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Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Director's Choice'

The View From Gallery 4, Row T

by Dean Speer

November 7, 2009 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle

With much of the world seemingly gearing up for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., I recall my $3 (Canadian) per night stay in downtown Vancouver, right in the heart of it on Georgia Street many years ago -- pre-Expo 86. It was in a borrowed camper, in a parking lot very near the former location of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which has since relocated to finer quarters in the former B.C. Law Courts building a few blocks away. One of my joys was touring the final exhibit of VAG in its former space -- some installations made entirely of stuff the staff had found while cleaning and clearing out the building in anticipation of their move -- my favorite being a single high, high, high stack of chairs soaring up to the ceiling. I thought that typified my life -- a stack of chairs. (For our in-studio shows in Chehalis, we'd borrow piles of folding chairs from a local church, haul them up two long flights of stairs and then reverse the process at the end of the evening.  As well, the local theatre where we routinely did our formal shows had only 169 fixed seats plus an additional 60 seats provided by, yes, folding chairs. It seemed that wherever I went and worked, I was always hauling, moving, and arranging chairs. In fact, I'm still shoving chairs around -- it must be in my DNA.) So this piece of "found art" really spoke to me. Amusing, whimsical, "arty" and totally fun. Spontaneous.

That same evening, we spontaneously attended a performance of Nederlands Dans Theater at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. This was my introduction to the work of its artistic director, Jiri Kylian.  After seeing his "Symphony of Psalms" with its Stravinsky score and marvelous tapestry of rugs used as a backdrop, I was completely smitten and became a Kylian devotee on the spot. The dancers were lovely. Another piece that impressed me was his ballet, "Songs of the Auvergne." Heavenly.

About ten years ago, it seemed to me that Kylian had hit a dry spell choreographically.  So I was both pleased and curious to see this new addition to PNB's repertory, "Petite Mort." Several colleagues and friends got all goose-bumpy over the thought of seeing Kylian's "Petite Mort", and we were not disappointed.

With the opening tableau of six men walking backward to the audience balancing aloft in each of their right hands the tip of a fencing foil, we knew we were in for a treat. Kylian explores the use of these foils as extended props -- another kind of dancing partner.  They were turned, twisted, tilted, and bent into curves around the men's female counterparts. Speaking of theatrical trickery, two devices were used that delighted and added to the mystique of the proceedings: an enormous nylon "parachute" was swooped downstage by the men; then, after some dancing, it was swooped over the women who had joined them, and pulled off stage. The trick was, how did this fabric get back onto the stage so it could be deployed a second time? The other trompe l'oeil was having the women glide around making square dance patterns "wearing" huge, black baroque hooped skirts. For the conclusion, the skirts -- by themselves -- came rolling and gliding onto the stage, ending in a nearly perfect circle facing each other, as if the they were bowing to each other at the end of a minuet. The audience loved it, as did I.

I found myself getting all tingly over the prospect of the unveiling of Val Caniparoli's creation, "The Seasons" for PNB.  It should be said that I very much do appreciate contemporary ballet. As a dancer, I often preferred the new line of fall and spring offerings over, say, "The Nutcracker."  That is not to say that being in NUT wasn't a total joy. It was. Yet, I now find myself increasingly yearning for the "tutu and crown" look. Caniparoli's creation both did and did not meet my expectations.

It worked best as a showcase for Kaori Nakamura, Ariana Lallone and Karel Cruz. Next best were the solos, particularly for Benjamin Griffiths. The dancers looked great and clearly enjoyed themselves. Caniparoli clearly channeled Nakamura's many strengths, incorporating her speed, power and her relish of high-octane movement into her solo. I wouldn't change a thing. Karel Cruz's endless legs were deployed to good effect during his solo, making flying coupé jeté that cleared the stage. A left-turner, his work was truly exciting. Ariana Lallone and Cruz were well-paired as 'Bacchante' and 'Bacchus' for their pas de deux in the Autumn section of Glazunov's score. While good, it would have been better constructed had there been more adagio work such as promenades or partnered grand rond de jambe into arabesque. What was there was quick, which is fine, but it needed more variety, as did Lallone's solo. An amazing dancer, her solo would be choreographically improved with the insertion of a couple of relevé passés or other similar steps - more vertical work. There was too much side-to-side movement. Benjamin Griffiths is such a great example of technique that is pure -- clear, clean lines regardless of what he's dancing. Caniparoli really came through with a superb solo for him -- turning vertical jumps, relevé turns à la seconde with pauses going through fondu and back to whirling around like a mad Dervish.

Choreographically, Caniparoli's strength was in exposition, less so in development. I'd recommend revising the corps work, as there is too much unison and straight lines. Where he first could have broken it up was in the beginning after the six corps women bourreed in (three from each side in front-to-back straight lines) and after making passe pied. My visual expectation was they'd break into another kind of formation (other than two straight lines) and then pose. Instead, they stayed in their lines to pose. I also would have started with these six on stage in the beginning in a semi-circle upstage, three on either side, around Zephyr (Lucien Postlewaite), rather than leaving the poor wind by himself. They could still have started their bourrée pattern at the same time, but it would have filled out the stage a little better had they been there from the start.

Caniparoli's wry humor was woven throughout his choreographic text -- references to his own work "Lambarena" for example -- and references to others, such as the original Nijinsky version of "Afternoon of a Faun" with four satyrs coming in holding long light scarves in the crooks of their arms while in parallel, fourth position plié.

At the conclusion, the music was screaming "Grand finale! Grand finale!" and the choreography seemed to be in anticipation of one, but we didn't get it. Instead, we got two straight lines of dancers coming in and holding hands, skipping in parallel, making flat, stage right to stage left formations. He needs to layer the work more -- literally in all directions, making more use of the tools of three dimensions.

While "Mopey" is not high on my list of dances that I must see, after several viewings, I find myself warming appreciably to its charms. At a duration of 14 minutes, it is certainly a showcase for its solo performer, in this case James Moore, who is well on his way to glorious things.

Jerome Robbins' apparent ability to envision a ballet, dance, or dramatic scene in its entirety, must have been both a blessing and a curse. It can be a curse if it doesn't somehow come out as you had thought it might, and a blessing for audiences who can easily "get it." His dances uniformly have a sense of purpose, whether narrative or not.

My own choreographic habits tend to fall somewhere in between the two camps of having something totally worked out in advance and that of allowing the choreography to work itself out as I'm "collaborating" with the dancers. I've thought about my own process recently, particularly since Gelsey Kirkland asked me specifically about it over a small dinner gathering this past summer. I guess she had been impressed with a piece I had done for students at the same summer intensive where we both had taught. It was a work for 25 women and one man. The guy was very strong in gymnastics, was relatively new to ballet and the music, de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance." You can probably see for yourself already where I was going. At the end, the women encircled him, spinning as a whole and made shaking, devouring, menacing gestures. When they opened up the circle , he had entirely disappeared. Another instance of theatrical trickery -- the magic of the theatre. I won't tell how we did it, but it did come to mind as I was earlier passing this group prior to working with them, that it would be neat if we could make him vanish. So we did.

I certainly hope Robbins' works never vanish. While there were a couple of lesser works along the way, the bulk of his output was smooth, clear, and engaging regardless of the theme and remarkably excellent.

This is so true of "West Side Story Suite." He excerpted the dances and in about 30 minutes, we get the entire telling of this 1950s Romeo and Juliet. It's a bittersweet experience viewing it. Not because of the work’s loss of life but because it depicts a time and place and a life that we'll never be able to visit -- except on stage.

Everyone was in tip-top form including the principal cast members: Lucien Postlewaite as Tony; Jeffrey Stanton (Riff); Batkhurel Bold (Bernardo); Carla Körbes (Anita); Amanda Clark as an ethereal Maria; and Laura Gilbreath (Rosalia).

Special kudos to conductor (and piano soloist in the slow movements of the two Mozart piano concertos used by Kylian in "Petite Mort") Allan Dameron who is doing yeoman's work, especially since the abrupt resignation of longtime music director, Stewart Kershaw. The mighty PNB Orchestra sounded great.

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