"Carousel (A Dance)", "After the Rain Pas de deux", "Polyphonia", and "Variations Serieuses"
Pacific Northwest Ballet
24 September 2011 (matinee and evening)
By Helene Kaplan
Copyright ©2011 by Helene Kaplan
On the morning before Pacific Northwest Ballet's second program of the season, "Love Stories", which features company premieres of Balanchine's "Divertimento from 'La Baiser de la fee'" and Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun" in addition to "After Petipa" classic pas de deux, the memory of the "All Wheeldon" program from September still lingers. Often mixed programs featuring one choreographer show that choreographer's limitations, and Wheeldon has received criticism for the inconsistency of his output -- I've seen some outside PNB that warrants it -- as well as for not being the next Balanchine. PNB's "All Wheeldon" program, comprised of the four ballets by Christopher Wheeldon in the Company's rep, showed the choreographer's richness of invention and belied easy categorization of these works, and, as a result, each work made an even stronger impression. Whatever the logic and intention behind granting permission to and acquiring these specific works for the Company, it worked like a charm.
The opener, "Carousel (A Dance)", is not a literal interpretation of the musical; instead Wheeldon captured the emotional heart of its core relationship between Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow -- the attraction, the ambivalence, and the sense of the underlying hurt that undermined it -- intimately in a pas de deux and a social context with demi-soloists and corps. Much like Ashton's "La Fille mal gardee", with cat's cradle and ribbon dance, "Carousel (A Dance)" has a visually breathtaking image -- in the Wheeldon, a moving circle of women in stag position holding sticks upright carried on the men's shoulders, creating the carousel -- but like in the Ashton, it enhanced, rather than overwhelmed the rest of the work.
When seen alone, the middle two pieces, "'After the Rain' Pas de deux" and "Polyphonia" could be lumped superficially into the "gnarly-modern-partnering-set-to-formerly-obscure-Eastern-European-20th-century-composer-ballet" category, but to see them back-to-back showed while they are of the same genre and set to music of same general time period, the movement vocabulary, structure, and music are quite different and the inventive partnering unique to each. "'After the Rain' Pas de deux" is set to a legato score by Arvo Part, and while there is the occasional flexed-footed freeze by the woman, the expansive and melting movement reflects the musical lines and continuous quality of the music, as well as the intimacy of the couple in the pas. As in "Carousel (A Dance)", emotional quality is conveyed without a highly defined story.
"Polyphonia" is often described as looking much like Balanchine's "Agon" and especially "Four Temperaments", but not least because of a score created from different works of the same composer -- here, piano pieces by György Ligeti composed over nearly four decades -- it is closer to "Episodes" in its ever-changing responses to a range of musical demands while remaining a coherent whole. Wheeldon uses stillness to punctuate, and leverage and tension to accentuate. Most remarkable is that Wheeldon, who was trained at the Royal Ballet School in its traditions before joining New York City Ballet, distills a sense of the Balanchine leotard ballets, yet makes a work in his own voice.
"Variations Serieuses" is in another genre entirely, a comedic story in which a young dancer gets her big break when the prima ballerina/star is injured and then turns into that prima ballerina. With twelve named characters and another twelve in the corps, this ballet has layers of details of life in the theater as well as in performance, and Wheeldon, who was in Seattle for the last rehearsals, was adding new material and detail up until the end. The set by Ian Falconer makes the audience view the action through the stage left wings, with a tableau on actual stage right to represent the orchestra pit and the theater's audience. (The Conductor, played delightfully by William Lin-Yee, "conducts" the score of the ballet-within-the-ballet on his knees.) Full of classic theater and ballet set-ups and types -- the chattering and sometimes catty corps backstage, the beer-swilling stage manager in overalls, the conductor who ignores the dancer's tempi requests, the supercilious ballet master among many others, the show-within-the-show, a lovely stylized ballet for the main couple and small corps -- and happily avoiding others -- the Premier Dancer is no Yuri from "The Turning Point" -- the magic of the work is the realization by the new prima that at the moment of her triumph, there is another young dancer waiting to take her place, which cuts through all of the mayhem and comedy that came before and adds a bittersweet chill. Plus, in a profession where "Break a leg" is replaced by "Merde", Wheeldon not only has the original prima return to the stage after a notable mishap showing a sickled, injured foot, she later appears in a cast and on crutches. Now that is courage.
While most of the casting for "Variations Serieuses" was the same first Saturday, a notable difference was in the casting of The Ballerina. In the matinee Laura Gilbreath was a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a dancer who made it to the top, but who didn't have the psychological tools to stay there. When Seth Orza's Premier Danseur accompanied her offstage towards the end, she was a fragile wreck. From the moment Carrie Imler made her entrance as The Ballerina, it was clear that she had radar to know when a threat posed and a proven strategy for eradicating it. A broken foot spoiled her plans, but she knew better than to fight a losing battle: when Orza put his arm around her to walk her out, it was two old pros heading to the bar after the show, but there would be another day.
Sarah Ricard Orza as the young ballerina was anything but stereotypical, and what made her performance so successful was how she played it straight: entering for the first time, she was serious, but with a frisson from being on the empty stage. As the last-minute substitute for the Prima, she concentrated hard to learn the new role and get her cues right, still the young soloist in physical demeanor when backstage. Turning into a diva at the end came slowly, almost imperceptibly at first. It was the first of three masterful, but very different, performances she gave opening weekend, where she danced two-three ballets per program.
Ricard Orza opened the program in "Carousel (A Dance)" at the matinee, where in the PNB premiere a few years ago she shone as a demi-soloist; Carla Korbes danced the role in the evening. Ricard Orza and Korbes are almost opposites in dramatic temperament. Ricard Orza tends toward distance and slow revelation of heart, and especially in the role of the ambivalent heroine, she was pitch perfect. She was partnered by Jerome Tisserand, who at the premiere, danced with a distant elegance. Here the distance was gone, and he showed the much more classic American confidence -- to which Korbes' partner, Seth Orza, appears to be born -- which fit the character to a T, most clearly in the circular jumping entrance, but also in his pas de deux with Ricard Orza, retaining the still, open upper body that makes him stand out.
In romantic roles, Korbes shows vulnerability and often contrasts hurt and exhilaration, as in this role and in "After the Rain pas de deux". While touching, and danced with beautiful shapes and lush movement -- and it brought out emotional resonance in her "After the Rain" partner, Batkhurel Bold -- there's a certain predictability about it. In more abstract roles, she drops the persona: in "Polyphonia", which without her had a distinctly cool tone, she gave it in infusion of warmth, and even better, spice, that made the ballet hum in a way that it hadn't at the matinee.
In the evening cast of "After the Rain pas de deux", Rachel Foster gave an intriguing performance: she conveyed that there was something serious on her mind, but she neither hid nor revealed exactly what it was. What made James Moore's partnering so moving was that he was focused and there for her, without asking anything.
"All Wheeldon" provided over a dozen meaty roles for leads and a few for demi-soloists and challenged the dancers across genre. Each one of these ballets is a strong addition to the PNB rep.