Hush, Hush Sweet Secret Agent Man
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Director’s Choice Program
Saturday, 1 June 2013
by Dean Speer
I find myself at the crossroads of a dilemma – do I go along with the crowd or give voice to my own reactions and thereby perhaps risk becoming a media pariah? I have been pondering this all week as I’ve listened to, read, and talked to people about their thoughts on Christopher Wheeldon’s new commission for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Director’s Choice Program on 1 June at McCaw Hall in Seattle.
His piece, “Tide Harmonic,” had the crowd on their feet cheering, yet I found it grated the wrong way with me, mostly musically. The initial section of the score sounded like a soundtrack from a James Bond movie and I half expected someone to come flying out of the wings, running with either a gadget or torch, perhaps holding a defensive weapon of some kind and to have a male singer break into the song lyric, “Secret Agent Man” a bit into the work.
Given what I saw choreographically, the movement itself would have been better served by different music – Debussy and others come to mind. Talbot’s score, while contemporary and re-worked to accommodate this ballet, for me just didn’t fit the bill, even though its title does. The title said “water” but aurally it said “sound score.”
I also thought the piece suffered in comparison to the one that preceded it, Balanchine’s now iconic 1957 “Agon.” There were some coincidences choreographically – a row of men alone upstage, the modest size of the cast, its spare look – that were almost freakish. The programming difficulty being where do you insert a new work so that it’s in the “right” order? At first blush it would appear that having sandwiched it in between two Balanchine ballets would be logical yet the similarities between it and “Agon” were too many to have it be the most effective juxtaposition.
Another of my reactions was to the great lighting by Randall G. Chiarelli – beautiful but was it this involved to cover or make the choreography appear better than it actually was? I get worried when it seems to me that lighting and effects become such a big part of the presentation, especially when it’s usually more “supportive” than atmospheric – less obvious, which is how his work usually impresses me. This time he went for bigger designs. Why?
I also had the distinct impression that Wheeldon was relying on craft and had been winging it a bit throughout the creative process. I know I’m being picky but I saw filler being pulled out from the choreographic tool belt.
If we were to take away the marketing and hype and the cool lighting and other production values, what would the choreography look like? Would it meet the standard?
My concern for Wheeldon and others of his stature is that they tend to be so booked – and at times overly booked – when do they get time for sustenance? What about some “white space” to be fully prepared? By prepared I don’t necessarily mean having complete patterns and steps totally worked out in advance – that would most likely be a recipe for frustration on both sides of the process -- but having the mental, emotional and psychological stamina and energy to be able to tap into listening for the right solutions to problems and always being able to make choices that will elevate a work. To be energized by the process and not drained.
For me, I’d say the piece was about 80 to 90 percent successful choreographically – which is really pretty good, with some very interesting twists on classical shapes such as parallel attitudes to the back with the women being held by the men to achieve this effect and, of course, exciting and beautiful dancing by its cast: Lindsi Dec, Rachel Foster, Laura Gilbreath, Carla Körbes, and Messrs. Jerome Tisserand, James Moore, Batkhurel Bold, and Joshua Grant.
Several have noticed what promises to be a remarkable dance partnership between Körbes and Grant. We noticed Grant some years ago, missed him while he worked elsewhere for a time, and now are very pleased that he’s being given opportunities, as one post-performance audience member commented, “To show what he can do!” – which is considerable. Grant has technique [and extension!], attributes, verve, and stage moxie to burn – on equal footing with his partners of higher rank.
PNB benefits from and is so fortunate to have an original cast member, Francia Russell stage and coach “Agon” for them and its stark appeal has lost none of its burnish since its premiere. Another partnership in the making with Mr. Grant was revealed in the central pas de deux, made famous in 1957 as it paired a white woman with a black man. While this performance laced the racial tension, it was tensile never the less. “Agon” is one of those marvelous pieces that could and should seen multiple times.
“Diamonds” while a ‘hard’ title, has some soft edges to it. I might even be tempted to dub it a soft Balanchine ballet. Unlike “Agon,” none of its choreography is edgy and while replete with plenty of technical demands, ballet patterns, and steps, the overall effect is one of elegant softness – silky and not metallic. This is partly due to the music which is subdued and lyric – introspective even – and then becomes more overt as is builds to a rousing conclusion.
If I were to search for one word to describe Carrie Imler and her very able partner, Batkhurel Bold, it would be brio. Made for one of Balanchine’s muses, Suzanne Farrell, the principal ballerina part is among the most demanding and technical in the Balanchine canon, yet Imler charges through the choreography like a frisky filly, taking clear delight in what she is doing – and getting well deserved cheers for it, such as when she concluded one manege with lightening fast chainé turns with her arms over head.
Production values include a chandelier center stage and elegant white wing legs, replacing the typical black. With knee-length tutus by Karinska and tunics for the men, this section of the evening-length “Jewels” is a great way to bring the initially quiet proceedings to an uplifting and diamond-bright conclusion.
The might PNB Orchestra led by Emil de Cou, provided top-rate musical support throughout the evening.
Director’s Choice provided a clear view into the working minds of two prominent artists, both long associated with the New York City Ballet – its founder George Balanchine and his artistic grandson, Christopher Wheeldon its first official choreographer-in-residence. Comparing and contrasting the two, it’s easy to see how in many ways, Wheeldon is Balanchine’s heir but his own voice.