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.