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Cutting It Both Ways

Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Day of Dance' - Annual School Performance and Next Step

by Dean Speer

June 18, 2011 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s last shows of June were really all about change – the natural evolution of careers, the growth of artists, the reassurance of artistic hegemony, and of the inspired making and imparting of art.

The first of these was their Encore show which showcased and paid tribute to eight departing company members. The second and last, a week later, showcased the training of the PNB School students, and concluded that evening with their Professional Division students as the interpretative instruments for Company members trying their hand at dance-making – choreography.

PNB’s Annual School Performance is a rite. For some it’s a rite of passage and for others their earliest onstage adventures. The PNB faculty are street-smart in the sense of not only plying their students' wares effectively and beautifully, but also are mindful that this is a performing art with an audience and so kept each segment to its essence and kept the program moving and rolling along. They embed little things that help the audiencesuch as an announcer telling over the sound system which class is going next, rather than having to take the time to have a long pause while the house light are brought up, we fish out and rustle our programs to try to figure out where we are – “Is this Level II or Level III?”

The platoons of students are handled in such a clever choreographic way that it seems natural and not contrived that each line or discrete formation is brought to the front of the stage so that their families and friends can enjoy their progeny – and then are returned to the fold.

PNB’s faculty have gotten quite good at making effective recital dances including musical selections and deploying their respective students’ strengths and abilities at appropriate levels. The best, for my money, are always those that use live music – piano accompaniment.

These tools were particularly apparent during Timothy Lynch’s presentation of all of the School boys, Levels I through VIII. With such disparate array of experience and training, Lynch took a risk that I probably wouldn’t have but made it work with each level getting their turn, alternately mixed with the ensemble. And there were a lot of them! 51 if I count the names in the program correctly – very impressive.

Ballet Master Paul Gibson made a fresh ballet for seven men of the Professional Division, “Menuet & Allegros” which nicely showcased the men’s elegance and presented their trained virtuosity in an understated and welcome way.

Among the faculty, Bruce Wells is probably the most experienced choreographer and this showed in his piece that he made for the highest ranks before the Professional Division, Levels VII and VIII, giving us a “ballet blanc” of the old-style. Wells knows his students well and, while never holding back on giving them advanced material, he is also able to make them look good, which is the bottom line.

It’s also become a PNB tradition for the past several years that the Professional Division students are showcased in one or more excerpts from actual ballets. This year we were treated to one of the best, Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” in the three act plus finale version, staged by Peter Boal and assisted by faculty members Marisa Albee and Dana Hanson. Another very smart coup was the deployment of the Seattle Youth Symphony to accompany, with Stephen Radcliffe conducting.

This work’s use of the ballet dance vocabulary to orchestrated folk and western cowboy songs is a lesson in populism and of overcoming barriers of perception. Usually audiences start chuckling right away at the start of the second section when the orchestra begins “Good Night, Ladies” as a cowpoke comes out with four “ladies” – who at the end also double as his lead wagon horses as they “pull” him off stage, but this audience, perhaps being neophytes didn’t even giggle, but they did get the concluding gag.

"Western Symphony"was an excellent choice for this batch of entry-ready professionals who clearly seemed to be enjoying themselves...and we with them.

As I like to often say, because it’s true, the PNB School Performance is balm for my eyes and one that leaves a lasting impression that these students, regardless of whether they end up permanently on the PNB stage or not, are moving and going somewhere.

The next level of students’ development comes in the form of working with choreographers making new pieces on them. This is similar to but different from having dance school recital pieces made on students. In this case, the overall, arching objective, which may include wanting to make the dancers look good too, is to be the instruments that play out – dance out – the choreographer’s vision --what they want to say, artistically, and how.

This year’s Next Step was a festival of fresh choreography with eight pieces, with not a dud among them. My hands-down favorite was Ezra Thomson’s “Passages.” Some of the elements that made it so successful were that he told a story, creatively used a plank as a prop – first it was a door, then a table, then a moving part of the visual effect as manipulated by two male dancers. The depiction was of three couples, each at varying places in their relationship and each of their “stories” welcomed into view by a hostess who also entered through the “door” and who, at one point, too became a prop – a bench seat at a table. Thomson also used light humor here when the “bench” was set up too far way from the table and was “told” to move closer. Another element was letting the dance unfold and tell itself. Sometimes choreographers are their own worst and unintentional enemies, usually too erudite and not letting the dance flow and happen. Not the case here. Balanchine used to say, “God creates, I assemble.” The understanding of which is what I mean here. Thomson directed and re-directed the dance, keeping it disciplined within its premise. Last and least, Thomson made the music himself – specific to the dance, and played it himself on a guitar.

I’ve observed Thomson in class, first as a student, then as a Professional Division student, and recently as a Company member. Every time, it was of someone who was very focused and centered on what he was doing. This was evident in, what I believe is his first ballet and a successful one at that – clear and uncomplicated, genuine and sweet.

Sean Rollofson’s “Intertwined” opened the bill and impressed me as being in a similar palette as William Forsythe’s now iconic “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” with its black tights and green leotards, with a central and athletic pas de deux.

“Le Festival des Amis” was indeed a celebration of friends put together by Seth Orza to Beethoven music played by the Seattle Youth Orchestra. I enjoyed its ease and pas de trois with red-sashed Steven Loch, Carlie Mills and Kelsie Nobriga. This is Orza’s third work on this series and he’s getting more comfortable with the craft.

Mullin’s “Forward” was a good work, on the intense side, that could have used more focus and clarity of direction, as I found it one of those pieces that stopped when it could have concluded.

With a clever play on words, Price Suddarth’s first piece, I believe, was quirky and fun with a very hard duet for Carlie Mills and Jennifer Christie, “All the Reich Moves” to the recorded music of Steve Reich.

“It Gets Better” was a challenge for its protagonist, its object of the topic of bullying, Jordan Veit. Created by Barry Kerollis, his springboard was today’s response to recent bullying of youth, stories from across America, some of which have had very tragic consequences. In this case, nullified and happily resolved due to the intervention of the character danced by Megan DeMuro, who stands up to the crowd mentality. I say a challenge for Veit as he’s been – whether he fully realizes it or not, one of the “anointed” and given many opportunities over the past few years that both took advantage of his innate talent, youth, and which showcased him. This year, however, while still being cast in quite a lot of dances, he seems to have come to a plateau in his development. Perhaps it’s just a natural place for him to be technically and artistically as he builds and gathers strength and pushes himself to extend his boundaries as he matures. His characterization of the one being bullied was rather bland – he did all the steps and nicely too but there was little sense of acting and finding the skin of his character. Where was the anguish, panic, desperation, anger, and forgiveness? Perhaps this assignment was a bit early in his development. While still keeping the beauty of his dancing and technique, Veit will learn to inform this with the right shading and phrasing that will etch characterizations. We look forward to it.

The most European in flavor and text was Andrew Bartee’s long-titled, “A conversation between us that’s mostly me and a little bit of you,” suggesting youthful narcissism, using isolations and infused with an aroma of modern dance flavoring.

Concluding the program was “A Piece in P-I-E-C-E-S” by a choreographer who got his first break at making dances on this very series a few years ago and who has become, at least regionally, in demand and who is now the most “senior” of the eight choreographers represented, Kiyon Gaines. A tangoish affair, his newest creation shows all of the flair and ease with which Mr. Gaines seems to be able to make pieces that both dancers and the audiences enjoy and like.

Bravo to PNB for not resting on its laurels and just doing the tried and true but looking to continually improve and elevate the sophistication of what it does and how. Thanks too to the many sponsors who underwrote many of the dances.

A Day of Dance was time well spent in the reflected glory of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s generations of dancers, ardent fans and supporters, and those who believe, as we do, that dance as art is not only important but critical to our culture and personal well-being.

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