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Pacific Northwest Ballet - Contemporary Classics

'Agon', 'Kiss', 'Caught', 'In the Upper Room'

by Renée D'Aoust

November 2, 2007 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

“Contemporary Classics,” Pacific Northwest Ballet’s second repertory program of the 2007-2008 season at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, in Seattle, Washington, began with George Balanchine’s “Agon” and ended with Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.”  Each choreographer worked with specifically commissioned scores from their composers (in 1957 and 1986, respectively).  On Friday evening, November 2nd, Stewart Kershaw conducted a live symphony for Igor Stravinsky’s score while Philip Glass’s was pre-recorded; both felt like a cascading waterfall beneath the choreography, sustaining and enhancing lightning quick footwork.

It was thrilling to watch Pacific Northwest Ballet perform “Agon,” as staged by former co-artistic director Francia Russell.  As a young New York City Ballet dancer, Russell was in the studio when Balanchine and Stravinsky collaborated in the creation of “Agon”—before the work became known as a masterpiece.  Francia Russell’s deft hand certainly influenced principal dancer Jonathan Porretta who, in the First Pas de Trois, packed power into a movement as simple as a bow.  His flexed foot on the supporting leg of an arabesque became a jester’s foot—a courtly gesture to both classicism and modernity.  Lucien Postlewaite, in the Second Pas de Trois, also gave a nuanced performance.           

In the Pas de Deux, both debuting in their roles, Stanko Milov partnered Carla Körbes.  Vigorous drums, the core of Stravinsky’s rhythms, give way, gradually, to the mandolin. Did Balanchine and Stravinsky, displaced from Russia, incorporate the mandolin—rather than the balalaika—as a nod to their new existence?  Carla Körbes danced her smoldering interior behind the cords of the mandolin.  Her second-position splits in the air, partnered, and on the ground are incredible.  Although she fully articulated each movement, she never struck the cheap note of emoting a moment.  Körbes sculpts each line, especially her penchée with an arm that reaches all the way down to the River Styx and an arabesque with the strength to shoot an arrow straight to Pallas Athena.

Is it a church bell that rings at the beginning and end of “Kiss”?  Choreographed by Susan Marshall to music by Arvo Pärt, perhaps the two thick ropes hanging from the ceiling, from which Casey Herd and Kari Brunson swung in harnesses, could be thought of as ropes pulling a bell in a church tower.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that these lovers would part.  Maybe it was because their connection, however deeply felt, was a fleeting aerial affair.

David Parson’s signature “Caught,” a new addition to the Pacific Northwest Ballet repertory, was performed by Noelani Pantastico.  In a brief introductory phrase, we saw Pantastico in full light, but when the lights went dark, we suddenly saw her mid-air in images illuminated by a strobe.  Pantastico possessed sensuality and a slight vulnerability, which is amazing considering the feat of split-second timing needed to perform Parson’s work.  “Caught” feels more experimental than meaningful, but it is exhilarating to watch what turns out to be a form of snapshot dance illumination—it’s almost dance as suspended animation (think of those view finders that click, suddenly, to a new image).

Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” new to Pacific Northwest Ballet but choreographed in 1986, felt like a blast from the past.  I had a Norma Kamali knockoff skirt in high school that looked exactly like one of the costumes onstage.  Kamali’s ever-changing costumes were straight out of eighties style:  full-body stripes, red pointe shoes, red panties, red T-shirts, white “Princess” tennis shoes, and, finally, no shirt at all for the men.  I would like to go on record:  Casey Herd should be costumed as often as possible without a shirt.

“In the Upper Room,” with Philip Glass’s perverfid score, makes you want to dance.  If only.  And if pointe work can look that funky and still be serious, it is quite possibly satire.  Miranda Weese gets it.  What a treat to see her perform.  Among the men, Jonathan Poretta is a joy; Tharp’s quick footwork, rolling shoulders, or head flat on an outstretched arm suits his physicality.  Another dancer who understood the satirical elements of the piece was Kiyon Gaines, who thoroughly enjoyed himself.  Tharp has been commissioned to choreograph three short pieces for Pacific Northwest Ballet next year.

In an upbeat (and free) pre-performance lecture, dance historian Doug Fullington categorized Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” as “genuinely good-natured, refreshing, and uplifting.”  Fullington is a fabulous resource; he speaks extemporaneously and knowledgably about all aspects of dance.  And I agree with him that Tharp’s movement is fun.  It felt good to watch those twitchy shoulders slough off the day, to see the fast runs forward then retrograded backward, and to feel, quite simply, that life is better when, or because, bodies move.

Seattle audiences certainly celebrate the caliber of Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers, as they should, but they are also particularly lucky to have a fearless leader in Artistic Director Peter Boal who continues to bring modern choreographers to Seattle.  For example, Boal is including excerpts of Sara Pearson & Patrik Widrig’s “Ordinary Festivals” in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Laugh Out Loud Spring Dance Festival,” April 17-20, 2008.  Don’t miss a splendid “dance-theater piece for 300 oranges, 6-16 performers, and 2 knives.”  Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers dazzle with clean, crisp technique and over-all exuberance.  It is exciting to watch them continue to cross borders between ballet and modern.

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