by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
November 3 (continues 11/10-12)
The term 'herstory' is used in academia and elsewhere to offer a specifically female point of view over and against the 'his-story' or male perspective that characterizes not only human history, but most professions as well. In the dance profession we see many tributes to the women dancers who make ballet possible, and who are at the center of the classical repertoire, with men as the 'cavaliers' whose job is to perform pyrotechnical solos to impress their ladies fair, and to lift the women so they can make beautiful forms in the air. But how many of these dances are made by women?
The famed choreographers we hear about, from the great Marius Petipa to George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, to the current fleet of dance-makers - Alexi Ratmanski, Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, Benjamin Millepied - are part of the male history of dance, whether they are liberated feminists or not. The world of modern dance has been more friendly to women choreographers - indeed such dance makers as Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, and Agnes DeMille were originators of modern dance, followed more recently by Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, and others. But where are women choreographers in the ballet world?
Some, like Twyla Tharp, have crossed over from modern dance to ballet, just as male choreographers like Mark Morris straddle both the modern and the classical worlds. But female choreographers who are commissioned by ballet companies to create dances in the classical vocabulary of movement are a newer phenomenon. Her Story brings three of these women choreographers together, not only to showcase their work as women, but to demonstrate the sheer talent for invention, movement, and narrative that these choreographers possess.
Pacific Northwest Ballet is, as Director Peter Boal says, 'ahead of the curve' in giving women choreographers the stage, but it reveals, he says, 'an unfortunate truth about ballet' as still having male-dominated choreographic programs. Part of the problem is that women are only now being encouraged to step up and make their own dances. PNB is actively encouraging girls and women to train as choreographers, and, interestingly, all the women on this opening night program began as dancers, migrating to choreography as their dance lives came toward their ends (which is very early, as you can imagine - usually before the age of forty).
Anyone in the audience on opening night will testify that the program was as exciting and compelling as any we see on any night at the ballet. Jessica Lang, Twyla Tharp, and Crystal Pite have become commanding presences in the ballet world, and we are lucky to have seen them all together in Her Story.
'Her Door to the Sky' (2016)
Choreographer: Jessica Lang
Music: Benjamin Britten
Costumes: Brandon McDonald
We saw this dance eight months ago in PNB's Director's Choice program, and it's not too soon to see it again. There is a core of peacefulness and beauty in this work that is welcome at any time.
The set of this beautiful dance is a large version of Georgia O'Keefe's patio door at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. A vivid blue backdrop sets off a beige rectangle with eight small windows along the bottom and an elevated double door at the center. Five pairs of dancers - the women in gorgeous, ombre-shaded dresses in bright colors, the men in colorful Mexican style shirts and pants - inhabit this landscape as if worshiping the goddess of the sun. At various times in the dance the portal and portholes are used, with dancers peeping out the low windows or lifted onto the high door, as if there is a benign barrier between two equally beautiful worlds. Lang moves her couples in swirling patterns, and gives the women and then the men dances of their own before returning to the full company in a paean to the beauty of nature. My favorite dance was for four women, whose weaving in and out of elegant patterns not only recalled the three graces - plus one - but that celebrated the body in a particularly graceful, female way. No male gaze - only a celebration of the female form by females.
The integration of set, lighting, costumes, and choreography in this dance was seamless. Jessica Lang has a penchant for the beautiful, as those who have seen her unforgettable 'The Calling' will remember - a single dancer who manipulates a massive skirt - and swirling skirts are no less central here as dancers leaped and twirled to Benjamin Britten's lovely music. It is an enticing experience, homage to the sublime drama of Georgia O'Keefe's art by an equally talented woman choreographer. The tranquility of this dance for a company of ten was the perfect starting point for the excitement and drama to come.
'Afternoon Ball' (2008)
Choreographer: Twyla Tharp
Music: Vladimir Martynov
Costumes: Mark Zappone
Twyla Tharp in her modern dance persona has a kind of shoulder-shrugging, loose-limbed quality that always reminds me of Charlie Chaplin and other gravity-defying acrobats of early film and popular dance. Her humor plays a large part in many of her works, and she is adventurous in her selection of music, using Philip Glass, Frank Sinatra, and Vladimir Maratynov, whose music in 'Afternoon Ball' sounds like the bass line of Scottish folk music - you can't hear the melody, only the repetitive whine of the foundation. I liked it very much. It gave the dancers a steady vibe for the acrobatic and improvisational style of the three dancers: A young man, performed by Benjamin Griffiths, whose movement is in the same universe as Petrushka's, the Russian puppet character who flops around after his love-object, here portrayed by Anjelica Generosa as a punk chick in torn tights. The third character, danced by Lucien Postlewaite in lumberjack flannels, tries and ultimately succeeds in making the couple a trio, and then cuts the Petrushka character out entirely. There is another romantic couple that waltzes through, and then ultimately, in the most striking moment of the dance, a silver angel comes to carry Petrushka away. The narrative is full of mysteries, the dancing has that Tharp-ish fluidity that integrates modern low-to-the-floor movement with classical uprightness and grace, and the strangeness lets you relax into the mystery. Its final moment - death, angel, escort to a better life - took my breath away.
Choreographer: Crystal Pite
Music: Bernard Hermann
Costumes: Nancy Bryant
To say that the audience was waiting for this dance with bated breath would be an understatement. After Pite's 'Emergence' made such an explosive debut at PNB two years ago, this young choreographer has been on everyone's radar. What will she do next? What could ever top the thrill and hyper-explosive drama of the competing male and female hive swarms of 'Emergence'? The news that Pite set her new dance to Bernard Hermann's iconic 'Psycho' soundtrack, with its agitated, upward-shrieking violins, only heighted the anticipation.
So, like any true artist, she surprised us all by taking off in a new direction entirely. 'Plot Point' explores the ins-and-outs of narrative, using the surprising device of 'replicas' - ghostly doubles who shadow and imitate the human characters - to tell the same story without the passion that drives ordinary people.
Every character in the plot - Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. and Mrs. Smith - are doubled by dancers in white with white masks covering their heads and white gloves covering their hands. These ghostly characters move like robots - acting out the drama of Mr. Jones' affair with Mrs. Smith, the murderous reaction of Mr. Smith, and the ultimate human tragedy - with the detachment of articulated mannequins. Though there is a surprising finale (I won't give it away) I found myself intrigued not only by the classic story of sex and betrayal, but by the shadow drama of beings for whom movement, rather than passion, was the sole motivator. I was not swept up into a drama of increasing intensity, as I was in 'Emergence,' but was leaning forward in my seat, darting my eyes from one dancer to the next, deeply intrigued by the doubleness of the story, as if two worlds were operational at once, each heading off into different directions, based on different principles.
I think Crystal Pite is a genius, and I'll follow her down whatever path of imagination she wants to explore. I wasn't excited to the point of shouting, as I was by 'Emergence,' but I was so fascinated by 'Plot Point' that I haven't stopped thinking about it since I saw it. Pite is, in my pantheon of choreographers, on the same level as Mark Morris, whose early work, 'L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato,' so thrilled the dance world that he could do no wrong thereafter. 'Emergence' is like that - an early work of such genius that we know we're in the presence of someone who can be trusted to blow our minds one way or another for the rest of her career. Thank you, PNB, for bringing this great choreographer to Seattle, and may you commission work from her well into the future.
Her Story is being performed at McCaw Hall through November 12. Don't miss this chance to see three great choreographers who happen to be women. Tickets: 206-441-2424; https://www.pnb.org/
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