Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Unstoppable Amanda Morgan


Amanda Morgan
photo @ Kenya Shakoor

Amanda Morgan is having a moment.

More accurately, she’s having a year of moments: from last summer’s grant to fund a series of open-air dance performances in Seattle parks, to her promotion to the rank of Soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet last September, to her upcoming Seattle Project show, Chapters, at Northwest Film Forum.

I got to thinking about Amanda last weekend at a performance of PNB’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was dancing the role of Hippolyta; in the first act she—accompanied by a pack of dogs—leaps around the stage with a golden crossbow in her hand. (I don’t recall this particular character in Shakespeare’s original text, but as one former ballerina told me ‘(choreographer) George Balanchine liked to make roles for tall women.’) 

Amanda as Hippolyta in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream
photo @ Angela Sterling

Watching Amanda unfold those long, LONG, legs of hers as she jeted into the wings, I got to thinking how far she’s come in the years that I’ve been watching her dance.

I first met Amanda in 2018, two years after she joined PNB as an apprentice. At the time she was making a dance for the company’s Professional Division students to perform at their annual spring Next Step performance. She wasn’t much older than 22.

Of course, I’d seen her onstage before that. She’s over 5’ 10”, so even in a ballet company that’s had its share of tall dancers, her height is distinctive. Not only that. At the time, Amanda was the only Black woman in the company, so of course you noticed her onstage.

Amanda Morgan in class at PNB
photo @ Megan Farmer for KUOW radio

Over the years I’ve wondered about her ballet future. She’d once mentioned to me that she, herself, was unclear about where her artistic path would take her. I think she felt a bit outside the white ballet world.

In 2019, Amanda founded the Seattle Project, a multi-arts nonprofit that would feature work by BIPOC and queer creators, including herself. When the pandemic hit and PNB was sidelined for months, Amanda poured her energies into making her own work. The summer of 2020 saw her collaborate with Nia-Amina Minor on a film for Seattle Dance Collective, Musings.

Amanda as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in PNB's 2023 production of Giselle
photo @ Angela Sterling

Since Amanda’s PNB promotion last fall, I’ve watched her take on new ballet challenges. Perhaps the toughest is my favorite role in Giselle; Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Myrtha and her band of jilted women—all dead--haunt the forest after dark. The role is both technically and dramatically challenging and it was a thrill to see Amanda perform it on successfully.

She was a standout in Crystal Pite’s The Seasons’ Canon last November, and although I didn’t see it, she also debuted as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s Nutcracker.

Amanda, center, with PNB company members in Crystal Pite's
The Seasons' Canon. Photo @ Angela Sterling

With all these new roles to tackle, you could excuse Amanda for letting her own choreography slide. Instead, she’s been working on her new piece, Chapters. The project explores the intersection of Blackness and femininity, as well as personal history, and features work by five self-identified Black femme artists: Amanda, Nia-Amina Minor, Akoiya Harris, Kenya Shakoor and PNB company member Ashton Edwards.

[A word about Ashton, who’s been a rising force since joining the ballet company as an apprentice in 2021. We’ve seen Ashton in an array of works: pointe roles in the big ballets, a fabulous duet with Luther DeMeyer in Justin Peck’s sneaker ballet The Times Are Racing, and most recently as a magical Puck in Balanchine’s Midsummer.]

A completely extraneous--but fabulous--photo of Ashton Edwards as Puck
photo @ Angela Sterling

Despite Amanda’s ballet accomplishments, she seems determined to forge ahead with her own creative endeavors, honing both her choreographic skills and her self-producing chops.

You can check out both of her worlds in the coming weeks. Seattle Project's Chapters will be at Northwest Film Forum May 5-6.

And PNB has one more program on tap this artistic season: Worlds to Come, a mixed bill featuring new work by Kiyon Ross (former PNB soloist, now company Associate Artistic Director) and internationally acclaimed Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The program also features the live stage debut of Edwaard Liang's The Veil Between Worlds. It’s onstage June 2-11 at McCaw Hall

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Some Enchanted Evening

PNB principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy, center, with company dancers in 
George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. photo @ Angela Sterling

Last Friday I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet’s latest production of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I can give you hundreds of reasons why this 1962 reimagining of Shakespeare’s magical tale is the perfect ballet to celebrate PNB’s 50th anniversary.

Seriously, hundreds of reasons.

Let’s start with more than a dozen young PNB school students decked out with wings and small antennae. They flitter around Martin Pakledinaz’s enchanting sets, flapping their arms and running in circles more like happy puppies than insects. But watching their exuberance lifted my spirits.

Elizabeth Murphy as Queen Titania, with some of her retinue in the enchanted forest.
photo @ Angela Sterling

A word (okay, several words) about those Pakledinaz sets. Garlands of rosy peonies! Sparkling spider webs! A skyful of glittering stars! Combined with Randall Chiarelli’s lighting, you can almost believe you’re in a magic forest.

Felix Mendelssohn’s glorious score is more than ably performed by the PNB orchestra--more than 65 amazing musicians led by conductor Emil de Cou. I think our reason count is nearing 100.

I’m guessing the crystals that adorn the costumes push our number into the 1,000s; add in yards of delicate tulle, plus the talented costume shop crew who transformed that material into the noble tunics and tutus that clothe the enchanted forest’s fairy denizens, and we’re already way above the 100s of reasons why A Midsummer Night’s Dream has captivated Seattle audiences since PNB’s founding Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell got permission from the Balanchine Trust to redesign the production in 1997. (Russell staged the production again this season.)

Soloist Christian Poppe as Puck, surrounded by PNB butterflies.
 photo @ Angela Sterling

I haven’t even mentioned the very best part of this particular production: the PNB dancers, numbering 46, not including the PNB school’s Professional Division students. Audiences got to welcome back to the stage three company members who’ve been missing for months: corps de ballet member Abbie Jayne D’Angelo and soloist Price Suddarth, who’ve been out with injuries, and luminous principal dancer Leta Biasucci, who has just returned from maternity leave, although watching her dance you’d never know she’d been away since last fall.

Principal dancers Leta Biasucci and James Yoichi Moore, surrounded by PNB dancers. 
photo @ Angela Sterling

From the kaleidoscope of butterflies led by Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, to the pack of dogs who bounded onstage with Elle Macy’s Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, every company member and student performed with joyful abandon.

I’ve seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream a number of times, but I attended this opening night with a ballet neophyte, so I had the opportunity to experience it vicariously through a fresh pair of eyes. My companion knows Shakespeare’s play and was interested to see how Balanchine had distilled the dramatic action into one act that introduces us to Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Fairies, (meticulous Kyle Davis and a glowing Elizabeth Murphy) along with a retinue that includes the mischievous Puck (danced that evening by soloist Christian Poppe) and Titania’s cavalier (James Kirby Rogers).

Kyle Davis, left, as Oberon, faces down his onstage wife, Titania, danced by Elizabeth Murphy
They're surrounded by PNB company members and school students
photo @ Angela Sterling

We also meet two pairs of rather confused human lovers: Helena and Demetrius (Cecilia Iliesiu and Miles Pertl) and Hermia and Lysander (Biasucci and James Yoichi Moore), plus Theseus, Duke of Athens (Dammiel Cruz-Garrido), in whose forest everyone cavorts.

Puck has bewitched James Yoichi Moore's Lysander into believing himself in love with Helena
danced by Cecilia Iliesiu, in red. Biasucci's Hermia, left, is his real true love.
photo @ Angela Sterling

The ballet offers marital spats, romantic misunderstandings, plus a magical flower that Puck wields at Oberon’s command to make Titania fall head over heels for the man-turned-donkey, Bottom (Ezra Thomson). Watching Thomson, kitted out in his winsome donkey head, straining to escape Murphy’s tender caresses and savor the blades of grass she’s bestowed upon him, well, I fell even further under the frothy spell this sumptuous production cast.

How could you not fall in love with that donkey face?
Soloist Ezra Thomson is beneath the mask, being caressed by Elizabeth Murphy's Titania
photo @ Angela Sterling

All of Puck’s mischief gets sorted out by the end of the first act, and, after the gaggle of children, fairies and enchanted forest residents had taken their bows, my Shakespeare-savvy companion assumed the ballet was over. What more was left to tell?

To my mind, Balanchine saved the real Midsummer magic for his second act, a banquet of stunning choreography reminiscent of some of his epic big ballets. And, on this evening, the dancing was as magical as the original source material.

In particular, principal dancers Dylan Wald (only recently returned from a serious injury) and his partner, the sublime Lesley Rausch, perform a duet so delicately beautiful that it took my breath away.

As much as I love Angela Sterling's photograph, it can't really capture the spell that Dylan Wald and Lesley Rausch weave when they perform together in Balanchine's Divertissement.

That’s due in large part to the pleasure of seeing these two dancers--frequent stage partners before Wald’s injury—reunited after so many months. Balanchine’s Divertissement (the official name for this duet) is a fitting showcase for their artistry, their complete trust in one another, as well as what seemed to be the real joy they found in the choreography.

Each time Wald lifted Rausch, she seemed to hang in the air for an extra beat or two before floating gently down to the stage. Twice, they moved downstage together in a series of diagonal steps, executing what looked like the ballet version of a do-si-do, their shoulders repeatedly touching, then separating as they twirled apart.

Wald has a majestic and magnetic stage presence, and, after more than 20 years with PNB, Rausch is a master of her technical craft as well as an expressive artist. She infuses each lift of a leg, every extension of her arms, with confidence and grace. And that made the evening bittersweet; Rausch retires in June so this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of her last at PNB. Another reason to get yourself down to McCaw Hall before it closes.

You don't watch a performance--this one or any other--in an isolation chamber, even if you purchase a digital ticket. We’re all informed by events in our personal lives and in the world around us. I can’t  escape the psychological aftermath of three pandemic years, subsequent economic pressures, plus the ongoing political and climatic turmoil that surrounds me. But two hours spent in an ethereal, enchanted forest was a most diverting respite. I think Shakespeare’s clever Puck said it best:

If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended. That you have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear.

Wouldn’t it be dreamy if those words pertained to real life?

PNB’s production of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through April 23rd.