Pacific Northwest Ballet has many Twyla Tharp works in their repertory, and they’ve even performed an all-Tharp bill before, but AIR Twyla, which opened this Friday, September 27, is different. It marks the company’s first artist-in-residence program (hence the A-I-R), and it boasts both a PNB premiere with Brief Fling, and a world premiere of Tharp’s most recent creation, Waiting at the Station. Rounded out by one of Tharp’s most well known works, the schmaltzy ballroom-inspired Nine Sinatra Songs, the collection showcases many different facets of the Tharp oeuvre. Known for blurring the lines of classical, modern, and vernacular movement with fluidity, these three works are no exception, though each does so with a slightly different flavor.
The Scottish-themed tour de force, Brief Fling, began the program with plaid pizazz. Divided into clans by their costumes of red, green, blue, and cream tartans designed by Isaac Mizrahi, the groups tore across the stage with punchy jigs and lightning speed. Opening night jitters were evident in the beginning, but the dancers gained confidence as it progressed—a good thing, as the choreography leaves no room for hesitation. Tharp moves between between dance idioms: the dancers stomped out syncopated rhythms, and they pivoted between jazz, funk, and complex classical variations with fervent urgency. The green coalition (Leta Biasucci, Jonathan Porretta, Kiyon Gaines, and Ezra Thompson) danced with the most spunk, their steps laced with a gritty aggressiveness. At one point the men tossed Biasucci between them in a series of aerial gymnastics, her legs spidering against the air, and at another Poretta blazed across the stage with glorious gusto. The most classical sections were reserved for the main couple in blue, danced on opening night by Kaori Nakamura and guest artist Sascha Radetsky, a soloist with American Ballet Theater. Nakamura’s fleet-footed precision perfectly suited her for the role, and Radetsky is a remarkably skilled technician, with particularly impeccable leaps and turns. The two made an efficient enough pair, but lacked the chemistry to give their duets any extra oomph. Michel Colombier’s score reached a climax, alternating between sonorous synthy stretches and Percy Grainger’s blithe classical melodies, as all the clans united for a feverish and layered fugue. The frenzy subsided and the final scene felt like a soothing balm―a row of dancers walking in a stately procession as the light turned dusky gold. Brief Fling has only been performed by a handful of companies, but it suits PNB and provides a nice vehicle to show off the company’s strong male corps and overall versatility.
The highly anticipated Waiting at the Station immersed the viewer into a hazy and bustling New Orleans train station. Tharp has choreographed many Broadway shows, and Waiting clearly falls into this splashy vein. Its narrative tells the story of a man’s final and heartfelt farewell as he waits to catch a train both metaphorically and, as the final scene proves, quite literally as well. Through the course of the ballet, the man, danced by principal James Moore, instructs his son in the ways of effortless cool, is escorted out of this world by the Three Fates, revived in a debaucherous Mardi Gras scene, and, upon his return, seems to realize that all is right in the world, just in time to catch that final train. The set (designed by Santo Loquasto, who also created the costumes) is simple yet dramatic: panels of metal siding stand at the back, and bars of angled scaffolding frame the front. An asymmetrical triangle of siding hangs from the ceiling, and lowers, ominously askew, during the Mardi Gras scene.
Largely defined by Tharp’s slouchy aesthetic, the choreography is action-packed and technically demanding, but what really propels the piece is the music and the characterization. Jazz legend Allen Toussaint’s original compositions bring the breezy New Orleans scene to life, all the more so because Toussaint himself was the one tickling the ivories on opening night. Moore’s charisma and wit carried the role of the Father, and Price Suddarth nicely realized the hapless and eager Son, but it was the Quartet of two couples (Carrie Imler and Gaines, and Laura Tisserand and Porretta) that were the most engaging. From playful to haughty, and flirty to huffy, they added just the right shading to each interaction. Other standouts in the ensemble were Jahna Frantziskonis for her sparkly clarity, and Andrew Bartee for his nonchalant ease. The Three Fates, (Chelsea Adomaitis, Elle Macy, and Sarah Pasch) floated in and out―their gaudy gold sequined hats, and showy choreography to match, made them seem more Vanna White than any guiding Grecian force. Despite the ballet’s charms, the whole thing is awash in a Broadway naivete that lends itself to the overly sentimental. With no shortage of activity, there was also no truly compelling conflict to justify the happy-ever-after ending. As a whole, however, Waiting is fun, accessible, and filled with simply impressive dancing.
The Tharp classic, Nine Sinatra Songs (1982) closed the evening on a slower note. A royal purple curtain and a glittering disco ball provided the backdrop for the set of seven duets, each a study of a different relationship. They range from the comic squabblers and tipsy lovers, to the blissfully carefree young sweethearts and fiery paramours. Clad in elegant ball gowns and tuxedos (the original costume design is by Oscar de la Renta) the couples ooze glamour, and nostalgia. There’s lots of lovely swooning and some down-right funny moments, but it doesn’t show nearly what the dancers are capable of. And, after the brilliant live music in Waiting, Sinatra’s recorded crooning felt empty and tinny.
Taken altogether, AIR Twyla served as a nice palette-warmer for the rest of the season. The relatable subject matter of each piece provided points of connection for viewers of all experiences, whether it was through the music, costumes, or just the sheer athleticism. The best part, though, was that the dancers looked happy to be back on stage after their summer respite, and the opening night audience was happy to welcome them back—both of which portend well for the rest of the season.
Pacific Northwest Ballet performs AIR Twyla at McCaw Hall through October 6, 2013. For more information and to purchase tickets see pnb.org.