O Fortuna! PNB’s Pits Apollo vs. Carmina Burana at McCaw Hall
The opening night of Apollo and Carmina Burana at Pacific Northwest Ballet was an evening of contrasts (at McCaw Hall through April 22; tickets). Stripped-down classicism against big and bawdy. Slow and stylized against frenetic. In both cases, it was PNB playing to its strengths.
Apollo is my favorite ballet, and PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal’s staging of the Balanchine masterpiece was spot-on. It helps that Boal is known for owning the role while a dancer at New York City Ballet. Boal estimates that he has performed the role well over 100 times over 20 years, and that experience shows in the depth of his staging. He even danced it in Brazil with a 14-year-old ballet student (and now PNB Principal) named Carla Körbes dancing Terpsichore.
The piece is set to Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, which begins with an almost movie-western feel. The curtain opens to the young god posed with his lyre and a small stool on stage. Principal Batkhurel Bold danced the lead role in this performance. As Apollo, Bold hits all the technical notes with a restrained strength. What was missing for me was a sense that this was a young god aware of his power. Though he danced the role beautifully, Bold lacked the cockiness of other Apollos I have seen (including Boal)–it was almost like you could see him thinking about his next move.
Apollo’s three muses, Terpsichore (Sarah Ricard Orza), Calliope (Maria Chapman), and Polyhymnia (Lesley Rausch), enter with high kicks, melting into a bow before their master who created them. Their dancing together is a beautiful blend of symmetry and asymmetry, with moments of tangled controlled chaos as they move across the stage with arms entwined and moments of angular clarity.
All three muses are wonderful, but the real standout is Orza. Ballet is, of course, about the feet, but it’s also about the arms and hands. The grace and detail that Orza creates with her arms and hands is remarkable. They are lyricism defined. Even small movements add to the moment, such as when her fingers close subtly along with the decay of the last note in a phrase. It’s the level of musicality that I wish was matched by her Apollo. When that happens, it’s magic.
The final pose in the piece is one of the most sculptural. Apollo stands with one leg at a 45-degree angle behind him, with his left arm stretched out to continue the line, right arm pushed forward, while his muses lean against him, Terpsichore at front and the others behind her, their legs fanning out behind him. Always breathtaking.
Where Apollo is restrained asceticism, Carmina Burana, by contrast, is on the other end of the spectrum. As the curtain opens, audience members gasped at the sight of the Seattle Choral Company suspended upstage above the stage, as set designer Ming Cho Lee’s ginormous “wheel of fortune” looms above the rest of the stage. Contrasts abound in this production, with unitard-clad, naked-looking dancers playing against peasant-looking people in skirts and puffy shirts. It is innocence versus knowledge. Piety versus carnality. Fortunately for us, carnality wins!
In the Primo Vere movement, Kaori Nakamura and
Jonathan Porretta [UPDATE: last minute casting change: it was James Moore], dressed in peasant clothes, are young love. Nakamura is not only able to express this through dance, but her face just radiates that first blush of love that will never come again. Their piece is contrasted by Lesley Rausch and Lucien Postlewaite, in flesh-colored unitards, balancing this innocence in the Cour D’Amour movement. Theirs is a familiar, mature love. It’s a depth of love that comes with knowledge and time. Together, they were glorious, languid and touching.
The vocal soloists were outstanding. Tenor Marcus Shelton nailed the brutally high demands of his role, and soprano Christina Siemens was good as well. Baritone Michael Anthony McGee was the stand-out here. His performance had more dynamics, more emotion, than you typically hear in Carmina performances.
With the entire company, plus advanced students, plus choir and soloists on stage, Carmina Burana was thrilling. In terms of sheer beauty though, I’m sticking with the god and his muses–and Balanchine’s genius.