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.