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Hitting The Heights, Up In Lights

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Broadway Festival Program

by Dean Speer

14 March 2009 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle

It’s too easy to forget that not all that long ago, it was common for ballet dancers to perform outside the specialized area of ballet in other concert dance, in musicals, in films, and even (horror-of-horrors) for the new-fangled and suspicious medium, television. I’ve read more than one report, for example, of the great ballerina Alicia Alonso (who is still around as of this writing) moving people to tears at Ballet Theatre with “Giselle” and then tap dancing a couple of months later in a Broadway musical. Companies did not provide full time employment to dancers who made their way by being versatile and seeking opportunities in both obvious and unusual places.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Broadway Festival is the closest thing this classical company has done to “putting on a show,” yet it all fit nicely together and made sense at the program I caught in mid-March. One common thread among each piece was how they summarized a period or atmosphere...or even, as Peter Boal reported, how the whole musical was put into one thing (referring to “West Side Story Suite”).

Finding employment himself on Broadway as a choreographer, the great Balanchine made the ballet-within-a-ballet-within-a-musical [‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ within “On Your Toes”] for his wife Vera Zorina. “Slaughter” is a revival version that he re-made, based on the original, for his last muse, Suzanne Farrell. A neat bonus of the evening was a showing of an excerpt from the movie of the original with Zorina and a very young Eddie Albert. I was impressed by how much of the original choreography made it into the later version. (They also preceded “West Side Story Suite” with the movie trailer – also quite wonderful...and interesting to note how much of the “real” choreography made it into the compressed ballet version of six dances.)

Staged by Susan Pilarre, “Slaughter” is a fun romp set in a ‘20s-style speakeasy with ‘gangstas’ and a “Striptease Girl” with whom the Hoofer is smitten. Fun ensues as double-crossers get double-crossed...and all’s well that ends well as our hero is saved from being rubbed out and the entire gang, after an initial set of bows, launches into a classic Balanchine tutti finale.

“Carousel” has been a popular hit since its 1945 premiere. Re-envisioned as a dance by hot property choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, “Carousel (A Dance)” nicely gives us the sense of the musical book without its sad details. Jodie Thomas and James Moore find each other at the fair and their duet deepens as they move to “If I Loved You.”

Very inventive is how Wheeldon makes a moving carousel out of only dancers and a few simple poles – I won’t give it away here; you’ll have to go see it for yourself. And when they did, it got a nice cheer and clap.

Susan Stroman’s “Take Five...More or Less” is a zippy revival of last year’s premiere hit with many of its original cast members. It was fun seeing the ever amazing Kaori Nakamura in Noelani Pantastico’s part and how much rascally fun Stacy Lowenberg put into the ‘Orange’ part. For its bit, “Take Five” is a microcosm of what Stroman does best – quirky, inventive fun with some energetic dancing and hard steps thrown into the middle.

Of course, the evening built to the much anticipated Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite,” very nicely realized here by the company.

One of the undisputed stars of the evening had to be Carla Körbes who played both the Striptease Girl in “Slaughter” and Anita in “West Side Story Suite.” Gams that go on for miles, she also possesses a strong singing voice, displayed in the dance ‘America.’ Jeffrey Stanton, who easily  could have been in at least one more of the evening’s dances – he was in two – had his fusion matrix of ballet, tap, and “hoofer” talents deployed well in Stroman’s work, and it was also nice to see him have a turn as Riff. Mr. Stanton is one of those consistent and strong performers for whom the audience does not have to sweat blood. You just know he’s going to get through each assignment well and bring his best attributes to each.

Others of note were the character of Tony (Lucien Postlewaite) and Laura Gilbreath who was a hoot as the clueless Rosalia, also in ‘America.’

PNB’s Broadway Festival has been a big hit with la grande publique and demonstrates yet again that we are so fortunate to have a company of PNB depth and standard right here in our own backyard. We can easily say, “Let’s put on a show!”

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