pnb: director’s choice – a review…and then some

Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite,
stunning in “Petite Mort” (Angela Sterling photo)

It’s as beautiful as they said it would be, Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.”

When I see these ballets where musicality and line are so refined and inventive and intertwined, I always wish there were a Replay button I could push. Tantalizingly close to one: PNB posted gorgeous footage this week of Chalnessa Eames and Benjamin Griffiths in “Petite Mort.”

More Director’s Choice videos at PNB’s website.

Sexy, and as preoccupied with sex as its name would indicate, this Kylian piece is riveting right from the beginning: men walking backwards out of the darkness, with foils (the sword-type) balanced on their fingertips. It’s not acrobatics and although the men thrust and roll the foils around in unison and in formation, it doesn’t devolve into a drill; somehow it remains dance. This first part is accomplished in silence: the only sounds come from the slicing foils and from the men’s footfalls and hand slaps.

And the women! As they fold their arms over their own props—black pannier dresses with red satin lining—they seem to be conveying all manner of subtle comments about vulnerability and power, desire and resignation.

These all-male, all-female sequences feel like introduction and intermission to the main event: men and women coming together. They form six couples, each of which gets at least some pas de deux time. Kylian does not fear angles or elbows or bent knees as he creates his moving sculpture in this piece, but he doesn’t give up softer curves entirely either.

One delicious irony of the casting was that, on opening night, for example, Kaori Nakamura had moments of almost-impossible-to-believe extension, while Ariana Lallone had intricate fold-ups that seemed like magic.

To Lindsi Dec (also on opening night) went the pendulum move, where her partner (onstage and in real life) Karel Cruz held her in a tuck and her legs swung from the knees: tic, toc, tic, toc. This couple’s steps were some of the most obviously saturated with musicality, and they took full advantage of the opportunities therein.

Each of the 12 members of the cast performed well, some remaining aloof and careful, others (my preference) finding a way to share their personality and style in this dark, cool world. I love that there is room for that style: the perfect curve of the arms for Jonathan Porretta and Lucien Postlewaite when the men lunge forward with the foil under their knees…Jerome Tisserand’s air as he holds the foil out behind him like a dandy’s walking stick… I’m not holding up my end of the bargain as a reviewer: these moments all happen early on; as the piece pulls you in, it takes a stronger person than me to resist and focus on, say, why Lesley Rausch’s barefooted walk had an element of suspense.

My one sadness was the upstage lighting. Is it part of the original design, I wonder, that we can see so far back? I would have liked it better if that had been pitch-dark in the upstage-most regions so the women could just appear. And, actually, it seemed to get darker over the weekend; or, at least, I only saw one woman slip into her dress on Saturday vs. several creeping bodies earlier in the run. The shafts of light that filtered down from the top were interesting and evocative, however.

“Mopey”
James Moore (Angela Sterling photo)
Marco Goecke’s “Mopey” followed “Petite Mort,” and held its own, thank you very much. And this, in spite of the fact that it’s one dancer whose character doesn’t really allow him to play to the audience.

PNB has four dancers cast as Mopey this time around. Opening night was James Moore. I love the differentiation Moore brings to this piece’s movements—whether they are jerky, caressing, floppy, sharp, tense, or releasing. He finds some lyrical in-betweens and commits totally to the athleticism of the work. I was struck anew by how clean and tight and right his dancing is.

There’s a long stretch of silence in the middle of this work; usually at this point you hear coughs or programs falling or crinkling candy wrappers, but last night the auditorium was dead silent. Were we mesmerized by Moore’s breathing? Or focused on finding music in the rhythm of his movement?

Jonathan Porretta (Angela Sterling photo)
Jonathan Porretta took on the role Friday night. It’s a darker, more complex interpretation than the one he gave in 2005. If I had to choose one word to describe it, I’d choose: heartbreaking. The other Mopeys are going to make it out of their teenage years: they’ll take drama class or realize they’re good at computer science or sign up for cross country or get therapy, thank goodness. Porretta’s Mopey? I’m not so sure about this kid’s chances.

This heartbreaking performance shocked but didn’t depress. At first, you don’t know how dark it’s going to be: you only see Porretta’s speed and musicality. Then, when he begins to play cat-and-mouse with himself, it’s too late. You’re already drawn in. Plus, Porretta leavened the whole with well-placed moments of virtuosity, like the three-plus-foot jump from standing onto his toosh, before he butt-walks offstage. Porretta’s brings a specificity to his movements; whether it’s a rippling back or simply a hand wrapping around a neck, he knows how to magnify its impact. He wastes not a single joule of energy, from the moment his arm pops out from the wings on stage right to the moment he blows out the light 15 minutes later.

Benjamin Griffiths danced—literally—the role on Saturday afternoon. You wouldn’t think dancing would work for this piece, which seems to be more about anxious movement, but Griffiths makes it work. He moves across the stage as though he’s making up the steps for the very first time. His version has not just moments of lyricism, but bouts of lyricism; it’s more relaxed and less violent and more humorous. His bodybuilder poses look not so much like an expression of aggression as wishful thinking on a teenage boy’s part. I imagine that on good days, when his Mopey isn’t freaking out in his bedroom, his Mopey eats Fruit Loops, watches cartoons with his little sister, and takes the garbage out after being asked a few times.

Joshua Windsor, who writes for SeattleDances and is currently running the Reading Contemporary Dance series out of Spectrum, caught Griffith’s Saturday matinee performance as well. “I like that his interpretation strikes a good balance between the playful nature of piece and the angst of the character,” says Windsor. “The isolation isn’t only portrayed as despair and pent up rage, but also hints at the creative moments in the solitude.”

And this is why people go back to see two—three—and now four—Mopeys: there are so many possibilities in this character’s movement and the talented dancers cast in this role are mining them.

Next up: Sokvannara Sar. He makes his debut in the role on Thursday. I’m guessing he’s going to take us on a trip on the wild side. Hold on.

“The Seasons”

Lucien Postlewaite as Zephyr and Kaori Nakamura as
Swallow (Angela Sterling photo)

PNB’s Director’s Choice also featured a world premiere: “The Seasons,” by Val Caniparoli.

On Saturday, the two women next to me murmured and sighed contentedly every other minute. The woman seated to my right loved the piece as well. And a reviewer friend of mine who has a deep appreciation for Victoriana adored it.

I’m just making it clear that the ballet found a positive reception from many…just not from me.

I lay the blame on the music, which was suggested to Caniparoli by co-producer Louisville Ballet. Caniparoli starts with music; if the music is weighted down by spectacle-and-processional, you can’t ask his choreography to be any different. What I like about the three other Caniparoli pieces I’ve seen is their limber fluidity, the running and intricate patterns, and the passion; any music that doesn’t support that does his creativity a disservice.

Did I mention some folks were drawn to attend Director’s Choice just because of this music? It was written by Alexander Glazunov more than a century ago for lavish-spectacle-man Petipa, who choreographed a ballet called “The Seasons” to it. Although the choreography disappeared, notes about this ballet’s concept still exist, as do some photos. Caniparoli used these concept notes and photos as a starting point for the moving tableaux that became his own, new version of the ballet.

It’s classical ballet, with a twist.

You see this almost immediately as Zephyr, the lead male, is joined onstage by six Snowflakes. They enter three from the left and three from the right, but the group quickly splits into two and four as though to say: Here is hierarchy, but with a twist.

In some places, the Caniparoli twists work really well for long stretches. My favorite section? The one he created for the four corps men, the Roses. Fiendishly difficult, the steps and posture switch between classical and modern at super-short notice, requiring constant adjustment. The four men (Barry Kerollis, Jordan Pacitti, Josh Spell, and apprentice Ezra Thomson) dance this cleanly in precise formation and exact unison. What’s more, the movement looks great on them—on Kerollis in particular: I’ve never seen his back ripple or his neck crane quite that way. (It made me long for Caniparoli’s “Lambarena” to see what Kerollis could do with that.) Pacitti is a natural at switching between the two styles, Spell somehow made his elegance work in both contexts, and Thomson matched the other three in terms of height and clarity and energy.

In later sections, when the men’s corps grows to six, the movement still looks interesting. The music builds a little in suspense and Caniparoli’s choreography does too. Something exciting is happening: men progressing from the wings to the center, in various stages of lunges, their mouths screaming-wide open, scarves hanging over their rigid hands… And then that section of the music dies and so does the choreography: the men run off, pulling up the scarves to bisect (not literally) their faces vertically.

The women’s corps fared less well then the men’s. Their “twist”—at least, what I could see from the audience—ended up being jutting hips and rib isolations that reminded me of a Kitchen Aid in action. The pacing required speed, so for many of the dancers the larger movements looked sharp rather than fluid. Strangely enough, one of the most classical dancers in the women’s corps was the one who appeared the most comfortable with the mixture Caniparoli had concocted for them: Liora Reshef shone in this piece, dancing the classical bits with grace and energy and blending in the modern as though it were fresh and delightful—not a whiff of awkwardness or clunkiness.

I do appreciate that Caniparoli used the women’s corps so extensively. New pieces so often feature such small casts, leaving corps members out of what some dancers say is a crucial learning opportunity. Here, they dance. If they aren’t changing costumes, they’re dancing. He gives them difficult steps and a chance to prove their mettle. (For example, they have some very exposed—and very fast—pirouettes.) And they do have some lovely bits; it’s not all awkward or spectacle. For example, a port de bras that starts out with two charming flicks of the hand, moves into a more classical shape, and ends with two more charming flicks. Their patterning and grouping is also very interesting.

As for the soloists and principals? They get an additional twist: zest of figure skating. I think it’s supposed to be fluid, but it doesn’t always look that way. The men seem immune to the effects, but it stunts the women’s movement in some spots and makes for dead moments when couples stand face to face and wave their arms about. (This oft-repeated rolling wave of the arms represents Zephyr, I take it, and once-in-a-while it comes across as a beautiful reminder of the air.)

Figure skating is also responsible for helping to create “The Season’s” sublime moment: When Swallow places her hands on Zephyr’s hips and he spins her around, it gives such a strong impression of effortless flight. (It doesn’t hurt that Swallow is played by Nakamura or Eames, both of whom are so expressive.) The lift looks like magic on a dance stage.

Bacchus and Bacchante preside over the last section, Autumn. The style differs in their pas de deux, taking advantage of Ariana Lallone’s extension and her partnership with the long-limbed Karel Cruz. Less sprightly, more regal, less modern, more graceful: they danced it beautifully. But the music is still processional, still a spectacle. Of course, if you like spectacle, you’ll be happily sighing like the two ladies next to me.

I do need to say that the orchestra performed the music admirably.

The lighting design turned the sexy black and nude tutus into blue and muddy brown. How disappointing! It did, however, shine just right on the sequins of the Bacchante’s shift, making it an elegant brushed gold. I liked the short span of the tutus, and the corps women’s shifts in the last scene were beautiful. Their whimsical headpieces were pretty. Hail and Frost’s black fishnet tops and short pants flattered the dancers but I didn’t understand why they would be black. I’m not a fan of Bacchus’s gold cargo pants, alas. And in spite of its swing and cut, Zephyr’s gorgeous split coat still got in the way, which is too bad, since sometimes it was part of the choreography and worked well.

The scenic design (a backdrop showing a calligraphic river that changed colors as the seasons progressed and ended up as a sky full of pretty stars) was simple and effective. The snow that fell throughout Winter—and what I took to be rose petals in Spring and leaves in Autumn—added a little warmth and depth. (I don’t know that it’s worth it, though, since these falling bits are hard to control: in subsequent shows, a piece of snow fell during “Petite Mort” and during “Mopey” another left-over wafted down to the center of the orchestra pit. It’s not a big deal, obviously, but it does break the spell the dancers are trying to create onstage.)

So there you have it. I’m glad to have seen “The Seasons” but I long for Caniparoli’s “Lambarena” to return to us…

The evening ended with West Side Story Suite. The dancing was tight and right last year when the work had its PNB debut, but the singers seemed to have gained in confidence since then, so the overall performance was stronger.

PNB’s Director’s Choice runs through November 15.

Comments
3 Responses to “pnb: director’s choice – a review…and then some”
  1. As the Victoriana fan, I have to agree that the lighting didn’t do the costumes much good in Seasons or Petite Mort (which I’m rethinking now that I’ve read your review).

    I would like to see “Seasons” return: I think it is one of those pieces that will get better or even more “seasoned” as it settles into the repertoire.

  2. I had the opposite reaction to “West Side Story” as you did: I liked it better last time. I thought the singing was weaker this time, especially in “Cool.”

  3. SandyMcKean says:

    I, OTOH, hope to never see “The Seasons” again :-) . It reminded me of a stew into which you randomly throw whatever is left over from last night’s smorgasbord dinner. And agreed…..”Lambarena” is a ballet I adore.

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