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Masterpiece Theater at PNB

Written by Mariko Nagashima

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Andrew Bartee (front)
and soloist Jerome Tisserand in Ulysses Dove’s 
Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven,
Photo © Angela Sterling.

A masterpiece constitutes an outstanding accomplishment, a crowning achievement of art. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s most recent performance, which opened this Friday, March 15, 2013, lived up to the lofty title Modern Masterpieces with ease. With works by George Balanchine, Ulysses Dove, Twyla Tharp, and a world premiere by the company’s ballet master Paul Gibson, the troupe demonstrated the mastery these choreographers have over their craft, as well as their own prodigious command over a diverse and challenging repertory.

The program seemed to traverse from the extreme of classicism to the most contemporary, beginning with Balanchine’s pristine Concerto Barocco, and finishing with Tharp’s athletic marathon, In the Upper Room. Fresh from their tour to New York City Center (see an NY Times review here), the group seemed to have worked out all their Barocco jitters, and looked at ease on their home stage. Coached with precision down to the tiniest of details by Francia Russell, one of the company’s founding artistic directors and a prestigious Balanchine repetiteur, the corps truly moved as one body. As the leads, Carla Körbes and Carrie Imler showed a melancholic generosity and unassuming candor, respectively. Körbes made every unfurling of her leg more transcendent than the last, and Imler’s bravura leaps never fail to impress. Stoic as ever, Batkhurel Bold, provided a sturdy partner for Körbes, but added little artistically. Balanchine’s complex patterns of weaving lines and shifting symmetries often feel like a highly sophisticated game of London bridge. If there is any doubt as to the possibilities of the classical ballet lexicon, one need look no further than this pristine realization. Steps take on a completely different character when paired with different music; three hops en pointe first appear as soft puffs of breath, and later become feverishly insistent. Part of the work’s brilliance lies in the way it teases nuance from Bach’s music further demonstrating the expansive possibilities of classical ballet. The choreography not so much mimics the interplay of the two violins (played sensitively by Michael Jinsoo Lim and Brittany Boulding), as adds an entirely new level to the dialogue.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer James Moore and soloist Benjamin Griffiths
in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces Photo © Angela Sterling.
Featuring a cast of seven men and two women, Gibson’s premiere, Mozart Pieces, seemed almost to be the masculine answer to Balanchine’s female dominated Barocco. Unfortunately, programming it directly after Barocco made it appear rather academic and fragmented. Solos, duets, and ensemble sections all were danced with virtuosity, but followed each other for little rhyme or reason; the piece lacked a through line to connect each segment. Mark Zappone’s costumes, provided an elegant and slightly baroque feeling with bustled half-skirts and brocaded bodices for the women; ruched jackets, stockings, and bowed pony tails for the men. While quite beautiful in static poses, the skirts proved distracting, obscuring much of the leg work in several rapid sequences. Choreographically, the movement was proper, each step logically following the next with a few surprising accents here and there. As the company’s ballet master, Gibson knows these dancers well, and the choreography fit them like a glove. Everyone looked comfortable and confident, though Kaori Nakamura danced with a noticeably crisp freshness. Also noteworthy were the jovial and spry Benjamin Griffiths and the unassuming cleanliness of Kyle Davis. A lovely ballet, it provided a perfect vehicle to showcase some of the rising talent in the men’s corps; though fell short compared to the program’s more far-reaching works.

Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven hurtled the program into the contemporary ballet arena. Subtitled Odes to Love and Loss, Dove’s stark, tense work for six dancers in white unitards, felt steeped in yearning. The choreography—filled with low knee bends, wrought arching backs, and running strides that froze in mid-air—spoke of the internal grief and search for peace accompanying the loss of a loved one. Arvo Part’s tolling chimes (seemingly depicted by the large hanging set piece) echoed spaciously, lending their lingering reverence to the steps, but also reinforcing the inevitability of loss. The entire cast (Maria Chapman, Rachel Foster, Lesley Rausch, Andrew Bartee, Seth Orza, and Jerome Tisserand) danced with fierce intensity. A difficult piece to execute, the movement seemed to stretch them emotionally and physically, and all six rose brilliantly to the challenge. Bartee’s powerful performance stood out mainly for its extreme departure from his natural elasticity, demonstrating his growing range and continually maturing artistry. Stylistically, the movement suited Foster’s natural piercing intensity the most, but Rausch was breathtaking as well; she managed to find moments of fluidity that made the tension all the more captivating.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Lindsi Dec in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room,
Photo © Angela Sterling.
Tharp’s In the Upper Room closed the program with a tour de force of hypnotic athleticism. An abundant haze of fog created an air of grandeur, and the ten dancers emerged and dissolved mysteriously into the stage’s shrouded depths. A sneaker-clad group’s repetitive swinging phrase served as a warm-up for their later feats, and they created a pulsing background for the fleet-footed Elizabeth Murphy and Kylee Kitchens in flamboyant red pointe shoes. The two executed astoundingly difficult pointe work in perfect synchronization, though Murphy’s extra springiness set her apart throughout. Tharp’s choreography played with the monotonous Philip Glass music, chronicling its steady build with increasingly complex choreography: the jumps became larger, the partnering more daring, and the tempo quicker, but all was performed with a careful nonchalance. The entire cast showed incredible stamina and endurance—the piece could really double as a Gatorade commercial for all its intense physicality. The finale’s feverish pitch and abrupt but fitting ending all but bowls the viewer over. Though this piece helped confirm Tharp as a choreographic fixture in the mid 1980s, it now serves to cement PNB’s reputation as a world-class troupe. With its sweeping overview of the modern ballet canon, Modern Masterpieces is a program of great breadth that shows many facets of ballet as an art form and of the company as performers.