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.