Monday, November 29, 2021

Nutcracker 2.0-It's Back and Better Than Ever


PNB soloist Cecilia Iliesiu, center, and fellow dancers in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.
photo @ Angela Sterling

This past weekend Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its annual holiday production of The Nutcracker.

After almost two years of COVID isolation that forced PNB to cancel last year's run, this opening is a big, big deal.

I’ve seen this version of The Nutcracker at least a dozen times since PNB debuted George Balanchine’s 1954 classic six years ago, but sitting in McCaw Hall Saturday night, watching Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald perform the Sugar Plum Fairy/Cavalier pas de deux, it was as if I was seeing this ballet for the very first time.

Being able to gather with a (masked) audience to share a live performance, to hear the full PNB orchestra for the first time since February 2020, to watch a stage full of dancers, was remarkable. 

It was both comfortingly familiar, and yet a completely new experience.

PNB soloist Ezra Thomson, left, with DianaStarr Robinson
photo @ Angela Sterling

First, the masks. Nutcracker features a large cast: PNB company dancers, plus dozens of students. To protect their health, and that of the professional artists they perform with, the kids all wear masks, specially designed to match their costumes. 

It’s startling at first, but masking is now part of our new normal as we continue to fend off succesive waves of viral mutations. PNB takes its COVID-19 precautions seriously. In addition to masks, audience members must show proof of vaccination status, or a negative COVID test. Even the wildly popular second act appearance by Mother Ginger and her Polichinelle flock was transformed by health protocols. 

Instead of sheltering all eight children under her enormous skirts, Mother Ginger enters with only four young dancers hidden from view. The other four dance on and off from the wings, the ballet equivalent of social distancing.

These health safeguards are only part of the changed face of this Nutcracker production. PNB has made others the company hopes will help eliminate some of the art form’s embedded racial and gender biases.

PNB corps de ballet member Noah Martzall makes a very natty Green Tea Cricket
photo @ Angela Sterling

When Balanchine created his Nutcracker almost 70 years ago, mainly white audiences and critics most likely didn’t question why the male dancer in the Act II “Tea” section was dressed as an ersatz “Chinaman,” complete with a pigtail. The original energetic choreography also included movements that many Asian Americans have rightly called out as offensive.

Several years ago PNB changed part of that dated choreography to eliminate the racial stereotyping. This year, the character itself, with its costume, has been changed. Meet the “Green Tea Cricket,” complete with bobbing antennae. 

Corps de ballet member Amanda Morgan 
photo @ Angela Sterling

Beyond the Cricket, I noticed more racial diversity among the entire cast. In the "Before Times," the majority of the professional company members were white. This year, it's more diverse than ever before. 

In Friday evening's performance, two of the five Marzipan shepherdesses were young African American dancers. Someday that won’t feel so remarkable, but more than a year after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police sparked an international outcry for racial justice, you can’t gloss over the importance of onstage representation.

And that brings me to another, even more tradition-shattering change.

This year PNB hired two non-binary apprentices, one of whom has trained to perform on pointe, a ballet realm that’s been reserved for cis-gender women, outside of comedy drag troupes like Les Ballets Trockadero. 

The Waltz of the Flowers ends Act I 
photo @ Angela Sterling

Watching this apprentice waltz their way across the stage with their fellow Snowflakes, I knew I was witness to what I can only call a seismic shift in a very hide-bound artform. My Gen-Z son shrugged his shoulders when I pointed out what we’d seen; for him, ballet should reflect what’s happening in the wider society.

And that’s how this particular PNB apprentice put it to me in an online exchange.

“It makes me so excited to see what is next not only for PNB but for ballet, as the world keeps evolving and dancers like me become normal.”

I don’t know how many of my fellow audience members were aware that they were watching history-in-the-making, because this particular dancer blended so well into the full corps de ballet. And that's as it should be.

Sugar Plum Fairy Angelica Generosa, with her Cavalier Price Suddarth
photo @ Angela Sterling

Meanwhile there I was, mask on, sitting at a relatively safe distance from audience members I didn’t know, soaking in Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, appreciating this old ballet in a new way. Beyond the pageantry itself, I was keenly aware of the many stagehands, costumers and other staff working behind the scenes to restore a bit of normal to a world that COVID-19 turned upside down last year.

As I said, this year's Nutcracker was comforting, familiar, and at the same time, transformed by the calls for justice and change that have rocked our world. I wept with joy, relief, and on this Thanksgiving weekend, gratitude, for a chance to savor it all again.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2021 production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is onstage at McCaw Hall through December 28th.


Thursday, November 11, 2021

New Films From Seattle Dance Collective


Noelani Pantastico, foreground, with Jacqueline Burnett in Robin Mineko Williams' Where You Stay
                                                         photo @ Bruno Roque

Performing arts venues are slowly starting to reopen to live audiences, but many organizations continue to offer either hybrid, or all-digital, seasons.

And that’s the case for one of Seattle’s newer small arts groups, Seattle Dance Collective.

SDC is the brainchild of Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancers Noelani Pantastico and James Yoichi Moore. Instead of a dance company with a fixed group of participating artists, Pantastico and Moore wanted to create a structure that would allow them to collaborate with a variety of dancers and choreographers as the spirit moved them. Their goal was to commission and present new contemporary work each summer, when PNB dancers aren’t working.

The first season, 2019, audiences at the Vashon Island Performing Arts Center were treated to work by Marco Goecke, Bruno Roque, Penny Saunders and more. 

When the pandemic hit last spring, SDC, like every arts organization, had to rethink its plans. Last summer, Moore and Pantastico commissioned five dance films, tapping PNB colleagues like Miles Pertl and Amanda Morgan, as well as artists outside the immediate ballet world they inhabit.

This year, with the fate of live performance still iffy, SDC again decided to present a digital stream for its fans. The program, HERE & NOW is available now; it features three new works, all created during a summer artistic residency on Vashon Island.

Alice Klock and Florian Lochner in To Dust, by Juliano Nunes. photo @ Bruno Roque

To Dust, choreographed by Juliano Nunes and filmed and directed by Bruno Roque, is a moody duet performed by FLOCK, Alice Klock and Florian Lochner.

The duo also choreographed a work for SDC, 5 Favorite Things.  This dance features six performers, Jaqueline Burnett, Jane Cracovaner, Andrew McShea, Noelani Pantastico, David Schultz, and James Yoichi Moore. Roque’s camera is onstage with the dancers, weaving around them like a seventh performer.

SDC dancers in FLOCKS' 5 Favorite Things. photo @ Bruno Roque

In both 5 Favorite Things and To Dust, audiences experience something we’ve grown accustomed to during the pandemic: a very intimate, very closeup view of a dance. Our eyes are directed to certain perspectives chosen by the choreographers and directors, as opposed to the way we watch dance live, where the audience watches the same dance, but as individuals, we may focus on different aspects of the same artwork. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad; it just is the way dance adapted to the pandemic. I wonder if we’ll have a hard time readapting to live performances?

The third work on the HERE & NOW bill is by Robin Mineko Williams. Unlike the other two offerings, Where You Stay was filmed in and around a small house on a historic Vashon Island farm. Burnett, Cracovaner, McShea, Pantastico, Schultz and Moore appear alone, in duets, and trailing a mysterious young boy, the choreographer’s son, through the surrounding woods. There isn’t a linear story; for me, it evoked the sensation of being tied to our houses for most of the past 20 months, the ties we had with people in our immediate pods, moments of joy and moments of darkness.

Well, you can see for yourselves. Find out more about the project and buy tickets here.

The films are available through November 21.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Ballet and Beyond

PNB company members in Alonzo King's The Personal Element, photo @ Angela Sterling

Maybe it’s just me, but even after almost two years of social distancing, and the gradual reopening of live performance venues, it feels like we’re all just starting to re-adjust to life among our fellow humans.

That’s one reason why Pacific Northwest Ballet’s second program of this artistic season really resonated with me.

Beyond Ballet is a medley of work by three choreographers, each with a distinctive movement vocabulary and sensibility. Despite the stylistic differences, each work centers on interpersonal relationships, something we’ve struggled to maintain through Zoom happy hours and Facetime conversations. As I watched the performances, I appreciated the aesthetics of each work, and the dancers' commitment to them, but found myself most drawn to the myriad ways they depicted love, grief, joy and the ways we are connected to one another.

Before I talk more about the dances themselves, I just have to say that, to me, Beyond Ballet is a misnomer. Each work on this program is a ballet, right down to the pointe shoes. What they don’t do is mimic the 19th century classics. Instead, they’re emblematic of ballet's metamorphoses. If Beyond Ballet represents the art form's future, hey, I’m all in!

The program opened with Ulysses Dove’s 1993 Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, which has been in PNB’s repertoire for 15 years. This elegy to the people who lost their lives during the HIV/AIDS epidemic is as resonant now as when it was created.

Soloist James Kirby Roger, left, with Corps de Ballet member Christopher D'Ariano in 
Ulysses Dove's Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. photo @ Angela Sterling

Dancing features six performers, three women and three men clad in white unitards and shoes. On opening night, the entire cast was stellar: Cecilia Iliesiu, Amanda Morgan, Lesley Rausch, Christopher D’Ariano, James Kirby Rogers and Dylan Wald. 

Veteran Rausch demonstrated both her command of technique and her artistic mastery, imbuing the movement with fierce, but tender, emotion. But Iliesiu, Morgan and D’Ariano, as well as PNB newcomer Rogers, also danced with an almost heartbreaking clarity. Watching Morgan extend her long, long leg into the air was nothing short of hypnotic.

This ballet is a tribute to lives lost too soon, but it’s also very much about the grief of those left to mourn them; it was an apt programming choice during this current pandemic.

Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations offered up a very different reflection on pandemic loss, this time through its structure.

PNB Principal Dancer Elizabeth Murphy in Jessica Lang's Ghost Variations
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lang created the ballet for PNB in 2020, when COVID protocols meant that only four dancers at a time could be in the studio together, and only those co-habitating could actually touch one another. 

Lang worked with two pods—eight dancers altogether—to create a dreamy, almost stately, modern version of a classical ballet, complete with long tulle skirts and waltzing couples. The twist: the couple very often consisted of one dancer onstage and a shadow dancer behind a large white screen. For instance, Postlewaite performed a duet with D’Ariano; later in the ballet, Kyle Davis danced with four of his own shadows.

Ultimately, newly promoted Principal Dancer Elle Macy and her partner, fellow principal Dylan Wald, appeared in front of the screen. As I watched them twirling together across the stage, in contrast with the shadow duets that came before, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the pandemic really limited our physical contact with people outside our immediate households. We’ve all been waltzing with Zoom shadows, haven’t we?

PNB originally presented this work a year ago as part of its digital season, but Lang told me then that she always envisioned it to be performed for a live audience and indeed, I enjoyed it much more as a stage, rather than screen, presentation.

The program ended with PNB’s first---and I hope not last---presentation of work by San Francisco-based Alonzo King.

According to very brief program notes, The Personal Element is meant to showcase the interplay between Jason Moran’s piano score and the virtuosity of the dancers. For me, it did that and much more.

The eight dancers--Lesley Rausch, Elle Macy, Amanda Morgan, Cecilia Iliesiu, Miles Pertl (newly promoted to Soloist), Lucien Postlewaite, Dylan Wald and James Kirby Rogers—are virtuosic indeed, but to me, this 20-minute ballet was more than a showcase. I found it to be a mesmerizing tapestry of people coming together, dancing alone, merging into a community.

When the curtain went up, the entire octet was standing still under bright lights. Then Iliesiu rose to a teetering point, windmilling her arms as if she needed them to keep her balance. As if, indeed. Morgan and Postlewaite emerged in a duet, Morgan lifting a long leg, toe pointed elegantly. With a quick flick, she flexed her foot, only to return to her pointed extension. That move, repeated, was like an exclamation mark: see what I can do balanced on one leg?

Amanda Morgan, left with Lucien Postlewaite in Alonzo King's The Personal Element
photo @ Angela Sterling

When Pertl escorted Rausch onto the stage, she had one leg bent up behind her, and she clutched her foot, the way a runner stretches out a tight quadricep muscle. As Pertl propelled her diagonally downstage, Rausch repeatedly extended the other leg in front, like a slow-motion prancing pony.

Throughout this ballet, the dancers came forward in dazzling duets or solos, then rejoined the group in a line reminiscent of the imagery you might see on a Grecian urn or a painting by Matisse, their legs and arms intertwined. They stood still, but it wasn’t static. To me, it was as if their moving bodies had been captured in a still photograph. Days later, I can still see that image in my mind’s eye, although I’ve got Angela Sterling’s fabulous photo to refresh my memory.

Mixed rep programs like Beyond Ballet are always a crap shoot. I’m usually satisfied if I like two of three works on the bill. Beyond Ballet, to stretch my gambling metaphors, was like pulling the slot machine arm and getting three cherries lined up; PNB hit the jackpot and so did the audiences.

It may take me a while to readjust to a life lived in public, but I’m so glad that life will be graced by artists like these. And seriously PNB, if this is where ballet is heading, I'm with you for the ride.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Seattle Gets a New Dance Studio


Joshua Grant, standing behind dance student, and his partner Christopher E. Montoya, right, inside their new studio, Dance Conservatory Seattle. photo @ Marcia Davis

It was raining the day I drove down to South Park to visit the newly-opened Dance Conservatory Seattle. 

Even without the weather, I might have missed the studio if co-founder Joshua Grant hadn’t told me specifically that its exterior was white and blue. The scruffy industrial building, surrounded by a chain link fence, hardly looks the part of a new arts center. We all know, though, that looks can be deceiving.

Dance Conservatory Seattle occupies more than 6,000 square feet in a former warehouse. Grant, with his husband and business partner, Christopher E. Montoya, found the empty space this past summer.

Somehow they saw magic in the scuffed and stained indoor/outdoor carpeting in the offices, the dinged-up walls and the vast, high-ceiling, cement-floored loading dock. That’s where they installed a sprung dance floor, almost the size of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s largest rehearsal studio. 

Stacks of lumber wait for the couple to transform these raw building supplies into risers they hope will provide seating for audiences who attend live performances. When I arrived, a ballet class was just wrapping up, under the watchful eyes of two standard poodles and a tiny dog named Gizmo.

The family poodles watch Joshua Grant, left, with Christopher E. Montoya 
photo @ Marcia Davis

Grant and Montoya hatched the plan to open their own dance school in the midst of this pandemic. Grant, a PNB soloist, had been sidelined after Governor Inslee ordered a ban on public gatherings in March 2020, part of the effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Christopher E. Montoya, left, with Joshua Grant 
photo @ Marcia Davis

He and Montoya, who was then director at Dance Fremont, started teaching what they called “rogue ballet classes” for very small groups of dancers at Yaw Theater in Georgetown. Several of their students urged the couple to open their own school. That’s when they started the search for an appropriate, and affordable, space.

The South Park location “reeked of regret and disappointment,” the couple says. Aside from the stained carpeting and walls missing large paint patches, the former tenants had tried to convert an upstairs office—illegally--into a bathroom. A piece of white plastic hose still dangles from the room’s wooden ceiling. But since taking occupancy this summer, Grant and Montoya have been hard at work. In addition to building a dance floor, they’ve spruced up the entryway with new floors, paint, and original artwork on the walls. Devoted students helped build out changing rooms and a little lounge area.

This fall, Dance Conservatory Seattle only offers open classes, for vaccinated adults. Grant teaches ballet; Montoya also offers jazz and modern instruction, and they bring in guest instructors when they can. Ultimately, Montoya says they dream of creating a school that welcomes anyone, regardless of gender identification, race, or body type. They plan to create a curriculum for children as well, once they have wide access to COVID vaccinations.

While both dancers are classically trained, they envision an environment that’s less rigid than what they grew up with.

“We want to train thinkers, not soldiers,” he says.

Christopher E. Montoya, left, with Joshua Grant performing "Les Sylphides"
with Les Ballets Trockadero 

Beyond that, the couple, who met while performing with the drag troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, are committed to "ungendering" dances. The Trocks are known for a comedic take on classical ballet; Grant and Montoya imagine a future where a trained dancer of any gender could take on roles like Giselle or Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile, without hiding behind the label "drag." 

Beyond training students who’ve traditionally had access to arts classes, they couple wants to encourage South Park neighbors who may not have had an opportunity to dance in a professional studio, to come take a class. As Grant says, talent is distributed equally; access has not been as equitable.

If you’re interested in checking out Dance Conservatory Seattle, they’re holding an open house on Sunday, November 14th.