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Pacific Northwest Ballet - The Balanchine Centenary Program: 'Divertimento No. 15,' 'Agon' and 'Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet'

by Azlan Ezaddin

February 7, 2004 -- Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

With George Balanchine, you always have to start with the music. The composer Igor Stravinsky enjoyed working with him because he thought this choreographer was a musician first. And it is the music that inspires and challenges the choreographer to create. It's not surprising that Balanchine named many of his works after the music and commissioned scores from the best composers of his time. That may explain why, in 1999, a few dancers with New York City Ballet, the home of Balanchine's neoclassical ballets, barely disguised their glee when the company's musicians went on strike -- finally they had a chance to dance to the music as it was meant to be heard, never mind if it was on tape.

At Pacific Northwest Ballet, the sentiment is remarkably different. With musicians that play for each other, a musical director and a conductor that are attentive to the stage, and a concert hall with one of the best acoustic designs in the world, the music reaches into the soul and wraps the heart with its passion. Mozart, Brahms and most of all, Stravinsky were understood Saturday night.

In musical terms then, as well as in program order, "Agon" was the centerpiece of the evening. Masterfully crafted by Balanchine to Igor Stravinsky's tensile score and meticulously reproduced in detail by his protégé, Francia Russell, this tour de force may have seen its definitive performance. The movement vocabulary in "Agon" is fraught with tension and isn't necessarily pretty. When the music isn't up to par, the choreography can seem dull. But when accompanied by a talented orchestra led by Stewart Kershaw, the clarity of fanfare and conflict breathe meaning into the work.

Patricia Barker and Jeffrey Stanton produced an industrious pas de deux that took most breaths away with its unflinching precision through some very challenging steps, but it is the corps work that stood out, with startling synchronicity in language in each body. Lindsi Dec, Kylee Kitchens, Stacy Lowenberg and Kara Zimmerman did well to listen to Russell, one would guess, for each matched the other in step as well as tone, something rarely seen in performances of "Agon" by other major ballet companies.

The lighting by Randall G. Chiarelli was careful to preserve the simplicity of the original design but also adapted to the capabilites of McCaw Hall, giving the on-stage formations not only a three-dimensional feel but also a sense of proximity.

The program began with "Divertimento No. 15," which arguably does not rank the highest among Balanchine's either most engaging or most exciting works, even if it is a lyrical ballet danced in Karinska-designed tutus to Mozart's masterpiece of the same name and borders on classicism. It is the classicism that may in fact inhibit this work, with almost no daring choreography coupled with a demanding attention to literal musicality and grace -- it has a feeling of a homework assignment in classical ballet.

Nevertheless, as with "Agon," the corps was stunningly precise note for note with the music, with help from Allan Dameron in the pit and his attention to the tempo on stage. To dance "Divertimento No. 15" well from beginning to the end requires strength and mental stamina, both of which were on display in abundance Saturday night, especially with the men, Christophe Maraval and Olivier Wevers, in the Theme and Variations section. The other dancers in principal roles, Maria Chapman, Mara Vinson, Noelani Pantastico, Alexandra Dickson and Barker, were equally committed.

The "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet" is divided into four distinct sections, each with its own explicit musical flavor. Again, this ballet demands the musicians understand what it is they are playing, especially when the mood shifts -- quite radically in one instance -- from movement to movement. Led by Kershaw, the orchestra certainly acquitted itself well.

Led beautifully by Bakthurel Bold, Carrie Imler and especially Vinson, the elaboration and flourish of the first movement, Allegro, suggested the elegance of an imperial court. Among the corps dancers, Chalnessa Eames, Rebecca Johnston and Zimmerman seemed to add their own flourish to this ballet within a ballet. The second movement, Allegro ma non troppo, danced by Louise Nadeau and Maraval, eluded to Romanticism and the third movement, Andante, danced by Jodie Thomas and Le Yin, projected Classicism.

It was the fourth movement, however, that brought the house down with its wild Hungarian folk dances. The Rondo alla Zingarese sparkled with quick, intricate partnering and flamboyant gestures. Ariana Lallone and Stanko Milov not only thrilled with their technical footwork but also seduced with flirtatious glamour. Not surprising then that the audience roared with approval at the conclusion of the evening's program.

Given the recent criticism of NYCB's quality and given the detail to attention evidenced in this program of Balanchine works by PNB, not only is there little reason for US West Coast Balanchine balletomanes to travel eastward, but perhaps it is the US East Coast fans who should travel westward.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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