"arms that work," "Lost in Light,"
"Kammermusik No. 3," and "Sum Stravinsky"
Pacific Northwest Ballet
3 November 2012 (matinee and evening)
by Helene Kaplan
copyright 2012 by Helene Kaplan
Peter Boal spoke and wrote that presenting a program of world premieres was a risk. When it was all over, the program felt familiar, even cozy. The new Mark Morris ballet, "Kammermusik No. 3" fit into the cooler end of the neoclassical spectrum, like Boal's choices by Ratmansky, Wheeldon, Robbins, and previously unknown-to-Seattle Balanchine, but the ballets "Sum Stravinsky" by Kiyon Gaines and "Lost in Light" by Margaret Mullin, and the contemporary work, Andrew Bartee's "arms that work," had a warmth and diversity that could easily have been part of a program by Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, who presented company premieres of works by Tudor, Dumais, Caniparoli, Gibson, and Limon and who gave Kiyon Gaines and Olivier Wevers their first opportunities on the Main Stage.
The work opens with a solo woman, whose gestures are the base from which the movement develops, and she's soon joined by the ensemble. Some of the gestures were semaphore-like, and one striking image is the upright "Usain Bolt," with a family resemblance to Morris' antiquity-based work, and, while there is a pas de deux and a pas de quatre, for the most part, if there is music, it is the ensemble's ballet. There is a curious male solo in silence between movements, added close to the premiere; it begins with the vocabulary of the first movement, almost like an echo but then shifts to a virtuosic classical ballet vocabulary, and it is like observing a dancer playing in the studio. While it is lovely to watch, and it was brilliantly danced by Jonathan Porretta in the matinee performance, it looks neither like a bridge or a logical break; the music provides enough of a shift.
Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Mark Morris’s Kammermusik No. 3. Costume design by Mark Zappone Photo © Angela Sterling.
The upright, rigid series of repeating motifs in the first movement evolves into the vertical precariousness of the slow movement, particularly in the pas de quatre, where a woman climbs among three men and then collapses into them. By contrast, the last movement goes horizontal, with groups of dancers skipping and skimming the across the stage -- truly eye-catching -- until one starts to limp. More and more dancers limp and fall horizontally as traffic zips around them. After the initial shock they get up and get going, albeit in a more precarious landscape. "Kammermusik No. 3" has all of Morris' signature pattern-making, and, where there is a score, his fidelity to the music made it a visual delight.
Margaret Mullin with (l-r) Jerome Tisserand, Kyle Davis, and Ryan Cardea in Mark Morris’s Kammermusik No. 3. Costume design by Mark Zappone. Photo © Angela Sterling.
Except for an injury substitution on opening weekend -- Margaret Mullin for Carla Korbes -- the two casts were discrete in rehearsal and performance, and their performances could not have been more different. When Mark Morris' own dancers perform in unison, the women especially ache individuality, and not just because of the range of heights and body types: were they to be used as the basis for animated characters and sized identically through a graphics program, there would be no mistaking Lauren Grant from Michelle Yard from Amber Merkins; their movement is that unique. The matinee cast for the most part captured the plain quality of movement without preparation, but with the exception of a trio of men -- Benjamin Griffiths, Porretta, and Price Suddarth -- the dancers, from across company hierarchy, appeared almost anti-individualistic, and while their movement was articulate, it was introverted and strangely enervated, with only an occasional sense of why this dance mattered. By contrast, the energy from the evening cast was palpable and the choreography's dynamic range was clear. Carrie Imler captured attention from her first opening semaphore-like gesture. The only "but" from this cast was stylistic, the slight breath they took before initiating the movement, but the power and pulse of their dancing as if they were unique parts of a single organism was mesmerizing, and it looked like a different piece entirely, one that followed the ebb and flow of the powerful Hindemith score, beautifully played by the PNB orchestra and Page Smith, the cello soloist, a long-time friend of the choreographer.
"Sum Stravinsky" was originally planned for an "All Stravinsky" program to open the season, hence Peter Boal's insistence that Kiyon Gaines, the most experienced dancer-choreographer in the Company, use a Stravinsky score; in the post-budget program scramble, the ballet was moved to the "All Premiere" program. After listening to most of Stravinsky's works, and with the legacy of Balanchine and Stowell in mind, Gaines chose "Dumbarton Oaks." This score often resembles "Rubies" in its pulse and arc, and Gaines not only choreographed each movement to build to a climax, each subsequent movement built upon the other to reach the ballet's driving conclusion.
Gaines begins each movement with a female solo. Like in Mark Morris' ballet, that soloist has to capture attention immediately and lead the ballet, before being joined by her partner and corps couples. In the afternoon performance, Sarah Ricard Orza danced well but remotely, but she showed more verve when partnered by James Moore and as part of the ensemble. Moore is most often showcased in contemporary solos or, occasionally, as a romantic lead like Franz or Romeo, but I've never seen him lead -- come center and command -- a neoclassical ballet before, and in "Sum Stravinsky," he did this as if it were an everyday event. In the same roles in the evening, Kaori Nakamura danced the opening movement lead and took charge of the ballet from its opening notes. Her partner was Benjamin Griffiths. They're not often paired, but they have beautiful, matching lines and clarity in their movements, and his plushness complements her quickness.
The opening of the second movement is an extended female solo that ends with a false exit, as her partner pulls her back onstage for their central pas de deux. In the afternoon cast Maria Chapman performed the opening solo with sharpness and wit, and the pas de deux with Karel Cruz was a strong, sensual, adult conversation. Kylee Kitchens danced this role in the evening with the same confidence that has been building since her promotion to soloist last season. Gaines said that he choreographed different versions of the pas de deux for each of his couples -- there were three casts opening weekend -- and the version for Kitchens and Joshua Grant was very elegant, showcasing Kitchens' long limbs.
Maria Chapman and Karel Cruz in Kiyon Gaines’s Sum Stravinsky. Costume design by Pauline Smith. Photo © Angela Sterling.
In the third movement, Laura Gilbreath was sharp and dynamic, and she and Seth Orza drove the work home rhythmically. Kudos to Gaines for casting the three well-over-six-footers in the corps -- Charles McCall, Joshua Grant, and William Lin-Yee -- together in the third movement of one cast and showcasing the visual force of the stage picture they made. The corps couples, some of whom switched partners and movements from one performance to the next, belied the short rehearsal period with as strong performances as I've seen them do. It looked like a labor of love, and the ballet Gaines gave them was worthy of their efforts.
Margaret Mullin and Andrew Bartee collaborated on a work for the 2010 "Next Step" choreographic showcase. This year Boal asked them contribute individual works for the company, and they took two different paths: Bartee worked in the contemporary vein in which he's performed with Olivier Wevers' Whim W'him, and Mullin took inspiration from Antony Tudor. Unlike the Hindemith and Stravinsky scores that seemed, in the hands of Morris and Gaines, to dance themselves, Mullin and Bartee each chose a new, atmospheric score. Bartee chose a score by fellow dancer Jessika Anspach's brother, Barret Anspach, and Mullin's chose a work by Dan Coleman. Young choreographers often make dances that they'd look good in themselves, and Mullin and Bartee were no exception.
For "arms that work" Bartee uses a contemporary vocabulary that is at least first cousin to Wevers' work, and from what projected, he keeps to a specific and coherent movement palate. The work, though, suffers from the same issues that Annabel Lopez Ochao's "Cylindrical Shows" did when it was moved from the smaller Intiman (now Seattle Playhouse) stage to the large McCaw Hall stage, when many of the nuances were lost and the dynamics did not carry, apart from Lopez Ochao's main and moving pas de deux. In the Q&A's dancers spoke about the making of the work, of the relationships and dynamics intended; for example, after a physical collision Jessika Anspach's character's trajectory is knocked onto a new, random course, but that wasn't at all clear from the First Tier or Upper Gallery, the center of the theater. The set, a frame running the length of the stage with a curved top and vertical elastic bands to create the rails, looks like a benign garden gate, and neither the distinction between inside and outside nor the physical breakthroughts themselves provide much punch. The strongest part of the work is the opening, contentious fragment of a pas de deux for Kaori Nakamura and James Moore in front of the gate: it feels incomplete when they race offstage, leaving a hole that is emotionally resonant. Carrie Imler and Angelica Generosa were both vivid in short spurts, but there was nothing sustained about their presence.
Bartee as a dancer on the Main Stage has been equally elusive with some notable exceptions: he was a vivid, detailed Gamache in Ratmansky's "Don Quixote," and he danced a demi-soloist role in last April's "Carmina Burana" with striking energy. His strongest performances, though, have come with Whim W'him, especially "Flower Festival," where his passive-aggressive determination to set the pace of the stylized boxing match was brilliantly realized -- the way he carefully draped his clothes over a chair while Lucien Postlewaite nearly exploded with impatience was a master stroke -- but those subtleties and shifts that are so clear on a small stage are lost in bigger spaces and across large distances. Even the practice set, with its smaller, square, cage-like apparatus, had more of a visceral impact. Bartee is an intimate dancer, and from what I could glean,"arms that work" is an intimate work, and without detail and proximity, the work pales.
The strength of the opening section of Margaret Mullin's "Lost in Light" was the strict discipline she used in choosing her movement vocabulary, particularly in pas de deux for the corps, and to that extent, she was true to Tudor as an inspiration. She could easily have danced this ballet, but she didn't ask her dancers to look like her: what she inspired in her colleagues was a level of energy that she brings to the stage. The choreography for the women was especially alive, from the partnered work to the brilliant solo she choreographed for Brittany Reid that balanced detail and sweep, and which Reid danced with clarity and stature. Mullin also created an especially lovely pas de deux for ensemble couple Carli Samuelson and Kiyon Gaines. Samuelson is often cast as a Friend in demi-soloist roles, and she has an eye-catching radiance in small ensembles. In the solo roles I've seen her in, she's stiffened, as if she is trying to impress her teacher. In Mullin's pas de deux, she was all warmth and flow, luxuriating in the choreographey, and Kiyon Gaines was her elegant partner. I'm not sure if it was the strongest and most individual male role in the ballet or whether Gaines made it that much his own, but it was wonderful to see Gaines on the performing end, embodying a fellow dancer's vision in the same rep in which his own work premiered.
Kylee Kitchens and Jerome Tisserand in Margaret Mullin’s Lost in Light. Costume design by Alexis Mondragon. Photo © Angela Sterling.
When Mullin got to the central pas de deux for Laura Gilbreath and Seth Orza, that is where the discipline broke down. She used elements of the same vocabulary, but rather than build or evolve them into something bigger, Mullin added a lot of disparate elements that ended up looking like highlight moves from another kind of ballet rather than a deepening of the emotional landscape or an inevitable response to the music. Gilbreath and Orza danced it well and with commitment, but it was a cul de sac instead of a continuation.
When a new works bill is presented by experienced choreographers, the results can be spotty: apart from the Balanchine and Robbins, and most recently, the Wheeldon and Ratmansky works, the number of new or recently choreographed mixed rep ballets over the last 20 years at PNB that have had more than one season's worth of performances or repeated after the initial licensing period is relatively small. "Sum Stravinsky" is a work that could play on any North American stage: the dancers look like stars in it. I'd love to see "arms that work" on a smaller stage, and "Lost in Light" was well worth seeing, especially for its strong opening movement. Peter Boal mitigated the risk by having Mark Morris' work be an anchor to the program, and since Morris used over half of the company in his two casts, practically speaking, young, flexible choreographers were a good complement, scheduling-wise. The dancers showed as much generosity and commitment to their own dancer-choreographers as they did to a master choreographer: they showed the kind of commitment that carries over the footlights.