Musings on a Master
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “All-Balanchine” Program
Saturday evening, 22 September 2007
McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington
by Dean Speer
There are ballets – and then there are ballets. There are choreographers – and then there is George Balanchine.
Few have had so great an impact on the balletic and dance canon and vocabulary as he. A handful in his league would be Martha Graham and Marius Petipa, perhaps some others. His ballets to me always seem fresh and never dull. They are lessons in craft and composition.
While I never had the chance to work with him, I know nevertheless how fortunate I was to have actually seen him in person – while I was observing a Men’s Class at SAB many years ago. He poked his head into the room to watch for awhile. I remember what he wore – a scarf around his neck, and how still he was standing there with his arms folded, yet with his eyes observing everything. The ballet pedagogue, Stanley Williams was teaching the class. Peter Martins stood at the barre right in front of me, and on the barre opposite was Suzanne Farrell taking class in her famous shawl. Did I mention Lincoln Kirstein was in the Hall? Boy, was I thrilled and not a little intimidated by all this greatness around me!
Greatness was in front of us again as PNB presented its “All-Balanchine” bill as its Fall season opener. The sparkling 1957 “Square Dance” is probably Balanchine at his sunniest. Dark in mood and story – and with a heart-rending and touching ending was his 1929 “Prodigal Son.” Completing the pallette was the 1964 edition [staged by Francia Russell] of his 1941 homage to Czarist Motherland, “Ballet Imperial.”
One of my favorite steps appears as a thematic one in “Square Dance” – the gargouillade. Noelani Pantastico had all the right stuff: perfect, quick little rond de jambe sauté with the initiating leg circling in one direction (en de hors) and the trailing leg in the other (en de dans). This theme is picked up by the corps and is repeated and deployed throughout. Another prominent step is entrechat quatre. An oft-repeated story is of how when the original caller version was used, the caller, in reference to Patricia Wilde doing this ballet would go something like, “Wickety-wack, wickety-wack – look at Pat do the entrechat cat.” It should be noted that PNB did do this original version when it premiered the ballet at the Vail International Dance Festival earlier this Summer.
Jonthan Porretta is one to extend himself – as he did during the male solo. In the air wacking his face with his leg during a sauté, for example. Yet this extension of his dancing is beyond technique; he’s really stretching himself to reach new artistic interpretation.
A new face to watch is corps de ballet member Jerome Tisserand, who has very long lines and extremely clean technique, courtesy of his French background.
Playwright William Luce (“The Belle of Amherst”– Julie Harris’ famous one-woman show) penned the lyrics in 1959 for composer Martin Broones’ (the first music director of MGM) glorious sacred song “The Prodigal Son:” “...Come home to your mansions, Come home to your lands...No punishment threatens The sorrowing son...O lift up the latch-key And open the door. Come home to the Father And wander no more.” It captures the sentiment rightly and it’s a very moving piece, as is Balanchine’s dance version of this famous parable.
Lucien Postlewaite, as The Prodigal, makes his way across the stage in penance and climbs up into his stationary father’s arms, and when the father envelopes him, there probably is not anyone who isn’t deeply moved. Rather than having the father run to meet his son, it’s a brilliant change to require, instead, the son to go to the father.
Felia Doubrovska was the first Siren in its 1929 premiere. As told to me by Francia Russell, it’s clear that she loved her students and teaching, but she didn’t love what happened to her beloved Russia. I recall reading many years ago that when a latter-day comrade tried to correct her about her use of the name of where she was from, insisting that it was “now Leningrad,” Doubrovska intoned sharply, “I was born in St. Petersburg!” She was reportedly equally strong as the Siren; you cannot imagine pushing this artist around.
Of the many PNB females that I’ve enjoyed essaying this role, none probably has had more impact and sheer power than Ariana Lallone. Her Siren is also someone to tremble before – she is both alluring and scary to the Prodigal – and she has full command of her followers. Amoral, she does what she needs to but leaves the dirty work of roughing up the Prodigal to her goony followers. Lallone is an artist of the first rank, known for her work ethic and also for her humane compassion. Not at all typecast in this role, her dance-acting has power and presence.
Prodigal is a moving and sometimes creepy ballet and still carries weight today. I’m so glad Mr. Balanchine revived it in 1950 for Jerome Robbins. We must be forever indebted that it’s been kept in the active repertory since. It’s also an historic ballet that connects us directly back to the Diaghilev Ballet Russe, and to its creative artists such as composer Prokofiev and designer Georges Rouault.
If “Square Dance” has as its driving motifs a couple of ballet steps and uses patterns in a secondary way, “Ballet Imperial” uses patterns and formations to present itself while steps are subsumed to the good of the whole.
Although I can romantically wish for having been able to see the original and other previous casts around the globe, it’s nevertheless, hard to imagine this ballet as being better presented today. It’s a big ballet.
From Martin Pakledinaz’ lush and regal costumes, to the set design by Edith Whitsett – and using Francia’s Russell’s authoritative and meticulous staging, this ballet was a fitting and welcome conclusion to the evening. 44 minutes of Tchaikovsky’s exhilarating music in three movements. What’s not to like and enjoy?
From the little pinkies of the corps to each step of the soloists and principals, this is a ballet that says, “BALLET!” There is even some great stuff for the men to do.
The principal couple, Kaori Nakamura and Batkhurel Bold were born to do this genre of ballet. As they powered-up their legs and danced, they reminded me of high-end automobiles – purring with power, sleek and focused, beautiful but with nothing superfluous.
PNB’s opening repertory program was a well-balanced full course meal of works that showed not only what this company is capable of doing but it also whetted our appetite for the coming season.