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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 30, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 40
'TriColore' a brilliant program at Pacific Northwest Ballet
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'TriColore' a brilliant program at Pacific Northwest Ballet

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
'TRICOLORE'

MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
Through October 2


The Pacific Northwest Ballet's opening program of the 2016-2017 season begins with two dances by Benjamin Millepied, former director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and present director of the LA Dance Project. Millepied is one of the important younger choreographers of the present era - along with Justin Peck, Crystal Pite, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Alejandro Cerrudo, among others - and one whose history as a dancer in the New York City Ballet shows in his inspiration by the late, great George Balanchine.

It's a clever choice by PNB director Peter Boal, also a former NYCB principal dancer, to pair these two works by Millpied with Balanchine's iconic 'Symphony in C,' in which the basic steps of ballet are morphed into the most beautiful display of classical dance in this or any era. By watching Millepied's exciting dances first - one set to the repetitive modernism of Steve Reich and the other to Beethoven's 'Appassionata' piano sonata - the viewer can see the relationship between Millepied's present and Balanchine's eternal present, set to the youthful 'Symphony No. 1' by Georges Bizet.

'Symphony in C' (1947)
Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Georges Bizet, 'Symphony No. 1 in C Major' (1855)


If you've never seen this wonderful dance, which involves proliferating groups of four, eight, sixteen, twenty-four and then forty-eight dancers in four movements, then you owe it to yourself to take this opportunity to be delighted. This dance alone has the power to explain what it is about ballet that endures over the centuries.

It focuses on the corps de ballet - that team of talented dancers who frame the principal soloists and pairs. Yet far from being scenic back-up, these dancers are given as much work, and as difficult, as the principals they're dancing with. What makes it so remarkable is that the steps start out very simply - almost as if we're watching a dance class - and then evolve into ever more complex formations. It's like watching a military or marching band consisting of beautiful women in white tutus who move with almost impossible flexibility and grace - except that a marching band would fall like dominos if they attempted the rapid-fire movement of PNB's brilliant dancers. The adagio movement - slow and passionate - displays the romantic partnering skills of the principals. At one point, the ballerina balances on one pointe and lifts her other foot gracefully to a height above her shoulder, then lets go of her partner and risks falling while he steps quickly to her other side to grasp her hand. In another section the ballerina falls backwards into space, trusting that her partner will catch her - not once, but three times. In later movements the precision, accuracy, speed, elegance, and beauty of coordination shows simple movements deployed at top speed, simultaneous leaps, bends and arm gestures, interlacing, weaving, and mirroring patterns, all to the unforgettable beauty of Bizet's charming symphony. It's a cop-out to say this, but you really have to see it to understand why this 70-year-old dance is performed by dozens of companies worldwide. In addition to being just plain wonderful, Balanchine marries the early ballet patterns of Russian and French masters to a modernism that makes new work, like that of Millepied, possible.

'3 Movements' (2008)
Choreography: Benjamin Millepied
Music: Steve Reich, 'Three Movements for Orchestra' (1986)


One of the reasons it's so interesting to see Balanchine's 'Symphony in C' is because it helps you to appreciate the work of younger choreographers who are taking the master's work to new places. Millepied's dance to Reich's very percussive music engages the same dance technique and displays the same interest in formation and movement as Balanchine, but introduces new vistas to the audience. In '3 Movements,' danced in costumes of white, gray, and black against a black and white background, we see two men enter side-by-side in a bent, skipping movement that develops into exchanges of position that are then echoed by three women. As Reich's music builds in intensity we see more dancers enter and leave, with wheeling arms, zig-zagging lines, and ever-evolving patterns based upon layers of lines that change as individuals repeat movements in staggering or simultaneous order. Just as Balanchine uses lines of dancers to demonstrate precision, Millepied uses lines of dancers to form deep dimensional pictures as various pieces of the lines are removed or altered. I admired Millepied's restraint-the dancer's movements are organic and fluid, and the black and white environment did not entice touches of color. Instead, Reich's music begins to make sense as we watch the dancers run, leap, pitch and twirl to the repetitive, shifting loops of rhythm.

'Appassionata' (2016)
Choreography: Benjamin Millepied
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven, 'Piano Sonata 23 in F minor, Op. 57' (c. 1804-06)


Danced by three couples to the impressive solo piano performance of Allan Dameron, Millepied's 'Appassionata' is more narrative than the earlier work. Both the dance and the costumes suggest that the couples are on their honeymoons - or some other form of passionate encounter - and that we are witnessing a discovery that normally would not have an audience. The dancers seem to be performing for the God of Love rather than us voyeurs behind the fourth wall. The dance in its many permutations of partnering is so intense and energetic that, like sex, the couples end up panting, sweaty, and glowing. We even hear the heavy breathing - an unusual phenomenon in an art form that tries to fool you into thinking it's easy. In a dress rehearsal interview Millepied said that the dancers 'are like ragdolls' after performing this work, but that the PNB dancers embraced its rigors with complete commitment - and I sensed that the audience was wholly absorbed in the drama. I was very moved by the way dancers were infused by Beethoven's familiar music. I wish the master could see his work embodied as it is here with the physical passion he was unable to find in his own life, tainted as it was by loneliness and deafness. Particular signatures of Millepied's choreography - the diamond-shaped leg formation of lifts, the hopping, alternate-leg jetés, the pin-wheel arms - conjure the sense of a choreographer with a point of view that we can see from work to work, but that forms a core of movement that can express the full range of human emotion. We're living in an exciting age of emerging choreographers, and Benjamin Millepied is one of them.



'TriColore' is a reference to the French national flag, since Millepied is French, ballet itself is a French art form, and Balanchine set 'Symphony in C to a French composer for the Paris Opera Ballet. It is also a metaphor for a program that comes in three pieces and unfolds like a fabulous flower (Millepied) to show a central core (Balanchine) set on a deep and sturdy stem of long ballet tradition. 'TriColore' is performing at PNB at McCaw Hall through October 2.

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