Freewheeling Fun at PNB’s “All Wheeldon”

Written by Mariko Nagashima
Ranging from pure contemporary eloquence to delightful comedic flair, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “All Wheeldon” program opened the 2011-2012 season with grand panache. Widely recognized as the most sought after classical ballet choreographer today, Christopher Wheeldon’s range and genius are on full display in this mixed bill. The company appears in fine form after their summer reprieve, dancing Wheeldon’s often strenuously difficult choreography with ease and precision. As an added bonus to the evening’s performance, before the dancing began, Artistic Director Peter Boal announced the promotion of dancers Rachel Foster and Lesley Rausch to the rank of principal.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and
Seth Orza in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance)

Photo © Angela Sterling

Beginning with a tribute to the music of Richard Rodgers, Carousel (A Dance) transports the audience to a whimsical carnival where first love blooms. Wheeldon’s gift for corps work is in evidence as the dancers weave seamlessly through a kaleidoscope of patterns. Scooping arm motions and lilting rolls through the body evoke the tospy-turvy feel of a carnival ride, but also capture the sweeping scale of the Broadway score. A tender (and astonishingly difficult) duet by the central couple, danced by Carla Korbes and Seth Orza, portrays their growing flirtation. Though the daring lifts, with Korbes leaping blindly backwards into Orza’s arms, show their feelings of elation and trust, moments such as Orza gripping Korbes’ torso to skate her across the floor while her arms reach away, allude to the tragic nature of their relationship. The creation of a carousel, complete with bobbing golden poles, rounds out this delightfully enchanting piece.
In After the Rain, a mesmerizing pas de deux set to Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” Maria Chapman and Karel Cruz move in luscious harmony. Sensitively accompanied by violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and pianist Christina Seimens, the couple’s sinuous physicality resonates in everything from their initial serene swaying to the many innovative and challenging lifts. Chapman’s razor sharp toes crystallize each line, and her expansive chest as she soars through the air with legs outstretched behind her is truly stunning. Even the simplest movements, a deep backbend or the gentle etching of hands through the air, seem filled with infinite beauty. Distilled to the bare essentials with all extraneous movements eliminated, the steps seem to create an emotional landscape for the dancers to plumb. While Chapman and Cruz deliver the perfect physical representation of this choreography, they lack the corresponding emotional investment; though aesthetically stunning, it feels rather hollow. Still, After the Rain, is a cleansing and transformative work which leaves the audience feeling both at peace and in awe.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Karel Cruz and
Maria Chapman in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux

Photo © Angela Sterling
Third on the program is the stark and stylized Polyphonia, a compelling example of neoclassicism. Though there are nods to the great George Balanchine with dancers clad in simple leotards, music bordering on the cacophonous, and many poses on pointe with bent knees, this piece remains uniquely Wheeldon. Divided into ten sections and danced by four couples, the movement is largely angular and abrupt. Classical steps explode unexpectedly from partnered waltzes and then organically transition into strange acrobatic feats. In several sections Korbes and partner Batkhurel Bold create shapes evoking alien creatures with limbs sprouting in unlikely positions. Sarah Ricard Orza stands out in a melancholy solo delivered with focused intensity and grace, as does Kaori Nakamura’s precise and rapid-fire footwork and the soaring leaps of Benjamin Griffith and Lucien Postlewaite. Subtle shifts in lighting, designed by Mark Stanley, set the mood for each section and further enhance this gleaming exhibition of choreographic imagination and technical precision.
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Laura Gilbreath as “The Ballerina” and
principal dancer Seth Orza as “The Premier Danseur”
in Christopher Wheeldon’s Variations Sérieuses

Photo © Angela Sterling

The program concludes with Variations Sérieuses, an anything-but-serious look at the world of ballet, literally from behind the curtains. The unique set design by Ian Falconer creates the effect of viewing a stage from the wings (curtains bisect the stage and a faux audience can be seen on the left). A true comedy, it depicts the story of a diva Ballerina throwing temper tantrums during rehearsal and eventually injuring herself by jumping a bit too exuberantly offstage. The show must go on, however, and the Young Girl, who has been quietly rehearsing the role on her own, replaces the Ballerina on opening night. Of note are Laura Gilbreath’s perfect haughtiness and hilarious over-the-top dancing as the Ballerina, and Jonathan Porretta’s portrayal of the fretful Ballet Master. And while each role is an exaggerated caricature, the piece paints a candid, if not satirical, picture of the day-to-day dramas within a ballet company. Wheeldon further demonstrates his choreographic brilliance with steps that mainly face the back left corner of the stage (the faux audience) but that remain completely watchable from the front. This ballet-within-a-ballet also boasts several astonishingly challenging passages, particularly for the Premier Danseur, danced with true virtuosity by the gallant Seth Orza.

A well balanced program of diverse works, “All Wheeldon” is a celebration of Wheeldon’s immense choreographic talents. Such versatility and depth are rare to see in one choreographer let alone all together, in one evening. This combination of stunning and stark, whimsical and boisterous, delivers something to delight everyone, making it a must see for all.
“All Wheeldon” continues tonight and September 29 through October 2 at McCaw Hall. Tickets are available on at www.pnb.com or at the door.