Monday, September 30, 2019

When You're Obsessed With a Ballet...

Francia Russell, seated, in a 1957 "Agon" rehearsal with George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky at New York City Ballet
photo courtesy Russell and PNB

I could watch George Balanchine’s 1957 masterpiece “Agon” 100 times and still find something new and magical with each viewing. Lucky for me, “Agon” was half the season-opening bill at Pacific Northwest Ballet this past weekend.

I first saw “Agon” in 1993, when PNB gave its Seattle premiere. A quarter century later, Balanchine’s choreography looks both of its era and eternally fresh.

“Agon” is Balanchine’s disciplined and imaginative embodiment of Igor Stravinsky’s commissioned score--wild, challenging, influenced by Schoenberg’s 12-tone music. One of Balanchine’s acclaimed “black and whites,” “Agon” was paired by Kent Stowell’s 1993 voluptuous crowd-pleaser, “Carmina Burana.” The bill was both a study in contrasts, and a salute to Stowell and his wife and partner Francia Russell, PNB’s founding co-artistic directors.

Russell, an internationally-known stager of Balanchine’s ballets, performed in the original “Agon.” She brought the ballet, and many other Balanchine works, to PNB. I’ve had the great fortune to watch Russell at work in the PNB studios, to see both her reverence for the choreography and her meticulous attention to detail. Both were on full display in this new production.

PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch in the 2013 production of "Agon."
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

When I first saw “Agon” onstage, I didn’t know Russell’s history, or really anything about the ballet. But I was enthralled by the central pas de deux (I suspect Patricia Barker was one of the dancers). I remember the couple facing the audience, the woman’s backside up against the front of her partner. She bent at the waist, wrapped her leg around his back, her foot extended, then flung her arms back as if to challenge the audience: ‘ha, just wait until you see what else I have in store for you.’
Here's Rausch in 2013 with retired Principal Dancer Karel Cruz, photo @ Angela Sterling.
See what I mean?

On opening night this time around, I happened to be seated next to retired PNB principal dancer Olivier Wevers, who has performed that pas. He told me the two dancers are meant to egg each other on, the ballet version of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." On opening night, PNB principals Lesley Rausch and Seth Orza delivered. Rausch, who is always clean and precise, offered some mind-boggling moments. When Orza lifts her up at one point, she throws open her legs into a wide split, then holds the position as Orza slowly rotates, then finally lowers her carefully to the stage. At another point, Orza is supine while Rausch flits above him. He scoots his body beneath her, his pointed toes fluttering like a hummingbird.

PNB's Seth Orza lies supine beneath fellow Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch in the 2019 "Agon"
photo @ Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

I can’t recount every choreographic detail for you, but Balanchine has packed this 28 minute dance with dozens of these captivating moments. Principal Benjamin Griffiths, in a polished solo, whips off a series of leaps. Nothing unusual, except for the fact that only one leg is extended; the other remains vertical, slightly above the stage floor.

I particularly loved a pas de trois featuring beloved (at least to me) principal dancer Noelani Pantastico with two of the company’s rising stars: soloist Dylan Wald and corps de ballet member Christopher D’Ariano. This trio was fierce and unrelentingly daring. I gasped out loud when Wald lifted Pantastico off the floor, her body perpendicular, then tossed her, still vertical, over to D’Ariano, who caught her neatly then lowered her to the stage. Yikes!

PNB rising stars Dylan Wald, left, with Christopher D'Ariano in "Agon," 2019
photo @ Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

“Agon” contains dozens of these moments, and they (cor)respond wonderfully to the Stravinsky score. (Interesting side note—PNB recently streamed a rehearsal on Facebook, and one viewer commented that she liked the dance but thought PNB should swap out the music. That would be like a PB&J sandwich without the jelly!)

George Balanchine made so many, and such varied, ballets over the course of his career. I love many of them, but “Agon” is among my favorites. This coming weekend you have four more opportunities to watch PNB’s most excellent dancers perform this masterwork, lovingly passed on to them by the woman who learned it from Balanchine himself. All praise to Francia Russell!

Monday, September 16, 2019

Starting With a Bang!

Whim W'Him company members in Kyra Jean Green's "Smile Club"
photo @ Stefano Altamura @salt.photo

If Friday the 13th offered up any omens this year, they were all lucky for Seattle contemporary dance troupe Whim W’Him.

The company opened its 10th season with its fifth annual Choreographic Shindig program: three new works created by choreographers the dancers themselves get to choose. This year, as is now customary, the bill featured three completely different dances that showcased the cornucopia of talents these capable dancers possess.
Jim Kent and Liane Aung in "See-Saw" by Joshua Manculich
photo @ Stefano Altamura, salt.photo

Shindig V opened with Joshua Manculich’s “See-Saw,” a work the choreographer describes as a counterpoint between the immediacy of a child’s world and the wider, more nuanced world view of an adult. Manculich depicted this, in part, through the juxtaposition of melodic, balletic sections and interludes of jangly, goofy movement. Designer Michael Mazzola punched up those tensions through abrupt shifts in the lighting, echoed by changes in Michael Wall's score.
Cameron Birts in "See-Saw." I wish you could see him stretched out in all his gracefulness!
photo by Stefano Altamura, @ salt.photo

I was struck in particular by a tender pas de deux performed by long-time company member Jim Kent, dancing at the top of his form, and the ever-amazing Cameron Birts. When Birts unfurls his long arms, or extends his foot and gracefully points his toes, he seems to transcend his small stature, and he becomes the proverbial swan. Kent is confident in his movements, owning the space. (By the way, that space--Capitol Hill's Erickson Theater--is a dandy location for watching dance. Small, intimate, with seats raised above the dance floor. You get a great view of everything.)
Whim W'Him company members in Yoshito Sakuraba's "Laurentide"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo

All seven Whim W’Him dancers displayed similar elegance in the evening’s closing dance, “Laurentide,” created by Yoshito Sakuraba to a haunting score. This piece was inspired by the long-lost Laurentide Ice Sheet which once covered most of Canada, and this lyrical, highly physical work was a perfect showcase for the dancers’ versatility: stately, poignant, technically demanding.

I was impressed by both “Laurentide” and “See-Saw,” but for me the program highlight was sandwiched between these two new dances.
Jim Kent and Liane Aung, center, with Whim W'Him company members in Kyra Jean Green's "Smile Club"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo

Kyra Jean Green’s quirky “Smile Club” was quite a change from Whim W’Him’s usual offerings. Instead of drawing on the company’s core—movements evolved from the classical training artistic director Olivier Wevers and many of the company members bring to the table—“Smile Club” seems rooted in a dance vernacular you might see in contemporary hip-hop; the Robot, the worm, side-to-side articulation of the neck, subtle flicks of fingers, arms and feet. The choreography might have been challenging, but these dancers nailed it.

Most striking, though, was what Green demanded of the dancers’ faces. They stretched their mouths from grimaces into grins, opened eyes wide in shock, dragged their cheeks and chins down into sagging despair. These faces were mesmerizing.

With “Smile Club,” Green asks the audience to consider what drives human emotions, how much they are external to the self. In this work, as poignant as it is humorous, she stirs the embers in search of answers.
Jane Cracovaner is molded by Adrian Hoffman's mad scientist in "Smile Club"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo

All of the dancers were fabulous in Green’s piece, but Liane Aung, Jane Cracovaner and Adrian Hoffman were particular adept at rearranging facial features and synching their bodies to Pascal Champagne’s driving sound design.

Choreographic Shindig V demonstrated once again the versatility and technical prowess of the Whim W’Him dancers, their ability to not only perform diverse works but to invigorate them. I’ve said it before, but it bears frequent repetition: one of the biggest gifts Wevers has given Seattle dance fans is the opportunity to experience a range of choreographers from outside our region, even our country. He celebrates ten years of hard work forging this dance troupe by inviting some of those creators back to the Pacific Northwest. Look for in-demand Anabel Lopez Ochoa’s return, plus the Whim W’Him debut of acclaimed choreographer Sidra Bell.

Woo-Ho! It’s dance season in Seattle!


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Donald Byrd, Active Witness

Mikhail Calliste, front right, Michele Dooley and Nia-Amina Minor rear
photo @ Brian Smale, courtesy Spectrum Dance Theater

To witness, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is to attest to a fact or an event. A witness is somebody who is present and able to testify that an event truly happened.

In this sense, the audience for Donald Byrd’s latest piece, “Strange Fruit,” were all witnesses to a haunting work intended to portray the emotional truth and impact of lynching on American culture. The piece, which premiered April 25-28 at Seattle’s Washington Hall, was simultaneously a hideous evocation of the brutality wreaked on African Americans, and an ode to the human spirit.

The first thing audiences were confronted by was the set: a large tree trunk dominated the rear of the performance area; flat video monitors hung from its “branches,” comprised of a web of rounded metal poles suspended from the ceiling. The videos alternated between images of mob violence, fire, bright white static, and portraits of the three main soloists in this performance. Mikhail Calliste and Michele Dooley portray a man and woman who are pursued relentlessly by a vicious mob; Nia-Amina Minor appears as a character who is part healer, part spirit. She joins the audience as a witness to the brutality and ultimate deaths of the pursued couple.

Again and again, Calliste and Dooley struggle unsuccessfully to escape the mob; they are smashed down, raped and beaten. Each time they appear to be defeated, they summon the strength to rise up one more time. Minor comes to their aid, lifting them up when their determination falters. Ultimately, she guides them to peace when their strength and determination aren't enough to save them.

Minor, Calliste and Dooley are remarkable in “Strange Fruit,” and not only in their execution of the demanding choreography Byrd has created for them. Their faces convey as much as their movements: their pain, their effort, their sheer will simply to live their lives.

These three faces are particularly striking because the rest of the cast is faceless, their entire heads shrouded in light-colored fabric hoods. Most often this hooded group moves across the stage in unison. They are beautiful and terrifying in their lockstep uniformity and their violent attacks against the couple.

Sound designer Robertson Witmer has created a potent and effective backdrop of field recordings, spirituals, nature sounds, and agonizing screams--re-creations of the “rebel yells” Confederate soldiers unleashed more than 100 years ago. Lighting designer Sara Torres conjures a world that is dark and murky.

“Strange Fruit” was inspired by a visit Byrd paid to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, a monument to thousands of African American people who have been lynched in this country. He says he was driven to present this history to audiences who may never have encountered it before.

Byrd has spent almost half a century creating dance and dance/theater; many of his works focus specifically on race, social justice, and contemporary politics. He is an artist, but also an active witness-someone who not only creates dance, but uses his work to shine a light on particular truths that some people may prefer not to acknowledge.

Byrd’s “Strange Fruit” stands among the best of such creations.
Spectrum Dance Theater company members in a scene from Donald Byrd's "Strange Fruit"
photo @ Brian Smale, courtesy Spectrum

Not only is it powerful and thought-provoking; it’s nuanced and delicate. Byrd juxtaposes strong, stage-grabbing movements: Calliste and Dooley’s juddering heads, their wild, ferocious leaps across the stage; with quieter, contemplative moments: Minor seems to glide across the floor; when Calliste and Dooley are beaten down, she nudges their bodies to rise up and move forward. These quiet movements give audiences opportunities to reflect on what we’re witnessing, in ways that might not be available in a work without those tonal and tempo juxtapositions.

“Strange Fruit” was the culmination of Spectrum Dance Theater’s 3-week long Wokeness Festival. Byrd and his company presented dance and convened conversations, all focused on race, racism and social justice in our culture. The art worshipper in me can’t help but think that a work like “Strange Fruit” succeeds in going where all the talking and workshops in the world can’t; it allows us to witness the violence and terror unleashed on African Americans. And it reminds us in a very visceral way of the small beauties we can bestow on one another.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Why I love watching PNB's Lesley Rausch

PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch, in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake"
photo @ Lindsay Thomas for PNB
I turned 65 last month, and one of the great joys of getting older (besides the senior fees at my local swimming pool) is bringing an older and, hopefully, wiser eye to new artistic offerings.

I imagine older artists bring their own expanding portfolio of life experiences to the roles they perform, even familiar repertoire they revisit frequently. In this case, I’m thinking about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s latest production of George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and most particularly, about Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch.

PNB has a stable of up-and-coming talent, dancers like soloist Elle Macy, who delivered a powerful Hippolyta on opening night, or the ever-reliable Ezra Thomson, who managed to make his Bottom both winsome and poignant even though he was wearing a huge (and I’m told not-so-see-through) donkey’s head. Kyle Davis’ leaping Oberon was both technically precise and commanding (as befits the Fairy King), and Angelica Generosa was a radiant Butterfly.
PNB's Angelica Generosa, front and center, as a Butterfly in George Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Jonathan Porretta is rear center, as Puck
photo @ Angela Sterling

 But “Midsummer” is a showcase for the seasoned company members who’ve danced the ballet, in a variety of roles, numerous times. Laura Tisserand’s Titania was delicate and graceful (and hilarious in her duet with Bottom); Lindsi Dec and Rachel Foster (who retires this June) as Helena and Hermia delivered dance and comedy, and of course, the audience was thrilled to see Jonathan Porretta back onstage as Puck. Porretta has been out for months, and plans to retire in June, so we savor every chance to watch him perform.

For me, though, the evening belonged to Rausch, who danced a transcendent second act Divertissement pas de deux with her frequent partner, Jerome Tisserand.
Jerome Tisserand and Lesley Rausch dance the Divertissement pas de deux in Balanchine's "Midsummer"
PNB photo @ Angela Sterling

Rausch, a principal dancer since 2011, is known for her technical precision and her stunning lines. I first noticed her in Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels,” where her limbs seemed to slice the air. In Susan Stroman’s jazzy “Take Five, More or Less,” Rausch displayed her saucy side.
Rausch in Ulysses Dove's "Red Angels"
photo @ Angela Sterling

But for the past couple of years, Rausch has brought an added emotional depth to her dancing, what I can only compare to the patina a precious metal develops as it matures.

On “Midsummer’s” opening night, Rausch performed with an ethereal weightlessness that was truly stunning. Each time Jerome Tisserand (no slouch himself when it comes to gravity defiance) lifted her into the air, Rausch floated slowly back to the stage, hovering above it for a breathtaking extra second. When I say breathtaking, I really mean it; I held my breath, entranced by this performance.

I’ve read that in the early years of French classical ballet, some dancers (or at least King Louis XIV) envisioned a connection between the effort to propel themselves off the ground and a quest to touch the divine, if only for a moment. A fitting sentiment, I suppose, for a ballet about the collision of our mortal world and the realm of Titania, Oberon and their fairy kingdom.
Lesley Rausch in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son"
photo @ Angela Sterling

I have been grasping at apt metaphors for what a dancer like Rausch brings to the stage; a delicate mille-feuilles pastry comes to mind. Mille feuilles, or a thousand leaves of butter, sugar and flour that form a delicious pastry where a single layer would leave us shrugging. Like the accumulation of these tasty layers, a dancer like Rausch (or Noelani Pantastico, Lucien Postlewaite, Jonathan Porretta) layer each performance with both their years of technical mastery and life experience, and the sum is so much richer than any individual ingredient.

Rausch exudes technical confidence, and that confidence frees her to infuse more of herself into her roles. As the stepmother in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Cendrillon,” she was a bitch, but she also revealed the poignant pain of a woman who understood she was always her husband’s second choice.
Rausch as the Stepmother in Maillot's "Cendrillon"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Dancing “Swan Lake” or “Sleeping Beauty” with her husband, retired Principal Dancer Batkhurel Bold, Rausch showed audiences a glimpse of their real-life love. The great joy of being a regular audience member is getting a chance to watch her artistry deepen, and the great irony is knowing that this artistry is mine to see for a limited time only. Ballet is a stern physical master; the period of time where a dancer can perform at both the top of her craft and her artistry is fleeting, as temporary as the time she can balance on the pointe of a shoe. Inevitably age takes its toll, and the dancer will gracefully move into the next stage of her life.
Rausch and Bold in Stowell's "Swan Lake"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Now is the moment to savor Lesley Rausch; she’ll be dancing the role of Titania on Saturday evening, April 20th.
https://www.pnb.org/season/midsummer/

Monday, April 8, 2019

Mark Haim: all we need is love!

Mark Haim contains multitudes in "Parts to a Sum"
photo by Jim Coleman

I didn’t plan to write about Mark Haim’s new solo “Parts to a Sum,” at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center.

After all, I am one of more than 350 people who answered Haim’s invitation to submit very short videos of ourselves in motion. His idea was to learn portions of all of these movements, and compile them into an evening length piece. I'd seen pieces of the work in progress, and when I went to Velocity on Saturday evening, I left my notebook in my backpack. To write about this solo felt like it would be some kind of conflict of interest. But midway through the first section, my mind started to swirl and I itched to have my pen and notebook at hand. The solo is divided into three sections; when the first break arrived, I dug out pen and paper.

Walt Whitman's line "I contain multitudes" had popped into my head as I watched Haim. In his epic poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote “do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.” Whitman was celebrating his humanity: flawed, contradictory, imperfect. Haim picks up that celebration and expands on it; "Parts to a sum" is a celebration not just of our humanity, but of our connections to one another. It's a celebration of our collective existence.

On its surface, the movements in “Parts to a sum” don’t awe, or even seem particularly fresh (although watching Haim flap his arms like an excited toddler, you get a new perspective on joy.) It’s in the way Haim has layered person after person’s submissions, his decision to submerge his own personality in order to shine a light on hundreds of others, where the power lies in this solo. It is selfless in a way that I think only somebody with life experience can be; Haim isn't out to strut in his own movements; he's here to honor all of us.
Mark Haim in "Parts to a Sum"
photo by Jim Coleman


Part one is performed mostly in silence, or to a very faint soundscape with birdsong, chimes and the occasion wisp of a melody. The sounds evoke sense memories, the way the aroma from Proust’s legendary madeleine ignited a masterwork. The power is in its quietness. 

For the second section, Haim has created a soundtrack that mashes up popular songs much the way he’s mashing up our movements. The tunes are tantalizingly familiar, and just as we start to tap our toes, the music crashes against the next song in a John Cage-ian way. The impact is powerful indeed, a wonderful echo of the way he’s woven our movements together.

The final part of this solo uses Beethoven as an aural backdrop; for me this might have been the only misstep of the evening; Beethoven’s grandiosity, which I normally love, threatened to rend the tender garment that Haim was weaving.
Mark Haim leaps with joy in "Parts to a Sum"
photo by Jim Coleman

In the program, Haim writes that he was inspired to make this work in response to the political climate, as a conscious choice to count his blessings and acknowledge his own happiness. In that acknowledgement, what he’s created is more than a tapestry of movement and sound; he’s woven a quilt of our shared humanity, an ode to our interdependence on the planet, a love song to us all.


Monday, March 25, 2019

The Trees, the dancers, my thoughts

Pacific Northwest Ballet Soloists Elle Macy, left, and Dylan Wald in "The Trees The Trees" by Robin Mineko Williams
photo @ Angela Sterling

About a third of the way into my second viewing of Robin Mineko Williams’ new ballet “The Trees The Trees,” I thought to myself, ‘I love this!’ That response confirmed my initial reaction to the dance the week before, when I saw its world premiere on opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s most recent “Director’s Choice” program.

"Director's Choice" is such an interesting title for a mixed bill. Obviously, every PNB program is chosen by Artistic Director Peter Boal. That’s part of his job, after all. But the annual “Director’s Choice” gives audiences a chance to see contemporary work, and it's always one of my favorite things on the PNB schedule. In this case, we were offered two world premieres and the Seattle debut of Justin Peck’s exuberant “In the Countenance of Kings.”

The evening’s first premiere, Matthew Neenan’s “Bacchus,” was a crowd-pleasing, lively, and extremely purple, ballet. Where “Bacchus” is lush and velvety, with a score by Oliver Davis to match, “The Trees The Trees” is spiky, atmospheric, and even a little melancholy. Ultimately, though, for me it's a far more satisfying work.
PNB Soloist Leah Merchant with Corps de Ballet member Christopher D'Ariano in "The Trees The Trees."
photo @ Angela Sterling

The curtain rises on a sort of abstract, mid-century modern set: a white tree, bench and chair, and a white rectangle that serves as a back drop. Vocalist Alicia Walter enters the stage with Soloist Leah Merchant and the outstanding Corps de Ballet member, Christopher D’Ariano. Walter is singing a series of poems by Heather Christle, which have been set to Kyle Vegter’s score. Although we have the lyrics in our programs, I couldn’t always make out the words Walter sings. That was okay, though. The music meshed perfectly with the movements, conjuring a world where the dancers seem to be searching for connections, for human contact. 
PNB Soloist Ezra Thomson with Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico in "The Trees The Trees."
photo @ Angela Sterling

From the instant Merchant and D’Ariano ooze over the white bench, to Noelani Pantastico and Ezra Thomson’s less liquid pas de deux, to Elizabeth Murphy’s marvelous solo, to Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in a final duet in front of the white rectangle, which has been lowered to obscure the rest of the set, I was immersed in this ballet. Each of these dancers seemed truly and fully invested in the choreography (I ran into Ezra Thomson after the performance and he told me they really were invested because Mineko Williams had involved them in her creative process).
PNB Principal Dancer Elizabeth Murphy performs a solo in great socks, with vocalist Alicia Walter on the bench
photo @ Angela Sterling

The movements themselves were a definite departure from the ballet vocabulary, even contemporary works. First off, the dancers wore socks, including Murphy’s burgundy over-the-knee glories. Secondly, and more significant, Mineko Williams’ choreography seems to emanate from the torso, almost undulating out to dancers’ limbs. It’s the kind of movement you see more typically at Velocity Dance Center or a Whim W’Him performance than onstage at McCaw Hall. And oh, it looked so good on these excellent PNB dancers.

I have friends who disdain ballet's attempts to defy gravity, to focus on becoming air-borne. In "The Trees The Trees" gravity rules. D'Ariano, Thomson and Wald dance a trio on, over and around a white chair. Each, in turn, slithers to the floor, rolls, then lifts himself up to circle back to have another go. Is D'Ariano casting a spell on Wald? Is Thomson watching or trying to intervene? You create the story here and throughout this ballet. 
From left, PNB Soloist Ezra Thomson, vocalist Alicia Walter, Soloist Dylan Wald and Corps de Ballet member Christopher D'Ariano in Robin Mineko Williams' "The Trees The Trees"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Later on, as I watched the ensemble move forward, one by one, to place their chins to Elizabeth Murphy’s shoulder, gently nudging her toward the floor, I was reminded of the power of the human touch, even in this era where our relationships so often consist of digital “likes.” I've read that, as our interactions move increasingly online, we crave a space to help us understand our purpose, to connect, to dream. In "The Trees The Trees," Robin Mineko Williams and the seven dancers weave a world that caught and held me, and still has me thinking.

On opening night, my Millenial companion remarked to me that “The Trees The Trees” felt very much of and about her own generation. That may be true, but this dance also resonated with me, an observer more than 30 years her senior. There’s almost nothing I like better than watching artists who abandon themselves to their material. Especially when that material is multi-dimensional, lyrical and thought-provoking. Well done, Robin Mineko Williams. Very well done cast members.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Justin Peck makes me feel old, but that's okay...

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Justin Peck's "In the Countenance of Kings"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Justin Peck is one of ballet’s “it” boys; his choreography seems to be everywhere: onstage at his home company, New York City Ballet; in the New York subways (courtesy of YouTube); and at ballet companies around the world, including Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Last week, Seattle audiences were treated to the local premiere of Peck’s “In the Countenance of Kings,” created in 2016 for San Francisco Ballet. “Kings” is the third Peck ballet to enter PNB’s repertoire (joining "Year of the Rabbit" and "Debonair"); for me, it's by far the most engaging. "Kings" is an energetic homage to youth, to life, and (according to the program notes) to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway--the BQE--set to Sufjan Stevens’ score of that same name.

“Kings” begins at the beginning. We see a mound of bodies center stage. Dancer by dancer, they unfold, like an exotic dried Chinese tea flower when you immerse it in hot water. Once they emerge from the mound and move across the stage, they reveal the Protagonist, Jerome Tisserand, lying on his side. He rises, and three women rejoin him: Elle Macy as Quantas, Margaret Mullin as Electress, and Botanica, danced by elegant Laura Tisserand.
PNB Principal Dancer Laura Tisserand with Soloist Joshua Grant in Peck's "In the Countenance of Kings"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Although there are no direct allusions or plot similarities, I flashed briefly on the three Muses in Balanchine’s “Apollo;” while Macy, Mullin and Laura Tisserand aren’t shaping a newborn god, I did feel they were initiating Jerome Tisserand’s Protagonist into the realm of exciting new human experiences.

This ballet is big: 18 dancers altogether, including Joshua Grant as The Hero, partnering Laura Tisserand in a liquid duet, and Lucien Postlewaite’s The Foil, a piquant partner for Mullin in a pas de deux that is both angular and exhilarating. These two remind me of the edgy, cool kids in high schools, the risk takers you admire but also shy away from.
PNB Principal Dancer Lucien Postlewaite and Soloist Margaret Mullin
photo @ Angela Sterling

Elle Macy and Jerome Tisserand are much more the wholesome duo, looking ahead to bright futures. They whirl around the stage, only occasionally pausing to breathe, seizing the day once again, unbound by the same gravity that would pin the rest of us mortals firmly to the soil.
PNB Soloist Elle Macy is always soaring, here she's with Principal Dancer Jerome Tisserand
photo @ Angela Sterling

The remaining 12 dancers are billed as “The School of Thought.” They come and go throughout the action, their movements less a chorus than a mirror or variation on what the three main couples are doing. And sometimes, they provide counterpoint action, like a dash of salsa on an already savory dish. I haven’t spent enough time in New York to understand the connections between the BQE and the ballet Peck has created. But  "In the Countenance of Kings" certainly feels like a reflection of a lively, urban streetscape, the kind of scene that you can stand by and watch with endless fascination. 

One of the things I’ve noticed in the two other Peck ballets in PNB’s repertoire is how the choreographer deploys bodies across the entire stage, even using the wings (see 'Year of the Rabbit'). “Kings” emphasizes this aspect of Peck’s skill with large groups, but the ballet is often (maddeningly) complex; often there are so many simultaneous vignettes onstage that I, at least, couldn’t absorb them all. I guess I'm not a great multi-tasker.
PNB company members contemplate the future in Peck's "In the Countenance of Kings"
photo @ Angela Sterling

So you sit back to let the constant movement wash over you, then, bam, a row of white spotlights shines out from the back of the stage, illuminating a line of dancers who drop to the floor, prone, only to prop up their heads on their hands and gaze out at the audience. Hey, everybody needs a little break sometimes. But these folks are young and recuperation is swift. They're back on their feet in no time and the hubbub recommences. 

“Kings” capped PNB’s annual “Director’s Choice” program; it was preceded by two world premieres that offered their own evocative moments (more on those dances in another post). When the evening ended, though, it was Peck’s ballet that had the audience buzzing.

You can find out why this weekend, when the program continues at McCaw Hall.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Light and Dark and Bright and Shadow

Anna Krupp and David Rue in Ella Mahler's "Here" at Velocity Dance Center
photo @ Steve Mahler

Ella Mahler’s new evening length work “Here.” begins with a percussive thwack and a jolt of bright light. What follows is a fascinating exploration of dualities: black and white, shadow and light, balance and instability, duos and individuals, togetherness and separation.

Dancers Anna Krupp and David Rue embody the dualities: she has white skin, he has black skin. They both are dressed in black pants, shirts and shoes and perform on a gleaming white floor against a white backdrop. 

After the thwack and the jolt, Krupp and Rue enter Velocity’s Founder’s Theater to Dustin Mahler’s score, and, in unison, walk, lunge and jump their way across the floor, almost constantly in tandem. Timing is critical as they raise their arms, legs and feet simultaneously. Even their hips or elbows jut out in sharp angles at the same moments. As Mahler’s electronic accompaniment builds in tempo, the dancers up their speed, running in diagonal lines across the floor, jumping from side to side like moguls skiers, dropping supine to the floor then rising up to continue their synchronous circuits, finally exiting the room. Together.
Krupp and Rue sway like sea creatures in "Here"
photo @ Steve Mahler

The music shifts, and Rue returns alone, performing a solo notable for the way his entire body is engaged; his arms bend at the elbows, and he extends his fingers, bends his knees, sinking down into a lunge then propelling himself back up as if he is a tightly coiled spring. Krupp rejoins him, and some of the spring's tension eases; they stand together, swaying gently like sea plants being stroked by the water’s current.

Mahler writes in the program that she is exploring the ways we “perceive and experience the world through examining the capacities of movement and juxtaposition.” It’s the juxtaposition that really struck me in “Here.” At one point, I felt as if I was looking at a photographic contact sheet (for those of you who only know digital photography, a contact sheet is a strip of images that have been developed from a roll of film, but not printed). Krupp and Rue pull white chairs into various positions, sit on them, crawl over one another to strike a pose, then change places once again.
David Rue and Anna Krupp balance in "Here" by Ella Mahler
photo @ Steve Mahler

When their bodies finally touch one another, it’s almost a shock to realize they’ve been dancing either side by side or one by one and have not physically come together before this moment. They lean their heads in, and the intimacy of the moment, while fleeting, feels so powerful. Looking back from the vantage point of several days, I also realize that, in some sense, this is a metaphor for the way we conduct relationships in the digital age. So often our contact with one another is through text or chat or some other online wizardry. How is that different from the way we interact face to face? Does it even matter?

Rue and Krupp each bring different qualities to this duet. Rue has a fluidity and grace that seemingly ripples through his limbs. I mentioned that he resembled a coiled spring; I might also compare his presence to a cat--I love cats--waiting to pounce. Krupp is equally graceful, but her presence is less fluid and more assertive. When she executes a sort of deconstructed version of popping and locking, you see her physical strength and versatility. The fact that Krupp and Rue are dissimilar movers is yet another juxtaposition, and makes this duet all the more compelling to me.
Anne Krupp and David Rue in Ella Mahler's "Here"
photo @ Steve Mahler

More than 60 years ago George Balanchine created a famous pas de deux for Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in his "black and white" ballet, “Agon.” It was notable at the time because Adams was white and Mitchell black, and dancers of different races simply didn't perform together at high profile venues like New York City Ballet.  As I watched David Rue and Anna Krupp, I couldn’t help but think about contemporary conversations about race in America and wonder what, if anything, has changed in those six decades? Ella Mahler doesn’t set out to answer that question, but with “Here” she prompts us to think about differences, similarities, and how we humans move through world. Together and apart.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Lavinia Vago Intrigues Me

Lavinia Vago, photographed by Nikita Zhukovskiy
Whenever I watch Lavinia Vago dance, I'm as gobsmacked as the first time I saw her.

Vago is blessed with an almost super-human flexibility. She can fold her body, origami-style, into an array of shapes, while at the same time projecting a haunting emotional quality that leaves me wanting more.

Over the years I've mainly relished Vago dancing with her longtime artistic partner Kate Wallich, as part of Kate Wallich and the YC. Last month, though, Vago premiered a work of her own called "Noesis X: A Solo for Two," a collaboration with sound designer and performer Harald Stojan. While I only had a chance to see a rehearsal run-through, I've been thinking about "Noesis" ever since.

The performance began before the audience entered Velocity Dance Center's main studio. Vago stood, nude, in the center of the floor, her right leg lunging forward and right arm lightly balanced on her thigh. Two digital clocks ticked up the seconds as Vago stood under a spotlight, its beams diffused by a large white opaque disc.

Once the timer reached 30 minutes, Stojan took his place at a mixing console, slowly changing what felt like an audio pulse into a more definite soundscape. Vago donned clothing: a red jacket and pants, then prowled the circumference of the floor, followed by the narrow beam of the spotlight. As Stojan's soundscape built in intensity, so did Vago's movements. Her prowl morphed into a stalk, then jumps, a hybrid of balletic jetes and jumping jacks. Ultimately, Vago jumped herself to exhaustion, sinking to the floor.

"Noesis" continued, until both the sound and the movement ebbed away, the light slowly fading.
It's a complex duet that Vago told me she expected to vary at each performance. The choreography and the audio component are both partially improvised. Vago said she gave herself physical and spatial landmarks cued by Stojan's soundscape. And his audio mix changed based on Vago's choreographic decisions. This flexibility allowed Vago to take the work in different directions each evening, although Vago said she and Stojan have been collaborating for more than a year, so she had built up physical memory of where she wanted to be at any given time during the 30 minute piece.

I regret I wasn't able to experience "Noesis" more than once. I had seen an earlier iteration in rehearsal; Vago incorporated feedback she received there, expanding her physical vocabulary which, for me, enhanced the emotional impact of this work. To me,"Noesis" was like a sensory sounding board, providing a place for me to recognize impulses within myself.

It's been ten days or so since I saw this piece, and I've been mulling it over ever since. Vago is more than a talented mover; she's an intelligent and careful creator. I look forward to watching her career evolve.

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 @salt.photo

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 @salt.photo

“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 @salt.photo
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.