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Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Contemporary Classics' Program

When Push Comes to Shove...

by Dean Speer

November 3, 2007 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

When I first saw any work by Twyla Tharp, it was on a PBS television special – and I was so smitten, that very night I dreamt I auditioned for her company. She had me do rélevé turns à la seconde and the Tharpian part was that at the same time I had to pull apart string cheese – like saltwater taffy.  It all seemed logical – and plausible at the time.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Contemporary Classics” program, November 1-11 concluded with their third acquisitioned Tharp piece, “In the Upper Room.”

I wish I could say that I was as smitten this time.  I may have to turn in my membership card in the Northwest Dance Critics Association, and probably PNB will set off its AH-OOO-GAH horns, roll down the metal grill gates, and have their beefy security guard come out the front door, put his feet in second position with his arms folded purposefully across his chest when they see me coming in the future. Nevertheless: “In the Upper Room” is, choreographically, an idea that plays itself out before the dance does. Tharp says what she has to say early on – and then keeps on saying it, albeit in slightly different iterations.

Admittedly, there is a lot to admire: Many big movement motifs; her clear knowledge and use of compositional tools. Yet the piece becomes static.

Historically, if audience members and dance writers fell in love with a certain dancer’s elbow or ankle, then I have to be permitted to review Miranda Weese’s knees. When she was being lowered down for the first time from one of the many lifts, I couldn’t help but notice the suppleness of her knee as she pushed into plié. Tharp’s nod to balletic hierarchy really did show her off. You could tell that she relished the strong movement and graced each phrase with the right amount of punch. Weese is an important artistic addition to PNB’s roster of principal dancers.

The audience LOVED this piece and, as I said earlier, certainly there was a lot there to like, but for me this was found primarily in the dancing itself – committed and honest dancing by every cast member, who brought ardor to each of the nine sections. Our ballet audiences have good taste, so I believe this is one of the things they were recognizing and honoring. And if I were a dancer in it, I’d probably enjoy it too. However, it’s one of those pieces I think that ends up being slightly more fun to do than to watch. The old “Ballet Review” used to divide choreographic merit from dancing, grading each. So with that system in mind, let’s rate the choreography C+ and the dancing A.

Catching Caught

“Caught” was an idea that was just the right length. After an initial opening that seemed relatively conventional but interesting, this piece took off – literally – with the solo dancer seeming to float his way through traversing the stage. About 70- 80 jumps with the use of strobe lights, he was captured at the height of each jump. Good humor, visual logic. And when he seemed to drop down onto the stage from the rafters, no one can contain their cheers.

The cast dancers have said in previews that they are sworn to secrecy as to exactly how this magic is worked, but it’s revealed if you look carefully at the cover of Encore magazine’s multiple sequence images of Olivier Wevers rehearsing in a studio. I won’t let the trick out, but run to the program cover and look for yourself.

Olivier Wevers captured the essence of the work – its humor, good nature, sense of play and fun, its kinetic liveliness and how it builds to a satisfying conclusion.


“Kiss” was Susan Marshall’s contribution to the proceedings. Aerial by means of 40-foot ropes attached to the stage flies, “Kiss” is a piece that grows on one. It’s subtle in how it builds to its impassioned end as the couple – James Moore and Mara Vinson – finally embrace and spin off to romantic heaven as the curtain comes down.


No Contest

Opening the program was “Agon,” which celebrates its 50th  birthday this year. PNB is very fortunate to be able to have had original cast member Francia Russell stage this gem, which includes a revision to a solo done on her in 1960 by Mr. Balanchine.

“Agon” was a “dangerous” ballet in 1957 – and still is. Reactions from my own circle ranged from “Probably nobody does it better” to one of my former ballet teachers sniffing, “I don’t like that stuff!” I have to agree that PNB gave it a fabulous reading – kudos to the entire cast and prep team, particularly Louise Nadeau and Wevers in the legendary pas de deux, and to sarabanding Benjamin Griffiths in the first pas de trois.

When push came to shove, Artistic Director Peter Boal deserves mention for his bravery in putting on ballets new to PNB’s loyal audiences that challenged us, that gave the dancers artistic “fun” growth, and which show that ballet and dance are many things – with a varied and rich tradition, and how this tradition remains contemporary.

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