Tomorrow’s Ballet Stars Today
Twenty-Fourth Annual School Performance, 3:30 p.m. show (Seattle students only)
Saturday, 18 June 2005
Pacific Northwest Ballet School
McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington
by Dean Speer
This year’s Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s 24th annual School Performance was especially
poignant due to the impending retirement at the end of the month of its long-time director – and its heart and soul – Francia Russell.
I was at the very first show held at the UW’s Meany Hall Theatre and even modeled my own recitals somewhat after what I saw – and liked. The first half was demonstrations of technique, ballet barres and all. You could really see the progression through the levels and the technical abilities of these young dancers. And, with a couple of exceptions due to unavoidable work conflicts, I’ve been at every show since.
The makeup and overall strength of a student body varies from year to year. PNB faculty adjust their syllabus accordingly. My observation is that while presented well, this year’s crop in general didn’t seem as strong as in some years past. Nevertheless, there was much to admire and talent fairly burst out of the wings.
The format has evolved over the years and now they show each stage, “Act I,” beginning at Level I in a venue that keeps the program moving along with speedy efficiency, having each class perform a “mini-dance” of about two minutes in duration. Each group is introduced over the public-address system so we in the dark (literally) know what we are about to experience. I like how this is handled and find that it’s a good model for recitals that have multiple “numbers.”
My favorite out of this batch was Timothy Lynch’s piece for the Level III C and IV C Boys. Gottschalk and tambourines – a lively and perfect omnibus for this sea of male energy and legs.
After Level V, we got treated to a new feature this year. This was “Triple Threat” – a great play on this theatre phrase – which was actually a trypich of Classical Spanish, Jazz, and Modern Dance whose first section, Cadiz, was choreographed by the irrepressible Sara de Luis who is the School’s Spanish teacher. Ms. de Luis infused her students with an authentic sense of the style and feeling for this genre. She made them look good and they looked good doing it.
Jazz teacher Alice Bergeson really came into her stride with her stagings of Fosse excerpts from Pippin, Pajama Game, and Sweet Charity, which then morphed into a modern dance work by Sonia Dawkins, 50 Legs.
The second half of the show, “Act II,” features students from the Professional Division.
I found the most successful to have been Russell’s staging of the opening portion of Serenade and of Carrie Imler’s staging of the season variations from Kent Stowell’s Cinderella.
Paquita was impeccably staged by Russell, but with the exception of Brandy Horne, the work was a little beyond them. Leanne Larsen in the ballerina role was radiant and danced strongly until she got to the dreaded fouettés (hey, my heart started pounding the second I heard the music and I wasn’t even on stage!) where she didn’t quite finish them off. She began late and immediately started traveling a lot downstage (Margot Fonteyn famously describes her own troubles with this step as, “A Cook’s Tour of the stage.”). Larsen self-corrected this but ran out of steam, tried picking it up again after making a single piqué turn to get herself back to center stage, but was only able to crank out a couple more fouettés. I know it’s hard in the heat of battle and you have to make choices, but she would have been better off just stopping. One of the big lessons that performers learn is how to pace themselves. Perhaps it was nerves, fatigue or a combination but except for this sequence, she truly acquitted herself very well in the rest of this demanding ballet and she recovered sufficiently to come back and easily finish the coda and finale with her partner Geoffrey Kropp.
Choreographically problematic was Bruce Wells’ work for the Level V - Professional Division Men, set to music by Shostakovich. I know Mr. Wells worked hard on this piece for months with his men, but except for a couple of the most accomplished men, he didn’t quite show them off to their best advantage. Mr. Wells has a gift for making dancers look good but in this case it seemed like he struggled too much with the choreography. Somehow it was all at odds with itself. Perhaps he should have started over again with a fresh piece of music or different motifs.
Who does have a gift for showing off the School’s women in both her classes and on stage is its Curriculum Supervisor, Victoria Pulkkinen. This was seen in both her Level VI offering which used lots of open, èffacé positions, big movement, with enough fast allegro inserted in that had the effect of moving them and the piece, and in the Finale. Pulkkinen will be sorely missed as she is moving at the conclusion of this Summer’s class session to join her husband, Randall Chiarelli, in San Francisco.
PNB School – in a quick quarter plus century – has become one of the North American’s premier ballet training grounds and it’s always a treat to see the results and as I like to intone, “Balm for my eyes!”
I look forward to the School’s 25th edition of itself and noting the changes that will be inevitable.