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Pacific Northwest Ballet: All Wheeldon Program

You'll Never Dance Alone

by Dean Speer

September 24, 2011 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

I should probably be strapped to my chair before, during, and after shows, as I like to get up and wander through the crowds with my ear attuned to what the word on the street might be. For Pacific Northwest Ballet’s first-ever "All Wheeldon" program, the word ranges from gushing and euphoric to less-than-amused, conceptually and choreographically speaking.

The most extreme reactions came from a co-worker who took umbrage to “Variations Sérieuses,” emphatically declaring, “I don’t like silly ballets!” and someone else who reported, “...I thought that for such a ‘hot shot’ I expected more.”

Like everyone, Christopher Wheeldon has his strengths and weaknesses. His creative and choreographic strengths are the ones that we celebrate, such as really good choices of music, staying away for the most part from faddish composers and styles, to fresh concepts and ideas that make their way up onto the stage in ballets that tend to be bright, light, lively, as was the case with the “After the Rain” pas de deux, with its languor and lovely, adagio images supremely executed by Rachel Foster and James Moore.

We can also celebrate that Artistic Director Peter Boal had the idea to bring together what is believed to be the first repertory program completely devoted to Wheeldon’s work by a major ballet company on a subscription season.

I would encourage my co-worker to look more deeply. I found humor in “Variations Sérieuses” but not exactly of the silly kind. I think he used a slice of alleged ballet life to make a point and as a departure for the piece. Long gone are the days when petty jealousies and overwrought divas allowed their emotions to interfere with the important work at hand of getting dances on stage. Artists are collegial, and while there is competition, it tends to be for the right reasons.

Never the less, these stereotypes make for good casting and fun, providing ample dancing opportunities in a medium-sized cast story ballet. Carrie Imler showed her considerable skill as a comedic actress/dancer as The Ballerina. If you can have a casting double entendre in choreography, then casting up-and-coming choreographer Kiyon Gaines as the excitable and nervous Ballet Master was especially amusing and well done. The Young Girl, danced by Sarah Ricard Orza, is a good part that shows off an extended and advanced vocabulary, including some favorites such as piqué arabesque with the arms rounded up over the head in high fifth.

Some lovely passages were embedded for the corps of ladies and gentlemen, as well as a nifty pas de cinq for The Crew and a dreamer of a Stage Manager – Isaac Aoki, Andy Garcia, Charles McCall, Jordan Veit, and Lindsi Dec, including precision broom sweeping formations.

Wheeldon’s ballets remind me of one of his compatriots, David Bintley, whose early ballets of nearly 30 years ago enthralled me with performances by the Royal Ballet. I remember being so impressed and thinking to myself that this guy was really going somewhere. While Bintley’s choreographic oeuvre hasn’t taken off too much on this side of the Atlantic, I do note that he is now Artistic Director of the Royal Birmingham Ballet and that he’s still producing works.

The thing that both Wheeldon and Bintley give and have given us is hope. This is an important commodity. This hope is probably the number one reason why every generation has its heros. Wheeldon is a hero of his generation, and I would include, right before that, like him or leave him, Mark Morris (they are about 20 years apart).

I remember being in the audience when San Francisco Ballet performed three ballets by Wheeldon, over two different programs, each to the music of Ligeti and how he commented that he had wanted to give himself the challenge of creating dances to music of composers for whom he had no natural affinity. I remember too the pianist observing for himself the level of difficulty the score presented. Of those three, “Polyphonia” was on this bill.

While giving the impression of being a group ballet, it’s really a series of pas de deux, pas de trois, and one pas de quatre, enrobed with all 8 dancers. I found “Polyphonia” to have been the strongest from a compositional standpoint, and certainly danced with very sharp execution, particularly notable being the ever-exciting Kaori Nakamura whose bravura never ceases to pull me to the edge of my seat. Right behind her, literally, would be Benjamin Griffths, followed closely by the rest of the cast – Carla Körbes, Batkhurel Bold, Rachel Foster, Lucien Postlewaite, and Sarah Ricard Orza with Jerome Tisserand. The purple leotards on the ladies were a nice touch and a rich departure from traditional black. “Polyphonia” is a steel-blue cool ballet with very interesting and unusual shapes and visual twists on the classical vocabulary.

Who cannot help but love the Richard Rodgers tune, “If I Loved You?” Opening the program was “Carousel (A Dance)” that draws upon both the story and musical elements of the original. Primarily non-narrative, Wheeldon does gives us the actual carousel, cleverly made by the dancers, with females holding brass-colored poles on the shoulders of the males, making a circle – which always gets a big clap. Like practically every ballet on the planet, from Swan Lake to even Balanchine, the ballet provided a means to present a pas de deux, in this case between the carnival “Barker” Billy Bigelow (Seth Orza) and Julie Jordan (Körbes). Full of tender reaching and yearnings, it was not a stretch to see similarities to typical Balcony Pas de deux from “Romeo and Juliet” – first tentative, then discovering the ardor and strength of their love for each other.

The only thing I would have done differently is to have put “Polyphonia” at the end of the program, as I don’t find the Mendelssohn (“Variations Sérieuses”) to be a ‘closer.’

Conductor Emil de Cou conducted the mighty PNB Orchestra and for the “After the Rain pas de deux,” music was provided by violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and Company pianist Christina Siemens, with Siemens and Matthew Goodrich doing piano four-hands for the Ligeti.

With the global popularity of his works among ballet companies, it’s easy to see why the audience found this to have been a fun and light evening and that PNB and Mr. Wheeldon will never walk alone.

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