"Brief Fling," "Waiting at the Station," and "Nine Sinatra Songs"
Pacific Northwest Ballet
28 September 2013, matinee and evening
by Helene Kaplan
copyright 2013 by Helene Kaplan
In 2008 Pacific Northwest Ballet presented its first all-Tharp program in which Twyla Tharp created her first two works on the Company: "Afternoon Ball," a contemporary character work and incisive snapshot in time that mined the dramatic and expressive talents of Kaori Nakamura (and Chalnessa Eames in the second cast), Olivier Wevers, and guest dancer Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, and "Opus 111," a larger, more formal work to that Brahms string quartet. (PNB performed "Opus 111" at the Joyce Theater in 2010.) Peter Boal noted her influence and guidance across the company, from onstage to backstage to administration, and over the past calendar year, she has been Artist-in-Residence. For PNB's second All-Tharp program, "AIR TWYLA!," she created a single new work, "Waiting at the Station," which reflects her recent forays into Broadway choreography, which was presented with opener "Brief Fling," an early work (1990) as American Ballet Theatre's Associate Artistic Director under Baryshnikov, and "Nine Sinatra Songs" once again rounding out the bill.
Tharp began choreographing "Waiting at the Station," this past March during PNB's rehearsals for "Swan Lake," a time when there weren't many spare bodies or schedule slots free. She created much of the work on two young dancers who were, Andrew Bartee and then-apprentice Jahna Franziskonis. Happily for first Saturday audiences, they and Soloist/choreographer Kiyon Gaines, whom Tharp enlisted as her Assistant Choreographer, spoke extensively about their experience during the post-performance Q&A's. Franziskonis and Bartee not only helped to teach the choreography made on them to the ballet's soloists and fellow corps couples, but they also transposed the choreography for their mirror-imaged counterparts and helped couples of different relative heights to adjust to the challenges of the partnering, especially Tharp's penchant for choreographing to the non-habitual left. They also expressed their appreciation about working with long-time Tharp collaborator Santo Loquasto, who designed the sets and costumes for the ballet.
Boal said that when he began joint planning for the new work two-three years ago, Tharp proposed a choice of two composers: Franz Schubert or Allen Toussaint. Boal chose Toussant. Here Tharp shifted from the "Movin' Out" model and created a long central Broadway musical story ballet in the tradition of deMille ("Oklahoma," "Carousel"): a self-contained narrative ballet in which the characters are simultaneously universal and specific to a place and a community and in which ballet is integrated into all of the other styles of dance in which Tharp is a master of appropriation and alchemy. Its jazz rhythms are rooted it in its soil and permeate the air, and because it is in Tharp's voice, it was thankfully free of the Fosse-isms that have come to be shorthand for "jazz." First weekend audiences were privileged to hear Toussaint play the score of his old and new work with Todd Larsen on Bass, Gunnar Folsom on Drums, and Emil de Cou and the PNB orchestra.
The ballet's central character, danced by James Moore, is a man who is the embodiment of rhythmic movement and casual mores. He is pursued by his young adult son, who wants his father to tell him the secrets of life, i.e., how to absorb some of his father's movement mojo to get the girls. Not exactly Father of the Year, it's easy to imagine that he wasn't around enough to teach his son very much, and his relatively formal son doesn't make it easy for him. At the same time, he's increasingly aware that death is near as he is pursued by three golden-clad Fates who've escaped from "Waterbaby Bagatelles;" in corseted bodices, flouncy skirts, and big berets, they're more Rhine Daughters than Norns. Sometimes he tries to escape them; other times he dances with them, but they doesn't seem much concerned: they've been at this a long time, and he can't evade them forever. Although there's not much that's more serious than death, this is a culture where it is addressed head-on, and Tharp shows the rituals, from solemn -- the funeral procession -- to exhilarating -- a masked Mardi Gras blowout -- through which to accept the inevitable. Returning from the dead towards the end, he attempts to makes things right: his son learns some rhythm, and he whispers exactly the right thing to each of the then-feuding women to turn them into BFF's. It's a relatively short part of the ballet and the resolution can appear pat, but the beauty of it is that a charming slacker of a man would intuit exactly what to say to each woman and would realize that his son needs a drop of his attention, not dancing lessons. He's on the train as soon as he can.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Elle Macy, Sarah Pasch and Chelsea Adomaitis with principal dancer James Moore in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station Photo © Angela Sterling.
The man's community is peopled by two central couples -- a woman (Carrie Imler), whose spouse (Kiyon Gaines) pursues the woman of the second couple (Laura Gilbreath) whose own partner is an unworried jazz man (Jonathan Porretta) -- and six corps couples. The couples are not only plot elements but an integral part of the world that goes on with its own concerns as other people die and leave. Except for a period of extended lifts for the corps couples as the central man is dying, Tharp filled the stage with layers of movement and characterization so dense and pulsing that it was impossible to grasp everything despite repeated viewings, especially when the central character is played so compellingly. Always a commanding presence in solo works, since being made Principal Dancer on Opening Night last season, Moore looks more and more at home taking a central role in a ensemble ballet and running with it. Loose but precise in his rhythmic interpretation in "Waiting for the Station," he looks like center of the action is where he belongs.
With roles like Prima Ballerina in "Variations Serieuses," and The Wife in "The Concert," under her belt, and having perfected the withering glare, Imler could have relied upon the harridan wife stereotype, but she took up Tharp's challenge and shaded her the character with depth-giving flaws. It's not a matronly role, but a mature one in the tradition of Flamenco or Tango, where experience and depth of movement counts in a culture in which music and dance are inseparable, and she flew through the technical and dramatic challenges with style. Gaines' juicy movement quality was a great match for her power. Porretta's character is a jazz man of another ilk: one with no need to run and where smoothness was not a defense. Typically he'd be paired with Imler, but here his partner was the statuesque Laura Gilbreath. For much of the ballet, she was rather oblivious to both Imler and Gaines, despite Imler's x-ray stare, as if she was dancing in a world of her own.
1990's "Brief Fling" was created in a watershed moment in Tharp's career: although she had previously choreographed for American Ballet Theatre, she was now affiliated with the company, and as part of her contract with ABT, she brought a handful of her own company with her and was challenged to integrate them into a ballet company. The dancers are color-coded into three groups -- the ballet prima couple in Blue, the demi couples in Red backed by a corps, and the Tharp dancer in Green. Too often when Tharp has juxtaposed ballet and modern dance styles, ballet gets the short end of the stick, but in In "Brief Fling" she almost levels the playing field by playing it (mostly) straight and giving the ballet dancers, originally Cheryl Yeager and Julio Bocca as the Blue couple leads, dazzlingly complex virtuosic roles. If there was something missing, it was breathing room for detailed individuality: despite the quirky score of Percy Grainger and Michel Colombier excerpts, only the general differences in movement style and physical type distinguished Lesley Rausch (matinee) and Kaori Nakamura (evening), usually two very distinctive dancers in their approach to roles, and ABT guest artist Sascha Radetsky and Jerome Tisserand are superficially similar enough that who partnered whom made less of a difference than it usually would have. Each took on the technical challenges with aplomb and were outstanding, but they were less individual that usual in this choreography.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura in Twyla Tharp’s Brief Fling. Photo © Angela Sterling.
The sections for the secondary couples (the Reds), danced by Maria Chapman/Benjamin Griffiths and Kylee Kitchens/Eric Hipolito Jr., had more breathing room and arc. Their choreography didn't look as relentless, and, as a result, they filled the space they were in with more individuality; there were also complicated passes that were challenging, but looked more kinesthetically static across the footlights, while the corps behind them, seemingly itching to jump into the Green camp, burst through.
In 1990 there would have been an almost insurmountable stylistic gulf between the Blues, danced by Cheryl Yeager and Julio Bocco, and the Greens, danced by Tharp's star Shelley Washington, Kevin O'Day, Keith Roberts, and Jamie Bishton. Twenty-three years later, a combination of expansion in training and deep experience in a changing rep made all three groups part of a continuum. The contrasting Greens were space-eaters in non-stop fluid motion, here in a tour-de-force performance by Leta Biasucci leading Kiyon Gaines, Jonathan Porretta, and Ezra Thomson. The only thing the men have in common is height, yet Gaines' lush muscularity, Porretta's ever-mellowing showmanship and precise movement, and Thomson's impossible-to-anticipate decisions, created a zany group of non-conformist adventurers fronted by Biasucci, who, movement-wise, was up for anything and seemingly had no limits.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Leta Biasucci and Ezra Thomson in Twyla Tharp’s Brief Fling. Photo © Angela Sterling.
"Nine Sinatra Songs" has been a hit since it was first performed in Seattle in 2006 and a popular closer. PNB repeats the full-length ballets often, aside from the currently neglected "Jewels," but there haven't been many repeats of shorter ballets that give the audience an opportunity to see dancers grow into and refine original roles and switch into others. This revival also gave the audience the bittersweet twinge of remembering the Oscar de la Renta-clad dancers who gave such expression to their parts but no longer dance with the company. In "One for My Baby" Maria Chapman was partnered by James Moore in "One for My Baby" in 2006 and by Anton Pankevich in 2008. Pankevich portrayed a man who'd had at least one too many, but not so many that he wasn't trying to herd Chapman's drunken cat and get her home safely; her continuing attempts to elude him in his compromised state provided the tension. Once again partnered with James Moore, their duet was more playful, with each of them trying to get home just sober enough, and having a lot of fun on the way. Chapman owns this role because she never lets on that she's aware she's had too much to drink. Leah Merchant, a very sunny drunk, also took a playful approach, while Ezra Thomson showed elements of both approaches: first to try to get her home and then to forget his mission.
Lesley Rausch danced the opening "Softly as I Leave You" with Stanko Milov in 2008, and since then, she's grown exponentially as an artist. Here she danced with the big, expansive legato movement as if the song were several long phrases and this time with a new partner, Joshua Grant. The partnering was not uniformly successful, but she didn't hold back, giving the duet an element of risk, and she looked ravishing. Grant also danced with Kylee Kitchens in the evening, and while the partnering appeared to go more smoothly, the phrasing was somewhat glottal and less surprising. In "All the Way" Karel Cruz, the consummate partner and avatar of elegance, danced with Sarah Ricard Orza in her first performance since leaving last Spring to give birth to a daughter. She had a new touch of lushness to her movement that I hope translates into her pointe roles later in the season.
Brittany Reid was back with snap and humor in "Somethin' Stupid," this time with Ryan Cardea, who resembled a manic, somewhat nerdish night-club patron chasing the wise-ass friend of the heroine. In the other outright comic piece, "Forget Domani," -- this time for a compatible couple -- both Margaret Mullin and Benjamin Griffiths (matinee) and Carli Samuelson and Kiyon Gaines (evening) had the energy, lightness, and the right touch of elegance to keep it in dramatic balance.
The hardest part to balance is the last duet, the penultimate, "That's Life": the abuse is built in, as a man tosses, pulls, and grabs a woman who keeps coming back for more, and concludes the ensemble resting her head on his shoulder. Kaori Nakamura (matinee) and Rachel Foster, in a complete shift from the soft "All the Way" she danced in 2006 and 2008, gave it back to the men. Nakamura brought punch to her movement, while Foster was like a cartoon that springs back to form without harm, but it was still cringeworthy to watch Seth Orza get bigger after each knockdown or Tisserand look more self-satisfied.
In an unusual programming choice for the Company, this all-Tharp program will be followed by "Kylian + Pite" program in which the dancers will again be focused on three works by a single choreographer, in this case three works by Jiri Kylian and one by Crystal Pite. That immersion proved extremely successful in both Tharp programs, and hopefully the same approach will be fruitful during the two-weekend run in November.