writers on dancing


A PNB Sampler

Balanchine Continued .. at Pacific Northwest Ballet
Guggenheim Museum
New York, NY
May 9, 2005

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter

The four-part "Balanchine Contnued" series, a classy collaboration between the Guggenheim's ongoing Works & Process series and the George Balanchine Foundation, focused on the current state of American ballet companies led by former NYCB dancers. But in addition to revealing in what ways, and to what extent, these companies' directors implement what they absorbed and learned from working with Balanchine, this series also did a great service by providing four significant troupes with an opportunity to perform in New York City. Ballet audiences here have become provincial lately—we have repeated opportunities to view the two major local ballet companies, but never get any exposure to what major ballet companies in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Miami and elsewhere are doing. Sadly, the financial realities are such that undertaking event the briefest of NYC seasons is a daunting proposition for these troupes.

Judging from the two programs I saw—Arizona Ballet last November and this generous sampling from PNB—the companies made the most of this chance to be seen here. The tightly organized programs packed a lot into their 90 minutes. (The other two participating companies were Miami City Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theater.) Seeing a small sampling of PNB's 46-member roster perform excerpts on a postage stamp-sized stage is certainly no substitute for a season at City Center or the New York State Theater, but at least we got a glimpse of what is going on with these important troupes—and there is no indication that a more complete and satisfying opportunity to see them is likely to be available any time soon.

This was a particularly opportune time to see PNB in action, as the company is on the verge of a major transition in its artistic leadership. After 28 years as co-artistic directors, NYCB alumni Francia Russell and Kent Stowell are winding up their tenure, with Peter Boal about to take over for the 2005-06 season. The Russell-Stowell era gradually and wisely built the company from a little-known regional troupe and truly put it on the map. The program, with Lourdes Lopez as the gracious and knowledgeable moderator, thus focused, in its discussion segments and excerpts, on the legacy they are leaving, and the jumping-off point from which Boal will begin.

The twelve excerpts were presented three at a time, with three discussion segments sandwiched in between. Lopez kept the conversation well focused, giving the directors a chance to recall their time as NYCB dancers and the path that led them to Seattle, and the way their own company both parallels and differs from what they knew in NYCB. "Balanchine taught us how to be artistic directors—by example, not be explaining," Russell noted. She remarked that what she will miss most is "shaping the women of the company, helping them to realize their potential, to become great technicians and athletes, but also really feminine."

The four women—three principals and a soloist—on this program certainly presented themselves as confident, self-aware women, and displayed that mix of strength and femininity. Two veterans familiar from the company's City Center seasons in the late 1990s, Patricia Barker and Louise Nadeau, confirmed the excellent and contrasting impressions they had made on that occasion. Patricia Barker, the company's premiere Balanchine ballerina, has a coolness and hauteur to her stage presence, as well as a keen intelligence. She and Jeffrey Stanton opened the program with the "Agon" pas de deux, and their interpretation was a welcome change from the tense tussle it has often become when NYCB performs it. Barker never slammed angrily or harshly into positions, and her unfurling limbs made sensuously exploratory forays into space. Together, she and Stanton made the duet a studying the testing of limits, as though each angular thrust and off-center connection was something they were trying out together to determine what was possible.

Unfortunately, that was the only Balanchine selection this duo performed; the program as a whole, after opening with two Balanchine excerpts out of the first trio of works offered, focused more on other works—primarily Stowell's choreography and the 19th-century classics—as it went on. Barker and Stanton did bring their elegantly line and inherently noble bearing to the melancholy Act IV duet from Stowell's staging of "Swan Lake." It ends with he same pose as the "Diamonds" duet, with the man kneeling reverentially and kissing the woman's hand—thus quoting in a Petipa ballet the work in which Balanchine most clearly paid homage to Petipa. A good word must be said for the amazingly intelligent and powerful case that Barker and Stanton made for the duet form William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." They found so many intriguing ways to play with the choreography and to test each other, and made this usually sterile display of cool into something notably vibrant.

Nadeau dances with crystalline clarity and dreamy lyricism, and an inherent sense of quiet drama. Everything seems spontaneous, the effects always unforced. She and the quietly noble Christophe Maraval performed the luminous Divertissement duet from Act II of Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with more grandeur and less intimacy than I'm used to; the costumes also suggested more nobility than the pastoral ones in NYCB's production. But they also brought a wonderful sense of refinement to it, as though they were performing in a realm of rarefied air, and they let the choreography breathe as it unfolded. Towards the end of the program, they had the difficult task of performing, on a bare stage and out of context, the extended bedroom scene from Stowell's "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet." Nadeau vividly conveyed her unwillingness to let Romeo depart, even as she knows he must. The choreography featured a great deal of gentle sinking to the floor, and many artfully lyrical embraces, and felt somewhat over-extended.

Aside from the two Balanchine duets, the program included the initial solo portion of "Melancholic" from "The Four Temperaments, given a rather inorganic performance by Jonathan Poretta, who seemed more at home with the playful, easygoing showoff mode of Stowell's "Dual Lish," a cheeky bit of classical-meets-showbiz that he performed with the piquant and spirited Jodie Thomas. Three of the female variations from "Divertimento No. 15" lost the gemlike distinctiveness when performed in isolation by Nadeau, Thomas and Carrie Imler.

The evening was quite a showcase for Batkhural Bold, an exciting principal dancer originally form Mongolia. Completely at home in the mildly Aileyesque, supply sensuous choreography in an exceprt from Val Canparoli's "Lambarena," he then wowed the crowd with his blend of muscular power and unaffected elegance in performances two white-tights roles—a variation from "Paquita" and the adagio from "Sleeping Beauty"'s Act Three pas de deux.

PNB was clearly trying to give us a sampling of everything they do, and at times it felt like too much of a good thing. The company is certainly one it would be gratifying to see in a less hectic presentation, and with their full ranks present. At one point during the discussion Stowell cited his wish list for the company, including more scholarships for students, a smaller theater to use for workshops and experimental pieces, and an opportunity for the company to be presented in New York. Let's hope that under Boal's tenure, the latter wish will become a reality before too much more time passes.

Photo on front page:  Patricia Barker and Jeffrey Stanton in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (Photo: Angela Sterling)

Volume 3, No. 19
May 16, 2005

copyright ©2005 Susan Reiter



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last updated on May 1, 2005