Monday, February 4, 2019

Jonathan Porretta, I never want to say goodbye!

Jonathan Porretta, center stage as Carabosse in PNB's "The Sleeping Beauty"
photo @ Angela Sterling

A few years ago, Jonathan Porretta's misfortune was my good luck.

The Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer had a severe injury; he'd finally opted for surgery that put him out of commission for months. While Porretta was sidelined, a good friend decided the time was ripe to approach him about being the subject of a book she tapped me to write. He agreed to a series of interviews.

Long story short, I spent a lot of time with him, talking about his early childhood, his amazing mother Jane, how he was bullied, and how ballet saved his life. Our conversations resulted in a book called “Out There: Jonathan Porretta’s Life in Dance,” designed by Rosie Gaynor for Seattle Scriptorum, with Angela Sterling's beautiful, beautiful photographs.

I’m telling you this because at the time, I asked Porretta what kind of plans he was hatching for his life OUT of dance. He couldn’t answer because, I think, he didn’t want to consider the future.
Jonathan Porretta, right, is Puck in George Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
photo @ Angela Sterling

For 20 years, Jonathan Porretta has been a fixture at PNB, dancing roles from Puck in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to a sailor in Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free,” to Mercutio in Jean Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette” to the masterful soloist in Molissa Fenley’s “State of Darkness.”
Porretta in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness" for PNB
photo @ Angela Sterling

Unfortunately, ever since his surgery, Porretta has struggled with a parade of other injuries, most recently to his Achilles tendon. Earlier this year he announced he would retire from the stage in June.

We get a chance to see him this week in PNB’s final production of Ronald Hynd’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” He’s cast as the evil fairy Carabosse, the one who doesn’t get invited to Princess Aurora’s christening and is so angry he casts an evil spell on the baby. You know the rest of the story, right?

On opening night, I barely restrained my applause when Porretta took the stage, face shrouded in a ragged cloak. Once Carabosse throws off the hood to reveal her face, Porretta stole the show, whirling like a dervish with a snake in hand, fingers wriggling like a pot of eels, cursing everyone he saw. My very favorite moment comes at Aurora's 16th birthday party, when Carabosse is seated downstage center, the hood covering her identity. She lifts her head and peeks out at us as if to say 'hey y'all, it's ME!' 
PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch as Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty"
photo @ Angela Sterling

There’s no denying that Lesley Rausch was a beautiful, and technically stunning, Princess Aurora; her Florimund, Jerome Tisserand, was as princely as ever. Lindsi Dec was a lovely Lilac Fairy, and her retinue of fairy friends were all gorgeous, but special props to Angelica Generosa as the Fairy of Joy, Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan as the Fairy of Temperament, and newly promoted soloist Elle Macy (congratulations) as the Fairy of Generosity. Big kudos as well to Dylan Wald on his promotion. 

But frankly, I had come to watch Jonathan Porretta chew the scenery, to revel in his joy onstage. PNB has six more Sleeping Beauties this week at McCaw Hall; Porretta will dance in four of them, Thursday through Sunday evenings. Get a ticket to one of those shows; it may be your last chance to see him in his element, seemingly larger than life, a true performer.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Searching for grace in a world gone crazy

Whim W'Him company members in Zoe Scofield's "This Mountain"
photo by Stefano Altamura

I’m sitting in a pew in Seattle’s All Pilgrim’s Church, waiting to celebrate the life of a dear friend’s mother. Two musicians, on piano and cello, play Faure’s “Apres un Reve,” After a Dream, in English.

I feel a bit dreamy as I sit here, because I’m still thinking about a performance I experienced the evening before, Whim W’Him’s “3 X 3,” featuring three strong new works by three choreographers, including WW Artistic Director Olivier Wevers.

For the past several years I’ve been fixated on the connections between what happens for the audience at a live performance and the experience at spiritual gathering such as this. I think both provide insight into our collective humanity; at their best, they offer a glimpse of the divine, however you define that term. Performance happens to be my church, or synagogue.

The connections were hammered home for me at ‘3 X 3,’ particularly by Seattle-based choreographer Zoe Scofield’s new dance “This Mountain (announcing your place in the family of things)."

I spent the past year traipsing after Scofield, following her from her Kawasaki residency at the University of Washington Dance Department to her Princess Grace fellowship residency at Jacob’s Pillow. She and I have talked about grace, about the ephemeral divine, and about the role of live performance. I was particularly eager to see her first creation for Whim W’Him.

“This Mountain” did not disappoint.

The dance was sandwiched between Yin Yue’s provocative, spidery reflection on human connection, “The Most Elusive Hold,” and Wevers’ “Trail of Soles,” a cry for compassion for the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who’ve been forced to leave their home countries for some safer place. Both dances showcase Whim W’Him’s fine performers. I’m always impressed by Liane Aung; Cameron Birts shone in a solo in "Trail of Soles."
Cameron Birts in Olivier Wevers' "Trail of Soles"
photo by Stefano Altamura

“This Mountain” is much quieter than either of those two works, and in its quietness, it made a loud statement for me.

The dance began with the dancers clustered at the rear of the stage, framed by two large, black cloth screens. Slowly they begin to move toward the audience, their only accompaniment the rhythmic stamping of their feet, like the pulse of their collective hearts. Each dancer separates from the group, reaching out for something we can’t see; they are reeled back gently to the group’s embrace.

Scofield then creates a series of linear patterns; four dancers face the audience as three others emerge diagonally from the wings, into a large, almost blindingly white rectangle of light. These two groups repeat set series of movements, until dancers break away, one by one, seemingly pursuing the beat of their individual hearts.
Liane Aung and fellow Whim W'Him company members in "This Mountain"
photo by Stefano Altamura
I found myself riveted by the movements. In their simple repetitions, they carried me beyond my seat in the Cornish Playhouse.

Back at All Pilgrim’s Church, the pastor takes the microphone to reflect on the concept of hospitality. He defines this as the offering of what he calls ‘relational grace,’ generosity that provides the space to find your true self.

I don’t know if Scofield had this concept in mind as she was working on “This Mountain.” But as the pastor spoke, his words resonated with my experience of her dance. In the program notes, Scofield asks ‘how do people come together? How do we choose to find ourselves and each other in the every day?’ I think part of the answer to that question is for humans to create generous communities that provide both a structured shelter from the world’s cruelties, and the space to embrace our true selves.

In a larger sense, that’s what Whim W’Him Artistic Director Olivier Wevers seeks to provide his audiences. In his curtain speech before the performance, Wevers asked us not only to silence our cell phones, but to turn them off. With a smile, he acknowledged that it might be difficult to disconnect from the siren call of the virtual world. But he, and Scofield, recognize the even greater power of humans sitting together in the same place, sharing the same experience.