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
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.
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.