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Pacific Northwest Ballet School: 24th Annual Performance

Tomorrow's Ballet Stars Today

by Dean Speer

June 18, 2005 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle

(Click on image for a gallery of photos from the performance)

This year’s Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s 24th annual School Performance was especially poignant due to the impending retirement at the end of the month of its long-time director – and its heart and soul – Francia Russell.

I was at the very first show held at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall Theatre and even modeled my own recitals somewhat after what I saw and liked. The first half was demonstrations of technique, ballet barres and all. You could really see the progression through the levels and the technical abilities of these young dancers. And, with a couple of exceptions due to unavoidable work conflicts, I’ve been at every show since.

The makeup and overall strength of a student body varies from year to year. PNB faculty adjust their syllabus accordingly. My observation is that while presented well, this year’s crop in general didn’t seem as strong as in some years past. Nevertheless, there was much to admire and talent fairly burst out of the wings.

The format has evolved over the years and now they show each stage, “Act I,” beginning at Level I, and keep the program moving along with speedy efficiency, with each class perform a “mini-dance” of about two minutes in duration. Each group is introduced over the public-address system so we in the dark (literally) know what we are about to experience. I like how this is handled and find that it’s a good model for recitals that have multiple “numbers.”

My favorite out of this batch was Timothy Lynch’s piece for the Level III C and IV C Boys. Gottschalk and tambourines – a lively and perfect omnibus for this sea of male energy and legs.

After Level V, we got treated to a new feature this year. This was “Triple Threat” – a great play on this theatre phrase – which was actually a trypich of Classical Spanish, Jazz, and Modern Dance whose first section, "Cadiz," was choreographed by the irrepressible Sara de Luis, who is the School’s Spanish teacher. De Luis infused her students with an authentic sense of the style and feeling for this genre. She made them look good and they looked good doing it.

Jazz teacher Alice Bergeson really came into her stride with her stagings of Fosse excerpts from "Pippin,""Pajama Game," and "Sweet Charity," which then morphed into a modern dance work by Sonia Dawkins, "50 Legs."

The second half of the show, “Act II,” featured students from the Professional Division.  I found the most successful to have been Russell’s staging of the opening portion of "Serenade" and of Carrie Imler’s staging of the Season variations from Kent Stowell’s "Cinderella."

"Paquita" was impeccably staged by Russell, but with the exception of Brandy Horne, the work was a little beyond them. Leanne Larsen in the ballerina role was radiant and danced strongly until she got to the dreaded fouettés (hey, my heart started pounding the second I heard the music and I wasn’t even on stage!). Margot Fonteyn famously describes her own troubles with this step as, “A Cook’s Tour of the stage.” Perhaps it was nerves or fatigue, but except for this sequence, Larsen truly acquitted herself very well in the rest of this demanding ballet and recovered sufficiently to come back and easily finish the coda and finale with her partner, Geoffrey Kropp.

Choreographically problematic was Bruce Wells’ work for the Level V - Professional Division Men, set to music by Shostakovich. I know Wells worked hard on this piece for months with his men, but except for a couple of the most accomplished men, he didn’t quite show them off to their best advantage. Wells has a gift for making dancers look good, but in this case it seemed like he struggled too much with the choreography. Somehow it was all at odds with itself. Perhaps he should have started over again with a fresh piece of music or different motifs.

Someone who does have a gift for showing off the School’s women in both her classes and on stage is Curriculum Supervisor, Victoria Pulkkinen. This was seen in both her Level VI offering which used lots of open, èffacé positions, big movement, with enough fast allegro inserted in that had the effect of moving them and the piece, and in the Finale. Pulkkinen will be sorely missed as she is moving at the conclusion of this Summer’s class session to join her husband, Randall Chiarelli, in San Francisco.

PNB School in a quick quarter plus century has become one of the North America’s premiere ballet training grounds and it’s always a treat to see the results.  And, as I like to intone, “Balm for my eyes!” I look forward to the School’s 25th edition of itself and noting the changes that will be inevitable.

 

Edited by Staff.

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