It Was A Good Year
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Modern Masterpieces Program
16 March 2013
by Dean Speer
1941 was a good year for the ballet, while not necessarily for the rest of the world. George Balanchine’s now iconic “Concerto Barocco” made its debut in Rio de Janeiro and has been continuously performed [now without its original costume designs] by various groups and companies in the intervening 72 years, including its 1977 PNB premiere.
The newest piece on the program, Paul Gibson’s “Mozart Pieces” might be called its grandson, owing a choreographic and template debt to it predecessor. By this I mean both are abstract ballets with no specific plot, yet there is a hint of drama and certainly of atmosphere. “Concerto Barocco” helped give choreographers permission to make dances that were not story-dependent, which could stand alone and match, from a compositional standpoint, high-art music. This style can be summarized perhaps best in the phrase, attributed to Balanchine and oft quoted – which I so like – is “See the music, hear the dance.” In the dance world, these works are sometimes categorized as neo-classical.
The middle child work, Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” dates from 1986; and the progeny with perhaps the most profound sense of the bittersweet, “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven,” is a 1993 work that came at the end of the career of Ulysses Dove, originally made for the Royal Swedish Ballet.
Of the four, I found that the Dove piece captured my heart the most. Yet the Balanchine was balm for the eyes, Gibson’s work was a treat for the ear and bless Tharp, who can be counted upon for a sardonic rollicking good time whose generosity of spirit and invention filled us with enough movement to satisfy our dancing appetite.
Dove’s work, though, does have a story but no specific plot – the processing of loss and tragedy and being dealt only the hand of hope. A tough assignment and a ballet that reaches into dark places and which attempts to, literally, shine light on them.
PNB’s ever beautiful dancers brought eloquence to each dance. The “tall cast” of Laura Gilbreath, Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz as the principals in “Concerto Barocco.” Carla Körbes and Seth Orza for “Mozart Dances” and the entire ensemble of “Front Porch” – Maria Chapman, Rachel Foster, Lesley Rausch, Andrew Bartee, Orza, and Jerome Tisserand whose ensemble and clear, deep commitment to the work really made it resonate. Made originally for PNB School students as a showcase “guy” piece, Gibson’s ballet was nicely crafted and Bartee, Tisserand, plus Messrs. Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis, Eric Hipolito, Jr., and Ezra Thomson were indeed showcased with the stuff that male ballet legends are made of – lots of and a variety of jumps, turns, and these in combination. Inspirational and exciting to see. Very fresh. A nice surprise was up-and-coming Carli Samuelson who at first impressed me as being an uncredited Ms. Foster, then I realized I was enjoying the dancing of someone with whom I was not all that familiar. It will be interesting to follow her career and see where her future assignments take her.
Concluding the program, “In the Upper Room” is a large and long enough work to virtually – or probably – stand on its own; no other ballet necessary. Clocking in at 40 minutes and with 9 sections, its appeal lies in the obvious athleticism of the dancers [there is a continuing jogging/running theme that does not let up on the dancers]. How hard a piece can be physically is almost always masked in order to show the choreography and not the effort, and "In the Upper Room," with its seemingly random insertions of pairings of styles such as sneakers and pointe shoes, morphs gradually to its predominantly ballet conclusion.
I remember taking umbrage at its PNB premiere in 2007, especially section VII that inserts softshoe steps and thinking [and writing ]that the dancers themselves should be offended, as I felt it demeaning to the dancers. [For which I took at lot of flack.] Yet here we are six years later and found myself reacting, well, that’s not too bad. I still don’t particularly like it but wasn’t overly offended either. This piece draws from Tharp’s [and the anti-establishment movement of the ‘60s] anything goes approach and, in context, certainly understand where she’s coming from. I’m glad that both Peter Boal and his predecessor, Kent Stowell have a policy of bringing dances back for subsequent viewings.
Front Porch was conducted by guest maestro Stilian Kirov whose attentive ear and eye really helped gel this work, contributing to its success. Allan Dameron conducted the Bach and the Mozart, leading members of the mighty PNB Orchestra.