PNB’s American Stories Enthrall

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American Stories is Pacific Northwest Ballet’s endeavor to depict what it is to be American. Performed at McCaw Hall June 3-12, it boasts a distinctive trio of works. Three great American choreographers are included: Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, and Twyla Tharp. Each American in a slightly different way, they tell very different stories. While the opening night on Friday, June 3, did contain a few (literal) missteps, the overall performance was a joy to watch.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers (l-r) Seth Orza, James Moore, and Jonathan Porretta in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers (l-r) Seth Orza, James Moore, and Jonathan Porretta in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, Photo © Angela Sterling.

Robbins’ Fancy Free tells the story of three sailors on leave looking to pick up girls. Known for his work blending ballet and Broadway, Robbins’ movement shines through. There were trademark sharp lines and defined shapes as well as eye-catching leaps and jumps performed by the male trio. The pas de deux between Lesley Rausch and Seth Orza was exquisite, her graceful presence stealing the limelight. Fancy Free originally premiered in 1944 at the height of World War II, and the relationships depicted are nearly impossible to view through a modern sensibility without judgement. As the men chase the women, they roughly grab their arms, control where they go on stage, even steal a purse to keep a woman from leaving. It is difficult to reconcile such incredible dancing with social interactions we now know to be unacceptable–especially in the context of an iconic work from a renowned American choreographer. The PNB dancers danced the work impeccably, regardless of the piece’s worrying messages.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths in Square Dance, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust, Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths in Square Dance, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust, Photo © Angela Sterling.

Square Dance is a quintessentially Balanchine work. The minimalist pale blue costumes showcase only the dancers and the movement, set against a cerulean backdrop. The uniformity and symmetry are incredibly satisfying to behold and keep the piece feeling calm, in spite of its true nature as petit allegro. It is classic ballet: pirouettes, partnering, changements, and a multitude of arabesques. The framing of the six pairs with a central couple (Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths) harkens to the famous court ballets of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The patterns inherent in the work speak to everything the human brain desires, and cannot help but be admired. We are born with an instinct to seek symmetry and pattern recognition, an innate desire deftly appeased by the masterful mind of Balanchine.

Waiting at the Station was originally created on PNB by Twyla Tharp in 2013, and many of the dancers portray the same roles as they did at the premiere. Waiting is a jazzy New Orleans showpiece set to the music of the late Allen Toussaint. A line of dancers slowly moves across upstage as we are introduced to a father-son duo. The father, portrayed by James Moore, teaches his son (Price Suddarth) to dance, often by mirroring the dancing around them. There are delicate lifts, thrust-forward hips, and a joyous New Orleans scene complete with animal masks and flashing lights (the set design by Santo Loquasto is as much a star as the dance). Particularly intriguing was the trio of Fates, clad in gold and accompanied by a gold flood of light every time they appeared. They reveal themselves only to the father, and, as we see the depiction of his final days, they escort him into a bright tomorrow. In Waiting’s depiction of a father’s desire to continue a family line, we see PNB principal Moore show the ropes to corps de ballet member Suddarth.  It is apparent that Waiting is a representation of how ballet passes it’s traditions down and creates a lasting legacy.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer James Moore with company dancers in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station, Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer James Moore with company dancers in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station, Photo © Angela Sterling.

American Stories is accompanied by a gathering of stories from members of the Seattle arts community on many profoundly different American experiences. The collection, available on their website as well as in the evening’s program, showcases the positive and negative aspects of what it means to be American. So often associated with distant European cities, ballet has deep American roots, and with this bill, PNB shows us just how great American stories can be when told through ballet. The program is a wonderful entry point for those who may not be familiar with ballet since the scenes depicted are so familiar to an American audience. There is still opportunity to see American Stories June 9-12. Go if you can, any chance to see Robbins, Balanchine, and Tharp presented together is not one to miss.

Tickets and more information available here.