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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 7, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 23
PNB presents an exceptional evening of 'Themes & Variations'
Arts & Entertainment
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PNB presents an exceptional evening of 'Themes & Variations'

by Linda Cumberland - SGN Guest Reviewer

PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
'THEMES & VARIATIONS'
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
Through June 9


In 'Themes & Variations' Pacific Northwest Ballet brings to the stage a variety of dances in an emotional range from gleefully playful to profoundly moving. For someone like me who counts herself lucky to attend the ballet once or twice a year, it was a feast that satisfied all of my tastes. On display in this program are the works of famous choreographers George Balanchine and José Limón, and holding his own in such august company, PNB's own Price Suddarth.

'Signature'
Choreographer: Price Suddarth
Music: Barret Anspach

The curtain opens on a bare, dark stage in Suddarth's 'Signature,' with a spotlight on a single dancer, while barely visible in the background is a line of other, waiting dancers. The first dancer is joined by another, then others join the dance, as that single light, too, is joined by another and another, arrayed in rows on girders that rise or lower from movement to movement. The light fixtures are black; the costumes are dark blues and black; the backdrop is black; and yet there is brightness in the dancers' movements, which are intensified, seemingly multiplied, by the costumes, which leave the dancers' arms and legs bare, so that pale flesh flashes in the light as arms wheel and dancers spin against the black backdrop. Dancers seem to glide across the stage, at times literally sliding, as if on ice. The entire composition flows like liquid. The highs and lows of lights and movement mirror the original music by Barret Anspach, ranging from low, resonant brass, to high, thrilling violin solos, dotted with nods to Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons.'

'Tarantella'
Choreographer: George Balanchine
Music: Louis Gottschalk

Balanchine's sprightly 'Tarantella' follows the first intermission, danced on a bright stage with no furnishings or props other than the dancers' tambourines. Soloists Angelica Generosa and Kyle Davis perform this pas de deux with dazzle and humor, eliciting laughter and applause periodically throughout. Louis Gottschalk's music for solo piano and orchestra was so captivating that the lady in front of me couldn't restrain herself from bouncing along with the catchy rhythms.

'The Moor's Pavane'
Choreographer: José Limón
Music: Henry Purcell

After a short pause, the mood changes dramatically as, once again, the curtain opens on a bare, dark stage. This is 'The Moor's Pavane,' a landmark in the evolution of dance in America, a variation on Shakespeare's Othello, which is - no spoiler here - a tragedy. Strikingly, the four dancers are in a tight square, facing each other, not us. It seems to suggest that their drama will occur with or without an audience. We are like voyeurs, peering unobserved into the profound events that will shake and shatter these four characters. The courtly music of Henry Purcell evokes the Renaissance period and sets the pace of the walking dance, the pavane, that carries each character to his or her own betrayal and destruction.

Throughout the dance, the dancers are earthbound - no leaps or lifts, the nobility of the Moor evident in his long red robe and high, sweeping strides; his wife's purity and love indicated by her white gown, her delicate steps and turns toward her husband; the friend's deep, scheming plies in his unadorned, robe-less jerkin and tights; the friend's wife moving in and out of the background with her ambivalence, dressed in yellow-orange, like a flickering flame, first refusing to participate in the scheme but ultimately yielding to her husband's demand, not realizing the tragic trajectory her action ignites. The intensity builds as the friend succeeds in planting the seed of jealousy in Othello. Anger builds; the men fight and.... The music stops. In the silence, Othello strikes the friend three times and the friend is beaten to the ground. The music resumes.

Othello's wife senses a change in her husband without knowing its source. When finally the friend convinces his own wife to give him the fateful handkerchief Othello had charged his wife with safeguarding as proof of her love for him, the friend presents it to Othello as proof of his wife's purported infidelity. Again the music stops.... The audience is so silent, so still, one could believe that not one soul was breathing. As the music resumes and Othello turns on his wife, his fatal act is blocked from our view by the skirts of the friend's wife and we see only Othello's arms rising and plunging, rising and plunging against his wife who has fallen to the floor. Othello looks up and recognizes in the other couple the signs of their deceit and his betrayal, and he falls, distraught, on his wife's body.

Small wonder that this powerful, innovative dance is so famous. Seldom have I been so moved by anything on any stage in any medium. My heart stopped. And then, with everyone else, I stood and cheered.

'Theme and Variations'
Choreographer: George Balanchine
Music: Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky

Rather than send us out into the night with the weight of this tragic, albeit exhilarating tale on our minds, PNB follows the second intermission with Balanchine's 'Theme and Variations,' a showcase for the virtuosity of the entire company, turning the spotlight on the corps de ballet, soloists, and principals in turn. The stage is brilliant, the costumes colorful, and for the only time this evening, there is scenery: a backdrop depicting a palace setting looking out over a lush garden. Set to the music of Tchaikovsky, with classical forms and costumes, glitz and glamour, solos and pas de deux, 'Theme and Variations' puts us in mind of Balanchine's roots in Russian ballet at its highest level, and made this reviewer thrilled that the PNB affords us the opportunity to enjoy this level of excellence right here at home.

It is easy to take for granted the thrill of a live orchestra at the ballet, but I lived for many years in a Midwestern city where the ballet, performing just three times a year, danced to recorded music - and we were grateful even for that. PNB is blessed not just with a live orchestra, but a truly marvelous one that, under the batons of Principal Conductor Emil de Cou and Alastair Willis, complements the choreographers and dancers in all their range of expression.

One last note: Considering the current headlines of Mexicans on our southern border and the question of granting them entry, it is worth mentioning that José Limón came to this country from Mexico, fleeing political oppression and seeking the freedom to pursue his art. How fortunate for us that he was not turned away.

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PNB presents an exceptional evening of 'Themes & Variations'
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On the Boards presents Justin Vivian Bond in two special
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'Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City' launches on Netflix June 7
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Hugo House and Western Bridge to stage Ginsberg-themed poetry festival in Volunteer Park on June 22
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Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma to read from The Safety of Edges at Elliott Bay June 15
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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Visually pugnacious Godzilla a joyfully absurd monster throwdown
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Pleasantly quirky Pets 2 a surprisingly affectionate delight
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Unfocused Dark Phoenix a frustrating final bow for the X-Men
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