Category Archives: Dance

‘One of the finest performances of Swan Lake that I’ve seen’

The stars were aligned Friday night, not just in the firmament, but on stage at McCaw Hall, where Pacific Northwest Ballet put on one of the finest performances of Swan Lake (April 10-19) that I’ve seen. Everything (well, almost everything) meshed into a performance visually satisfying, balletically stellar, emotionally moving.

The men dominated the first act, where the prince, danced by Karel Cruz, was being pushed by his mother to choose a wife. Cruz’s first solo was a marvel of beauty and control; most amazing of all, he achieved eight pirouettes in a row, slowing down the last two with perfect balance–and then repeated them. Truly astonishing. Add to his performance that of Price Suddarth as a quicksilver jester, Matthew Renko as the inebriated tutor—you have to be very good to manage to be off-balance, wobbly, and comic but still in complete control—and Benjamin Griffiths as part of the pas de trois, his line so clean, his timing so musical: all three with balance, style, and quality.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake (Photo © Angela Sterling)
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake (Photo © Angela Sterling)

In the second and subsequent acts, it was Carla Körbes who drew the eye as a memorable Odette, the imprisoned swan princess/Odile, calculating daughter of evil magician von Rothbart (Otto Neubert). Each pas de deux with Cruz, a fine and supportive partner, brought storms of applause and bravos; her change of character from gentle, soft and feathery, falling in love, to Odile, quick, decisive, harder, and back again to an anguished Odette, was conveyed by her beautiful line, her exquisite arms, the movements of her head, all supported by rock-solid technique and balance.

Among the delights of Swan Lake are the swans, all 24 of them, dancing in unison to choreography of Ivanov with tweaks by Kent Stowell, all their arms fluttering together, their legs moving as one, their bodies at the same precise angle. This was one of the best corps performances I’ve seen. Four of the smallest company members, one of them still an apprentice, danced the signature cygnet pas de quatre, a charming moment which always stands out, heads, feet, bodies in perfect alignment.

The national dances in Act III are probably the least interesting choreography of the whole ballet, but the sumptuous costumes designed by Paul Tazewell and how they drape on the dancers are a pleasure, as are the sets by Ming Cho Lee, always enhanced by the lighting of Randall C. Chiarelli. Throughout this opening night performance applause was tumultuous with bravos for one after another aspect, not forgetting the orchestra under Emil de Cou which received its own generous applause complete with bravos more than once.

It will be sad not to have Körbes in the company after her retirement this summer, but between now and then there is more Swan Lake and another program end of May/early June as well as her farewell performance in June. Don’t miss them. Then we can look forward next season to the return of Noelani Pantastico, another dancer whose talents reach the stars. She returns as a principal, after seven years with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, to an even stronger company than when she left.

‘Totally, Imaginatively Original': the Forsythe Showcase at PNB

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The first impression left by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s opening performance of an all-Forsythe repertory (through March 22 at McCaw Hall) was that this choreographer’s work suits the company through and through. The choice of pieces gave an opportunity to show off large numbers of the company from principals to corps members in solo or semi-solo roles, and everywhere there was good dancing, sometimes stellar.

There were three pieces on Friday’s program at McCaw Hall, two new to Seattle: “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” and “New Suite,” and one already in the company’s repertoire: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.”

“Exactitude” has been described as 30 minutes telescoped into ten, and requires lightning speed of movement–which nonetheless never looked rushed on Friday. Danced by three women, Leta Biasucci, Carrie Imler and Margaret Mullin; and two men, Benjamin Griffiths and Jonathan Porretta; it uses music from Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Biasucci danced these fast and intricate steps so cleanly she sparkled, Porretta’s energy lit up the stage, with the other three dancers closely with them.

Forsythe’s genius lies in his creative use of classical ballet moves and the way he combines them both for individuals and in couples, and in relation to the music. He also makes use in his own way of the oppositional balances used to such effect in Greek and Roman statuary, as was pointed out in the preconcert lecture, and this is noticeable throughout, though in fleeting images. Nothing ever looks contrived and it’s totally, imaginatively original.

All this showed particularly in “New Suite,” nine short pas de deux for eighteen different dancers: four set to Handel’s music, one to Bach, and three to that of Luciano Berio.

A slow, flowing Handel largo became embodied in the performance by Elizabeth Murphy and William Lin-Yee. Murphy’s entire body carried through the beautiful shapes of the music’s phrases and the two married to that the unceasing flow of their movements. This set the tone for a series of fine performances, the choreography for the Berio much edgier, very different in emotional quality from the Handel and Bach. Ezra Thomson, Angelica Generosa, Karel Cruz, Sarah Ricard Orza and Jahna Frantziskonis all stood out in what was a very high level of company dance.

In between these two, the PNB orchestra under Emil de Cou played the overture to Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. This season the orchestra has been showcased with a work by itself at every performance in celebration of its 25th anniversary. This time, its unfortunate placing in the program meant there was a buzz of conversation as everybody discussed “Exactitude” after the curtain went down, and they went on talking throughout the orchestra’s performance.

The longest piece, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” doesn’t use the orchestra but is set to electronic music. Setting, costumes and music are reminiscent of a large gym in which one can hear in the background what could be the thwack of balls on rackets, the clang of machines, and the thuds and bumps of crashing cacophony. Add to this nine dancers in dark leotards, with the muscles rippling on the men, particularly Seth Orza and, for the set, just an interrupted band of lighter color high on the back curtain.

An undercurrent of competition goes on and even a little sexy encouragement with some hip sways by at least one–Lindsi Dec in this performance–as one dancer or two comes to the fore to show off prowess. It’s a long piece, perhaps a little too long given the unremitting clash of the music, though not for the dance itself; and high energy, which the dancers kept up to the end.

All in all this is a fascinating program, the first time in this country that there has been a program entirely of works by William Forsythe. It had enough variety to sustain that, and indeed it might take more than one visit to assimilate it.

A Superb Reprise of ‘Don Quixote’ at PNB

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For those who saw Pacific Northwest Ballet’s performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote three years ago, it is a welcome return. For those who missed it then it’s a chance now to see—and as of now the only place in the U.S. that you are able to see—this colorful, sparkling production.

Actually, Ratmansky is not the only choreographer and stager of this wonderful version of the old story. It was first produced for the Bolshoi by the great Marius Petipa 145 years ago, and later updated by Alexander Gorsky in 1900.

Actors Tom Skerritt as the Don and Allen Galli as his peasant sidekick, Sancho Panza, reprise their roles of three years ago. They’ve added to their interpretations: Skerritt’s confused old aristocrat is even more vulnerable and Galli’s Sancho has a noticeable bumbling tenderness in looking after him. Their travel adventures and the Don’s visions are the center of the story, tying together the disparate venues and giving the choreographers full rein to their imaginations.

Opening night saw the company’s finest ballerina, Carla Körbes, in the role of peasant girl Kitri, while Batkhurel Bold danced her lover (check the rest of the performance casting here). Retired character dancer Uko Gorter returned as Kitri’s dad, bent on forcing her to marry a fop, Gamache, full of airs and graces, performed by Jonathan Porretta. The vicissitudes of the couple are the other thread of the story.

Körbes, who retires at the end of the season, danced at a peak of artistry, as superbly as I’ve ever seen her. It’s a long, difficult, demanding role through which she sailed as fun-loving, feisty girl, defiant daughter and vision for the Don, achieving dazzling fouettés and holding herself, twice, in a long lift over Bold’s head. In the last act when she had been on for well over two and a half hours, she floated through a slow pas de deux with Bold, requiring extraordinary strength, balance and flow. There was yet more after, not as difficult but needing quick timing and spirit. She slipped in what might have been a large drop of sweat on the floor but recovered fast.

Bold danced at his best likewise. An excellent partner, he danced virtuosic solos, including splits in mid-air and multiple fast turns, always with solid balance.

Porretta reprised his role as Gamache, a non-dancing part in which he excelled as the comic element, never going out of character even in the bows. Karel Cruz made an imposing toreador with Lindsi Dec as his girlfriend, but most enchanting was the capework of the toreros, their huge deep pink, gold-lined capes flashing in great circles.

The cast is large, with villagers, toreros, wandering players, and in the Don’s dream, monsters and moving cacti and an expressive moon, then later dryads and Cupid in his vision where Kitri becomes his Dulcinea. There’s more: gypsies in the mountains who hide the lovers when her father and Gamache come in hot pursuit, followed by the Don and Sancho on their nag and donkey; the dryads’ bamboo bower where Cupid hangs out.

This is a show to delight all ages. Jerome Kaplan’s scenery and costumes and James F. Ingalls’ lighting conjuring sunny Spain enhance the dancing, while the PNB orchestra, playing its best under Emil de Cou, supported the dancers throughout. Conducting for ballet is an art in itself.

The production continues until February 8 at McCaw Hall.

Five questions for La Petite Mort, creator of the Dark Cabaret

If you’re one of us who loves cabaret and lean towards the macabre, you could do far worse than spending your Halloween weekend/Dia De Los Muertos at Columbia City Theater for the Dark Cabaret.

Put on by the fine people at Morbid Curiositease, the Saturday night event has an evening of burlesque, belly dancing, sword swallowing, conjoined twins, tarot card reading, and a lot more. It includes burlesque star Cherry Manhattan, pole dancer Holly Bordeaux, music from the Particular Pretzelmen, and more. It was curated by La Petite Mort (who also performs as a hoochie coochie girl).

Wanting to learn more about this near-sold out celebration of the macabre, I e-mailed some questions to Miss La Petite Mort.

How would you describe the Dark Cabaret to someone who hasn’t seen it before or isn’t familiar with your work?

The Dark Cabaret takes a lot of the classic elements from Vaudeville and gives them new life, but all with a more macabre feel.  A lot of shows get stuck on one type of performance, such as burlesque or belly dance.  The Dark Cabarets have a very diverse variety.  They usually have some sideshow, burlesque, circus arts, always live music, aerial and fire if possible.  Each year it has a new theme.  There’s been Voodoo, Love, Grimm tales and this year it’s Circus.

What are your favorite things about putting on the show? Do you have any particularly favorite pieces in the Dark Cabaret?

I love curating all the acts and throwing folks together you wouldn’t normally expect.  Last year Shanghai Pearl did a dark act that included a very visceral aesthetic.  That’s not what most folks would expect.  I give performers of all talents and levels a chance. I don’t think I can pick a favorite other than The Peculiar Pretzelmen.  It’s my husband’s band from LA.  I catch them as they go through each year on tour.  This will be their third year doing the show.  Dark Cabaret is a genre of music.  I discovered them while looking for intermission music for the show so it’s a really perfect fit.

What goes into creating each Dark Cabaret event?

I’m constantly scouting new talent or acts from performers I have worked with.  It’s a never ending cycle, but I do start planning about 6 months out.  I love Columbia City Theater.  I’ve been at about 4 different venues and it’s our home now.  It took years to find the perfect spot.  A few month out I make offers to performers, and then start the full blown marketing campaign.  Then comes the script.  Each one has a varied level of scripting and this one in particular is pretty heavy.  Each show must have a through line and all come together.  Otherwise it gets monotonous.  I wanted a show I would be excited to see.  Not many exist so I made one.  I also am a big proponent of fair pay.  I usually pay the bands and performers more than their minimum.  Art isn’t valued or compensated properly and I’d like to help change that.

How do you keep each event original, so that they are different from each event you put on?

Each show has a different theme and a through line.  There’s a story to it.  The performers are almost always different and their talents are many.  I try to create a time and place and just let the show happen.  Wind it up and let them go.  The show becomes it’s own beast in the best way possible.

What do you have coming up after the event this weekend?

October is my busiest month as a performer.  I’ll be taking some time to recoup and then planning the next couple of productions.  On 12/20 at Columbia City Theater we are putting on a rawkus style Nightmare Before Christmas.  It’s relying heavily on our Mardi Gras format.  It’s all standing room, the band will play the songs live and various performers will pop up as characters from the movie.

Then on Mardi Gras 2/17 The Peculiar Pretzelmen Big Band are doing the most proper NOLA style party in Seattle.  It’s a massive 9-13 piece band and a bunch of performers.  There’s even dancers from New Orleans flying in.  It’s all live music and burlesque.  This will be our third year.  People actually dance all night which is a rarity for Seattle.

Jewels at PNB

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Leta Biasucci and principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Rubies, part of George Balanchine’s JEWELS, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust.  PNB presents JEWELS September 26 – October 5, 2014.  Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Leta Biasucci and principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Rubies, part of George Balanchine’s JEWELS, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB presents JEWELS September 26 – October 5, 2014. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet began the season with a bang Friday, presenting one of Balanchine’s most iconic works, the three-part, evening-length ballet named Jewels. What makes this a particularly memorable revival is that PNB, with the help of a generous patron, invited to coach PNB dancers five of the legendary ballet dancers who premiered this work back in 1967: Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul who danced the lead women in “Emeralds,” Edward Villella who danced the male lead in “Rubies,” and Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise, who led in “Diamonds.” Two dancers went to New York to work with Farrell but the others all came here.

I wish I could say that the performance Friday was equally memorable, but while the company is in general dancing on a very high level these days, it is short of star quality ballerinas with only Carla Korbes, who retires at the end of this season, a wonderful dancer to stir the blood.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lindsi Dec in Emeralds, part of George Balanchine’s JEWELS, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust.  PNB presents JEWELS September 26 – October 5, 2014.  Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lindsi Dec in Emeralds, part of George Balanchine’s JEWELS, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB presents JEWELS September 26 – October 5, 2014. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Young Leta Biasucci, promoted to soloist Friday after a mere three years with the company has considerable potential. With Jonathan Porretta, a superb dancer who invests every role with drama from the inside, Biasucci danced the couple in “Rubies,” the jazziest, sassiest part of Jewels, set to music of Stravinsky. Biasucci has faultless technique and a fine musical sense. She moves beautifully, but as yet she is like an ice maiden, without the emotion which comes from inside that Porretta has in spades. She reminds me of Kaori Nakamura, the company’s great ballerina who retired last summer, in that when Nakamura arrived at PNB in the mid-1990s, she was another impeccable dancer but emotionally like a steel magnolia. She never ceased to grow and bloom through all her years here, becoming a dancer with power to convey any emotion she wanted, whether a sense of dizzy fun as Swanilda in Coppelia to the passion of Juliet in Romeo et Juliette. Let’s hope Biasucci can grow to do this also.  Laura Tisserand danced the other major role in “Rubies,” perfect for her as she has such a fine sense of timing for anything syncopated.

The first of the three parts of Jewels, “Emeralds” is the hardest to dance and to put across. It is slower, set to gentler music by Faure. The group choreography is the loveliest, but the many solos and duets failed to light a spark, thought William Lin-Yee came closest and did a fine job of partnering.

Korbes with Batkhurel Bold brought her usual magic to “Diamonds,” the grandest of the three set to music of Tchaikovsky. It’s hard to think that this is the last year for this expressive dancer with exquisite technique, but she has had many injuries over the years. Bold made an excellent partner and brought his own bravura to his solos.

The performance started with a tribute to the PNB orchestra, now entering its 25th anniversary. It was built to its current eminence as the best ballet orchestra in the country (not my comment but that of New York critics) by conductor Stewart Kershaw and continues at that level under Emil de Cou. Before each performance this season, there will be an orchestral prelude.  Friday’s was the finale from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G.


Farewell to a remarkable ballerina

Kaori Nakamura photo by Angela Sterling.
Kaori Nakamura photo by Angela Sterling.

Each June, the Encore program at Pacific Northwest Ballet wraps up the season with memorable moments from the year’s productions and says farewell to departing dancers. This year, it was special: Sunday night was devoted in large part to celebrating the career of ballerina Kaori Nakamura, who has graced this stage for 17 years and who retires now to pass on her knowledge as a faculty member at the PNB school.

There were many lumps in throats as people saw photos and read tributes to her in the eight page program book: not only to “her impeccable work ethic and crystalline technique” (artistic director Peter Boal), “superb in all the great classical roles” and “rare ability to bring forth many emotions: admiration, joy, laughter and tears” (Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, past artistic directors), “a beautiful layer of expression beyond anything in the glorious music” ( a review from Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times) and her openness to contemporary choreography, but also to her kindness, generosity, fun-loving warmth and friendliness to all with whom she comes in contact. She has been a much loved member and sought-after partner at PNB, and for audiences, the pinnacle of what a great ballerina should be.

The excerpts for her farewell were well chosen, though there was no room to show off the quirky roles in which she has excelled as well. The Balcony pas de deux from Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette had James Moore as her Romeo and the two were the epitome of very young love: thrilled, excited, reaching out and drawing back shy, awed and ecstatic. Moore matched her in quality every inch of the way.

With Seth Orza, an excellent partner, she danced the slow Act IV pas de deux from Swan Lake, which requires fine control and steadiness. Nakamura danced as though she floated in the air, grace personified. Not at any time in the evening could one hear her shoes as they touched the floor. Perhaps they didn’t.

Lastly, she danced the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty, another of those moments which can make or break a ballerina, thanks to the many long moments when the ballerina is poised on one pointe, arms raised, where rock solid balance is crucial and where Nakamura seemed as light as a butterfly.

Her four cavaliers for this, often corps members, were all principal dancers, and the non-dancing roles of the King, Queen and major domo were PNB’s three ballet masters, all paying tribute to her by sharing in her last performance.

Nakamura’s is not the only departure from PNB at this time. D. David Brown has been executive director since 2000. A past principal dancer himself, as well as executive director of Boston Ballet, he has kept a firm hand on PNB’s administration and finance, and has been deeply appreciated by Boal for his support and strength.

Among the dancers, two corps members leave now, both of them dancers of considerable promise. Liora Neuville danced the Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty with an able partner, Benjamin Griffiths, which displayed well her deeply musical approach to dance as well as her quick lightness. She leaves after seven years with PNB to go to nursing school. Andrew Bartee, was one of the many in the mass chorus of bees? spiders? ants? which swarm the stage in Crystal Pite’s Emergence. Judging by the roars which greeted his solo bow at the end, he too will be sadly missed. Here since his high school days, he goes now to Ballet British Columbia.

Neuville and Bartee received big bouquets with their bows. After the Rose Adagio, Nakamura received one bloom. But then, one by one, about half the company, both conductors, members of the administration, faculty from the school and Kent Stowell and Francia Russell all brought her a bloom till she had an armful, receiving hugs and kisses in return, and then bouquets came as well.

Boal went on one knee to her, both her parents came on stage, and lastly her tiny daughter ran on stage with a posy, turing and making a deep bow to the audience as Nakamura’s husband came on also. She was surrounded by flowers. We look forward to seeing the dancers she will train in the years to come.

However, all luster is not gone with her departure. More fine dancers are coming up through the ranks. The evening opened with Susan Stroman’s TAKE FIVE…More or Less, in which corps member Angelica Generosa shone as Yellow, Lesley Rausch and Kiyon Gaines showed their inimitable timing in the jazzy sections and Sarah Orza and corps member Ezra Thomson caught the eye for their fine work.