow audience members, and for me at least, with something bigger than myself.

Monday, March 19, 2018

OMG, I love this ballet

PNB company members in William Forsythe's "One Flat Thing, reproduced" 2018
photo @ Stacy Ebestyne

The first time I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet perform William Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, reproduced,” in 2008, my head exploded in the most wonderful way. I’d loved Forsythe’s “In the middle, somewhat elevated,” already part of the PNB repertoire, but “One Flat Thing,” with Thom Willems’ arresting electronic score and its flotilla of white-topped tables that served as both set, obstacles, and dance partners? This was a ballet that spoke to my soul.

It still does.

Ten years later, PNB presents the dance again, as the capstone to the annual “Director’s Choice” program. And “One Flat Thing” is better than I remembered it.
PNB company members in Forsythe's "One Flat Thing" 2018
photo @ Angela Sterling

If you haven’t had an opportunity to see it, this is a work for 14 dancers and, 20 metal tables.  As the lights come up, the dancers emerge from darkness at the back of the stage, each dragging out a table, which they align precisely, like cars in neat parking spaces. Then, to Willems’ sometimes jarring score, we watch the interplay between the humans onstage, as well as the interplay between humans and their environment; in this case---the tables.

On opening night, March 16th, Christian Poppe began the action with an emphatic hop straight up from the floor to a set on a table top; Noelani Pantastico seized the stage, striding toward us between two rows of tables, her hands grazing their surfaces, her ponytail sailing in her wake. Ryan Cardea teasingly echoed the movements of his fellow cast members; Kyle Davis stepped in to help a dancer reposition her legs, while Lucien Postelwaite lay under a table, his movements shadowing the action above him.
 
PNB company members in Forsythe's "One Flat Thing, reproduced" 2018
photo @ Angela Sterling
“One Flat Thing, reproduced” was inspired by Robert Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, according to the program, and if you’re inclined toward literalism, you can see icebergs in those white table tops. Ten years ago, this ballet made me thing about chaos and order; this time around I saw it as a thrilling wild ride that showcases each dancer’s technical abilities and full-on commitment to this multi-faceted, and continually fascinating, work.

As I mentioned, “One Flat Thing” capped an excellent evening of contemporary work that opened with the premiere of PNB soloist Ezra Thomson’s ambitious and sophisticated “The Perpetual State.” I’ll write more about it after a second viewing.

Karel Cruz and Laura Tisserand were sinuous and elegant in Forsythe’s “Slingerland Duet.” PNB audiences originally saw this in 2015 as part of another work called “New Suite.” Forsythe removed this long duet, and now it stands on its own in the PNB rep, like a polished jewel.
 
PNB Principal Dancers Laura Tisserand and Karel Cruz in Forsythe's "Slingerland Duet" 2018
photo @ Angela Sterling
“Slingerland” was paired mid-evening with Ulysses Dove’s 1994 quartet “Red Angels,” performed to Mary Rowell’s percussive, plaintive electric violin. I have loved “Red Angels” since the first time I saw it at PNB in 2005. The opening night cast--Lindsi Dec, Lucien Postelwaite, Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand--were uniformly excellent, but I have to single out Postelwaite, who took my breath away. He has a seemingly magical ability to hang in mid-air for an extra beat, when you’d think gravity would pull him to the stage. It’s a haunting contrast to Rowell’s throbbing and somewhat ragged violin.
 
PNB Principal Dancers Lucien Postelwaite and Lesley Rausch in Ulysses Dove's "Red Angels"
photo @ Angela Sterling
Actually, it feels a little unfair to single out dancers, because the company as a whole looks so good right now. Artistic Director Peter Boal regularly pulls out members of his corps de ballet, to feature them in roles that typically go to soloists or principal dancers. At this performance, he took the opportunity to promote two of those corps members: Price Suddarth and Steven Loch. Both promotions are well-deserved, but Boal could just as easily promote at least half a dozen others:  Emma Love Suddarth (Price’s wife); Sarah Pasch; Elle Macy; Miles Pertl; Dylan Wald to name just a few of the excellent company members who deliver great performances night after night.


New PNB Soloist Price Suddarth rocking it in the studio
photo @ Angela Sterling

If you’ve been meaning to check out PNB, now is the time. The company is preparing for its first-ever tour to Paris, plus the work on offer is exciting. “Director’s Choice” runs Thursday through Sunday at McCaw Hall. Go! You won't be disappointed. 

FYI, you can also catch the return of Crystal Pite’s “Betroffenheit” this coming weekend, a co-presentation of Seattle Theater Group and On The Boards. And that will prep you for a return to PNB in April, for Pite’s monumental “Emergence.”

What a spring!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Kim Lusk's Shiny Dark Horses

Cast of "A Dance for Dark Horses" by Kim Lusk, at Velocity Dance Center March 9-11, 2018
photo by Jazzy Photo

Thank you Kim Lusk!

I really needed your first full length work, “A Dance for Dark Horses,” part of Velocity Dance Center’s “Made in Seattle” program.

Let’s face it, the world around us has been particularly chaotic for the past year, and it’s all too easy to get mired in the venomous mudslinging that’s been sparked by the titular head of the free world. It’s enough to make my head explode. Lusk’s “Dark Horses” was a refreshing and witty breather, a chance to revel in art well made and well performed.

Lusk and her three main dancers—Alexander Pham, Shane Donohue and Erin McCarthy—took the floor one by one in silence, their eyes focused out toward the audience. Lusk appeared last, and took a place directly in front of McCarthy, who then skootched to the side so we could see her. This was the first signal that we were in for something figuratively and literally off kilter.
 
Alexander Pham, Kim Lusk and Erin McCarthy in "A Dance for Dark Horses"
photo by Jazzy Photo
The dancers skittered across the floor on their toes to Ryan Hume’s club-inspired soundtrack, arms and shoulders pumping to the steady beat. Then, all at once, in unison, they seem to tip to the side, pushed by unseen hands which catapult them into another section of the dance.

Pham performs Gagnam-style arabesques and pirouettes, twirling an invisible lasso overhead in homage to Psy and his K-pop crew. Lusk strikes John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever pose, arms outstretched, fingers pointed. Donohue’s duet with a battered tambourine is both poignant and hilarious. The tiny percussion instrument seems to have a life of its own; Donohue tries to end the duet but the tambourine keeps jingling until Donohue assaults it with his foot.

McCarthy whirls out a ferocious solo, then collapses to the floor, sweaty and panting. Lusk watches her, a big smile illuminating her face. McCarthy catches her eye and smiles back.
 
Kim Lusk and Shane Donohue in "A Dance for Dark Horses"
photo by Jazzy Photo
These dark horses---tall and short, thin and round, are always aware of one another and of us sitting in the audience. They revel in their movements, particularly Lusk, a compact Gumby of a dancer. As her arms swing back and forth to the music, she twirls her pelvis to a different rhythm, a counterpoint if you will, all the while watching us with a knowing look and a half smile. We rewarded her audacity with laughter, cheers and delighted applause.

“A Dance for Dark Horses” isn’t fluff; it’s technically ambitious and rich with popular culture allusions. All the dancers, including a Fantasia-esque gaggle of women in hot pink, delivered their parts with precision and full-fledged brio. Their enthusiasm was contagious. I found myself wanting to join in, although I’m certain I couldn’t keep up the nonstop pace.

Lusk’s work reminded me of the pleasures of moving to the beat, of the delight and camaraderie. And it reminded me that in a time when so many people are devoted to resistance and struggle, sometimes we need to take an hour to delight in the joy of being alive.

Monday, February 5, 2018

I Just Can't Forget

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling
I’ve got an old Beatles’ song running through my head.

“I’ve just seen a face, I can’t forget the time or place….”

Swap “dancer” for “face” and you’ll have a sense of what I’ve been obsessing about for the past few days: Noelani Pantastico in the dual roles of Odette/Odile in the classic ballet “Swan Lake.”
 
Noelani Pantastico as Odette in "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling
Pantastico starred in Saturday evening's performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s latest iteration of Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake.” Even if you don’t know much about ballet, you probably know about this one. It’s the 19th century classic about a prince who falls in love with a woman, Odette. The problem? She’s actually under the spell of an evil sorcerer. Odette only takes human form at night; by day she’s a white swan. Only sworn true love can break this spell.

Unfortunately for Odette, that doesn't happen. Her prince is seduced into pledging his troth to her evil doppelganger, the black swan Odile. Nobody lives happily after in this ballet, but it sure is beautiful.

In most contemporary productions, the same ballerina performs the dual roles of Odette/Odile. It seems to me, a non-ballerina, this must be one of the most challenging roles a dancer faces. 
Technically, the ballerina has to leap and spin, and perform Odile’s notorious 32 fouette turns, whipping her body around and around. It requires not only a laser-like focus, but also incredible stamina.


Maybe more important than technique, the ballerina must bring emotional depth and dramatic ability to these two roles. She must convince us that she is a graceful enchanted swan woman Odette, as well as the beautifully confident (but let's face it, venal) Odile, daughter of the evil sorcerer Rothbart.
 
Seth Orza and Noelani Pantastico as the Prince and Odile
photo by Angela Sterling
The last time I saw “Swan Lake,” the incredible Carla Korbes danced Odette/Odile. Korbes was (and maybe still is?) one of the most graceful and emotional of dancers. Her Odette was birdlike and bereft; her Odile? Well, Korbes was excellent but she wasn't really convincingly nasty. Still, she was my gold standard.
Carla Korbes dances Odette in 2015 at PNB
photo by Angela Sterling

Watching Noelani Pantastico on Saturday evening, I saw a completely different interpretation: a fierce, taunting Odile who looks down her nose at everyone in the royal party as she whips around the room with the prince. When his mother (hooray, Margaret Mullin is back onstage!) extends her hand to her future daughter in law, Pantastico's Odile all but shoves it away. Pantastico was equally convincing as a tormented, beautiful Odette in love with Seth Orza's prince. She made me want to weep for the tragedy of her doomed love (and this ballet has never made me weep.)

Pantastico has years of experience at both PNB and with Jean Christophe Maillot's company, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, where she honed her dramatic talents. Of course she leapt and spun, but she imbued both swans with something extra. When Pantastico is overtaken by dark magic and begins to transform from woman to swan, it seems to come as a shock to her body. Her long arms begin to flap, pulled at the shoulders, as if Rothbart is yanking invisible strings. Pantastico’s huge dark eyes mourn, her expression is one of agony as she is wrenched from Orza’s arms toward Rothbart, who looms in a misty corner.
 
Seth Orza and Noelani Pantastico, photo by Angela Sterling
so in love, but not for long!
As I said earlier, I’ve just seen a dancer, a performance, I can’t forget.

Four other PNB principals will tackle this demanding role during the run of the production. 

Lesley Rausch and Laura Tisserand danced Odette/Odile opening weekend; Elizabeth Murphy and Sarah Orza will make their debuts this week. Each woman will bring her own interpretation, her own experience and technical skills to her performance. Each will be unique. I wish I had the time to see them all. Rausch and Sarah Orza are both dancing at the top of their games right now; Tisserand is just back from maternity leave, and Murphy will dance this role for the first time with Prince Lucien Postelwaite. 

You've got six different performances to choose from. Noelani Pantastico and Seth Orza close out the run on Sunday evening at McCaw Hall.  Find ticket and casting info here