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Big, Baby, and Missed

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Next Step Program

by Dean Speer

June 16, 2012-- McCaw Hall, Seattle, WA

Pacific Northwest Ballet has long provided a voice for choreographers wishing to try their hand at the craft – first with their Summer Inventions, more recently with Choreographer’s Showcase, and now with Next Step.

Next Step allows opportunities for company members to work with PNB School Professional Division students in the creation of new pieces and this is something to be given continuing support and admiration. It drew many curious on-lookers, including me, on a near-perfect Seattle evening to McCaw Hall to see what was cooking in the ballet kitchen.

This year’s edition proved to be a mixed bag of results - from works that are ready for the main stage to the more experimental and workshop level. Each was interesting in its own right and it was instructive to see how these dancers think and process. My impressions and feedback are infused with love and support and hope that each will continue to explore and create.

Kyle Davis’ own staging of the “Sylvia Pas de deux” to the glorious Délibes score was nothing short of classic, sheer genius – quite a coup for someone’s first choreographic outing. From the entrance of the dancers, Jahna Frantziskonis and Christian Poppe, and the opening movement motifs, we knew that Davis was in command of his material, that it was going to be good, and that we all were going to have a enjoyable time watching.

Musicians typically study Bach, Mozart and the like not only to gain technical ground but also because it gives them a sense of form, structure, and how to build a piece – even if they don’t realize it at the time. Dancers also gain similar insight through their many years of study. I don’t know how much research Davis did, such as viewing extant previous versions such as the Balanchine – brought into the PNB rep for the scintillating Colleen Neary [nobody has ever matched what she did with the changement sur les pointes!] or the more recent full-length done by Mark Morris for San Francisco Ballet, but his is sure to be a classic in its own right.

Davis wisely didn’t try to get too weird or invent new ways of doing strange upside down partnering; instead, he let the work flow and speak for itself and it worked in ways that seemed fresh yet grounded in tradition, showing the dancers’ strengths and continuing the unspoken pas de deux ground rules – an entrance, followed by adagio partnering, next a variation each for the man and woman, concluding with a zippy coda. The challenge of the coda is that should not only be allegro but it must also summarize what went before and this one does with its own magic.

He gave us the requisite balances, promenades, grand rond de jambe, supported pirouettes, and lifts. And...he concluded the adagio section with a perfect choice – a supported “fish” dive pose – the one where the female is arching her back like crazy and smiling, all the while with her nose inches from the floor and the male is holding her, leveraged by his arms into place.

Poppe did really well but needs to learn how to better pace himself when it comes time to do his solo. Giving his considerable all during all that went before, he ran out of steam a bit during his last manege of turning leaps but, fortunately for us and him, he still managed to finish well. [I was sending him a mental telepathy message – don’t worry about the choreography as given you, just do plain coupé jété and finish out the variation! Male variations often contain this step and usually you do two or three followed by something “exotic” that’s intended to kick it up a notch such as adding a fouetté into attitude to show hovering in the air, so when I could see him hint at flagging, I thought – just do the basic step, ignore the choreography and make it work! Davis most likely won’t care.]

The famous and iconic pizzicato solo for the female was free of stereotype yet replete with relevé battu, hops en pointe and “fun” sequences which Frantziskonis executed with charm and aplomb.

The coda was exciting and included everyone’s favorite bravura step for the ballerina, the turning fouetté.

I was also impressed that Davis knew how to present himself – not appearing for his choreographer’s bow with his cast rumpled or that he might be preparing to dance in a mosh pit. No faux casual here – he knew that his pas classed up Next Step and he has the moxey to honor his own work by looking dressed and groomed for the part. Bravo!

I was truly very impressed last year with Ezra Thompson’s first work - it was clever, well-conceived and executed, and he even accompanied it himself on the guitar. Regretfully, he didn’t quite rise to the same mark this round with his “The Sole in my Shoe is the One I Love.” The highly-regarded Midwest choreographer Loyce Houlton used to have a couple of sayings and her list of 10 Choreography Commandments remain legendary guideposts. [“Thou shalt not run!” and “No more (insert name of step done too much) for five years!” among them.]. To paraphrase, I’d suggest to Mr. Thompson “No more props for five years!” Using a prop last year give him an idea platform to inspire and build his work but this year it fell flat. Another of Houlton’s sage observations, “Don’t be afraid to kill your baby!” sounds extreme but not in the context of knowing and needing when to start over if your original idea isn’t working.

His premise of pairs of shoes representing three contrasting types of dance and dancers seemed good at the beginning but as the dance progressed each seemed caught in their own world. He had set us up with the expectation that there would be some kind of interaction or cross-breeding or change to the three women but instead they stayed cocooned and interacted instead, sometimes angrily, but with only their own shoes. Bringing in three “ghost” dancers in black didn’t add anything and came across as strange and not necessary.

Opening the program was with Chelsea Adomaitis making her debut with her work “to do what you will" set to an electric guitar version of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major for solo violin. Perhaps it was just the length of music that dictated how long her piece should be but never-the-less it was to the point, about the right length of dance and intelligently presented. My only fuss is a personal one – I’ve enjoyed Bach in many guises but electric guitar I found didn’t serve either the composer or the dance particularly well. It was more irritating than relevant and she would have been off using one of the talented violinists from the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, who were already in the pit waiting for the next piece. I’d like to see more from Adomaitis.

The second half of the program was not quite as strong as the first.

“Swerve” was Sean Rollofson’s essay. I would have kept it for all women – the insertion of the talented Jordan Veit appeared imposed upon the rest of the choreography and, for the most part, he looked out of place, like a beloved male who turns up unexpectedly at an female soirée. It looked out of place because, in terms of motif, there was no setup or premise and thus, no way to really build him satisfactorily into the ballet. My own gut reaction was “What is he doing here!?” He did dance with the women sometimes but it would have been better with all females. It might have been interesting for Rollofson to have made a substantive solo for Veit, perhaps challenging him in the process. Mitch Krisjanson’s sound score was atmospheric but didn’t really add all that much to the proceedings and was not memorable.

Of the lot, Kiyon Gaines is the most experienced having launched a good choreographic career, beginning with the original Choreographer’s Showcase where his first piece wowed us. His own introductory comments inform us that he was trying for something different from himself – very commendable and hard to do – and that his work would be more quiet than those before and would be for a small cast of two, a duet titled “C’est “2",” set to music by David Lang. Frantziskonis got a workout, being this was the third piece in which she was in and the second in which she was prominently featured. Paired with the equally talented Andy Garcia, I believe the piece met Kiyon's own objectives, giving us something calm, a fluid and internal adage – very heart felt.

As they have said, reflecting upon their years of shaping and guiding PNB, if Francia Russell and Kent Stowell had known that what they were doing was considered impossible, they might not have tried. But being young and relatively inexperienced, they didn't know this and proceeded to succeed. The same might be said of Eric Hipolito, Jr.’s first work, “A Beautiful Struggle,” which he set to a movement of one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas – Beethoven being a composer that most choreographers avoid, believing that his music cannot be amplified by choreography. How bold of Hipolito to prove the exception to the rule.

Clearly played by Don Vollema, Hipolito etched a work that deftly used his ensemble of nine, six women and three men.

Next Step received some deserved financial underwriting and it will be exciting to see how these dance makers progress and perhaps 2013's edition will enjoy more of their hard work and courage.

The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra accompanied two of the works and my fond hope is that each future choreographer will be pushed in their direction and take full advantage of using them. Why only use the money that’s under the mattress in an old sock when you’ve got a whole bank account at your disposal?

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