Sunday, December 18, 2022

It's All About the Dancers!


The inimitable Noelani Pantastico in Tea/Arabian in PNB's 2019 Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

A few weeks ago I jotted down some thoughts after the opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet's latest production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Mostly I was whining about rude audience members and their cellphones. 

I posted my essay to social media, and was deluged with other stories about ridiculous behavior at live performances. But one commenter pulled me up short. She wondered what I thought about the ballet itself. And I realized that, while I'm impressed by the orchestra, the sets and costumes, and the big Snowflake and Flower waltzes, I don't go to Nutcracker to be awed by the show, not for the little girls twirling in party dresses onstage (and off), not even for the ballet itself.

PNB principal dancer Leta Biasucci soared as Sugar Plum Fairy in 2019
photo @ Angela Sterling

I go to see the dancers.

Before you respond 'well, duh Marcie,' let me explain.

I've seen this particular Nutcracker production at least 15 times  since PNB debuted it in 2015; twice a year, sometimes three times, for seven seasons. The story is almost incidental to my experience. It's not that I dislike attending another performance; quite the opposite. I'm looking for dancers who shine.

A Covid-era Clara and party guests, 2021. Ezra Thomson delights as Drosselmeier
photo @ Angela Sterling

During Act I I'm watching the kids in the party scene, particularly the various incarnations of Clara's naughty younger brother Fritz. I recognized him as one of last year's party boys. He has a wild head of hair and the military party hat wouldn't stay put. This year his Fritz was as exuberant as his hair.

Act II is all about featured company members, and for me, that's what makes Nutcracker a magical experience. Hefty roles like Sugar Plum Fairy and Dewdrop are pretty but also technically tricky, and I'm looking to see how the dancers navigate them. 

Here's principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy's 2017 Dewdrop. She's exponentially more lovely in 2022
photo @ Angela Sterling

This year both Dewdrops I saw--principal dancers Angelica Generosa and Elizabeth Murphy--brought a deft and sparkling lightness to the role. And I was fascinated to watch soloists Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and Ezra Thomson as Sugar Plum and her Cavalier. They had an almost tender partnership, with lots of eye contact. As always, Ryan threw her entire being into the role, and Thomson was her steady rock.

Beyond the usual suspects, it's always inspiring when a corps de ballet member gets a turn in the spotlight. PNB presents almost 40 shows this year, so there are many opportunities for less experienced company members to step up, whether to entertain an audience, or demonstrate to boss Peter Boal they have what it takes to go far. 

I haven't seen principal dancer James Yoichi Moore as the lead Candy Cane in several years. 
Angela Sterling captured this photo in 2017

It could be a chance at Sugar Plum, or the sinuous Tea/Arabian solo, and  I'm always interested to see which tall dancer will climb stilts and don the 60-pound Mother Ginger dress, or dazzle us with double and triple hoop jumps as the lead Candy Cane.

Speaking of a dancer on fire--here's Corps member Kuu Sakuragi, definitely a dancer to watch.
photo @ Angela Sterling

I've seen two Nutcrackers this season, and in both, corps member Mark Cuddihee had his turn with the hoop. He mastered it the second time, shooting off a couple of double jumps in the big finale.

That's Destiny Wimpye, front row on the left. Look at her pretty foot!
photo @ Angela Sterling

New apprentice Destiny Wimpye made her mark onstage, whether as one of several dozen Snowflakes, or radiating joy as a Marzipan shepherdess. 

And this year I was dazzled by Zsilas Michael Hughes' Toy Soldier and Coffee/Spanish lead. Hughes literally kicked up their heels with abandon and it was so fun to watch.

I know that emerging star Ashton Edwards will be dancing Dewdrop on Thursday, December 22 alongside soloist Amanda Morgan as the Sugar Plum Fairy. I'm almost tempted to catch a third performance just to watch them both. You can get a ticket here.

Several years ago PNB Executive Director Ellen Walker talked to me about dancers who reflect light back to the audience, the dancers we watch onstage then thumb through our program to identify. I've never forgotten her words. 

Unlike so many (most) dance writers, I don't come to this obsession from a dance background. I love to watch great performances, but more than technical prowess, I'm interested in that slippery, indefinable je ne sais quoi that imbues an artist with something that sets them apart from the crowd. In Spanish the word is 'duende.' It's about soul, and a passion that infuses each performance, whether the first or the 40th Nutcracker in this case. 

I *think* this is soloist Christopher D'Ariano at Mother Ginger.
This photo by @ Angela Sterling was taken in 2019, but D'Ariano stole the show again this year.

After the holiday decorations, the costumes and sets get stowed away until next season, I'll be thinking of those dancers whose souls burn with that interior fire, that duende. And I'm so grateful to know I'll get to watch them again--and again--on the McCaw Hall stage.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Snowflakes, Sugar Plums and...Cell Phones? Oh My!


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

It’s that time of the year, when longtime balletomanes and those brand-new to ballet flock to local theaters to see versions of the holiday classic, The Nutcracker.

In the Seattle area, we have a bevy of Nuts to choose from (including Spectrum Dance Theater’s Harlem Nutcracker coming December 8th), but Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, with sets and costumes designed by the children’s author Ian Falconer, plus dozens of dancing kids and a live orchestra, is the biggest.

So that’s where I headed on opening night, Friday, November 25th, my stomach still distended from our Thanksgiving feast the evening before, but looking forward to my annual holiday ballet hit. That evening's show featured PNB principal dancer Elle Macy and soloist Miles Pertl as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier (the end of Act 2 pas de deux is my favorite part of the show, no matter who dances).

PNB soloist Ezra Thomson as Herr Drosselmeier in the 2021 production of Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

The ever-impressive Ezra Thomson was again scheduled to take on the role of Drosselmeier, the guy who brings Clara the eponymous Nutcracker doll. Young dancers were set to jump through hoops, ham it up as furry mice or toy soldiers. And Nutcracker gives dance nerds like me a chance to check out the new corps de ballet members (along with the PNB Professional Division students) waltzing away as Snowflakes and Flowers.

PNB dancers ready to waltz as flowers in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

Last Friday, as usual, the audience was filled with families: young kids decked out in their holiday finery, little girls sporting tutus and sparkly shoes, boys uncomfortable in bow ties and tucked-in shirts but excited nonetheless. Watching them is more than half the delight of the show because for kids, The Nutcracker is truly magical. Their joy is contagious.

Alas, none of these happy families was seated near my party of three. Instead, we were sandwiched between two groups of people who seemed unfamiliar with live performance audience etiquette.

Just before the pre-recorded curtain speech (the one where they tell you to silence your cell phones) three women bustled into the seats in front of us. Perhaps they weren’t listening, or maybe PNB needs to add explicit directions not to text or take telephone calls during the show, because from the time they sat down, one of these women was involved in an ongoing text conversation. The light from her screen distracted even when she lowered her phone to her lap. And while her companion’s phone was, indeed, silenced, that didn’t stop her from taking a call during Act 2!

Meanwhile, behind us, a party of four younger women gabbed continuously through the overture. I felt like a shrew when I turned to shush them; they reinforced my guilt with elaborate eye rolling. They continued to talk off and on for the rest of the show. BUT. They also REALLY liked the music. So much so, they hummed along to all their favorite parts. Sweet? Not so much.

Dear new audience members: Emil de Cou and the fabulous PNB orchestra do a great job with Tchaikovsky’s score (and every other ballet score they perform). I love this music as much as the women seated behind me, and sometimes I want to hum along too, but for the love of your fellow audience members, please let the professional musicians do their work without your musical accompaniment.

Do I sound too much like the curmudgeonly bitch on your block who yells at the kids to get off of her lawn? Probably. Maybe I’m really Emily Post’s lost love-child, hopelessly out of step with contemporary theater-going practices, or at the very least, begging people not to shit on my grass. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The pandemic might have you out of practice when it comes to attending live performances. Or maybe this is your first experience of the magic that happens in a theater. That magic is about more than what happens on the stage; for the two-hour duration of any given performance, whether it’s Nutcracker or The Wiz or A Christmas Carol, to name some of this season’s heavy hitters, you and your fellow audience members become a temporary community. Together with the artists on stage and in the orchestra pit, we get to witness a unique live performance. This version of the show will never happen again.

PNB Principal Dancer Elizabeth Murphy was a glittering Dew Drop on opening night. 
This photo by @ Angela Sterling was taken in 2019

If you’re looking at your phone instead of the stage, you might miss some amazing moments: Elizabeth Murphy as the perfect Dew Drop amidst her waltzing flowers; Macy literally leaping off the stage onto Pertl’s shoulder in that aforementioned pas de deux. Or Luther DeMyer’s Mother Ginger, mincing onto the stage atop hidden stilts, balancing that enormous skirt, waving relentlessly at the seated Nutcracker Prince and Clara until they waved back.

This isn't Luther DeMyer, but you get the picture (by @ Angela Sterling)

And that was only opening night! You’ve got a few weeks to check out your own PNB Nutcracker at McCaw Hall.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Crystal Pite: Art That Melts the Stars


Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Crystal Pite's The Season's Canon, 2022
photo @ Angela Sterling

I was sick the first time I saw one of Crystal Pite’s dances.

So sick that I almost stayed home in bed, but my friend Jessica Massart from On the Boards insisted that Pite and her company, Kidd Pivot, were absolutely not to be missed. So, in the days before Covid had us double-guessing every sneeze, headache and sore throat, I hauled myself down to OtB for a performance that changed my life.

The year was 2011 and Pite’s creation was called Dark Matters. It featured her talented dancers, a unique movement vocabulary, puppets (and masks, if I remember correctly), evocative sets, music and lighting, and meticulous attention to detail. These elements combined into what was, for me, a transformative artistic journey.

Unfortunately for all the dance artists I saw after that show, Dark Matters became my metric for great dance performances. And all too often, people not named Crystal Pite didn't meet her high bar.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Crystal Pite's The Season's Canon, 2022
photo @ Angela Sterling

More than a decade later I am still in thrall to Pite’s genius, her ever-evolving ability to whisk me away from my daily life to some cosmic realm that seems to exist beyond time and place.

This month Pacific Northwest Ballet presented the North American premiere of Pite’s epic The Seasons' Canon, originally created in 2016 for Paris Opera Ballet. I saw PNB's production three times; I could have attended every performance. Simply put, watching The Seasons' Canon was a transcendent experience.

During his tenure in Seattle, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal has carved out a permanent place for Pite in the repertoire. In 2013, audiences were treated to Emergence, then in 2017 Boal and company brought us the North American premiere of her Hitchcockian noir tale Plot Points. The latest addition to the Pite-a-palooza (long may it live) was this month’s production of her monumental The Seasons' Canon.

Before I start loving on that ballet, let's back up to PNB's first Pite.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Crystal Pite's Emergence, 2016
photo @ Angela Sterling

Inspired by the communal lives of bees, Emergence gave us a taste of Pite’s talents for harnessing the collective power of human movement on a large stage, her ability to transform human dancers into an apian community that buzzed, literally, with energy. 

Unlike a work that the choreographer might craft for her small troupe of awesome dancers, Emergence demands big numbers, the kind you find in a big ballet company. Watching that many bodies moving in unison, or in syncopation, was stunning, but only a promise of what awaited us in The Seasons' Canon.

Plot Points, with a smaller cast and a more defined story line, offered Pite's signature movement language, her fascination with masked faces, but it was smaller, more intimate than Emergence. I think it may have disappointed some of her devotees. That said, we were all thrilled to see it back last year.

PNB company members in Pite's Plot Points
photo @ Angela Sterling

The thing about Crystal Pite that’s just so amazing is that she’s not only talented; she's truly nice—generous with her time in the rehearsal studio and in an interview with a nosy journalist. The first time PNB presented Plot Points I sat behind Pite at McCaw Hall during a Saturday matinee. She was with her young son and I was delighted to watch her open this artwork to him.

Pite's affiliation with PNB didn't preclude On the Boards from presenting Kidd Pivot. We saw Tempest Replica, based on the Shakespearean tragedy, as well as the jaw-dropping Betroffenheit, Pite’s collaboration with Vancouver, B.C. theater artist Jonathan Young, based on the true story of the death of Young’s own child in a house fire. 

This spring Kidd Pivot returns to Seattle with a new Pite/Young collaboration called Revisor.

Meanwhile…back to the present. 

I attended the very last performance of The Seasons' Canon, a Sunday matinee with a packed house, the first truly large crowd I’d seen at McCaw Hall since the pandemic started. Seated on my right was a dance fan who’d been at the show the night before and bought another ticket because she simply had to see the work again.

Two other women sitting in our row had purchased tickets because of the good buzz they’d heard about the program, although they freely admitted they really didn’t know much about contemporary ballet. After each of the first two works on the bill they asked the Dance Fan and me to share our thoughts on what we’d seen, which we did. But Dance Fan and I were both more excited about seeing the Pite work, and I worried we over-hyped it.

PNB soloist Amanda Morgan, center, with company dancers in The Season's Canon
photo @ Angela Sterling

As the lights went down, and the PNB orchestra began to play the re-imagined version of Vivaldi’s classic The Four Seasons, featuring Michael Jinsoo Lim on violin, I truly shivered with excitement. Dance Fan had purchased a pair of opera glasses, which she trained intently on the stage. 

I can't really describe what it's like to watch 50+ dancers undulate in unison, or flick their heads in careful syncopation. They were like depictions of atoms moving in concert, greater together than individually, although there were some stand out featured performances. You've probably seen a sports stadium full of people doing the wave; this was a little bit like that but SO MUCH BETTER!

30 minutes later, the ballet ended and, along with most of the audience, Dance Fan and I leapt to our feet, clapping and cheering (me), and wishing we could have another 30 minutes. It was, indeed, as magical as we'd remembered. One of the women down the row leaned over to tell me The Seasons' Canon brought tears in her eyes. “I’ve never cried at a dance performance before,” she confessed.

Crystal Pite’s work in general, and The Seasons' Canon in particular, casts powerful spells. You don't need to be a dance expert, or even a regular ballet-goer, to appreciate her work. A former UW art professor who attended the show on my recommendation described Pite's choreography as living sculpture and that's true, although rarely does anybody stand still. 

Pite's dancers coalesce like kaleidoscopic colored glass bits into an ever-changing gallery of unearthly images, framed by an amazing backdrop that also is continually in motion. The result is a work of ineffable beauty; fleeting, but indelibly etched in my memory.

This morning, as I sat down to write about this work, I was reminded of something Gustav Flaubert wrote in his novel Madame Bovary.

“The truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language…[H]uman speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

My words here are crude; Crystal Pite’s art truly does melt the stars.




Friday, November 4, 2022

The Art and Soul of Ballet

Dance Theater of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, left, with former company artist Anthony Santos and company artist Amanda Smith. Photo courtesy DTH/STG

November 2, 2022 was World Ballet Day, but if you aren’t part of the ballet world, or even ballet-adjacent (fans, observers, writers) the occasion probably escaped your notice. 

For true ballet nerds, World Ballet Day offers an endless on-line cornucopia, performances, interviews, rehearsals and the like, all available at the click of your mouse. I was lucky to have had a front-row, in-person seat to one of the many events streamed to audiences that day. Specifically, I was in the gallery above Pacific Northwest Ballet’s biggest rehearsal studio, Studio C, watching a company class that featured not only PNB’s wonderful dancers, but also members of Dance Theater of Harlem, who have been in Seattle this week, one leg of a month-long national tour. 

Choreographer Crystal Pite, right, with Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers, 2013
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

I’m so grateful that I’ve been allowed to sit in on PNB classes and rehearsals many times over the past years. But this was only the second time since March, 2020 that I was invited into one of PNB’s studios, and I was thrilled for a number of reasons. 

First, even though PNB first welcomed back live audiences to McCaw Hall in September, 2021, health and safety concerns have limited access to the company’s home base, the Phelps Center, where the dancers train and rehearse. I had seen new company members perform everything from Swan Lake to Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station, but when you sit in the rehearsal studio, you’re offered a glimpse of the hard work that goes into each performance. I was delighted to watch the new apprentices and other dancers who’d arrived in Seattle during the pandemic. 

Beyond getting a closer look at PNB company members, the joint class allowed me to watch the Dance Theater of Harlem guests at work, a particular treat. Their polish and poise, even in a class situation, was remarkable. Perhaps they were extra sharp because the class was being streamed live, but I’m guessing they always look good. 

I was particularly interested in the DTH guests because the day before, my doubleXposure podcast co-host Vivian Phillips and I had the chance to interview their artistic director, the iconic Virginia Johnson. [Find the entire interview here]. We spoke about how and why Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded Dance Theater of Harlem almost 54 years ago; how Johnson was one of the founding dancers, and how she was tapped to lead the company back from financial crisis. 

Kiyon Ross (ne Gaines) in Twyla Tharp's Waiting at the Station
photo @ Angela Sterling

But the ballet nerd in me was curious to learn more about how Johnson was thinking about ballet’s future, both in terms of what is presented on stage, but also who we see. While Johnson believes classics like the 19th century story ballets and George Balanchine’s neo-classical repertoire need to be preserved and performed, she’s adamant that ballet needs to be responsive to contemporary society.

“We have to be brave innovators,” she said. That means not only tapping a wide array of artists to create new ballets that reflect a diversity of stories and visions; it also means expanding the artists who are on stages depicting and embodying those artistic visions. And it means that audiences need to open our minds and our hearts to embrace the innovations, whether that means a flock of swans of different sizes, shapes and colors, or a program of contemporary programs that push traditional notions of what ballet is. 

And for ballet newbies, Johnson says just give your brain a rest when you enter the theater. Open your heart to what unfolds on the stage in front of you. Yes, we can—and should—admire the physical prowess and technical precision we see, but for Virginia Johnson, ballet at its best gives shape to our inner spirit. 

Choreographer Donald Byrd working with PNB dancer Leah Terada on his ballet Love and Loss
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

“Ballet is about humanity,” she says. “Ballet is about human beings doing something aspirational.” 

Watching the joint company class on World Ballet Day, savoring the joy on the face of PNB’s new Associate Artistic Director Kiyon Ross as he put these talented dancers through their paces (even dashing off a couple of jetes himself!), I was reminded of Johnson’s thoughts, of her passion for her art form. Ballet is evolving, expanding, moving on the tides of the 21st century. So glad I get to fly above the waves to watch.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Zoe/Juniper Takes Us To Another Shore


Nia-Amina Minor in Zoe/Juniper's Always Now, part of The Other Shore at On the Boards 2022
photo @ Jim Coleman

Lying on a sheepskin throw, my head on a cushion, I gaze up at assorted pieces of what looks like crumpled foil, suspended from the ceiling of On the Boards’ main theater space. As the lights dim, I hold my breath in anticipation of the performance to come.

Zoe/Juniper’s two-part creation, The Other Shore, had its Seattle debut at OtB October 5-9, 2022; it’s both a live performance and a video installation. Experiencing them was a ritual for the senses that defies easy description but I’m going to give it my best shot.

Always Now, 2018 at Jacob's Pillow
photo @ Marcie Sillman

I actually had my first interaction with an earlier iteration of this artwork in the spring of 2018 when Zoe/Juniper was in residence at Jacob’s Pillow. Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey, the company’s co-artistic directors, had embarked on an exploration of the ways that artists and audiences interact during live performance. They wanted to change our perspective, and what better way to do that than to put the audience in the middle of the artistic action?

Even early on, Scofield and Shuey planned The Other Shore as a two-part experience. At Jacob’s Pillow, the big barn was divided by a heavy curtain; at OtB, the audience moves from floor to floor. The two dozen attendees are divided into two groups; in Seattle, half are led into a video installation, called Future Ancestors, while the other twelve people begin with the live performance, Always Now, in the room with the sheepskin throws. The two groups switch rooms midway through. 

Always Now before the audience arrives
photo @ Jim Coleman

Zoe/Juniper works have always combined live dance with stunning visuals and innovative video projections; with The Other Shore they take their creative vision to new heights. Future Ancestors, in OtB’s downstairs theater, is a large-scale video projection featuring performer Kehari Hutchinson. The audience, seated on couches or chairs, watches as Hutchinson emerges from under a pile of crumpled foil. The video, projected on a large, curved surface, follows the performer through what feels like a prolonged birth experience; it’s a slow ritual that culminates in Hutchinson’s self-anointment with golden liquid.

Future Ancestors has evolved from the live ritual I saw four years ago at Jacob’s Pillow. While not performed live this time, it remains quietly mesmerizing, no doubt touching different chords in each viewer.

Shuey’s video artistry is astonishing, but for me the thrill of The Other Shore was the live segment, Always Now. It’s immersive, innovative, beautiful and thought-provoking.

The experience began as our small group was led to an ante-room adjacent to OtB’s upstairs theater, where we shed our shoes and jackets. In the dimly-lit performance space, six dancers greeted us individually, guiding us to separate sheepskin mats laid out in two rows on a white floor. They settled us in and explained what we might expect. 

Nia-Amina Minor, front right, and fellow dancers, upright. Audiences members lie supine.
photo @ Jim Coleman

Once we’re supine on our mats, an almost-hypnotic score begins and the dancers start to move around us, between us, above us. We’re on the floor, but it feels like we’re suspended in an other-worldly cocoon, spun by lighting designer Evan Anderson, set designer Sara Brown and sound designer Bobby McElver.

Dancer Akoiya Harris in Zoe/Juniper's Always Now.
photo @ Jim Coleman

Lying there, you can turn your head from side to side, but you can’t see everything that’s happening. Instead, we rely on all of our senses (well, maybe not smell!) We can feel the vibration of the dancers’ feet on the floor, the whoosh of air when they leap over our bodies. The lights are set up on all four sides of the space, sometimes they're reflected by the crumpled pieces of foil on the ceiling, other times they backlight the bodies in motion.

Always Now at On the Boards
photo @ Jim Coleman

From time to time, a dancer crouches over you, looking into your eyes, creating an intimate bond we don’t get in a more typical performance where the audience watches artists from a distance. Other times, a dancer vaults over you, and for a tiny moment, we worry they might fall onto us. It feels a bit like the adrenaline rush you get on a roller coaster, scary, exciting, exhilarating all at once.

Always Now at On the Boards
photo @ Jim Coleman

As I lay there soaking it in, I was struck by the very “rightness” of Always Now. Almost three years into a pandemic that kept us physically separated for so many months, the sensory immersion of this performance, the intimate proximity to other humans, is celebratory, revelatory and melancholy all at once. I don't think it was meant as a commentary on this particular time in history, but it couldn't be more appropriate.

The cast of Always Now, October 2022, Seattle
photo @ Jim Coleman

For me, the most powerful art is a journey; I don't necessarily need a  narrative, but I want each performance to move from a starting point to another plane, another shore, if you will. Zoe/Juniper’s Always Now did just that for me. And in doing that, it offered up a fleeting moment of grace in these uncertain times, a place to reflect on our human connections: our dreams, our fears and our hopes.



Friday, September 16, 2022

With Fresh Eyes and Heart


Andy McShea, front with fellow Whim W'Him dancers in Dolly Sfeir's hard times for dreamers.
photo @ Jim Coleman, courtesy Whim W'Him

One of the pandemic’s upsides (you read that correctly, there were a few) has been the opportunity to see artists with new eyes. Or at least, eyes that have had a protracted break from live performance.

Last weekend I was happy to be in the Erickson Theater audience for the opening night performance of Seattle contemporary dance company Whim W’Him’s 13th artistic season. 

I’ve followed artistic director Olivier Wevers and his dancers since their first show at On the Boards. Like so many performing arts groups, Whim W’Him pivoted to digital presentations during the pandemic, and I watched those. Although the company returned to live shows last season, I only attended one in person, so this season opener gave me a chance to renew my admiration for Whim W'Him's very fine dancers. 

I was so happy to see two veteran company members, Karl Watson and Jane Cracovener, back on stage, along with five other talented dancers. But, to borrow a phrase from the publication Seattle Dances, I have a brand-new dance crush on Andrew McShea.

Andy McShea
photo @ Allina Yang

I’d seen McShea perform before the pandemic shutdowns, and I watched him in Whim W'Him's streamed offerings. But I can trace the start of my new crush to August 10th, when WW was part of an evening of wonderful dance presented free at the renovated Volunteer Park Amphitheater. 

That evening McShea performed a solo Wevers had choreographed for him. You know those social media posts, the ones with little arrows drawn on a photo to grab our attention? Watching McShea dance, I felt as if somebody had highlighted his body in flashing lights: Look at this dancer, Marcie!

I’m pretty sure it was the first thing I told friends about that evening.

Anyways, back to the Erickson Theatre, where Whim W’Him’s Fall 2022 program opened on September 9th.

As I mentioned, it was wonderful to see Watson and Cracovener. Nell Josephine and Michael Arellano are back this season, and equally adept. I was also struck by new company members Leah Misano and Kyle Sangil (who we actually got to see last May when Josephine was stricken with appendicitis). Everyone was great. But I couldn’t take my eyes off McShea.

To be fair, in the first dance, created by Nicole von Arx, the dancers’ heads were covered in black balaclavas for much of the time, so I wasn’t always sure who I was watching. Believe me, I did spend some time trying to figure out who was who. But in Dolly Sfeir’s hard time for dreamers, the final work of the evening, the masks were off, the dancers were distinctly visible and McShea just mesmerized me.

Michael Arellano, left, Jane Cracovener and Andy McShea
photo @ Allina Yang

hard time for dreamers, theatrical and slightly absurd in a Pina Bausch-esque way, is set on and among a collection of early 20th century furniture, with costumes reminiscent of that same era. The three women wear brightly colored dresses with puffed cap sleeves and waist sashes, designed by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Mark Zappone. For the men, Zappone created suits and vests cut from wide patterned plaid fabrics, paired with a variety of hats, from straw boaters to bowlers. 

Sfeir, who is also a filmmaker, gives each dancer a character to inhabit. Josephine was a sort of haughty socialite; Sangil, a tough. McShea was a sort of bittersweet clown.

I was gobsmacked by his ability to seemingly melt his bones. One moment he’d be upright; the next, his body had dissolved to the floor, his legs and arms heading in directions that defied anatomy.

Andy McShea, photo @ Jim Coleman

McShea has sharp, high cheekbones, and an intensity in his eyes that contrast with his body’s fluidity. It was fascinating to watch how he paired those with the singular qualities of the other company members, qualities that transcend the dances they perform, like character traits that define us as individuals.

That's been one of my favorite things about watching Whim W’Him over the years. We may never meet Wevers’ skilled dancers one one one, but we get to know them because they bring their full selves--and their considerable technical and artistic gifts--to every work.

Jim Kent, center, supported by Whim W'Him company members in Olivier Wevers' 
This is Not the Little Prince, photo courtesy Whim W'Him

Dancers' performing lives are short, so we’re constantly meeting new artists at Whim W'Him and every other dance company. It's bittersweet indeed. The great Jim Kent left Whim W’Him last year after almost 12 seasons; Liane Aung departed last spring and both of them will be sorely missed. 

Liane Aung, photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts

But where wonderful artists leave, new talents step up to fill the void. I look forward to getting to know the new company members, and to stoke my dance crush on Andrew McShea.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Moving Beyond Time, Place, and Circumstance


Leah Terada, rear, looks over Liane Aung's arm in A Liminal Space
photo @ Henry Wurtz, courtesy Seattle Dance Collective

When the pandemic started two and a half years ago, I (like many fans of live performance) wondered what it would be like to live without the very particular thrill of settling into my seat, alongside fellow audience members, collectively anticipating a new dance, a new play, a new concert.

Somehow, we all adjusted to art’s new digital delivery system. The dance world offered up everything from older recordings of live shows to odd Zoom pastiches. As the pandemic dragged on, artists adapted to the new norm, moving beyond simple video captures to create ingenious new work for our small screens.

This fall most performance venues are welcoming back live audiences, but Seattle Dance Collective’s latest film offering, A Liminal Space, conceived and directed by Henry Wurtz with choreographer Bruno Roque, reminded me, first, that digital offerings are here to stay. Second, that they can be as evocative and satisfying as a live performance.

Leah Terada crawls out from the white fabric cube
photo @ Henry Wurtz

A Liminal Space begins inside a white cloth cube. Dancer Leah Terada lies on a bed of soil, her off-white pants and sweater covered with dark loam as she rolls and writhes. She rises from the dirt and spots a pinpoint of light, ripping through her fabric enclosure with the help of fellow dancer Liane Aung, who is just outside. Together they dance on a wide Puget Sound beach, their curved arms seemingly gathering in the sun and salt-water breezes as they revel in their freedom.

The film moves both the cube and the dancers onto a grassy meadow, then into a lush forest grove. Aung and Terada are dressed alike, in light slacks and sweaters, their dark hair styled into identical single braids that hang down their backs. Are they doppelgangers? Mirror images of the same person? As Fabian ReimAir’s original score builds in momentum, the two women dance in unison, circle one another, lie side by side, fingers lightly brushing up against the other’s body.

Terada and Aung working together to escape the cube
photo @ Henry Wurtz

The concept is simple, maybe even simplistic: here’s what it’s like to be caged up, then released. We all remember how it felt when we first emerged from pandemic quarantine; how we felt when we first met up with friends, family, even strangers, after months of enforced social distancing. We were confined in our own versions of the white cube; slowly we were freed to experience the wider world and to enjoy human interaction again. Roque’s choreography performed by these two dancers, plus the magnificence of a Pacific Northwest summer, combine to give A Liminal Space more heft than it might have had in the hands of lesser artists.

Liane Aung, who left Olivier Wevers’ company Whim W’Him this spring after several seasons, is a standout dancer. She imbues each movement with a crisp clarity that draws the viewer’s eye. Leah Terada, a corps de ballet dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, has a softer approach to Roque’s choreography, although she’s no less compelling to watch. Together they create a physical harmony that elevates this short film.

Leah Terada, photo @ Henry Wurtz

Terada is having a moment of sorts, emerging from the relative anonymity of PNB’s corps. Two years ago, she danced on a dock with fellow PNB company member Miles Pertl in a lovely short film The Only Thing You See Now, another Seattle Dance Collective commission. Terada was featured in several PNB offerings last season, giving ballet audiences a chance to see her versatility. And I was awed by her complete dedication to her art form while watching her earlier this summer as she performed choreographer Eva Stone’s punishing solo, one of a series created for Stone’s site-specific Sculptured Dance on Whidbey Island.

The joy of a dance film like Wurtz’ A Liminal Space is that we get a close, even intimate, view of Terada and Aung. We savor the expression on Terada’s face when she first escapes her white cube, watch them watch each other as they start a duet. We see how Aung gives a physical weight to Roque’s choreography, the way she angles an elbow or crouches low into her knees. Meanwhile Terada almost seems to float above Aung, her version of these same movements seemingly weightless. These are details we’d miss if this dance was performed live. In fact, A Liminal Space could never be live; it’s a piece of art created by a camera intended for a screen. It’s beauty is fleeting, like the tangy scent of the salt water carried on the breeze.

One of the many lessons the pandemic has reinforced is the myriad ways performance can pack an emotional wallop. I now cherish each opportunity to sit in a darkened theater, the tingle of anticipation before the stage lights come up on a live show. But as I watched Terada and Aung whirling on the sand in the early morning sunshine, I felt a different kind of joy. I’m grateful for the way artists adapted to changed circumstances, the way they found new ways to illuminate our collective human experience. Thanks to Seattle Dance Collective for making a space for this to continue.

Monday, June 6, 2022

It's Hard to Say Goodbye


Sarah Pasch, center, with Elle Macy, left, and Chelsea Adomaitis in Twyla Tharp's
Waiting at the Station, 2013. photo @ Angela Sterling

When dance journalists write about ballet, we’re usually focused on the choreographers or the principal dancers, the orchestra, or the sets, costumes and lighting.

We note new creations, exemplary performances, on-stage partnerships and the like. I think of us a bit like magpies, lured from one bright, shiny object to the next. When a beloved ballet star gives their last performance, we're likely to note their departures in a multitude of media outlets. The accolades are usually well-deserved; unfortunately, we’re not quite so attentive when other hard-working dancers decide it's time to leave their performing careers behind. 

And that’s too bad, because I think of the corps de ballet in particular as the hardest working, often least recognized, group of dancers in show business. This week Pacific Northwest Ballet says goodbye to two corps members: Guillaume Basso and Sarah Pasch. The company also bids farewell to elegant PNB soloist Joshua Grant.

Joshua Grant-Montoya, left, with his husband Christopher Grant-Montoya and canine family members in their new school, Dance Conservatory Seattle. photo courtesy Joshua Grant-Montoya

One minute to recognize Grant, who has appeared in everything from new work by David Dawson to Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette, where his Paris unsuccessfully wooed a reluctant Juliet. 

Joshua Grant as Paris in Jean-Christophe Maillot's
Romeo et Juliette. photo @ Angela Sterling

But Grant, a veteran of Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo, was just as arresting as Mother Ginger in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, both for his facility mincing along on stilts supporting a 60+ pound costume that hides a troupe of kids and his brilliant comedic timing.

Joshua Grant as Mother Ginger with PNB school students in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
photo @ Elise Bakketun 

But back to the corps de ballet, dancers who are particularly indispensable when a company like PNB mounts big productions like Nutcracker or Swan Lake. While our eyes may be glued to the Sugar Plum Fairy (or Mother Ginger), or to Odette and Siegfried’s doomed love story, we can’t help but be awed by twirling Snowflakes, or the amazing bevy of swans who take the stage in Swan Lake’s Act 2, hopping in from the wings with precision and unity. It’s hard work, physically and mentally. Odette and Siegfried get several night’s rest in between performances, but those swans grind out shows every night.

PNB corps de ballet members in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, 2018.
Sarah Pasch is at far right. photo @ Angela Sterling

Leading PNB’s pack (or should I saw flock?) this year with her trademark elegance and poise was ten-year corps de ballet member Pasch.

“It was my fourth time around with this ballet,” says the 31-year old. “I still love it.”

It will be one of many memories Pasch savors next fall, when she trades the Marion Oliver McCall Hall stage for an elementary school classroom. While the dancers were sidelined during the pandemic, Pasch used her time to complete a Bachelor’s degree from Western Governor’s University, and to focus on her now two-year old daughter Etta, who she’s raising with her husband, PNB soloist Ezra Thomson.

“The pandemic actually kind of worked in my favor,” Pasch explains. “I had planned to take time off school and work when Etta was born (January, 2020). Things changed, and I wasn’t dancing (because of the pandemic), so even though I had a newborn baby at home, I did have time to do school.”

Last fall, Pasch needed a few more months leave from PNB to complete her student teaching. She told her boss, Artistic Director Peter Boal, that she’d be back for Nutcracker, but would retire from the company this summer.

“I kinda used it as a consolation prize,” Pasch laughs. “If you let me do this, I’ll retire and you can hire some younger dancers!”

Sarah Pasch as the Stepmother in Jean-Christophe Maillot's
Cendrillon. photo @ Angela Sterling

In the meantime, Pasch has used her position as one of the senior corps members to help guide some of PNB’s newer dancers. Boal says Pasch’s grace and unobtrusive but steady presence in the studio has earned her the respect of her peers, and her boss.

“Every company has undesignated leaders like Sarah, who see the bigger scope of the rehearsal process.” Boal wrote in an email. “She knows what needs to be fixed and how to fix it. She will be missed.”

Sarah Pasch with Dammiel Cruz-Garrido in Ulysses Dove's Red Angels, 2018.
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

Pasch leaves PNB on a high note. She’s scheduled to dance in Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels with fellow corps member Dammiel Cruz-Garrido in the company’s Encore performance June 12th. She first saw this ballet when she joined PNB School’s Professional Division in 2009.

“I was out in the audience,” says Pasch, “and I was like, ‘I have to do that role!’”

Boal cast her in it several years later, which she says was a big deal for her; as a corps dancer Pasch hasn’t had regular opportunities to  perform solo roles. She considers Red Angels to be one of her career highlights, along with a stint in George Balanchine’s Rubies.

Sarah Pasch, center with, from left, Chelsea Adomaitis, James Yoichi Moore and Elle Macy in 2013 production of Tharp's Waiting at the Station. photo @ Angela Sterling

Another highlight was originating the role of Golden Girl, one of a trio featured in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station, created for PNB in 2013. The ballet is one of three Tharp works that make up PNB’s final program of this artistic season. Although COVID forced the company to cancel opening weekend performances, Pasch is scheduled to reprise the role this weekend (June 9-12), if the virus allows the shows to go on.

“It feels like full circle,” she says. “To have a role created on you is so cool. It feels very precious to me, and I’m so excited I get to dance it again.”

This summer, Pasch will tour with PNB to New York and Los Angeles before stepping away from professional ballet for good. She acknowledges her life will be different come September, when her husband heads back to the ballet studio while she takes her place in front of a classroom. Pasch is eager to begin this new career, but says ballet will always be with her.

“I’ll really miss that magic of the curtain coming up, being onstage in costume. There’s nothing like it,” she acknowledges. “I’m just grateful for the audience here, the career I’ve had, this home I’ve created at PNB.”