CriticalDance Forum

Pacific Northwest Ballet School: 2007 Recital
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Author:  Dean Speer [ Tue Jun 26, 2007 11:20 am ]
Post subject:  Pacific Northwest Ballet School: 2007 Recital

Look at Me Ma...I’m Dancin’!
Pacific Northwest Ballet School “Annual School Performance”
Saturday, 16 June 2007, 3:30 p.m.

by Dean Speer

The Rule

Each year I eagerly anticipate attending Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s “Annual School Performance.” Its 26th was no exception. I’ve affectionately long adopted my own phrase for what I know I’ll see: “Balm for my eyes!”

The PNB School students are beautifully trained and taught and this educated breeding certainly showed. Each class was bright, neat, clean, well rehearsed and, for the most part, very tidy.

It’s great seeing a sensible syllabus put to practical use with such good and practical results. These ballet students have not just been talked to about theory but are developing what I like to call “true” technique. It’s clear that the faculty and everyone behind them (support staff, musicians, costumers, etc.) have put a lot of care and thought into their work and it shows in their young charges.

The choreography that showed them off the best came during the first piece – “Level V Bellevue and Seattle” with choreography by Elaine Bauer. The elements of the music, the choreographic themes and patterns were appropriate for this level and came together well.

The PNB School is fortunate to have a platoon of boys and young men in its ranks and its Men’s Division was shown off to good effect with a strong piece put together for them by Stanko Milov, PNB’s resident Bulgarian-trained Principal member of the Company and a teacher in the School.

The Modern Dance classes were represented by instructor Sonia Dawkins “Sporadic Moments.” I liked one of her movement themes in particular – a deep squat with one leg extended across the other in a kind of pliéd sideways arabesque. While not a deep piece, it does have enough shade of the darkly dramatic to give the students opportunity to show feeling of depth and to deploy movement that’s important to be exposed to and learn.

Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” proved to be a bit beyond the couple who performed the entrance and adagio (the variations were taken by another couple). While there were no major gaffes, the young man, following something that didn’t go quite perfectly, began to think about it, and became visibly nervous and transmitted this to his partner. This duet is extremely difficult – not just in the steps but that it needs to look entirely carefree. A made-to-order duet would have been a better choice.

Taking Exception

Pacific Northwest Ballet School has long been in the vanguard of professional standards. Its students are trained and taught to be a part of live performance art. Technique classes are taught by live persons, curriculum is set by a live faculty team, costumes are designed and executed by live persons, lighting is also designed and run by live persons, as are sets, publicity materials, the stage crew and the ushers. It goes without saying that the dancers are live as well. How disconcerting and disappointing is it then for the School to capitulate to the lower standard that’s used too much in the dance world – recorded music – for so much of the program. The exceptions were the two brief excerpts from “Swan Lake” and Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” – performed very ably on the piano by Don Vollema.

This is a practice that really ought not to be allowed. Certainly not by the flag-bearer out in front. PNBS is among those schools setting the standard that others look up to; and if the great fall, the lesser go along with it. PNBS has a responsibility not only to itself but also to the greater dance world and public “out there.” Their technique classes are accompanied live and I really believe it’s critical to transfer this practice to the stage. [It would take a page to explain why live music is so important but suffice to say it’s the way to go – and in my lexicon, the only way to go. (Yes, yes, I know about the artistic exceptions.) Among the first things we lose is immediacy.] Many dance teachers and studio owners attend PNB School’s shows, and if they see that PNBS is using recorded sound, fighting to justify live music in these other studios becomes all the more difficult.

The other practice to discourage is using music from a famous ballet but not using the choreography associated with it – and certainly not in this virtual house of Balanchine (I know PNB dislikes being thought of this way, but functionally it’s true) – in this case it was a movement from Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” They should either do the Balanchine choreography or pick other music.

The public has a very high expectation of PNBS – which, by the way, is recognized and reflected by PNBS in the ticket prices – unapologetically up to $60 per seat for a dance school recital program.

Let’s chuck the canned music and instead better frame and support these beautiful, talented and lovingly trained dance students with every means at the School’s disposal. The students truly deserve only the highest standards of professional direction, guidance and instruction. The ballet world needs standard bearers who refuse to compromise high artistic standards for transitory expediency.

Author:  LMCtech [ Tue Jun 26, 2007 11:55 am ]
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It is usually cost prohibitive for a school, even a well established school, to use a live orchestra. SFBS is not able to do it. Does SAB?

Author:  Dean Speer [ Tue Jun 26, 2007 1:37 pm ]
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Please let me clarify -- I'm talking about using piano, which is what PNBS used to use for nearly all of its class demos and pieces in years past.

Author:  ksneds [ Tue Jun 26, 2007 4:02 pm ]
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Unless it's a score that doesn't suit live music (i.e. electronic or modern music), SAB always has a live orchestra for the workshops. I believe that the orchestra is usually comprised of advanced Julliard students with a NYCB conductor and pianists (where needed).

As such, I think SAB saves considerably on costs, but most schools outside NYC probably don't have access to musicians from a school like Julliard who are of a high enough quality to be able to tackle some of the very tricky scores, but are still students so are not expensive to hire. (Given the links between Julliard and SAB/NYCB/NYCI, SAB may well get their services for free in exchange for providing the student musicians with a showcase for their talents).

Dean is right in noting that all that's really needed is a pianist. Many scores can be more than adequately played by a solo pianist. Balanchine himself did the piano transcriptions for some of his ballets, so there is ample piano music available. And there are certainly plenty of scores than can be played by a small orchestra. If such a prestigious school as PNB can't afford real musicians, we're in a pretty dire state of affairs - and at $60, those tickets are more expensive than most at the regular SAB workshop performances.


Author:  JaneH [ Tue Jun 26, 2007 5:19 pm ]
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I just attended my daughter's year-end recital at NBS, and I can report that about half the performances took place to live piano music with a couple pieces exquisitely enhanced with live performance also of a recorder-type instrument (sorry, I don't know the exact name of the instrument: It was used during Asian and Georgian character-dance pieces). Live music really is so much more enjoyable -- although I must also say that one of the major benefits of live music for the performers must be the pianist who can time those final notes to coincide with a dancer's last move. More than just a few "derrieres" were saved that way!

Author:  LMCtech [ Tue Jun 26, 2007 10:13 pm ]
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If it's a specific score being used, I'm not sure as a choreographer that I would be satisfied using a piano score instead of the full scored music even if it was live. I piece like the Allergro from Beethoven's 7th (for instance) has subtlely of orchestration that is essential to the mood of the piece and would be totally lost if it were played by a live pianist no matter how good the arrangement is. Sometimes recorded music is better.

However, the fact that SAB can use Juilliard students at a smaller cost is ideal. SFBS has discussed the possibility of a similar arrangement with San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but it has never gone beyond the brainstorming stage. Does Seattle have a music conservatory?

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Wed Jun 27, 2007 1:41 pm ]
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Seattle has nothing on the order of Juilliard or the San Francisco Conservatory....However, there are myriad community orchestras that play on a professional level, many of which would relish the opportunity and exposure.

Author:  LMCtech [ Wed Jun 27, 2007 2:43 pm ]
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That could be an interesting alternative....

Author:  ksneds [ Wed Jun 27, 2007 2:58 pm ]
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I suspect the issue may be more about dealing with musicians' unions who effectively limit who can perform in which theatres and for what salary. Even if the union musicians would be too expensive or busy for a school performance, they might well object to semi pros or students or freelancers being paid 'less than union' wages for the performances. But no matter the orchestra, the key factor is the conductor - you really need someone who has ballet conducting experience so that they are sensitive to the specific demands of music that accompanies dance.

LMCTech - I am certainly not suggesting piano reductions when better options exist and for all scores. But a live piano can often be far better than a taped score. Especially in a school performance where you have nerves and things do sometimes go wrong, having a live orchestra can save a performance. It might be that schools need to think intelligently about music and if a full orchestra is not possible, think of scores which can be played on a piano or with just a few musicians. Mark Morris always used live music, but he works with a very small number of musicians to keep costs down.


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