After Preview of Gibson’s “Mozart Pieces,” PNB’s Men Hold Court

PNB ballet master Paul Gibson is choreographing a new work, Mozart Pieces.  (Photo © Lindsay Thomas)
PNB ballet master Paul Gibson. His new work, Mozart Pieces, premieres on Friday. (Photo © Lindsay Thomas)

A Sneak Peek at the New Gibson Ballet…

At a lecture-demo last Monday night, Pacific Northwest Ballet presented excerpts of Paul Gibson’s new ballet, Mozart Pieces. It was only two minutes old, said the choreographer; he had actually just finished it before the audience entered the studio.

So what does Gibson’s new baby look like? It differs in spirit from his sleek, red, sharp Piano Dance. What we saw of this new ballet feels more courtly, using old music and recognizable steps. It feels true to Mozart: energized, elegant, clean, delighting in patterns. It feels true to the dancers’ personalities, too; the seven men and two women skimming across the studio floor on Monday night looked like they were having a good time.

This ballet uses corps members, soloists, and principal dancers and there even seems to be a traditional finale. Karel Cruz and Lindsi Dec paired up in the finale, so I’m hoping the ballet includes a pas de deux for this husband-wife duo; both dance beautifully alone, but they light each other up when they’re dancing together.

I’m excited to see Mozart Pieces in its entirety. Of course, it will change as it moves out of the studio and onto the stage, gaining lights by Randall Chiarelli, costumes by Mark Zappone, and make-up. So, really, the studio presentation on Monday was merely a sonogram of Gibson’s new baby; we none of us, not even Gibson, will see the real ballet until it’s in front of an audience on opening night. And that happens this Friday, March 15.

Mozart Pieces shares the program with three of my favorite ballets: Concerto Barocco, Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, and In the Upper Room. It should be a fabulous evening.

…and the Rest of the Lecture-Demo
Mozart Pieces was a late addition to Monday’s program, but it fit in just fine with the 90-minute lecture-demo. Called Men in Ballet, the event traced the role of men in ballet through the ages. One recurring theme was the courtly aspect of ballet. PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal and PNB Education Programs Manager Doug Fullington provided the lecture — AKA, interesting short commentary and a few anecdotes. Sixteen dancers provided the demo — AKA, excerpts from nine works: Petipa’s Élèves de Dupré (reconstructed by Doug Fullington); a late-19th-century Coppélia (reconstructed by Doug Fullington); Petipa’s Bayadère (staged by Kyle Davis); Balanchine’s Apollo, Square Dance, Agon, and Coppélia; Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering; and the aforementioned Mozart Pieces.

The reconstructions were a treat; they’re not something folks usually get to see. The first reconstruction presented was a courtly, couples-only excerpt from Les Élèves de Dupré. Fullington said it was the 19th century’s tribute to Baroque dance. It looked so foreign, with the “dance action,” as Fullington said, happening in the arms and below the ankles. The feet were often fast — crossing and recrossing. The shoulders were open — that beautiful épaulement that we still see in ballet today. Beautiful shoulders? Of course Liora Neuville (formerly Reshef) would have to be in this piece. She was joined by Jahna Frantziskonis, Price Suddarth, and Ezra Thomson. (It’s fun to see Thomson’s rugged, can-do energy dressed up and looking comfortable in this courtly dance.)

Les Élèves de Dupré was staid — I wouldn’t want to see a whole evening of it — but it was also charming. For me, it brought dance history out of a book and into life. The person sitting next to me whispered at one point, “I feel like I can see their costumes just by the way they’re dancing.” Its Baroque courtliness echoed throughout the other works presented, even the more modern ones. Once you notice it, you can never not notice it.

The second reconstruction was a solo from Coppélia, (partly?) by Enrico Cecchetti, who Fullington said rejuvenated male dancing in Russia at the end of the 19th century. Fullington and Boal pointed out that there’s no rest in this old-fashioned piece, not even the typical break of running to the back corner in preparation for the next set of leaps. And there’s no accommodating a dancer’s weaker side: as on the right, so on the left, even with the difficult double tours. Price Suddarth performed this non-stop virtuoso variation without flash — nothing crass, he “just” danced it. He launched his jumps straight up into the air, seeming to hover above us as he beat his feet together before landing cleanly and moving on to the next feat. It would look good onstage, I’m sure, but up close in the studio it was breathtaking.

I would never give up stage performances, but I do love PNB’s studio shows. I see and feel things differently in this workspace. Dancers are different there, too. And there’s usually something going on in the other studios, so I leave energized, thinking: Art is happening!

On Monday night, for example, we could hear the music from the studio next door, where Twyla Tharp was creating a new piece: Big-name art is happening!

And in the studio beyond was an adult ballet class. My friend and I stopped to watch through the window on our way out. Wouldn’t you think that we wouldn’t be interested in watching amateur students after having just witnessed, say, the fabulous Jonathan Porretta dance an excerpt from Agon? Not so. And that was the big take-away for me from Monday’s demo-lecture: For a moment, my critic switch flipped to “off,” and my senses were attuned just to beauty. There was a man at the barre closest to us. He was someone you might work with, or sit next to on the bus. He was my age, maybe, with a belly as round as mine. And there he was, after what I imagine was a long day at work, dancing ballet. I wish you could have seen his beauty, his courtly posture. His careful port de bras and perfectly held hands spoke of tremendous grace within, a grace finding personal expression today through these steps that are so very old. Ballet is not dead. And art isn’t just happening. People are living it.

Upcoming PNB Education Events:
If PNB ever teams up Francia Russell and Peter Boal for another “my Balanchine, your Balanchine” demo-lecture — don’t miss it! In the meantime, here’s what’s on their adult education schedule in the near future:

March 14, 6 p.m. – Lecture: Eva Säfström on Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven

April 6, 3 p.m. – Seminar: Swan Lake Then and Now

May 29, 6:30 p.m. – Lecture-Demonstration: Christopher Wheeldon On Stage