Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Loving Max


Max, photo @ Alan Lande

I never thought I would love a cat.

In my suburban enclave, dogs ruled. We had a series of small yappers; they--and a slew of anti-feline stereotypes—surrounded me.

Cats were aloof, I was told. They didn’t bond with their owners, didn’t love their humans the way dogs did. I had no reason to question those prejudices, which were reinforced by the only cat I knew, an imperious Siamese named Missy who deigned to live with my cousins.

I never imagined that I’d own a cat and certainly didn’t envision falling in love with one.

Then came Max.

I actually had a few cats before Max, most notably a rambunctious Tabby named Buddy, who I adopted from a southern Ohio farm when I was working at my first bona fide radio gig in rural Yellow Springs. I lived on a street full of cats, and they had a pecking order, something I discovered when I made the mistake of purchasing a living catnip plant. I set it out on the porch, only to discover the poor seedling surrounded by the cat gang, who took turns ripping it to shreds. First, the big tom cat who lived next door had a go, then Buddy, who, by the way, was female. Old Wynona, with her sway back and greasy fur, had the final go at the denuded stem.

Buddy moved to Seattle with me when I got hired at KUOW in 1985 and she was around for another 10 years; always the life of the party.

This is Jiji, photo @ Alan Lande

We adopted Max, and his Tabby littermate Jiji, in 2008, I think. My son and I drove up to Everett to look at the litter of eight very young kittens who’d been rescued from an abandoned building in Ellensburg. They were being fostered at one of our region’s stellar rescue shelters.

Almost as soon as I sat down on the floor of a small room in the PetSmart outlet at the Everett Mall, Jiji climbed into my lap and started to purr. She chose us, and 15 years later she’s still a sweet and fairly unassuming cat.

Max was a different story. While I stroked Jiji, who was nestled in for the long run, her brother teetered on a narrow shelf that circled the room, then picked out careful steps like the Simone Biles of cats. Max’s black fur, white boots and whiskers were enchanting, but my son was particularly enticed by this kitty’s white and black facial markings that looked a little like Hitler’s mustache.

Cat on a warm carpet plinth. photo @ Alan Lande

We brought the kittens home a few weeks later, and settled them into our spare bathroom, the warmest room in the house.

Jiji was fearless and smart; she learned how to climb over the wooden barricade we’d set up, figured out how to maneuver through the makeshift cat door onto the back deck, and managed to climb the scratching post Alan built for them, eager to reach the carpeted platform that sat atop the post.

Max, on the other hand, while curious as cats are, was not the brightest bulb.

He wedged himself under the house; we called for him, puzzled by the faint meowing coming from who knew where. Rescue required slithering through the dirt and cobwebs while trying to maintain a bit of dignity.

Why, do you need this shelf for anything?
photo @ Alan Lande

One morning as I lounged in bed reading, with Jiji ensconced on my lap, we both heard Max yelling outside the bedroom window, feet firmly planted on the narrow veranda that wraps around the back of the house. He’d figured out how to use the cat door, but couldn’t quite manage to get back inside. I could almost see Jiji roll her eyes and she leapt off my lap and ran outside to get her brother.

I used to call Max my dog-cat because he lavished attention on us in the ways people expect from dogs: waiting attentively at the front door when he heard my car pull up, or sitting outside the bedroom door each morning, alert for my alarm. In the summertime, he’d perch on a railing outside the bedroom window, crowing like a feline rooster to let me know it was time for his breakfast. Occasionally I’d see him leap up onto a gray wooden structure in our front yard; he’d mince around its perimeter very daintily, reminiscent of the day we met him at PetSmart.

The older Max got, the more affectionate he became, especially when it was cold outside. He’d get up on the bed, all 17 pounds of him, drape his big paws over my thighs, and lay his head down on them, purring contentedly. I didn’t dare move lest I disrupt his beauty sleep.

What can I say? I loved him

These stories and many more have been bubbling up since we laid Max to rest last week.

Max was diagnosed with a swift-growing and painful jaw tumor just over two months ago. It was a horrible end for such a proud and feisty boy. He grew more needy, spending hours curled up next to me, or sitting beside me while I worked.

His death leaves an immense hole; we are truly gutted, as the British would say. Jiji searches the house for him, crying while I try to console her. I sit on my bed, knitting in hand, but no cat purrs at my side. Sometimes tears just well up as I picture him leaping up, giving me a little cat chirp of greeting. Sometimes I really do understand that Britishism, gutted, because it’s like part of my insides are gone. But not my heart. I know it’s still there because it’s still aching for his presence.

Sunday, March 19, 2023


Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet member Genevieve Waldorf, left, with soloist Christopher D'Ariano in Penny Saunders' Wonderland. Photo @ Angela Sterling


Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal made a good choice when he named the company’s latest program.

Boundless means limitless, according to my dictionary; an apt description when I think back on the three dances that make up the Boundless bill.

Boal has made it his practice to bring audiences two contemporary ballet programs each year, in November and March. Sometimes those dances are imported from other companies. In the case of Boundless—and thanks to the season-long celebration of PNB’s 50th anniversary--we get two world premieres plus the stage debut of Penny Saunder’s witty Wonderland, originally commissioned and presented as part of PNB’s 2020-21 digital-only artistic season.

Saunders, PNB resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo and the internationally acclaimed dancemaker Jessica Lang offered up three completely different works, each showcasing the company dancers to their best advantage.

PNB Principal Dancer Lucien Postlewaite, left, with company members in
Penny Saunders' Wonderland. Photo @ Angela Sterling

Wonderland, a love letter to theaters and the artists who inhabit them, originally was videotaped in various locations in the empty McCaw Hall, where PNB (and Seattle Opera) regularly perform. In 2020, when Saunders created the dance, the world had been shut down for months, and nobody knew when we’d all gather again in person. In revisiting Wonderland almost three years later, Saunders had to address our changed circumstances while retaining the essence of her homage to the magic that can happen in a theater.

The new Wonderland is bookended by the always fabulous Elle Macy. She emerges from the orchestra pit at the beginning, baton at the ready, to conduct a set of white-gloved hands that have poked their way under the heavy red velvet curtain. Macy reprises her conducting role at the end of the dance. In between, we revel in soloist Christopher D’Ariano and corps de ballet member Genevieve Waldorf’s duet on the stage, as well as principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite’s pas de deux with corps member Mark Cuddihee, performed in separate box seats above and across the sea of audience members.

Elle Macy, left, with Dylan Wald in Wonderland.
photo @ Angela Sterling

Saunders’ work not only survived the jump from small screen to live stage, it transcended, providing haunting moments of pure beauty along with the whimsy. One of the highlights was welcoming back principal dancer Dylan Wald, who’s been out for almost a year with a serious injury. Saunders made Wonderland with him in 2020, and it was truly a joy to see this talented artist back in his element.

If Wonderland left us feeling upbeat, Alejandro Cerrudo’s new Black on Black on Black, a combination of demanding, sometimes confounding, stage wizardry (kudos to the backstage crew and stage management for what had to be a monumental evening of scrim jockeying) and moments of simply lyrical dance.

Watching the sheer beauty of Leah Terada, perched atop Chris D’Ariano’s behind, slowly surfing a sea of dancers lying prone onstage is something to behold.

Luminous Angelica Generosa with James Kirby Rogers in
Alejandro Cerrudo's Black on Black on Black. Photo @ Angela Sterling

Two other sections linger: principals Angelica Generosa and James Kirby Rogers performed a lovely duet that showcased both their technical prowess and their artistry. (In fact, Generosa danced in all three pieces on opening night, and shone equally (and blindingly) in each).

The other highlight was a solo for corps de ballet member Noah Martzall. I wish I had a picture to show you, but you’ll have to content yourself with this photo of Martzall in Crystal Pite’s amazing The Seasons’ Canon. He’s definitely a rising presence in a ballet company that boasts any number of talented dancers.

That's Noah Martzall in the middle, surrounded by fellow PNB dancers in
Crystal Pite's fabulous The Seasons' Canon. Photo @ Angela Sterling

The program’s final work was Jessica Lang’s Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee, (LMMTWT for short) set to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, performed by the always wonderful PNB orchestra with singers Christina Siemens and Sarra Sharif Doyle. LMMTWT couldn’t be more different from the two dances that preceded it.

PNB dancers in Jessica Lang's Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee
photo @ Angela Sterling

The 18th century Stabat Mater is about Mary’s grief at the death of her son, Jesus. While there’s no mistaking the Christian symbolism in this ballet, Lang intends her work to transcend this particular story. But with the dancers clad in flowing costumes in faded gold, peach and blue and re-creating what look like Renaissance-era Church frescos, it’s hard to think beyond the New Testament. As a non-Christian, religious artworks like this often leave me cold. The assumption of the universality of their message is ignorant of the experiences of those of us on the outside. 

PNB company members in Jessica Lang's Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee
Photo @ Angela Sterling

But mid-way through, the cast swaps the pastel tights, skirts and flowing shirts for costumes rendered in super-saturated purple, blue, green and red. Despite the gigantic crucifix set piece, the costume change is where this ballet opened up for me.

I don’t want to give much away, but choreographically (and musically) the end of LMMTWT is magnificent; it is Lang’s visual rendering of the fugue we hear the orchestra play. The intricacy and the dancers’ grace truly are something to behold.

LMMTWT is an ensemble work; opening night featured some solid performances from several of the company’s newer members including Audrey Malek, Clara Ruf Maldonado and Kuu Sakuragi. They were as strong as such veterans as James Yoichi Moore, Elizabeth Murphy and Generosa, who truly was luminous. 

Angelica Generosa with James Moore in Jessica Lang's Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee
Photo @ Angela Sterling

Boundless, onstage March 23-26 at McCaw Hall, offered a smorgasbord of new work. There were those moments of transcendent beauty, the ones I always hope to see; there were also times when I wondered what I was watching.

What I am certain about is that PNB’s dancers look great right now, from the five newly-hired apprentices to accomplished principal dancers like Macy, Wald, Postlewaite and Generosa. Watching Martzall, D’Ariano, Terada and Sakuragi on opening night left me excited for the company’s future, whatever choreography comes their way.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

To Lesley Rausch, With Love


Lesley Rausch as Odette in Kent Stowell's Swan Lake
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

I knew it was coming but I still wasn't ready when I got the news.

After 22 years at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Lesley Rausch has announced she'll retire at the end of this artistic season. Lesley is currently the longest-tenured dancer in the company, one of the few who has straddled the artistic directorships of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and Peter Boal.

Lesley Rausch and former PNB principal dancer Seth Orza in Balanchine's
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Photo @ Angela Sterling

As I said, I knew it was a matter of time, but every ballet dancer's retirement hits me hard, as if I'm losing an onstage friend.

I've spent a lot of time talking to PNB dancers over the years, but I didn't know Lesley particularly well. Then, almost two years ago I ran into her on the street near Seattle Center. Although the pandemic was still in full swing, we’d just started to emerge from isolation, emboldened by the new vaccines.

Lesley was on her lunch hour; Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers were back in the studio, although they weren’t yet performing for in-person audiences.

Lesley Rausch at Seattle Center, September 2021
photo @ Marcie Sillman

I didn't really know Lesley, but we struck up a conversation. Remember, most of us hadn’t been face-to-face with other humans for months and months, so every encounter felt like greeting a long-lost relative. 

That was mid-2021; Lesley was 39, an age when many ballet dancers are planning the next phases of their lives. Lesley had been certified to teach Pilates, but she was one of the few dancers of her cohort who’d chosen to return to PNB for the coming season instead of retiring. We talked a bit about why she’d made the decision to keep dancing rather than step into her new career. 

Lesley with former PNB principal dancer Karel Cruz in George Balanchine's Agon
                                                              photo @ Angela Sterling

Despite her well-made plans for life post-PNB, Lesley didn’t intend her ballet career to fade away during Covid. She wanted the opportunity to dance again before a live audience.

Made sense to me.

We ended that chat, wished each other well, and parted ways. But I was intrigued by our conversation. A couple of weeks later, I approached Lesley to see if I could interview her regularly over the course of the 2021-22 artistic season. I was curious to hear more about how it felt--both in body and mind--to come back to the stage after months away from the rigors of the studio and regular performances. I wanted to know what drove her to keep dancing.

Lesley Rausch and James Kirby Rogers in Giselle, 2023
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lesley agreed to my request, and it was my great fortune to talk with her several times last season, and to write stories both here and for other media outlets. 

She was candid about the discipline required to prepare her body for the rigors of ballet: hot (“hot hot hot” in her words) showers, regular Pilates and physical warmups before she even headed into the PNB studios, great physical therapists (she thanks PNB's Boyd Bender in her goodbye announcement) and, above all, persistence.

Lesley told me that sometimes, after a full day in the studio, her body was so exhausted that she just came home and cried. She also told me how much ballet meant to her. She’d started classes as a very young girl in Ohio and climbed through the ranks at PNB to become a principal dancer in 2011. 

More than the professional accomplishements, Lesley thinks of the dancers and PNB staff as her second family. She met her husband, former PNB principal dancer Batkhurel Bold, at the company.

Lesley with her husband Batkhurel Bold, photo @ Angela Sterling

After more than two decades at PNB, Lesley is the most senior company member, the dancer who performs Giselle, Aurora or Odette/Odile on opening night.

But that wasn’t always the case for this graceful---and technically skilled---artist. PNB had other wonderful principal dancers when Lesley was coming up: Kaori Nakamura, Noelani Pantastico, Carla Korbes and Carrie Imler to name just a few. She kept working, kept performing, and has danced hundreds of roles over her career.

Lesley has always been a technical whiz, a dancer who executes the classical choreography with precision. But I first really noticed her artistry in the 2017 PNB production of Jean Christophe Maillot’s Cendrillon (which we English speakers know better as Cinderella).

Lesley as the stepmother in Maillot's Cendrillon, 2017
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lesley performed the role of Cinderella’s stepmother, dressed in the most outrageous costume; it looked like she had a dragon’s tail. And I remember so clearly how Lesley imbued that character with a touching pathos. We usually think of the stepmother as full of spite; in Maillot's version, Cinderella’s father remarries after his wife dies, but can’t quite forget his first love. Lesley showed us the pain of a woman who can never measure up to somebody else's memory; she showed us the roots of the spite and malevolence.

I asked Lesley about that performance; I was curious to know when she felt able to bring herself fully to the story ballet roles she loves. I was surprised when she told me it hadn't even been 10 years. Her focus had been on the choreography. Only when she felt it in her bones could she reveal her emotional side to audiences. It's been worth the wait.

Over the past two post-pandemic in-person seasons, Lesley has shown us an exquisite Giselle, a tender Odette and her a devil-may-care alter-ego Odile, plus her first “sock” ballet, in a lovely dance created by Alonzo King. And, of course, she was electric in Ulysses Dove's Red Angels.

Lesley in Dove's Red Angels. Photo @ Angela Sterling

One of PNB’s first pandemic-era videos featured the exquisite principal dancer Dylan Wald as Apollo and Lesley as one of his muses. At one point in the video, Lesley touched Dylan’s finger. I confess the shock of seeing two humans touch after the long months of social distancing was something to savor. 

Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald in George Balanchine's Apollo
Photo @ Lindsay Thomas

A dancer’s career is far too short; just as she reaches her peak artistry, her body tells her it’s time to move on. I’m so grateful to have gotten to know Lesley a bit more, to have a window into her hard work and mental preparations, and, above all, to watch her end her career the way she’d intended: dancing the roles she loved, giving audiences indelible moments to remember.

Lesley Rausch and Ezra Thomson in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Photo @ Angela Sterling

We hope to see Lesley perform in April in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. PNB will honor Lesley’s career on June 11 at the Season Encore performance. I’ll be sitting in McCaw Hall that evening to show my appreciation for an artist and for a truly lovely human being.