by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
AGON AND CARMINA BURANA
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
Continues through Oct. 6
The opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet's 2019-2020 season began very suitably with the most stripped-down, groundbreaking work by George Balanchine and the most ambitious and spectacular work by Kent Stowell. Together these ballets tell the story of PNB as it evolved from Seattle Opera's pick-up dance troupe to a nationally renowned, world-class ballet company with its own superlative dancers and orchestra. The opening night audience greeted Agon's fascinating architectural movements with whoops of enthusiasm, exceeded only by joyous shouts, after intermission, when the great wheel of Fortune turned again in Carmina Burana. It was a perfect balance of music and dance styles, as well as a tribute to two great figures in the history of PNB: George Balanchine, whose dances inform the company today and who trained PNB's Artistic Director Peter Boal, and Kent Stowell, who, along with his wife, Francia Russell, was Co-Artistic Director of PNB from 1977-2005. (Both Stowell and Russell danced and worked with George Balanchine at New York City Ballet before coming to Seattle via the Frankfurt Ballet to join PNB, introducing Balanchine's work to the company and Seattle audiences during their tenure.) Stowell's 80th birthday was celebrated by the company and audience at the curtain call!
Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky (1953-56)
George Balanchine is justly famous for his ability to construct elaborate patterns on stage with any number of dancers. This skill enriches his story ballets like Swan Lake, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Nutcracker, as well as his non-story dances that use patterns for their own sake rather than in the furtherance of a narrative. Agon, to music Balanchine commissioned from his fellow Russian, Igor Stravinsky, continues to be the epitome of this style of dancing. The Greek word 'agon' means 'conflict' or 'contest,' as in an athletic competition. Stravinsky titled the work, and Balanchine made his athletic dancers create movements that had never been seen before, and that shocked and delighted the original audiences in 1957. Sixty-two years later, audiences are still delighted - perhaps less shocked - but certainly thrilled by the architecture, precision, and modernism of Agon.
The dancers are dressed in black and white - men in black tights and white tee shirts, with Balanchine's signature addition of white dance slippers and socks that make their foot movements stand out against a plain blue backdrop. The women wear white tights and plain black leotards, as if to say 'The only story here is how we move to the music.' And how they move! Every part of the body is mobile and distinct. In the opening quartet, four men stand in a line and shift their weight from one foot to the other, standing on the balls of their feet, then the ankles, describing triangles with their legs, their arms outspread as though they are on tightropes. The ensuing movements, from casual walking in rhythmic patterns and pirouettes to sequential patterns that travel down their horizontal line-up like moving hieroglyphs, are completely absorbing. Six women join them, with movements equally original and complex, yet executed with a genial detachment that seemed to say: 'This is what's possible when you invent new movements with new music.'
The most famous section of Agon, the male/female duet, was originally performed by Arthur Mitchell, an African American dancer (later the founder of Dance Theater of Harlem), and Diana Adams, a white dancer. This was not only daring because of the unusual and dramatic movements, but because in 1957 when the work premiered, racial mixing was still taboo in many parts of the country. Francia Russell, who was in the original cast in 1957 and who staged the current PNB production, recalled that Diana Adams was a very magisterial, elegant woman whose detachment was a perfect match for Mitchell's aristocratic bearing. The duet, in which the man manipulates the semaphores of the woman's legs and arms as she bends and turns, packs a wallop. Their cool, emotional distance focuses the audience on the dance itself. There are no romantic stories here - just phenomenal movement to Stravinsky's unexpected musical twists and turns.
On opening night Lesley Rauche and Seth Orza performed the duet with elegant precision, and though Francia Russell said in an interview that Balanchine banned emotion claiming that Agon was 'only music and movement,' one could feel the courtly attention each dancer paid to their partner which, short of emotion, was the image of respect.
Carmina Burana (1993)
Choreography: Kent Stowell
Music: Carl Orff (1937)
When the curtain comes up on Ming Cho Lee's massive setting for Carmina Burana - medieval poems set to music by Carl Orff - the audience is confronted with a huge wheel suspended in air, turning slowly, ominously. Behind the wheel, as though framed, is a large choir in monk's robes, who blast out the Latin song 'O Fortuna': 'O Fortune, you are like the moon, ever waxing, ever waning&poverty and power, it melts them like ice&' This introduction to the music and dances that follow is so dramatic, going from double forte to a whisper, with a driving undercurrent punctuated with thumping drums, that the audience is sitting up in their seats, completely wired. Only after the wild introduction do you notice a ring of men sprawled like fallen stars under the wheel, quasi naked. They snap up on one arm, legs splayed, and collapse again, rolling, jumping, falling - setting the pattern of circle dances that follow as each song describes another aspect of fickle fortune and its impact on humanity.
In my opinion, this is Kent Stowell's best work because it suits his style of choreography so well. Unlike the expansive, inventive Balanchine, Stowell has a limited vocabulary of movement that, at its best, is deployed in a multitude of ways. The setting of the great wheel of fortune, and the ancient subject matter of man's fate, are just his cup of tea - or rather something stronger, more like flaming mead.
Following the thrilling circle dance of the quasi naked men comes an elaborate and beautiful sequence of couples who are completely naked (they're wearing skin suits). It's as though creation happens again and again with multiple Adams and Eves, who perform arresting simulations of love and sex in an Eden-like setting. One dance gesture that has never left my mind is of a man crouching to make a platform of his back while his lovely partner stretches her back over his, making soft, swimming gestures in the air with her arms and legs. It goes by in a flash but returns, along with other striking gestures, as the dances progress, like a refrain that reminds us of our origins.
The audience favorite of these elaborated circle dances was 'In Taberna,' in which a corps of rowdy barflies circle around a single prostitute - the seductive Noelani Pantastico on opening night - as she teases, seduces, rejects and pleases them all. Three focus characters, including a tormented monk, a frantic gambler, and a cynical wine-merchant, go through agonies of desire for money and luck: 'When we are in the tavern, we do not think how we will go to dust, but we hurry to gamble&' James Moore, Seth Orza, and William Lin-Yee danced the desperate men, tearing their clothes and flinging themselves at the feet of the red-clad prostitute - who finally triumphs over them all as she personifies Fortune and chooses one lucky man. My favorite part was what looked to me like a cave-man dance - the rowdies form something like a conga-line and hunker over each other, stomping around the circle as though devolving in front of our eyes. It was funny, truthful, erotic, and exciting.
The final section of the dance, 'Cour D'Amour,' was less interesting to me because it personified courtly love, and was basically a romantic ballet with a Princess (Lesley Rausch) and Prince (Jerome Tisserand) and a huge corps of twenty-four dancers - a very crowded stage. There wasn't enough room to form interesting or elaborate figures, so we saw repeated high kicks and bows. Though the principals danced beautifully, the most exciting choreography came in the earlier parts.
The chorus was on stage the entire time, singing constantly - a real act of stamina and power on the part of the Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union. Conductor Emil de Cou and the large orchestra electrified the audience with their execution of Orff's complex instrumentation and wild dynamics. All the solo singers acquitted themselves well, but my favorite, as well as the audience's, was tenor Zach Finklestein whose range reached into counter-tenor heights. All together, it was a wonderful performance. Though some of the Stowell dances are going into retirement as PNB's repertoire moves forward, this dance will probably stay with us for years to come - to our Good Fortune!
See Pacific Northwest Ballet's performances of Agon and Carmina Burana through October 6 at McCaw Hall. www.pnb.org
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