It’s About All of Us
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Celebrate Seattle Festival
by Dean Speer
Where the Bodies are Buried
PNB’s Celebrate Seattle! Festival’s program has a really good synopsis of 100-plus years of dance activity in the Emerald City. However, the compilers wouldn’t know about a couple of important additions, as they are not archived anywhere in particular except in memory.
First to fill in those memories is Seattle Festival Ballet, directed by James DeBolt and Ron Sequoio. It was active 1976-78. James and Ron came here to work with Melissa Hayden at Pacific Northwest Dance (later re-named PNB) and their own group became particularly strong in the year following Hayden’s departure. DeBolt had been with NYCB and Sequoio was a former ballet master at the Metropolitan Opera. After leaving Seattle, they founded the Manhattan Festival Ballet. Seattle Festival Ballet was a chamber-sized company of attractive dancers – some of whom came from Pacific Northwest Dance – and performed works by both DeBolt and Sequoio, often in the Empty Space Theatre’s early venue on Pike Street.
A precursor of and close cousin to the intent of “Celebrate Seattle” was the SPOTLIGHT: Seattle Dance! series which ran for three complete academic years: 1979-1982. First held at an auditorium at Seattle University and later at Broadway Performance Hall, a monthly program was held on Sundays at 4:00 p.m. The goal of each program was to feature ballet, modern, and ethnic groups, trying to capture all of the performance dance that was happening in Seattle and environs at that time. Some performers were represented each season.
Participants included PNB, Bill Evans Dance Company, Cornish Ballet (later Cornish Dance Theatre), Repertory Dancers Northwest, Ewajo, Radost Folk Ensemble, Dorothy Fisher’s Concert Dancers (which became Olympic Ballet Theatre), Louise Durkee, A.T.M.A. (American Theatrical Motion Art), Co-Motion, Whistlestop Improvisational Dance Company, Carter Family Puppet Theatre (which had a dance component at the time), and others. Each group or performer was given 20 minutes of performance stage time and rehearsals were held earlier in the day (one hour each). All groups/dancers were paid via a grant, courtesy of the Seattle Arts Commission. The series had a volunteer staff of one – who was also the originator, producer, and director (and sometimes stage manager) – me! An exciting series to enjoy and be involved with, it became too much for one (many hours of cheerful work, on top of various jobs and trying to dance) and when the opportunity came to direct a small dance school in SW Washington, the series closed.
Having been around the Seattle area dance scene for many decades now, I take gleeful delight in knowing where some of the bodies are buried. One of the lighter cadavers is the trivia that Jan Collum (founder of Ballet Tacoma, later re-named Tacoma City Ballet) and Dorothy Fisher used to take delight in calling up each other thusly: “Hi, Dorothy Jane, it’s Mary Jane!” using their given names. I have to pass along one of the more recent events to rock and shock the global dance community (if you haven’t heard) and that is the shearing of Noel Mason’s hip-length locks, which she donated to charity. If emotions have run high, it’s because each one cares passionately about their art. If you’d like to hear some of the more juicier stories, contact me – or perhaps someday I’ll do a “names were changed to protect the guilty” tell-all. After all, I am planning on writing a tome about my slightly kooky family entitled, “Grandma Hunted Norwegians.”
One thing of which I am certain is that every dance studio owner and teacher, every choreographer, every dancer, and every dance artist to have come out of the Northwest has been serious about their work and has contributed to the elevation of the dance and, by inference, to the betterment of civilization.
The biggest cultural change for dancers from the Northwest is that we no longer have to leave to find opportunities – either to work for someone else or to be an independent artist. While traveling to other parts of the globe may still be the best option for some, it’s great that dance and the support for it has grown so exponentially that today, it’s possible to perform, open a studio, make dances, and otherwise create art where before, these opportunities were rare and generally always self-made enterprises.
For a long time dance artists, big and small, have come out of the misty Pacific Northwest. Some of the more well-known names that are tossed out include Merce Cunningham (Centralia); Trisha Brown (Aberdeen), Robert Joffrey (Seattle), and Mark Morris (Seattle). Others are Robert Barnett (Wenatchee), and Seattelites William Whitener (Joffrey Ballet and Twyla Tharp), Kathleen Moore (SF Ballet), Roy Kaiser (Pennsylvania Ballet) one of the Dancing Kaisers – Kevin and Russell included.
Many have migrated to Seattle: Gerald Arpino (alighting for a few years in Seattle), the First Chamber Dance Company personnel, and Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. While a few others have only passed through briefly such as Anna Pavlova who visited Cornish School during her third, and last, tour to Seattle. And such was Martha Graham’s impact during the 12 weeks she taught (and gave a recital program) at Cornish in the Summer of 1930, that a flock of present and future dancers followed her to New York.
Living for Today
An addition to the regular subscription series that featured Mark Morris’ “Pacific” and Stowell’s blockbuster “Carmina Burana, “Celebrate Seattle” was spread out among three different programs. I thought “A” was the strongest choreographically, with “C” following a close second.
Outstanding to me were Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Adin” which looked great in McCaw Hall. Seeing it here brought me over to the camp that is lobbying to re-build Keller Auditorium in Portland. Here, the dance seemed closer, more intimate, and certainly it benefitted from the superior acoustics.
Toni Pimble’s “Two’s Company,” was the most autobiographical work. A trio that showcased Patricia Baker, Karel Cruz, and Bakthurel Bold, this ballet was first done over a dozen years ago for New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project. It’s really about the conclusion of that titular poem – ... “and three’s a crowd.” It echos events in her own personal life – the breakup of a longtime first marriage and re-marriage. Barker looked lovely, bringing the fusion of her considerable technique and artistic experience to bear on the drama of this pas de trois.
"Schwa" seemed fresh and benefitted from being “seasoned” since its earlier PNB premiere.
Merce Cunningham’s “Inlets 2 ” proves that PNB dancers are versatile enough to adapt and adopt his style. And, it’s true as the stager is reported to have said, “No one walked out!” At every Cunningham concert I’ve ever attended, at least a handful of the audience gets up and leaves – either during a piece or slipping away into the evening fog discreetly during intervals. His work is still 20 years ahead of its time. I recall Nelle Fisher (who had been in Martha Graham’s Company with Merce) telling me that while she was working in Holland, Cunningham’s Company came through on tour. She went backstage after the show and said to Merce, “I don’t get it!” He responded, “There’s nothing to get!” Audiences looking for typical “connections” are not going to find them.
Robert Joffrey’s work is not seen enough. The pas de deux from his “Remembrances” whets our balletic appetite for more. Kaori Nakamura was great as “she who dances.” Of course, who isn’t thrilled to have opera super-diva Jane Eaglen to sing the Wagner songs!?
Ballet British Columbia – lovely piece, lovely dancers but boring. Lots and lots of movement but it didn’t really build and go anywhere. John Alleyne’s work held out promise but ultimately was flat. My first reaction when I saw the lone dancer who begins the ballet – who is facing sideways profile was, “Oh, no!” A very unflattering position (parallel feet – there was no “line” just someone plain standing there) and with a costume that was distinctly unflattering in that dim light (it made her look pudgy).
There is the famous line from a critic about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “He gave her class, she gave him sex.” If the companies and work on “Celebrate Seattle” gave us art, Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theatre gave us sex with his “Bhangra Fever.” The reference to the screen pair is really meant to suggest they sparkled and had “chemistry.” Byrd gives us sex – about as close to seeing a coupling on stage without being shut down by the squad. And as lovely and as talented as Allison Keppel is (and she is) if I see her asked to do one more extension, I’ll just scream!
“Bhangra Fever” started out well and we all thought – you could feel and hear the response ripple through the adoring public – we were going to get an exciting piece but that kinetic jolt also didn’t really go anywhere and we were stuck with Keppel and her partner mockulating on stage.
Byrd’s work is hard-edged and appears to me to be brutal on the dancers. More than just pushing technical boundaries and the edges of the physicality box, it’s tough.
Among her salient points during the pre-performance talk, Trisha Brown observed that most people don’t know how to look at modern dance. It’s true. Some had trouble connecting to the Cunningham piece and others to Powell/Scott’s contribution. But never the less good to include both – if anything not only to celebrate the many rich contribution of Northwest artists but also to expose and educate.
I’m really pleased that PNB has taken the step to be a presenter as well as a producer of dance art of the Northwest. “Celebrate Seattle” does just that and provided a fresh venue for the richness of both our dance heritage and of our present and future.