The Heart of Choreography
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Valentine” Program
Evening Show, Saturday, 4 February 2006
McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington
by Dean Speer
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Valentine” program has attracted a lot of attention, partly because it’s perceived that this is really the first program that fully had Artistic Director Peter Boal’s mark on it.
Two of the works I had seen before – Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels” and Susan Marshall’s “Kiss” and a “version” – “Sinatra Suite” – of Twyla Tharps’ “Nine Sinatra Songs”– and so was really looking forward to seeing PNB’s rendition of these three but also to a viewing of a work that’s completely new to me, Richard Tanner’s “Ancient Airs and Dances.”
Opening with Tanner’s work, to music by Respighi, this was for me the strongest choreography of the bill. The movement motif that he used was stepping into fifth position. He developed this in a variety of ways throughout each section of the ballet: coupé over into 5th; assemblé; aerial; partnered, etc.. I liked how he marshaled the dancers around the stage and grouped them in juxtaposition to each other and the principals and soloists. He really built his ballet to an exciting and visually satisfying conclusion.
This is a ballet this is worthy of the caliber of its artists. The three principal couples were Ariana Lallone with Casey Herd; Louise Nadeau with Olivier Wevers, and Kaori Nakamura with Le Yin.
At “Nutcracker” time, I wrote how wonderful it was to enjoy the long-stemmed glory of Lallone’s dancing as Flora, and this was true for the inaugural pas de deux with Herd. I like seeing her paired with men, in this case, that I don’t immediately recall remembering her dancing with a lot. Herd was well-trained first in Salt Lake City and his presence and authority in his craft continue to build every season. “One, hot ballerina” with a sizzle-lean performance by an easy-on-the-eyes male dancer made for a memorable pas.
After seeing Nadeau in the second pas de deux, someone rightly observed that she’d be great in Ashton repertory. Strong yet expressive with a porcelain quality that suggests at once great tragedy and joy. A soul-full artist. Wevers and Nadeau are a pair made in ballet heaven and it’s always a joy to see the artistic chemistry they produce onstage. Ever so sympatico.
Nakamura was “on” for the challenges and when she launched into the rapid chainés turns heading to the downstage right corner and then made chausé rélevé into first arabesque – and HELD it, you could tell she was as excited and pleased as we were. Yin has first-class breeding and I think pairing him with one of Japan’s ballet stars (and ours!) is good for him. I think they challenge each other and spur each other on to reach beyond themselves as individual dancers and to making a new partnership that has the potential of becoming as exciting as one of the great ballet pairs.
The only thing that I did not care for were the costumes. The piece said to me this was not a leotard and tights ballet and that it cried out for different costumes. I also thought that black was too somber of a choice for such an energetic and bright composition. Stravinsky Violin Concerto it’s not. The lighting bothered me too, although I’m not sure what’s up with that. These production values made the ballet seem darker than it really is.
“Kiss” is Susan Marshall's work that suspends two dancers via harnesses and ropes for an airborne pas de deux and is to music by Arvo Pärt.
My own, little group’s reaction to this novelty piece ranged from “I kept waiting for something to happen.” to finding it exciting, different, and very heartfelt. My take is that it was good to expose PNB audiences to this type of work – a true modern/contemporary dance – as it challenges us and broadens our definition of what “dance” is and can be. Certainly James Moore and Mara Vinson as the suspenders were great as the couple that finds each other, is torn apart – it was like watching visual velcro being pulled apart – and finding each other again, desperately clinging to each other. Moore really took off at one point and his thrust into space caught our attention, with Vinson following suit.
I’m sorry that Ulysses Dove did not live to produce more work and work that I might categorize as “middle” or “late” works, such as we do with composers. I would classify “Red Angels” as an “early” work – that of a choreographer finding his voice and honing his craft. The dynamic or phrasing element is short measures of movement that are punched or punched and then held. Wonck! – hold, hold, hold. Bam, Pow – sustain. Polling my friends, this was their favorite for some of them. I’d have to agree that the performances by each dancer was in the “wow” category. Their commitment and love of this work really comes through and makes the pieces work as well as it does. Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta are made for this type of coruscate display and are well-paired. Ditto the new-to-PNB but not to wowing us, Carla Körbes and her elegant partner Christophe Maraval. The both have the same line through their feet and ankles – beautiful curved arches top and underneath. Körbes was right-on with her fouettés. Flat to the front and well placed.
Richard Einhorn’s music was played by Mary Rowell on her electric violin. She has played all performances of this work since its premiere in 1994 and it many reported from both sides of the stage how exciting and energizing this made it. Rowell has a reputation for being an on-the-edge artist and a non-traditionalist and this work really was right up her artistic alley. Boal, an original cast member, reported that they had initially rehearsed to a recording and when the live music first came out of the orchestra pit, it was like, “Wow, now I really understand this piece!” [My paraphrase.]
“Nine Sinatra Songs” is Twyla Tharp's tribute to crooner Frank Sinatra, with costumes by Oscar de la Renta.
The first time I ever saw a Tharp work was on PBS’ “Dance in America” series and her company did, among other works, “Sue’s Leg.” I was so taken, that very night I dreamt I auditioned for Tharp and that my audition consisted of rélevé turns in second but the quirky Tharp twist is that I had to also pull cheese with my hands from first to second port de bras positions. Isn’t that wild?!
So I guess I’ve been smitten with her body of work ever since. Never the less, I have to publically confess to being slightly disappointed with her Sinatra works – in all of their guises. The novelty of having ballet-trained dancers in ballroom dress and tuxes is fun at first but wears off after a while. I found myself, like that person in my subscription group, who keep waiting for something to happen. Perhaps it’s not possible given the structure of the work – duet, followed by duet, followed by duet, followed by yep, another duet. The only time she really integrates all of the 14 dancers is on the last reprisal of “My Way.” Here Tharp takes what might be perceived of as an easy out – or perhaps it was an experiment at the time – and has the couples do their duet motifs in their own spaces but does not meld or blend them together. Perhaps her idea was to depict what might actually be seen at a social where it’s highly unlikely everyone is going to break into ensemble dancing.
That said, I found “Songs” to be overall, a pleasant visual and aural experience even if it doesn’t, for me, come from a deeper place as do many of Tharp’s other dances.
Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta were really out there as the mis-matched pair (he’s too short for her and this is emphasized) and each made the most of the humor in the choreography. Another standout was Jodie Thomas and Josh Spell with her wearing a bright, red “feathered” dance dress that Ginger Rogers would have fought for. It was clear to me that each of the seven couples understood what their duet was about. Great staging and coaching kudos to Shelley Washington, a member of the original cast.
A daring programming venture for PNB audiences. One that had us talking and which reached to and was from the heart.