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The Southpaws Have it

Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Love Stories"

by Dean Speer

November 5, 2011 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

Let’s cut right to the chase and answer the question that's really on people’s minds: Yes, she did all of the fouettés in the ‘Black Swan’ pas de deux from “Swan Lake.” And then some. Not only that, Laura Gilbreath – in her debut as Odile– inserted several doubles early on. The strength and attack of the earlier sections of the pas, informed me that the turns would most likely not be a problem; what did surprise me is that she’s a “lefty.” As is her partner, the tall and lanky, with much elevation and “hang time” in the air, Karel Cruz.

Gilbreath reminds me a bit of one of my former students, Kristy Ann Wimpy Larson, who now directs a ballet school in Southwest Washington, as they seem to not only share looks but also several attributes: prepared, smart, fearless, good-humored, and unruffled by a good challenge.

This famous duet has to be made exciting and they very much did, right from the get-go.

With some dancers apparently sidelined and casting somewhat shifted throughout the evening’s ballets, the performance of the opening work, the Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée,” [The Fairy’s Kiss] provided a remarkable opportunity for two corps members to make their respective debuts as the lead couple, former Oregon Ballet Theatre member Leta Biasucci and Kyle Davis. Both were impressive and, I think, well-cast in what is a soubrette kind of part. With costumes that hinted of the rustic and with elegant choreography by George Balanchine, over a commissioned Stravinsky score, this was a work new to me and PNB.

Dating from 1974, this version hints at the original fairytale story, particularly in the last section, whose music is based on the heartbreakingly beautiful Tchaikovsky song, "None But The Lonely Heart," as the principal couple each complete the ballet in deep backbends, each facing a separate wing, he to the stage left and she, right, while stepping and reaching backward.

Exquisite and very intimate, Jerome Robbins’ interpretation of “Afternoon of a Faun,” is about as perfect as a miniature ballet can be – perfect because the level of choreographic composition matches the level of music and both blend and rise to Robbins’ inspiration and concept – that of seeing the young Edward Villella asleep in a corner of a sunlit studio. The music shimmers and is a bit unworldly, as is this ballet.

The conceit is that, we the audience, are the theatre’s fourth “wall” – in this case, the ballet studio’s mirror, where the two dancers, Lesley Rausch and Seth Orza, observe themselves and, at the end following a tentative kiss on the cheek offered by the male, the female makes her en pointe exit, leaving the male to return to his sun-warmed reverie.

Each of Kaori Nakamura’s performances are special by any account, as she brings so much focus, depth, and range of movement and technique to every role. Then pairing her with Lucien Postlewaite as Roméo to her Juliette is a terrific combination in the excerpted ‘Balcony’ pas de deux from Maillot’s very contemporary and French envisioning of “Roméo et Juliette.”

Concluding the evening was Ronald Hynd’s staging of the entire third act of “The Sleeping Beauty,” with Maria Chapman making her role debut as Princess Aurora, partnered by Orza as her Prince Florimund. Having a “Sleeping Beauty” in a company’s repertoire is a huge accomplishment, particularly one that is as authentic and lavishly produced as this one, and was a delight from downbeat to finish.

Very, very well cast were Carrie Imler, Lucien Postlewaite, and William Lin-Yee in the Gold and Silver Pas de Trois. This showed Imler at her best in all respects – affluent with her strong and sharp range, pulling off technical steps and difficulties as if they were tailor-made. Postlewaite and Lin-Yee were nicely matched in line and presentation of their male variations, often conceived in canon.

Jerome Tisserand was filling in for Jonathan Porretta as the Bluebird, with Rachel Foster as Princess Florine. A Dance Magazine cover girl, sometimes typecast as best suited to contemporary work, Foster really emerged and broke away from this limit and put herself into the role completely, sparkling and allowing us to enjoy each of the échappé and stylized piqué turns, including the famous “Bluebird” lift fully with her face open and smiling.

Tisserand’s elevation and line are quite good and his landings from each of the many sauté, quiet and controlled as they should be. 24 brisé volé, front and back, are a lot for any male dancer and he more than easily sailed through this allegro assignment well – in fact, covering the stage so much as having to perhaps re-tool the spacing a bit at the end, as he could have merrily and easily flown off into the wings, as he does when concluding the pas’s coda with a huge saut de chat.

My only fuss with the Grand Pas de deux was that I would have liked the third and final partnered “fish” dive from the piqué en de dans double pirouette to have been held longer, as it often is, as I find this gives it great phrasing and elegance. I would so have liked conductor and Music Director Emil de Cou to have relaxed the pace of the coda just a bit, as it felt slightly rushed – a little breathless rather than exhilarating, although it was certainly exciting.

Orza is an experienced and sympathetic partner who gave finessed support to Chapman, who essayed her assignment very well. Occasionally, she impressed me as being"on edge,” but this is an enormous role with the weight of many legendary ballerinas behind her, so this is certainly understandable. I’m confident that with more outings, she’ll relax into the part, as any ballet requires “seasoning,” meaning each performance informs the next and it takes time to understand where and how to pace a part and to get it under the skin. Specifically, I would have liked to see her do more with deeper phrasing, such as accented pauses, and letting a phrase resonate before transitioning to the next. Never the less, an impressive debut.

The mighty PNB Orchestra – which performed every work on the program– was led by de Cou and Alastair Willis for the Prokofiev.

A fabulous and exciting...and choreographically varied program, that should have had audiences lining up and vying for seats, but where were they? I find myself disappointed and slightly distressed that the top balcony seemed to have only a smattering of folk in it. The greater Puget Sound region really needs to do better in its support. Is it not critical in these hard economic times that we support the very things that make living here so valued? Perhaps the marketing department had a hard time coming up with a saleable tag line, but the program was totally worth seeing and enjoying. When the area can seem to easily come up with $250 million for a newly re-built Husky stadium and shoppers are crowding into malls, certainly the inexpensive seats of the ballet (with single tickets range from $28 to $168; subscription rates are even less) can and should be filled. After all, one of North America’s top, top major ballet companies is right here in our own backyard, and we want to keep it that way. Audiences should not assume support is not needed, nor should we allow a cavalier or complacent attitude to develop. Active support, to me, means being a seat within a seat and providing whatever other means of support are possible.

Next up, “Nutcracker!”

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