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Pacific Northwest Ballet - Director's Choice

'Fancy Free,' 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, ' 'Theme and Variations'

by Dean Speer

September 21 and 23, 2006 -- Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

If music has given us the Fab Four, then Peter Boal has given us “The Fab Three” with his selection of ballets to begin his second season as Artistic Director of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. I had always wanted to see Robbins’ first and justly-famous “Fancy Free,” so it was a treat to enjoy two casts making their foray into characters first made alive in 1944. The buzz among audience members was that they really liked the middle work, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated;” and who could not become thrilled during the rousing grand Polonaise of the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky “Theme and Variations.”

There is a Northwest connection with “Fancy Free.” Original cast member Janet Reed, originally from a small town near Medford, Oregon, was PNB’s first – what we would now properly title Artistic Director but then known as its Ballet Mistress and Director of its School. I remember her energy well and how proud she was to be from Medford. We had a brief discussion many years ago about small towns, and I recall how she intoned, “Well, I’m from Medford! ” the inference being that she was proud of her roots and it doesn’t matter where you’re from – you can still “make it.” I also recall how at a panel forum she described how she liked to historically think of her career: ‘30s San Francisco Ballet; ‘40s (American) Ballet Theatre; ‘50s New York City Ballet. I also remember like it was yesterday the start of a very challenging pirouette combination she gave: from 5th croisé, relevé with a rond de jambe to 4th position croisé left, into plié and then turn from there. It was a little sad that her feet didn’t point much anymore – perhaps from those years on hard stages and venues across the country.

Everyone who saw her perform reports that she was a great comedienne. Knowing this background I tried to imagine what Reed must have been like in the role of the second female “Passer-by,” which was played to great effect by Louise Nadeau.

Our trio of sailors was fabulous too: Casey Herd; Jonathan Porretta and guest artist Rasta Thomas. Each was into the acting that comes with this choreographic territory: Herd into a Rhumba; Thomas with his newly-found dance partner; and Porretta as the happy but scrappy “tough” dog. Both audiences “oooh’d and ah’d” at his double tours en l’air ending in the splits.

While a sunny dance, I found myself on one hand smiling at its conclusion, and on the other hand left with a feeling of sadness. The sadness comes from the realization that this work depicts an innocent view of our country’s past that we can never have again. I think today if sailors on shore leave tried doing what these three did (flirting with a female passerby, taking her purse and tossing it among themselves while she tried to get it back), there might be serious repercussions.

Unsentimentally edgy is one way to describe William Forythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” Echoing through my head is the observation of a colleague from a few years ago upon her first viewing this work: “If Balanchine were alive now, THAT’S what he’d choreograph!” And I believe this could have been true. Comparing and contrasting this 1987 work with Balanchine’s 1947 “Theme,” I found it interesting that there were many similarities even though the movement palette from which it is drawn is different.

Forsythe uses themes – glissade soubresaut being one; uses the balletic hierarchy of principals, soloists, and corps (two persons in this case); and develops, extends and pushes his theme. Sometimes he breaks what might be typical molds. The music is a commissioned, recorded score by Thom Willems that's played with a lot of "presence." I think both he and the choreographer wanted audience members to actively participate in their viewing experience.

On opening night, Stacy Lowenberg, did four pirouettes en attitude devant. In fact, the entire cast was powered-up. The ballet begins with two dancers, Ariana Lallone and Patricia Baker making faux casual leg gestures and then rips into its material. It’s clear to me that dancers really like doing this piece. It’s a chance to show off what they can really do, retains enough formality to give it classical form and shape, and is non-stop action and about as far as you can go with the demands of the steps.

Ever glorious is “Theme and Variations.” Forty years younger than “Middle,” it too is filled with steps and patterns and is also non-stop action but appearing to be so in a more “traditional” way. We forget that Mr. Balanchine nearly always pushed the form too and this work is no different. Gone are elaborate preparations and slow, slow adagios. Barker and Stanko Milov were both regal and sparklingly kinetic as the central, principal couple on opening night. The balletic human dynamo known as Carrie Imler and her male counterpart, Batkhurel Bold, attacked their parts on the Saturday evening’s program as if there were no ballet tomorrow. All in all, the program was a thrilling work at each viewing.

"Director's Choice’s” ‘Fab Three’ was a pleasing and fun night out at the ballet.

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