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Three ballets at PNB show different sides of Tharp’s essential style

Written by Mary Murfin Bayley

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Chalnessa Eames and principal dancer
Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s Afternoon Ball,
presented as part of ALL THARP, Nov. 5-14, 2010.  Photo © Angela Sterling
On Friday, November 5, 2010, Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its current program featuring the return of three Twyla Tharp ballets.  It was an evening in which to savor this inventive choreographer’s singular and distinctive style.

This is not to say that the three ballets in PNB’s program are similar to one another. One has a classical structure with folkloric touches; another is a contemporary, story ballet with its share of compulsive shuddering and doll-like angularity, while the third is a lush, Busby Berkeley tinged review.  However they all share the qualities that I think of as peculiarly Twyla Tharp’s: insouciant, unimpressed with itself, moves made with the attitude of being tossed off by the dancers (even during the most fiendishly difficult steps and counts), and above all a kind of playfulness.
Tharp was an early pioneer of blending classical and contemporary movement, now a given in ballet choreography.  She is also known for the dances she has made for Broadway and film.  PNB artistic director Peter Boal who worked with Tharp early in his career added Waterbaby Bagatelles to the PNB repertory in 2006 shortly after taking the reins.   In 2008 Tharp spent eight weeks in Seattle creating two new works for the company, both set to music using only strings, Opus 111and Afternoon Ball.
Opus 111 is set to Johannes Brahms’ 1890 String Quintet no. 2 in G major,  played beautifully opening night by violinists Michael Jinsoo Lim and Ingrid Frederickson, violists Scott Ligocki and Betty Agent, and cellist Page Smith.   Brahms was on a country retreat when he composed this and costumer Mark Zappone’s crisp autumnal colors and Randall G. Chiarelli’s warm lighting give a romantic tenderness to the interactions of the six couples.  The dancers washed in and out, windblown but with a shape to their steps that was sometimes crunchy and angular, as crisp as autumn leaves.
Ariana Lallone (who will be sorely missed when she retires from PNB at the end of this season) brought out the gorgeous clarity and color of the movement with particular vividness, but all the dancers approached this piece with zest.  In the final moments of the ballet the whole group (Lallone, Chalnessa Eames, Rachel Foster, Carrie Imler, Carla Körbes, Sarah Ricard Orza, Batkhurel Bold, Karel Cruz, Kiyon Gaines, James Moore, Lucien Postlewaite, and Josh Spell) performed a communal Russian-style step dance.  This folkloric element crept into recognition as the dancers gradually assembled the dance out of a variety of segmented moves; a heel to toe stride, a deep knee bend, and angular swinging elbows.  It was a cheerful, triumphant finale.
Afternoon Ball is a short, cinematic piece set to Vladimir Martynov’s 1994 Autumn Ball of the Elves, a musical work with full brooding intricacy that was brought out by conductor Alan Dameron.  The hulking, impressive set and lighting by Chiarelli and the edgy costumes by Zappone set the ballet in a world of urban decay and threat.
Chalnessa Eames and Jonathan Porretta, as two street kids, moved compulsively though this environment, sometimes with driven robotic moves and other times with a questioning, aggressive attitude.  There was a naïveté in their characters, too, and their interactions conjured up images of Punch and Judy characters, or a kind of hopped-up, drugged-out Pierette and Pierrot.  Swaying and circling in and around them was a lost, drunk Olivier Wevers, who would have occasional dream-driven fits of romantic classical movement.  This street scene was interrupted at times by a 19th century couple, Ariana Lallone and Jeffrey Stanton, partnering one another with elegant lyricism like remnants from a previous era of romance.  Porretta’s character was overtaken with an increasingly frantic shuddering until in a final, transcendent moment Lallone, now dressed as an angel of death, gathered him in her arms. The ballet sets a version of urban harshness versus an anachronistic romanticism.  It is a fascinating piece and brought to mind some of the early works of the Ballet Russe; poetic, dark, and elaborate.
Waterbaby Bagatelles set to short recorded pieces of 20th century music from Anton Webern to Astor Piazzolla to John Adams, closed the evening.    First created in 1994 for the Boston Ballet, it was staged for PNB by Shelley Washington, a longtime Tharp dancer.  Designers Jennifer Tipton and Santo Loquasto used movable fluorescent tubes, setting them at different angles and heights to create a kind of watery aquarian glow.  As this grid of lights was tipped, raised, or lowered the mood and expansiveness of the space changed.  Waterbaby Bagatelles is a big ballet, using the full company in lush detailed strokes.  Opening night featured bravura dancing by Batkhurel Bold and lovely partnering by Carrie Imler and Lucien Postlewaite, Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths, and Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz.  Groups of dancers flowed and eddied across the stage, moving forward and backwards. Details such as the wavering of heads, or shaking shoulders gave intense detail to even the broadest strokes. 
The movement in Waterbaby Bagatelle is unpretentious, and as unpredictably complex as the dart and glide of exotic fish.  The primary image of this ballet—that of peering into an aquarium—is, in a way, an apt one for all of Twyla Tharp’s choreography.  Her ballets give a sense of natural ease and directness, yet with a texture of gesture and shape that pulses with complexity.  The movement lingers in your mind’s eye like the trailing frond of a rare undersea creature.  It’s a delightful piece.
Twyla Tharp’s choreography is utterly distinctive and recognizable, and yet constantly varied.  Her ballets are a good match for the versatile PNB dancers who dive into these dances as into their own element.
“All Tharp” can be seen next weekend at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer Street, Seattle Center, Seattle, WA 98109, November 11-14. Tickets: $27-$165, and are available through the Box Office Phone: 206.441.2424 or at