Skip to content

pnb: dances at a gathering & urlicht – sneaking into rehearsal

Last Friday, when most Seattleites were heading outdoors into the sun, I made my way indoors, to watch a few rehearsals at PNB. In spite of the sacrifice, I felt lucky walking in; it’s hard to describe how I felt floating out three hours later.

(Dress rehearsal happens this Wednesday, if you want a sneak peek yourself. It’s a different experience, but still worthwhile. Francia Russell, who is staging Symphony in C, is the guest at the pre-rehearsal talk.)

I saw two casts rehearse Dances at a Gathering with stager Ben Huys, since I’m pretty sure it was he. It seems like Peter Boal has been talking about this ballet since his first year at PNB; what I remember hearing was that it was a coup for any dance company just to be granted the rights to dance it. So, yay, PNB. But, from the few clips and stills I’ve seen, it looked like a pretty, bland, happy musical. (Check out the image on Miami City Ballet’s page for this work, and you’ll see what I mean.)

The rehearsal completely changed my mind. What I saw was exhilaration and humor, a mix of soft and sharp, alternating speed and lyricism.

I was just trying to take things in during the first rehearsal, but let me show you some of the second:

It’s calm in Studio C. Through the three tall windows of this cathedral-like space, you can see the sun, and the blue sky, and the green trees, and the white tops of the Folk Life tents below. I can’t see the piano from where I’m sitting, but the Chopin soothes and stirs.

To the right, near the barre, Jodie Thomas and Benjamin Griffiths mark the piece in the background, while Carrie Imler and Kiyon Gaines work at it full-out in the center. Miranda Weese is nearby, putting on her shoes. In the far corner, James Moore folds a towel and looks out the window for a long moment into the sun. Batkhurel Bold is in the window well closest to the mirror, using a long roll-y tube to stretch out. I can’t see the rest of this cast from where I’m seated. Ariana Lallone watches from one of the bleacher chairs that are in place for $5 Fridays, looking gorgeous with her sleek chignon, lilac and maroon dance clothes, and bare feet…each toe wrapped up with white tape. Peter Boal sits closer to center, looking on, as does ballet master Anne Dabrowski, who sits in front of him, one leg crossed over the other, toe neatly pointed.

Huys, in neat dark blue, with sporty white socks and white jazz shoes, makes a few more comments on “the Giggle Dance” that Imler and Gaines have been tearing through. (It’s fun, with little jokes and some backwards dancing, and bravado jumps. She twirls around, holding his little finger, and I swear that I heard someone’s knuckle crack. Their smiles are infectious and I scan my memory for past work they might have done together. They’re fun to watch together.) “Okay,” says Huys, “let’s start the ‘Scherzo.’”

Mara Vinson carries off the dramatic entrance that follows and also the next, exotic move. The challenge in the next few phrases is to give them meaning so that they have the same conviction as the first two, even if their personalities are different. Thomas and Weese join Vinson soon thereafter. What is it about adding other bodies to the pattern…adding others’ energy…that makes movements work…that make movements dance? The ‘Scherzo’ is going to be amazing.

Maybe it’s because I was just paging through Suki Schorer’s book (which Boal demonstrated for) but Dances at a Gathering really made me think of the way bodies face. Here, they face all kinds of directions, changing rapidly. Part of the fun in watching this piece is keeping track of that.

So focused on directions, I lose track of which dance we’re in. There’s a lullaby. The music is so tender here, that any movement risks seeming pasted on unless the dancer is similarly tender.

The music speeds up. Jazz runs: forwards, backwards, strong and fast along the diagonal and the horizontal. They look so cool in pointe shoes.

We (because, by this point, anybody watching is part of the dance too) switch to another mazurka. It’s fun to watch the partnering patterns: 2 – 1 – 2 – 3…I lose track again, watching as Moore supports two women in a turn and then marveling as the group becomes five people who turn together…like one of those round conference bikes you see at fairs.

The “Grand Waltz” starts; it must have been good, because I barely scratched down any notes besides: Cool patterns…Sit upstairs! I do remember covering my eyes when Thomas, is thrown into the air, does a mid-air twist, and ends up in another dancer’s arms, her body wrapped across his, her head near the floor, her feet in the air.

Rehearsal ends as quietly as it began. Huys says “thank you” and people start packing up. Larae Hascall, the Costume Shop Manager, walks across the studio to Lucien Postlewaite, who is sitting in the middle window well, in the sun. She swings a boot in one hand as she makes the long traverse. “Third times’s a charm” she says, and they try it on Postlewaite. She checks the toe, and then his arch and his calf. He points his foot. “Does it look better to you?” “Yes, she says,” you definitely have an arch.”

It turns out that you pull a ballet boot off from the heel, rather than peeling the calf part down first. Who knew?

The studio is nearly empty when the boot comes off and Postlewaite thanks Hascall. Huys and Dabrowski converse quietly. Louise Nadeau is in the window well nearest the mirror, putting on one of several pairs of pointe shoes in the sun which shines down on her, making a picture—one of those filtered photos they take of dancers when they’re focused on the task at hand. Huys and Dabrowski leave; ballet master Otto Neubert comes in and adjusts the stereo.

And then the tears begin. Boal has brought Urlicht to PNB especially for Nadeau’s retirement celebration. It’s gorgeous. I cry my way through a half-hour of watching Neubert coach Nadeau and Olivier Wevers through this Forsythe/Mahler piece. It might have been choreographed for these two, so well do the movements and lifts fit their delicate lyricism and sense of phrasing. I’m not big on amazing lifts, since so often they look hard, but the way Nadeau and Wevers do these makes them heartrendingly beautiful and somehow even natural. It’s not about the considerable strength or the innovation involved here; it’s about the beauty and the emotion and the phrasing. These two dancers work so well as partners, each his own person and yet each taking a cue from the other.

Here’s one lift, that they do three times, I think: Wevers holds Nadeau at about shoulder height (his); she’s in the fetal position and then she stretches so that she is completely extended horizontally. Does he turn with her like this? I can’t remember…

They do it straight through, fully in the zone. When they’re finished, Nadeau and Wevers quietly talk over the mechanics and momentum of one lift, each looking for ways they can make this difficult ballet easier on the other. Neubert stands nearby, listening intently, offering a quiet suggestion here and there.

They try out some of the trickier holds as the weepy music from After the Rain washes in from another studio. Neubert makes slight adjustments in style and timing, murmuring “beautiful,” more than once. I think some dancers have been watching from underneath the balcony I’m sitting on, because I hear a voice agree that it’s really beautiful. Yes, I would agree, too. And it’s intense. Transporting.

And then Nadeau and Wevers and Neubert (who is doing some of the steps with them) stop to catch their breath for a moment; Nadeau cracks a brilliant smile, and they all burst out laughing.

Don’t miss the performance of Urlicht, which isn’t the only nice thing on the June 7 Celebration of Louise Nadeau program. If I may suggest: take a hanky.

PS: I found a full-length clip of Urlicht on YouTube. I believe it’s the Stuttgart Ballet.