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Pacific Northwest Ballet

'Concerto Barocco', 'Apollo', 'Agon'

by Jerry Hochman

February 13, 2013 -- City Center, New York, NY

If you’re going to carry coal to Newcastle, the coal had better burn brighter than the coal already there. By bringing its initial program consisting entirely of iconic ballets created by George Balanchine to New York, the home of the New York City Ballet and its heritage of Balanchine ballets, Pacific Northwest Ballet essentially presented an in-your-face opening night program. It was a gutsy (and one night only) invasion into NYCB territory.

While not outshining NYCB’s execution of these classics, PNB succeeded in showing that it can do a credible job with them, that it has a strong nucleus of dancers, and that the company merits the description ‘NYCB-West’ (as Miami City Ballet can be said to be NYCB-South). Given that the company’s Artistic Director, Peter Boal, is a former NYCB principal, and that the company’s ‘star’ ballerina, Carla Korbes, is a former NYCB soloist, this kinship, and level of accomplishment, is not surprising. [The company’s Founding Artistic Directors, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, also have NYCB roots.]

From the time she first joined NYCB as a member of the corps, Ms. Korbes stood out not only for the clarity of her technique, but also for the quality of quiet serenity that her performances conveyed. Ms. Korbes was excellent as Terpsichore in Apollo, which was the most successful of the three Balanchine ballets on Wednesday’s opening night program (the other two being Concerto Barocco and Agon), but I expected nothing less. Her technique is as crisp as it ever was, perhaps even more refined, and her Terpsichore could not only inspire a god, but could capture a god’s heart. NYCB’s loss has been PNB’s gain. One awaits with great anticipation Ms. Korbes’s performance as Juliet this coming weekend, to assay whether she can add the necessary fire to her stage persona.

However, the surprise of the evening, at least to this viewer, was another PNB principal, Lesley Rausch, who danced an outstanding Polyhymnia in Apollo, and anchored Agon. As Polyhymnia, Ms. Rausch, who joined PNB in 2001 and was promoted to principal in 2011, provided a strong emotional counterpoint to Ms. Korbes’s illuminated composure, enlivening her presentation with considerable flourish and allure. Her performance made Apollo’s choice of a preferred muse more difficult.
One of the greatest of Balanchine’s ballets, Apollo visually describes not only Apollo’s selection of a favored muse, but his growth as a god. It is critical, in this viewer’s opinion, that the transition from a nascent god to an Apollo who would be one of the greatest in the pantheon be clearly transmitted – not only by executing the steps, but by conveying the demeanor of a god who, inspired, grows in confidence. Seth Orza’s Apollo was very well-danced (Mr. Orza is another former NYCB soloist), but his Apollo lacked the bearing of a god, and came across to this viewer as more human than divine. And although, as Calliope, Maria Chapman’s execution of the choreography overall was accomplished, she downplayed her ‘audition,’ making her character appear unexceptional, and thereby making Apollo’s decision not to prefer her to be an easy one.

The program opened with Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, a staple of NYCB’s repertoire from its opening performance in 1948. [Concerto Barocco was created on a predecessor company, American Ballet Caravan, which reportedly consisted of students from the ballet school that Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein created – the School of American Ballet, which continues to funnel extraordinary dancers into NYCB. The piece premiered in 1941 in Rio de Janeiro, during Ballet Caravan’s tour of South America.] It was an understandable choice to open the evening, and was competently executed by the three lead dancers -- soloists Laura Gilbreath, Lindsi Dec, and principal Batkhurel Bold (replacing Karel Cruz) – and the corps (several of whom I thought were quite good, but I cannot yet identify them). But one could see the choreographic seams (the preparations and transitions), as well as insecure footing and somewhat sloppy partnering, and an overall sense of upper-body ‘tightness’. It was not the best of performances to begin the evening’s program, but the company’s execution of Apollo and Agon showed that the perceived deficiencies in Concerto Barocco were probably more a product of dancing on an unfamiliar stage, and for the first time in New York, than of any absence of ability by the dancers.

Agon, which demands both precise execution and a hint of aggressiveness, was danced very well by all the dancers involved (Ms. Rausch, Ms. Chapman, Mr. Bold, Kylee Kitchens, Elizabeth Murphy, Chelsea Adomaitis, Jessika Anspach, Emma Love, Leah O’Connor, Andrew Bartee, Jonathan Porretta, and Jerome Tisserand), although not as crisply or with the ‘edginess’ as by NYCB. [if you’re going to bring coal to Newcastle…] Ms. Rausch, in the pas de deux with Mr. Bold, was particularly good, as were Ms. Kitchens, Ms. Murphy, and Mr. Porretta in the first pas de trois (although Mr. Porretta, who has a tendency to appear smug, would be well-served to display a more gracious demeanor, particularly during acknowledgments to the audience).

My knowledge of PNB is limited. I saw a PNB performance in Seattle many years ago, and, frankly, don’t recall the program. I do recall with pleasure seeing PNB’s star ballerina, Patricia Barker. Since Ms. Barker’s retirement, one of PNB’s challenges may be to demonstrate that it can be more than a company built around one dancer. Although this initial program was not a complete success, what is clear is that under Mr. Boal’s leadership, and now in its 40th Anniversary Season, PNB is doing exactly that.

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