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'The Coupé is on Count Six!'
Review of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Balanchine Centenary Program -- 'Divertimento No. 15,' 'Agon' and 'Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet'

by Dean Speer

February 7, 2004 -- Marion O. McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

I find myself writing and saying again and again, how fortunate we are here in Sunny Seattle to have Pacific Northwest Ballet in our very own backyard. It's hard to imagine that this is the same company I first saw back in about 1976, dancing in a high school auditiorium in North Seattle, with Melissa Hayden shouting lighting cues from the tech booth and her husband running the sound. (One of the best things that Ms. Hayden did later during her one-year tenure here -- following Janet Reed's period as Ballet Mistress and Director -- was putting on Coppelia with Cynthia Gregory and Jacques d'Amboise in the leads.) Enter from stage Europe, the conquering heros in the form of the husband-and-wife team of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. Since 1977, this pair has been working very hard and methodically to build a major ballet company. Every year has brought artistic successes and growth.

This success and growth are made manifest in this year's season, as they have particularly in the past few seasons. I'd have to say the Balanchine Centenary program's success is as much a tribute to the dancers and the PNB production team as it is to Mr. Balanchine. And a tribute to the many ballet and dance lovers who over the years have supported PNB in many ways.

Ms. Russell is well known for the accuracy, filigree, and faithfulness of her stagings of Mr. Balanchine's ballets, and all three on this bill were brought to life by her meticulous and caring eye.

I was once within earshot of a rehearsal she was conducting many years ago and heard her say to someone, "The coupe is on count six!" and proceeded to demonstrate (quite strongly too!). I just loved this. If I were the dancer she was talking to, it would have relaxed me, and it would have helped give me the confidence and authority to know what I was doing was correct.

And I was pleased to hear at the post-performance discussion that she had felt the dress rehearsal of Agon to have been too "wooden" and encouraged and coached the dancers to "just dance" and "not to worry about the counts!" (Agon is famous for many reasons, not the least of which is the complexity of the Stravinsky score that the dancers have to count all the way through. The execption being the Pas de Deux, which, I'm told, has no counts.) Apparently this admonition from Russell had a salutary effect on the dancers.

Divertimento No. 15 and Agon are interesting in that they were created one year apart from each other (1956 and 1957 respectively) under different circumstances and couldn't in many ways be more different. The first included Tanaquil LeClerq, Mr. Balanchine's wife at the time, and the latter created after returning from six months in Denmark where she was receiving medical treatment after having been sticken with polio while on tour in Europe. (A side remark: One of my best friends and colleagues, Erika, when she was a ballet student in Augsburg, got to see New York City Ballet, the company co-founded by Balanchine, perform in Munich and remembers LeClerq dancing in this very ballet. She recalls how all of her dancing friends from Augsburg were just utterly impressed by NYCB and much they liked and were inspired by this experience.)

While Divertimento No. 15 is a soft, romantic and "tutu and crown" ballet set to Mozart, with a choreographic thematic statement and development,Agon is angular and impresses one as cubist -- with splashes and jabs of movement and shapes. Yet, the ballet is also in strict form with statement of theme, development and variation. I think for both ballets, this strict attention to form is what gives both ballets their freedom, which only seems more overt in Agon.

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (1966) is a special ballet, with its Brahms music orchestrated by Schoenberg in 1937. This music really "sings" and has real heart and depth -- "soul" if you will. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to reveal that, while I enjoy the music of Mozart while I'm listening to it, none of his canon "sends me." Pretty, lovely, tuneful, well constructed, yes. Yet when we get to Brahms, I feel I've really tuned into a soulmate.

Mr. Balanchine addresses this work in a smart way. Rather than try to make it a unified whole, as some of us mere mortals might have, he essentially makes four ballets in one, each having a different cast. Mara Vinson, Batkhurel Bold, and Carrie Imler were the principals in the first movement, Allegro. It's clear that Mara Vinson is prime for promotion from corps, having been given many successful role opportunities the past couple of seasons. (At the post-performance talk, it's interesting to note that Mr. Stowell and Russell agree with this observation. They responded that several are deserving of promotion but they are having to wait for the funding to do so. "If you'd like to write a check...")

Sometimes we are blessed from above and entertain angels unawares. Heaven reached the stage Saturday night in the form of the angelic rendition of the Allegro ma non troppo Pas de Deux of Louise Nadeau and Christophe Maraval. Both were utterly expressive through their strong, joyous and radiant dancing, making the challenging partnering of this duet look tailor-made. Their interpretations mesh, making them sympathetic and well-matched partners. Russell has described this duet as the heart of the ballet and I agree that it defines "happy."

In the Andante, Le Yin was paired with Jodie Thomas. Mr. Yin has really blossomed in his dancing. He has always had really outstanding and impressive technique. This has been burnished now, and is being coupled and steered by his artistic maturity. Ms. Thomas is a PNB School product (having studied first with a very good teacher in her native Spokane; Lynne Marie Williams-Mullins) and her breeding showed in this pas, as it has from her PNB School Performance debut.

If I may be permitted a play on words, Ariana Lallone and Stanko Milov certainly had "zing" in the last movement, Rondo allo Zingarese: Presto. This mini-ballet within a ballet was SO exciting. Destined by design to bring the audience to its feet, cheering and clapping madly. With the men in red character boots and each gender making like the czardas, it was kinetic and fun choreography that brought us all the way.

Bravo to PNB and to its leadership for bringing and nuturing the best of ballet, right in our own backyard. And HURRAH to Mr. Balanchine for making the coupé on count six and to Francia Russell for keeping it there!

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin

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