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What's New Is Old Again

Pacific Northwest Ballet's "New Works" Program

by Dean Speer

November 8, 2008 -- Seattle, Washington

Attempts to be au courant on purpose sometimes backfire, becoming dated practically before they are out of the box or perceived as a period piece.  The most successful new or contemporary works are those that focus on the work itself and not its packaging or marketing.  An example of this is Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments” which seems as fresh today and more “modern” than some works created now.  Certain classics speak and move audiences as much or more today than when they were first pushed out – “Swan Lake” being an example of a work that bombed at its premiere.  Even this music might have been “lost” had not some of it been played at Tchaikovsky’s funeral and a new, revised version of “Swan Lake” made not too long thereafter.

Works that draw attention to themselves, pointing and saying, “Look at me!  I’m new!” tend to get under my skin and ultimately, for the most part, lose my interest.  When I’m looking at them, they can often become dull or boring. Even while recognizing what might be their strengths, I see an inherent weakness in them that tends to bind and prevent them from rising to become great works of art.

I found myself being delightfully surprised at how much I enjoyed Mark Morris’ “A Garden.”  This is a case where the choreographer truly focused on the dance itself, letting it happen albeit guiding and shaping it.  Much to be admired are his movement motifs and his clear, easy to follow deployment of them.  Morris elements were sprinkled throughout, including quirky port de bras and having male solos to what might be considered feminine music of harpsichord – sprightly petit allegro steps and combinations.   Another is his disregard for partnering conventions; in this case, pairing men with taller women and also same gender.  His use of unison is smart too – all together but one lone, still figure providing both a focal point and a counterpoint.  Morris returns to his motifs, showing them at the beginning and re-showing them during the ballet, concluding with a pose that suggests ease of conviction.

Karla Körbes and Olivier Wevers got to have a duet that was at once elegant and tender.  I liked how her standing position was inverted into a lift over his shoulder.  Each cast member was outstanding including:  Kaori Nakamura, Ariana Lallone and Benjamin Griffiths.

A welcome showcase for PNB’s cornucopia of resident dance talent, “A Garden” is a sunny landscape with a period yet undated flavor that left me wanting more and which was over all too soon.

Kiyon Gaines is also a dance maker who has the good sense to let his dances happen and not let himself get in the way.  He has quickly learned that once you get started, dances tend to dictate themselves, particularly when all compositional elements are clicking.  His “M-Pulse” which is his first for PNB’s main stage series benefits.  There is a sweet sincerity to it and a joy at finding itself.  I was pleased that new music was commissioned especially for it, but moderately disappointed in the result itself.  It’s a good, minimalist-style sound but it doesn’t reach deep or high enough to fully complement the dance. The coupling of music and dance should elevate them both, but in this case the dance was better than the score and ended up being hampered by it rather than energized.

The cast boldly threw themselves into the work, and particularly outstanding were Lindsay Dec and Carrie Imler who got a neat solo that challenged her with oppositional weight changes and quick, quirky and fun steps.  “M-Pulse” is remarkable for its unabashed joy of discovery and freshness.

Benjamin Millipied is a very active choreographer both here and abroad, in addition to maintaining his performance schedule as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.  Being very aware of how different expectations can be in exotic locales like France versus England or Germany, he has the duel-edged sword of making a ballet that has appeal aplenty to both “traditional” audiences here and those elsewhere, as his work is known in each.

This brings to mind the question: who is it that decides what’s popular and what’s not?  Is it the audiences, the media, those who create the works, the dancers, those who commission such works or ?  Perhaps it’s a blending of some of each that provides the matrix that then spits out prophecies like the Oracle at Delphi, blessing some but not others.

Against this rather tortured backdrop, Millipied jumped into the fray with “3 Movements” to a score by [yet another] minimalist, Steve Reich.

Millipied moves groups and people around well, by his own admission, and this really came together for him in Seattle.  Overall, I found the work to be inventive but perhaps a little too busy.  He needs to pare it down and trust his material to speak for itself.  These fixes are easy edits, though perhaps too late to adjust now.  Nevertheless, “3 Movements” is a strong piece that nicely features the men in particular, putting them in slacks, shirts and ties with the women in cocktail dresses – suggesting an urban setting with a sense of restlessness throughout; an edginess.

“His work is very controversial” was Francia Russell’s response to my inquiry upon my first viewing of a William Forsythe piece many years ago.  It’s nice to know that he’s kept this up, and his “One Flat Thing, Reproduced” certainly bears this standard.

With the dancers interacting with 20 metal tables – in, under, on, against – it’s certainly an entertaining piece and quite unlike classical ballet.  For what it is, it’s an interesting work.  If you’re looking for anything resembling a traditional dance – ballet, modern, or otherwise, this is not it.

One of my row mates took great umbrage to it, roundly declaring that any high school or college students could do it – admittedly without the refinements of stretched knees and pointed feet.  She feels that it is squandering to take beautifully and highly trained dancers and have them do something she feels is beneath them.

Each of the first three works was accompanied by the mighty PNB Orchestra.  The Forsythe dance is to a taped sound score.   PNB’s “New Works” is a program that gives its audience lots to chew on.


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