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.

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