by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
Nov. 5 (through Nov. 13)
Pacific Northwest Ballet has gotten very good at presenting several short dances that, taken together, create a larger narrative. In Brief Fling, the current PNB offering, we have 'brief' dances that tell stories on their own, but give us an arc of choreographic development that is the story of ballet's journey into contemporary dance.
Artistic Director Peter Boal has arranged these dances archeologically, first showing us a very contemporary choreographer, Twyla Tharp, who uses ballet pointe work as if everyone were barefoot and modern, followed by the work of Jirí Kylián, strongly influenced by the classical/modern fusion of John Cranko at the Stuttgart Ballet, whose dances engage the expressionist gestures of Mary Wigman, Ruth St. Denis, and Martha Graham.
The final work is by the master himself, George Balanchine, who built the bridge between the early, classical French and Russian story ballets and the angular, edgy, story-less modern dance of the mid 20th century. Most of us go to PNB for the sheer pleasure of seeing wonderful dancers in beautiful, dramatic, and awe-inspiring form, but the over-arching story of music and choreography offered in this program provide an even deeper pleasure.
'Brief Fling' (1990)
Choreography: Twyla Tharp
Music: Michel Colombier and Percy Granger
Tharp begins with a musical joke - a drum roll to which tartan-clad dancers march around en pointe - suddenly yielding to Percy Granger's sweetly conventional 'English Country Garden.' This unexpected transition got a chuckle from the audience both times it happened, but the surprise is also political. Not only do we have the irony of a Scottish-themed 'fling' set to an iconic English tune, but the music suggests Queen Victoria in Balmoral claiming her imaginary Scotland as a personal playground (while the real Scotland is renewing its historical efforts to leave the UK). The dance begins very simply - alternating groups posing and making gestures reminiscent of school recitals, wearing Isaac Mizrahi's slightly silly costumes. If this were all Tharp had to offer it would be a sorry dance in deed. However, the next two sections, to electronic music and to Grangers orchestral expansion of the English country garden theme, we see Tharp at her inventive best, using the mundane opening vocabulary in wildly creative and intriguing ways. Tharp at her best is a revelation - but in this dance she takes the risky chance of losing us in the beginning just to show us exciting possibilities by the end. I particularly liked a quartet in which three men (Steven Loch, Ezra Thomson and Jonathan Porretta) keep their shared partner, Leta Biasucci, aloft in a cleverly entwining and daring way. Kudos to Allan Dameron whose work at the piano is always a joy, here featured in Granger's 'English Country Garden' sequences.
'Forgotten Land' (1981)
Choreography: Jirí Kylián
Music: Benjamin Britten
The star of the evening, for its deeply affective, meditative complexity, is Kylián's 'Forgotten Land,' performed by six couples in color-matching outfits - street clothes for the men, but dramatic dresses for the women, with the long sleeves, flowing skirts, and boat-necked bodices that conjure up Martha Graham's style of costume-as-choreography. Each couple in primary colors (white, black, red) was matched by a couple in a half-tone of that color (beige, gray, pink). You could weave a story of intense emotions around the relationship between these couples, as stager Roslyn Anderson, the original woman in white, described in a pre-rehearsal lecture: white for innocence, red for turbulence, black for mourning. You could also sit back and let each couple tell their own story - every section a poem in its own right - and be swept up in the moody, forgotten land of feeling that the dancers portrayed. One of the most memorable moments was when the white, red, and black-clad women danced alone in an intricate hand-held set of patterns that showed all the shades of meaning three graces can achieve as they chain and encircle one another. This effect of deep feeling was enhanced by John F. Macfarlane's stunning design featuring a Munch-inspired backdrop of dark roiling clouds over the thinnest horizon of blue light. Britten's 'Sinfonia da Requiem' is, as the title suggests, a probing meditation on time and mortality, played by the ever-wonderful PNB orchestra and led with heartfelt precision by Emil de Cou.
'Stravinsky Violin Concerto' (1972)
Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
This brilliant ballet uses every variation on quintets to intrigue the viewer. Balanchine tricks you into thinking you know what he's up to: four boys and a girl come on stage, perform an array of intricate variations, then leave. Now four more boys and a different girl come onstage and show you yet another set of variations possible with five dancers. 'Oh!' you say to yourself, 'this is a dance about all the things four boys and a girl can do together.' Balanchine encourages this thought by breaking each quintet into duos, trios, two duets and a solo, and then knitting all five can back together again. So now you expect four more boys and yet a third girl to come on stage - but what do you get? Four girls and a boy, followed by four more girls and another boy. Balanchine is playing with you: using the sexes to add texture to each group of variations on fives. And sure enough, now you get five boys, then five more boys, then five girls, then five more girls. They all dance through kaleidoscopic variations that leave you fascinated, not only with the elegance and intricacy of movement, but with the sheer imagination that could come up with so many ideas on a single theme. And just to make sure you're kept off balance and fully engaged, Balanchine breaks the quintet pattern entirely and gives you duets that reflect the violin arias in Stravinsky's concerto. The tension, struggle, and intimacy of these duets cast the quintets into the role of Greek Chorus, acting out possibilities in general as the duets show specific couples in specific dilemmas. The music is gorgeous, played unforgettably by the PNB concertmaster Michael Jinsoo Lim.
The idea of a 'brief fling' - something fleeting and passionate - moves through all these dances, yet nothing in this repertoire is fleeting. Companies all over the world perform all three works, and with good reason. Here in Seattle we're fortunate to have a company with the resources of dance and music to show us wonderful choreography that tells the story of dance from its classical beginnings to the modern present. Performances run through November 13th, so even though the time is brief, you can still take a fling and get yourself over to McCaw Hall for this great program.
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