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Pacific Northwest Ballet - 'Red Angels,' 'Kiss,' 'Ancient Airs and Dances,' 'Nine Sinatra Songs'

The Heart of Choreography

by Dean Speer

February 4, 2006 -- Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Valentine” program has attracted a lot of attention, partly because many see it as the first program that fully has Artistic Director Peter Boal’s mark on it.

Two of the works I had seen before – Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels” and Susan Marshall’s “Kiss,” and I had seen a version, “Sinatra Suite,” of Twyla Tharps’ “Nine Sinatra Songs”– and so I was really looking forward to seeing PNB’s rendition of these three, but also to viewing a work that is completely new to me, Richard Tanner’s “Ancient Airs and Dances.”

The program opened with Tanner’s work, to music by Respighi, and this piece was for me the strongest choreography of the bill. Tanner uses stepping into fifth position as a movement motif. He developed it in a variety of ways throughout each section of the ballet: coupé over into 5th, assemblé, aerial, partnered, etc. I liked how he marshaled the dancers around the stage and grouped them in juxtaposition to each other and to the principals and soloists, building his ballet to an exciting and visually satisfying conclusion.

This is a ballet worthy of the caliber of its artists. The three principal couples were Ariana Lallone with Casey Herd, Louise Nadeau with Olivier Wevers, and Kaori Nakamura with Le Yin.

At “Nutcracker” time, I wrote how wonderful it was to enjoy the long-stemmed glory of Lallone’s dancing as Flora, and this was also true for the inaugural pas de deux with Herd. I like seeing her paired with men that I don’t immediately recall her dancing with often. Herd was well-trained first in Salt Lake City, and his presence and authority in his craft continues to build during every season. “One, hot ballerina” with a sizzle-lean performance by an easy-on-the-eyes male dancer made for a memorable pas de deux.

After seeing Nadeau in the second pas de deux, someone rightly observed that she would be great in Ashton repertory. Strong yet expressive with a porcelain quality that suggests at once great tragedy and joy, she is a soulful artist. Wevers and Nadeau are a pair made in ballet heaven, and it is always a joy to see the artistic chemistry they produce onstage, ever so simpatico.

Nakamura was “on” for the challenges and when she launched into the rapid chainés turns heading to the downstage right corner and then made chausé rélevé into first arabesque – and HELD it, you could tell she was as excited and pleased as we were. Yin is first-class and I think pairing him with one of Japan’s ballet stars (and ours!) is good for him. They challenge each other and spur each other on to reach beyond themselves as individual dancers and to making a new partnership that has the potential of becoming as exciting as one of the great ballet pairs.

The only thing that I did not care for were the costumes. The piece said to me this was not a leotard and tights ballet, and it cried out for different costumes. I also thought that black was too somber a choice for such an energetic and bright composition. Stravinsky Violin Concerto it is not. The lighting bothered me too, although I am not sure exactly why. These production values made the ballet seem darker than it really is.

“Kiss,” set to music by Arvo Pärt, is Susan Marshall's work that suspends two dancers via harnesses and ropes for an airborne pas de deux.

My own little group’s reaction to this novelty piece ranged from, “I kept waiting for something to happen,” to finding it exciting, different, and very heartfelt. My take is that it was good to expose PNB audiences to this type of work – a true modern/contemporary dance – as it challenges us and broadens our definition of what “dance” is and can be. Certainly James Moore and Mara Vinson as the suspendees were great as the couple that finds each other, is torn apart – it was like watching visual Velcro being pulled apart – and, finding each other again, desperately clings to each other. Moore really took off at one point.  His thrust into space caught our attention, and Vinson followed suit.

I’m sorry that Ulysses Dove did not live to produce more work that I might categorize as “middle” or “late” work, such as we do with composers. I would classify “Red Angels” as an “early” work – that of a choreographer finding his voice and honing his craft. The dynamic or phrasing element is short measures of movement that are punched or punched and then held. Wonk! – hold, hold, hold. Bam, Pow – sustain. Polling my friends, I found this was the favorite for some of them. I’d have to agree that the performances by each of the dancers were in the “wow” category. Their commitment and love of this work really came through and made the pieces work well. Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta are made for this type of coruscate display and are well-paired, as are the new-to-PNB, but not to wowing us, Carla Körbes and her elegant partner Christophe Maraval. They both have the same line through their feet and ankles – beautiful curved arches top and underneath. Körbes was right-on with her fouettés, flat to the front and well placed.

Mary Rowell played Richard Einhorn’s music on her electric violin for this piece. She has played all performances of this work since its premiere in 1994, and many have reported from both sides of the stage how exciting and energizing this makes the performance. Rowell has a reputation for being an on-the-edge artist and a non-traditionalist, and this work really is right up her artistic alley. Boal, an original cast member, reported that they had initially rehearsed to a recording, but when the live music first came out of the orchestra pit, it was like, “Wow, now I really understand this piece!” [My paraphrase.]

“Nine Sinatra Songs” is Twyla Tharp's tribute to crooner Frank Sinatra, with costumes by Oscar de la Renta.

The first time I ever saw a Tharp work was on PBS’ “Dance in America” series and her company did, among other works, “Sue’s Leg.” I was so taken, that very night I dreamt I auditioned for Tharp and that my audition consisted of rélevé turns in second but the quirky Tharp twist is that I had to also pull cheese with my hands from first to second port de bras positions. Isn’t that wild?

So I guess I’ve been smitten with her body of work ever since. Nevertheless, I have to publicly confess to being slightly disappointed with her Sinatra works – in all of their guises. The novelty of having ballet-trained dancers in ballroom dress and tuxedos is fun at first but wears off after a while. I found myself waiting for something to happen. Perhaps it is not possible given the structure of the work – duet, followed by duet, followed by duet, followed by yep, another duet. The only time she really integrates all of the 14 dancers is on the last reprisal of “My Way.” Here Tharp takes what might be perceived of as an easy out – or perhaps it was an experiment at the time – and has the couples do their duet motifs in their own spaces but does not meld or blend them together. Perhaps her idea was to depict what might actually be seen at a social where it’s highly unlikely everyone is going to break into ensemble dancing.

That said, I found “Songs” to be, overall, a pleasant visual and aural experience even if it doesn’t, for me, come from a deeper place as do many of Tharp’s other dances.

Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta were really out there as the mismatched pair (he’s too short for her and this is emphasized) and each made the most of the humor in the choreography. Another standout duo was Jodie Thomas and Josh Spell, she in a bright red “feathered” dance dress that Ginger Rogers would have fought for. It was clear to me that each of the seven couples understood what their duet was about. Great staging and coaching kudos to Shelley Washington, a member of the original cast.

Overall, it was a daring programming venture for PNB audiences, one that had us talking and that reached into, and was from, the heart.

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