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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 30, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 39
PNB opens 39th season with Wheeldon program
Arts & Entertainment
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PNB opens 39th season with Wheeldon program

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its 39th season last Friday with a four-part tribute to Christopher Wheeldon, one of the most promising young choreographers on the international dance scene. The all-Wheeldon program - a rare one-person program for such a young choreographer - reflects not only Wheeldon's increasing importance on the current ballet market, but also PNB's investment in the modern and the new. Both are important points of emphasis for Peter Boal, PNB's artistic director. While PNB audiences have seen all four works in various programs over the past five or six years, the wide range of Wheeldon's work hits with a stronger impact when clustered together for a career retrospective.

In picking four works by Wheeldon, Boal and PNB have wisely chosen four diverse dances that demonstrate PNB's wide range of skill on stage and in production.

The glorious Carousel (A Dance) is Wheeldon's tribute to the lush romantic qualities of classic ballet. Adapted from Richard Rodgers' music for the beloved Broadway musical, one of the most popular of Rodgers & Hammerstein's long list of hits, Carousel takes the opening 'Carousel Overture' with 'If I Loved You' and other themes from the classic and creates a totally new dance experience. Billy and Julie, unnamed but clearly the show's lovers, take center stage but the large company provides multiple roles - a living carousel at one point, other young lovers at others. While Julie, beautifully danced by Carla Korbes on opening night, wears a simple pale yellow dress, the other women in the company flaunt deep, dark colors, often splashed with a contrasting color as the deeply gored skirts flare open in sensuous turns. Billy, danced by an accomplished Seth Orza at the 2011 premiere, sports the traditional neckerchief of the carousel barker. The other men wear a stylized version of period striped jerseys but with decidedly modern overtones. Carousel (A Dance) premiered in 2002 at the New York City Ballet and joined PNB's repertoire in 2009. It makes a welcome return in this all-Wheeldon program.

After The Rain pas de deux, the second part of Wheeldon's 2005 New York City Ballet premiere, is an abstract pairing for two lovers. Using music by Arvo Part, a marked contrast to the romanticism of the Carousel tribute, the two dancers unite on a basically bare stage. She wears a nearly nude, flesh-colored leotard. He is barechested with gray pants. Two musicians, piano and violin, and two dancers - Maria Chapman and Karel Cruz on opening night - fill McCaw Hall with impassioned (if modern) music and dance. Well chosen, beautifully danced.

Polyphonia is a 10-part work that was the first of Wheeldon's dances to join the PNB catalog in 2007. Two pianists tackled the abstract music by Gyorgy Ligeti while eight dancers rotated in and out of the 10 sections of the work. Abstract in all areas, Boal's program notes refer to the demanding selection as 'one of the strongest neoclassical works of the last decade.' Again, beautifully danced in a basic black and dark purple color scheme for the simplest of rehearsal costumes.

After the serious impact of Polyphonia, the lighthearted Variations Serieuses (Serious Variations) ended the evening with a welcome smile. Staged like a skit for Carol Burnett's long-running TV series, Variations takes us backstage at a ballet company. An innocent young girl arrives early for a performance. She is new - so new she doesn't understand that she is overstepping her role. She takes stage center on the empty stage and begins to dance. Sarah Ricard Orza is, of course, enchanting as the new dancer. The Premier Ballerina, an elegant Laura Gilbreath, arrives in a flurry and is not happy to see an upstart rehearsing her role. She is even less happy to notice that the leading male dancer, her lover, seems to be fascinated by the young woman.

Slowly, the full company arrives - the fussbudget ballet master, the frumpy pianist, the efficient stage manager, the supportive dresser. The work crew also arrives with a delightful ballet routine to the constant cleaning of the stage. Jealousy drives the comic work, as the aging dancer grows more and more impatient with the newcomer. Then - this is a backstage tale, after all - the leading lady falls and cannot go on. The understudy saves the day. But, happy ending: the limping star exits with her leading man. True loves wins out. The young dancer, now an unexpected star, sits at her inherited dressing table and slowly notices as yet another young dancer emerges after the triumph of the night. The newcomer slowly begins to dance as the new star realizes that a circle continues. It's All About Eve in the dance world.

An affectionate, often laugh-out-loud send-up of backstage with any arts group, Variations Serieuses ends the evening on a decided plus. A 2001 work from New York City Ballet, the comic delight made its PNB debut in 2008 at the 'Laugh Out Loud' Festival. It makes a welcome return here. Conductor Emil de Cou, incidentally, appears in the real orchestra pit to conduct the opening scenes and then, cleverly, shifts to the on-stage orchestra pit to conduct the remainder of the farce. He is in his first official year as PNB's new music director. As usual, the PNB orchestra played beautifully in the opening Carousel selections and in the final Variations, danced to the music of Felix Mendelssohn.

Performances continues this weekend at McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center. Ticket information, reservations and complete details are available at (206) 441-2424 or at www.pnb.org.

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