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Pacific Northwest Ballet - Balanchine Program

'The Four Temperaments,' 'The Prodigal Son,' 'Symphony in C'

The joy of ballet

by Dean Speer

November 4 and 6, 2004 -- McGaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

It's an easy joy to write about Pacific Northwest Ballet's November program of all-Balanchine works. Perhaps it's due to the valedictory season for Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, or perhaps it's the confluence of the stars, but in any case the company has rarely looked better.

It was a joy to see the dancers. It was a joy to see the brilliant choreography of one of our masters. It was a joy to see this choreography so lovingly staged and rehearsed. And it was certainly a joy to hear the music played by the PNB orchestra. I think we have one of the best ballet orchestras around. Very good musicians, good ensemble, no intonation problems. Clean, clear playing led by two remarkable and experienced conductors, Stewart Kershaw and Allan Dameron.

In each case, the dancers were totally committed to each step and pattern -- from the strong, strong, strong ensemble dancing of the corps all the way to the top stars. Each boureé, each port de bras, each posé and in particular, and probably the most challenging to produce (it takes YEARS, I'm convinced) each transition was in synchronicity. Tight. They were all on the same web page.

"The Four Temperaments" (1946) is one of my favorite ballets and has been ever since I first saw it. I remember Noël Mason, one of my teachers at Cornish College and later one of PNB's first ballet mistresses, commenting that it is the ballet that made her wish to return to performing. It's certainly that compelling. Very modern, even though it's nearly its 50th birthday. It's as if watching a very contemporary painting in action and parts are like watching a mobile. Sculptural.

Sources Old and Ancient

I remember being very impressed -- and perhaps even a little taken aback -- when I first learned as a young dance student that the Bible had been mined for artistic literature. I had to learn in my youth and naiveté that it was okay to do this and was not some kind of heresy. My first awareness of this was of Mr. B's 1928 "Prodigal Son" and also several of Martha Graham's pieces.

Another joy was my first viewing of the last work on the program, "Symphony in C," when I saw it done by the company for whom Balanchine first made it, the Ballet de l'Opera de Paris under its original title "Palais de Cristal." And it certainly is crystalline, even in the New Age sense of letting in light and energy.

I'm sure the dancers are quite aware of how lucky they are to have these works to interpret and to be the instruments through which the light of each of these distinguished ballets shines.

Deserved

I wish time and space would permit me to mention every, single cast member as they all deserve it. I wonder if Batkhurel Bold (and I keep saying this and it's a wonderful thing to be able to say) knows how good he really is. Maybe we shouldn't tell him. But in the First Variation (Melancholic) of "Four Ts," he made it look so easy and the Graham-like (perhaps these are "real" Graham) contractions were sharp, deep and moving. Nobody in my "group" can recall the name of the step that's a tour jeté that finishes with an extra half turn fouetté into effacé, so we dubbed it the "1.5!" Bold's jump and elevation is so great that it impressed me that he actually completed the 1.5 while still in the air, while most do the fouetté after they've landed. Maybe it's just illusion but what an effect!

Newly-minted principal Noelani Pantastico was sizzling in Second Variation (Sanguinic). Steely strong attack and quicksilver. One of the press reports said that she "bobbled" and that's not true. This comment implies that the dancer was out of control or that it was somehow their fault. She did hit a slippery spot on the stage but adjusted and finished her turn. Someone else hit this same spot later, so we know it  it was the floor and not the dancer! (There were no "bobbles" during her Saturday night stint in this same part.)

The incrementally higher lifts that go in a concentric circle that Casey Herd partners her for are interesting and hint to me of the marvelous lifts at the conclusion of the ballet, where it's like an explosion of fireworks that raise us out of our chairs, with the last ballerina, Pantastico, being carried over his head into the stage right wing.

Olivier Wevers brought his considerable artistic and technical gifts to Phlegmatic, the third variation. I liked how he opened his whole self in this most interesting solo.  Balanchine seems to have built it using the effacé line, and Wevers not only makes the line beautiful but really takes advantage of these shapes and gives them authority and expressive presence.

One Hot Ballerina

I have a strong visual memory of having seen the French ballet diva Muriel Maffre earlier this summer at San Francisco Ballet's Stern Grove bring her heritage to Choleric (she was wonderful), so it was fun seeing Ariana Lallone bring her American training and sensibilities to this fearsome role. It's one of those parts that you have to attack and be in charge of or it will eat you for breakfast. Lallone was all sharp legs and dazzling with the flat-footed pirouettes that end KAA-WONK! on one knee with the arms over head making a "V" to the floor. Very hard to do.  And she brought her control and "one hot ballerina" manner to the stage. And when during the finale, she ran forward from the upstage right wing through the ensemble to the center, you knew who was in charge!

Hooray for Francia Russell's staging of this great ballet. I appreciated the version of the ending that she uses and am inspired by how these cascading lifts build to the visual equivalent of a tonic resolution but more like a poetic haiku that's undergone a spiritual transformation.

A Story Told

Power and powerful are two words that come to mind for "Prodigal Son." My anthropologist cousin tells me that this story exists in many cultures and times. This ballet doesn't attempt to tell the Biblical parable literally but conveys the sense of its moral through visual power. Patricia Barker's Siren was top-drawer stuff -- displaying a power of a different kind and a very dangerous one. Only at the beginning of her dancing does this character display any kind of sympathetic feeling; when she kneels downstage left and "beats" herself (remorse?). However, she's like a queen spider (if I can mix my bug metaphors!) and is soon working her charms to snare the Prodigal. The "goons" are the strands of the spider web, and as soon as they've gained the trust of their victim, in comes queen Siren. The entrance of the goons (genteelly "revelers" in the program) is like a scene from Star Trek. They look like aliens and are genuinely creepy.

How much more powerful to have the Father stand in place at the end of the ballet which makes the Prodigal come to him, rather than the other way around, as it is in the Bible. The kid really does penance and his lifting of himself up into his father's arms as his father cradles and covers his with his cape is definitely a three-hanky moment. End ballet. Curtain. Very theatrical and somehow very showmanship--like in a Russian way.

Two Prodigals made their stage debut -- Jonathan Porretta and Lucien Postlewaite (Le Yin was booked to do it, but was sidelined due to an injury). Each was marvelous in his own interpretation. Porretta's acting had depth and power. He has technique out of the kazoo, so this coupled with all of the elements of this finely-carved dance/drama, added up to a portrayal to write home about. His maturity belies his chronological age of 23. (Stager Richard Tanner at the post-performance discussion asked Porretta to tell the audience how old he is -- I think really to impress the fans in the audience.) Corps member Postlewaite was asked to learn the ballet for the experience, so it was a little unexpected that he got to actually perform the role. He was also very good and strong in this part and it will be fun to see how this young and talented dancer progresses with his career. I know both put their hearts into it.

Found at Sea

I never (well, at least rarely) have any objections to a sea of white tutus and tulle against a Russian-blue backdrop. 48 dancers on stage by my count (there are 56 dancers listed in the program ) for the finale of "Symphony in C." Glorious. Of special note has to be the corps, as I mentioned earlier. The only corps that I've seen as tight was Ballet Nacional de Cuba in "Giselle." They breathed together. So it was with PNB's corps.

Postlewaite was in all three Saturday night! Porretta in two Thursday night and with lead parts in both.  Carrie Imler and Stanko Milov (movement one), a luminous Louise Nadeau and Christophe Maraval [Thursday] and Barker and Jeffrey Stanton [Saturday] for movement two, Kaori Nakamara and Jonathan Porretta (movement three), with Mara Vinson and Herd [Thursday] and Jodie Thomas and Wevers [Saturday] for movement four. Barker was made for this ballet. Her technique, temperament and style are as if Balanchine was prescient in his assembly of these steps for her.

Movement three would have been the one that I would have liked doing. Lots of leaps and jumps and big movement, all at great speed of course. Nakamura and Porretta were perfectly paired. Russell reported that Porretta did ask for the repeat to be cut (he was exhausted from "Prodigal") but Stowell believed he could and should do it. We certainly could not tell he might be tired. Instead he equally matched Nakamura's joyous energy and verve, which was reinforced by the repeat.

I adore seeing Vinson and Herd has become such a good partner and soloist in his own right, that the two of them together really sang. Thomas and Wevers were like two blond high-end magazine covers from the same language, even though each is really from different countries. High-bred and like horses ready to win the Triple Crown. Imler and Milov are two big movers and I think they were smartly teamed for Movement One. With them, audience members can rest confidently that they are in for a fun balletic ride. Both like turning and Milov's solo showed clearly his comfort and joy with these steps.

Each ballet was a joy and this program demonstrates so clearly how Balanchine advanced the art of ballet.


Edited by Jeff

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