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Pacific Northwest Ballet

Humor Me -- PNB's Laugh Aloud Festival

by Dean Speer

April 10, 12 (matinee), and 13 (matinee), 2008 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle 

Humor in the arts can be a tricky thing. How much? How little? What type? When does light go over the edge into camp or low-brow? Is broad humor okay to accompany high art, and if so, can these complement each other? Perhaps Pacific Northwest Ballet’s original intention was not to analytically answer these questions with its first-ever Laugh Aloud Festival, but they do get addressed – at least partially – by the two bills presented, each of which included a world premiere.

Humor in dance is certainly an okay thing and there is a lot of precedent for it, such as the recently performed by PNB Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” What’s disconcerting is convincing the general public that ballets that are light are not necessarily so silly that it’s not worth attending. Even today’s Les Ballets Trockadero does several of its repertory ballets “seriously” while still dishing out its campy brand of humor elsewhere. It was a little sad to see houses at the three shows I attended that really could have used more people in seats.

Artistic Director Peter Boal wisely chose dances (not all were “ballets”) that represented a range of intent and types of humor. From Susan Stroman’s peppy and energetic “Take Five...More or Less” to Joshua Grant’s en pointe seven foot frame floating around the stage, flapping his/her way through Anna Pavlova’s histrionic “Dying Swan” – whose hysterical bows took longer than the actual dance.

Brian Reeder’s “Lost Language of the Flight Attendant” never quite took off. I liked the premise of a leggy stewardess giving movement motif direction and suggestion to the dancers through “flight attendant speak” such as using two fingers to show a path. However, the dance ended up being a long flight and could have used some judicious tightening. I had the feeling that the dance was as long as it was because that was the length of the music Reeder chose.

It must have been the moisture in the coastal Aberdeen, Washington air where Trisha Brown grew up that infused a quirky sense of humor and of being a little bizarre that’s informed her work. “Spanish Dance” is a three minute work to a popular Bob Dylan song where basically not a lot happens. Five dancers move across the proscenium domino-style, swinging their hips and lifting their arms, then collapse against the right arch.

Choreographer du jour Christopher Wheeldon’s “Variations Sérieuses” is a misnomer – it’s not, of course, serious at all but does show a sideways and fanciful glimpse into the preparations for and performance of a classical ballet. It borrows from stereotyped and cardboard ballet characters to build a two-part work. Part One shows the rehearsing of “The Ballerina” and other staff, and Part Two is the actual dance, including how this ballerina accidently jumps off the stage into the orchestra pit and has to be replaced – and is by “the new kid” on the block, danced by Noelani Pantastico. As the temperamental ballerina, Louise Nadeau showed not only her superb dancing but also great comedic skills.

Amazing were the dancing of and the steps assigned to Seth Orza’s part as the Premier Danseur – quite outstanding and given a difficult assignment – quick and turning sissonnes and flying brisés volé.

“Ordinary Festivals” by Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig started out well with a fun moment – two dancers vying to see who could spear with knives the most oranges as they were being tossed to them. Other sections impressed me as being overly contrived, rather than letting the dance and dancing happen naturally. We didn’t need, for example, the dancers jumping up and down on a hauled in and rolled-out carpet. Just because a dance maker can include something doesn’t mean they ought to or should. This work needed something tying it together, as ultimately it ended being a non-starter – fun for the premise and good for the dancing, but one that didn’t make it out of the village.

Olivier Wevers’ engaging nature comes through clearly in the world premiere of his “Shindig.” The best section, which could easily be a stand-alone, was the pas de deux for Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite. Set to a movement from Schubert’s glorious “Trout” quintet, the pair were fun underwater creatures in neat, blue costumes with Nakumura in a puffy tutu.

Choreographically the strongest was Stroman’s premiere of her “Take Five...More or Less.” She showcased each cast member, really playing to their strengths and challenging them, such as tapping into Jeffrey Stanton’s superb tapping ability and of Wevers’ piquant personality, or of Carrie Imler’s verve and Miranda Weese’s limpid interpretations. Outstanding also were Kari Brunson (Red), Chalnessa Eames (Pink), Lesley Rausch (Purple) and the other men – Kiyon Gaines, Jordan Pacitti, and Orza.

With this festival, Boal continues programming a short, unique “mini” season of something that’s special. A venue and idea that I hope will continue and gather strength in the future.

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