Monday, December 16, 2019

Three Nutcrackers, One Curmudgeon

The grand finale of Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"
photo @ Angela Sterling

I had one of those ‘aha’ moments this weekend.

An epiphany. A revelation. A shock of self-discovery.

I actually like the Nutcracker ballet.

Doesn’t that sound sort of obvious for a person who writes a lot about dance in general and ballet in particular?

Trust me, this realization took me by surprise.

I’ve seen some version of the Nutcracker every year for decades; sometimes I attend more than one performance.
PNB dancers are lovely snowflakes, aren't they?
photo @ Angela Sterling

Usually I’m there because I’m writing a story, or checking out young dancers making their debuts in featured roles. For years I’ve been oh so nonchalant about the production: so hokey, so saccharine, so predictable. (Not to mention Drosselmeier, giver of the nutcracker, a role that’s just short of pedophile.)

Imagine my surprise to discover that somehow, without me noticing, the Nutcracker’s joy and optimism had penetrated my curmudgeonly cynic’s shell. It was almost like I was hit upside the head by a projectile of some sort…like an un-cracked walnut.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened; the projectile was Mark Morris’ acclaimed take on the ballet, “The Hard Nut.”
Snowflakes ala Mark Morris in "The Hard Nut"
photo @ Julieta Cervantes

With visual inspiration drawn from comic artist Charles Burns, and gender-bending casting, Morris has created a hipster’s-eye take on the holiday classic. Morris told a journalist not long ago that he was inspired by the full Tchaikovsky score, performed at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre this year by a small, live orchestra. Sitting in the audience last week, I felt a disconnect between the soaring beauty of the music and Morris’ snarky, wink-wink choreography. Most of the audience found it hilarious. In me, it all evinced a clear-eyed realization that I want my holiday entertainment to inspire me. Straight up, if you will. Pardon the pun.

That’s not to say I’m wed to George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography, now onstage in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production at McCaw Hall. I'll take my Nutcracker joy where it presents itself.

This weekend I attended a workshop of Donald Byrd’s “Harlem Nutcracker,” a show he created originally in 1996 for his New York-based company. Set to the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn jazz adaption of Tchaikovsky’s music, Byrd's rendition of the 1892 ballet takes place in contemporary Harlem.
Original production of Donald Byrd's "Harlem Nutcracker"
photo @ Susan Kuklin courtesy Spectrum Dance

Even truncated and presented in workshop form, Byrd’s “Harlem Nutcracker” delivered the emotional punch I didn’t realize I was craving. He hews to the same story line as Balanchine, but where Clara is a young girl in the ballet, she’s a recent widow in Harlem, visited by the ghost of her late husband. The choreography—at least what Byrd presented in this workshop—was sassy and saucy, and I look forward to seeing a full-on production. The all-ages packed house was with me on that.

We’re living in dark times, both literally as we inch towards the Winter solstice, and figuratively, as Congress claws its way to impeaching the man in the White House. So many people I know are overwhelmed right now, in search of diversions or laughter, or maybe the oblivion that comes with one eggnog shot too many.
My spirits soar with PNB's Leta Biasucci as the Sugar Plum Fairy

Personally I need something to remind me of the powerful and resilient human spirit.

That’s not to say I don’t love some of the sillier holiday shows, your Buttcracker or gay cabaret, for example. But this time of year I crave art that inspires at least a few hours of gratitude and good will. You may find the holiday spirit in a performance of Handel’s stirring “Messiah,” or at ACT Theatre’s annual stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story of redemption, “A Christmas Carol,” or in any number of other December productions. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me, I find it at PNB's Nutcracker.

As I sat through Morris’ alt-version, enjoying his take on Snowflakes, appalled by creepy Drosselmeier, my mind went unbidden to the ballet, to the magical synergy of Tchaikovsky and Balanchine. That’s when it hit me: omg, I’m a sap. A sappy holiday sap.
Oy vey!!!
Nothing sappier than Mother Ginger!
photo @ Angela Sterling

Happy Holidays y’all.  

Monday, December 2, 2019

I Found a Reason to Smile

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'
photo @ Angela Sterling

I really envy people who get to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker” for the very first time.

(To be accurate, it’s PNB’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” created for New York City Ballet in 1954 and first presented in Seattle in 2015.)

Back to my envy.

I was one of thousands of people who flocked to Marion Oliver McCaw Hall this past weekend for the show’s annual opening performances. Unlike most of my fellow audience members, I’ve seen some version of this classic ballet dozens of times over the years. Partly, that’s because it’s my job to see things. But like many of us, this time of year I’m searching for experiences of awe and wonder; for sense memories of what it means to be our fullest selves.
Always stunning PNB principal dancer Noelani Pantastico
photo @ Angela Sterling

Watching little girls dressed up in their holiday finery, hearing them gasp as the curtain goes up and they see Clara, Fritz and a holiday party for the first time? Well, that’s what I envy: their surprise and delight, their sheer wonder at the extravagance of it all.

So, every year I return to PNB and---to paraphrase a friend and fellow arts writer—I open my heart chakra, hoping to experience some new delight. This year it came in the form of a young dancer named Adam Abdi, who is cast in the role of Fritz, Clara’s bratty younger brother.
That's Adam Abdi in center stage, with the red tie, holding Madison Taylor's hand
PNB photo @ Angela Sterling

If you don’t know anything about “Nutcracker,” suffice it to say that in Act I, Fritz and Clara’s parents host a Christmas party. An odd gentleman named Drosselmeier arrives and presents Clara with a nutcracker that later evolves into an animate creature who vanquishes some invasive rats. Or mice. Some type of rodent infestation.

Back to Adam/Fritz.

As I said, I’ve seen a load of Nutcracker productions and rafts of ballet students performing roles that range from candy canes and angels to the flock of Polichinelles who emerge from under Mother Ginger’s voluminous skirts. Usually the focus is on the student cast as Clara; Marissa Luu was impressive on opening night. But Adam Abdi stole the show, and my heart.

Abdi infused Balanchine’s 65 year old choreography with fresh verve. When he grabbed the nutcracker from his sister’s arms and cantered around the stage, he was the epitome of the jealous sibling exacting a moment of revenge. But Abdi is more than a budding actor. The kid has all the makings of a dancer.

He swung his legs in wide, graceful arcs, his toes pointed. Leading a gaggle of boys, his imaginary pony ride was full of joy and timed well to Tchaikovsky’s score (performed with typical brio by the PNB orchestra). Even when Miles Pertl, as Fritz’s father, scooped him up off the floor at the end of the party, Abdi’s Fritz kicked up a furious, and realistic, storm.
PNB Principal Dancer Leta Biasucci soars as the Sugar Plum Fairy
photo @ Angela Sterling

This year’s opening night cast offered the usual great performances from PNB company members. I particularly enjoyed Noelani Pantastico as an enigmatic Peacock (officially, she's dancing a section called Coffee), Elizabeth Murphy’s sparkling Dewdrop and Leta Biasucci’s sprightly Sugar Plum Fairy.
PNB principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy is a stunning Dewdrop
photo @ Angela Sterling

But I left McCaw Hall with visions not of sugar plums dancing in my head, but of Adam Abdi standing center stage, beaming out at the audience. I hope he will keep dancing, because this boy was born for the stage.

I wonder if that’s what somebody said when Peter Boal once danced that very same role?

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Moving, Feeling, Thinking

PNB dancers Cecelia Iliesiu and Dylan Wald soar in Donald Byrd's "Love and Loss"
photo @ Angela Sterling
Celebration and lamentation. Love and loneliness. Beauty and the persistent strength of women.

All of this is onstage in Pacific Northwest Ballet's current offering, "Locally Sourced."

PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal commissioned three Seattle-area choreographers to create work for the company: Donald Byrd, Miles Pertl and Eva Stone. Byrd, who leads his own Seattle dance troupe, Spectrum Dance Theater, is an award-winning, internationally known artist. Stone, a respected teacher and dance maker, also heads her own company and runs an annual dance festival called Chop Shop. Pertl is better known as a dancer; he's a member of PNB's corps de ballet.

These three artists approached their commissions from their own life experiences; their deeply personal works allow the fine PNB performers to stretch technically and artistically. The result is a thought-provoking, emotionally resonant program.
Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite in Eva Stone's "FOIL"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Eva Stone's beautiful FOIL opens the bill. Stone divides her ballet into five distinct sections, which she thinks of as individual rooms in a house. They're delineated by a moving collection of chandeliers, and illuminated lovingly by the talented Amiya Brown. Each section is set to music by a different female composer, and performed by seven women and four men.

In a post-show interview, Stone said she chose the title, FOIL, as a comment on the role women play in society, and more specifically in the dance world, where female dancers comprise the vast majority, but are a distinct minority when it comes to artistic decision-making at either the choreographic or administrative levels.
PNB dancers in Eva Stone's "FOIL"
photo @ Angela Sterling

This artistic motivation might sound defiant, and Stone most certainly is aware of the challenges that have faced her during her long career. But her dance is a gossamer creation, made of pastel colors, delicate crystal chandeliers, and above all, lovely evanescent movements.

Of particular note, a trio performed by Cecelia Iliesiu, Margaret Mullin and Emma Love Suddarth. The women wear long ivory skirts that are draped over what look like antique hoops; their bare backs face us throughout this section, and as they braid around one another, their muscles ripple, revealing the strength that underlies this delicate beauty.

In a dance full of striking images, I particularly enjoyed the pas de deux for principal dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite. These longtime friends and partners imbue their movements with technical grace as well as deep emotion, so satisfying to witness. Soloist Margaret Mullin also shines.
Postlewaite and Leta Biasucci in Donald Byrd's "Love and Loss"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Donald Byrd's "Love and Loss" is second on the program. This is a contemplative---and heart breaking---rumination on relationships, set to music by Israeli composer Emmanuel Witzthum.

Seattle audiences may know Byrd best for his work addressing racial and social issues. But Byrd has a long legacy of work inspired by both his love of music and his fascination with human interactions.

"Love and Loss" features more than 20 dancers in an unfolding series of duets and trios. In the first, Lucien Postlewaite emerges slowly from the rear of the stage, through one of five "doorways" created by set and lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli. His spiky movements are full of longing. Leta Biasucci comes from the shadows to join him in a passionate duet that conveys all the highs and lows of first love. Ultimately, though, when he reaches his hand to her, she spurns him.

This dynamic is repeated in other onstage partnerships: Madison Rayn Abeo and Benjamin Griffiths; Joshua Grant and Christopher D'Ariano; Amanda Morgan, Ryan Cardea and Price Suddarth. Byrd guides us through one slow heartbreak after another. Ultimately Dylan Wald and Cecelia Iliesiu dance a, perhaps, more optimistic expression of love.
PNB dancers in Byrd's "Love and Loss"
photo @ Angela Sterling

"Love and Loss" was affecting and evocative, but its power is diluted by its length. I'd love to see it tightened a bit because this is a ballet that deserves to be presented beyond PNB.

The program ends with Miles Pertl's love letter to his hometown. "Wash of Gray" starts and ends with rain and mist and mountains. The dancers move in front of two large screens that project images created by Pertl's sister and artistic partner, Sydney.
PNB dancers in Miles Pertl's "Wash of Gray"
photo @ Angela Sterling

Although Pertl deploys more than a dozen of his fellow company members, the strongest sections of his ballet are two duets and a brief, surprising solo performed by Sarah Pasch, who is seven months pregnant. She is always a strong presence onstage, but she has never looked more radiant.

Each of these three ballets showcases the dancers lovingly, and presents the talents of the homegrown choreographers and their collaborators. The result is a satisfying evening that presented far more beautiful moments than I can catalog here. And yet, at both shows I attended, there were rows of empty seats. Perhaps it's a fear of risking precious dollars on an unknown program? I'm here to tell you this show will satisfy both lovers of the classical idiom and those whose tastes are more adventurous. "Locally Sourced" is a window into the ways dance, and dancers, can express what it means to be human.

"Locally Sourced" is at McCaw Hall through Sunday, November 17.

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

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,

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, @

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

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

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

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.

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.