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.