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.