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PNB Contemporary Classics program


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#16 SandyMcKean

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Posted 14 November 2007 - 11:28 AM

Given the current decentralization of ballet in the US....

IMO, this is an extremely important point, Bart. I don't know very much about the overall ballet world, but this trend does seem to be occurring. This trend seems puzzling to me frankly. NYC has always been the hub in this country of the highest standards in nearly every field of human endeavor. What would change that? What could change that?

I'll toss out a speculative idea.......priority on quality of life and the newest generation's values.

I saw a newscast last nite that explored how the 20-somethings of today put family, friends, life-style, etc ahead of career and loyality to their employer. Simply put: perhaps "where I live" is just more important to the young people who are today's dancers. I certainly see that here in Seattle. I go to lots of Q&As and other "lecture" sessions that feature interactive discussions with dancers. I am continually struck by dancer after dancer saying how happy they are to live here in Seattle, and how they plan to never leave. There just doesn't seem to be the expected desire to "be discovered" and go to NYC. I was also struck in one of these sessions when Miranda Weese had just joined PNB. She was asked Why? Her response was all about "quality of life". She didn't like the NYC pace, and she particularly loved the idea that at PNB there was lots of time btwn programs to rehearse the next program so that she could really explore the possibilities of the work she was dancing.

I also hear the dancers say all the time that PNB feels like a "family" to them that gives them all sorts of warm fuzzies. They seem to emphasize the cooperative, supportive environment this sense of family generates rather than a competitive, individualistic environment. I would think that for the "typical" dancer who is often ripped away from their natural family in early teens, a sense of family is very attractive indeed.

#17 bart

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Posted 14 November 2007 - 02:24 PM

Very interesting points, Sandy. New York's high cost of living is a factor as well, I would think. Especially when it comes to trying to live on dancers' salaries.

What you are describing in the ballet world seems to replicate what is occurring in the rest of the culture. New York still has a preponderence of the arts institutions, resident artists, major arts publications and reviewers. But it is no longer the place where artists feel they have to succeed in order to validate their careers. As an example, San Francisco ballet has been a great success in its own sophisticated market AND in Paris. Not bad, when you think about it.

New York ballet and opera no longer tour very much -- nor are they as visible on TV as they once were. People from Tharp's organization and from the Balanchine and Robbins trusts come to the regional companies, just like touring versions of the latest Broadway shows come to the regional audiences. (The Met's successful -- and expanding -- venture into HD theatrical release is a brilliant move that goes counter to these trends.)

In the meantime, "ballet" for most Americans means the local company (an excellent company if you live in the right place) and dvds. Ballet lovers in Seattle, San Francisco, etc., seem to be investing time, money, energy, and knowledge in their own institutions, attracting high quality artists from out of town and out of the country. Boal finds and hires them, and the educated, liberal, self-confident, aspiring arts audience in Seattle embaces them.

#18 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 November 2007 - 03:27 PM

I think one should also consider that there are only two ballet companies in NYC that could hire her. Working with regional companies means more work, and Tharp is determinedly practical about her bottom line.

#19 bart

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Posted 14 November 2007 - 03:48 PM

I think one should also consider that there are only two ballet companies in NYC that could hire her. Working with regional companies means more work, and Tharp is determinedly practical about her bottom line.

Good point. It might be possible, though, to give them exclusivity for a few years and then move the ballet out into the larger market. At one time, exposure of one's work at NYCB and ABT would be an incredible and unique honor. Is that still the case today? Eespecially for someone who already has a monumental reputation and is a super-brand all on her own?

#20 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 November 2007 - 04:17 PM

Well, she hasn't worked at NYCB since Brahms/Handel (that's two decades now) and that experience didn't seem to go great for either side. She's doing her first new ABT piece in years this coming June. Her earlier commissions for them (Americans We, Everlast, Les Elements) were expensive and didn't stay in rep long. I think NYC is a finite market for her at this point and if she has a yen for ballets, she might as well make them elsewhere.

#21 carbro

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Posted 14 November 2007 - 04:25 PM

I think "proliferation" depends on who owns the rights -- the choreographer or the company. I believe that Robbins had to buy Fancy Free from ABT in order to stage it at NYCB.

Much of ABT's current Tharp rep is work made for her own company.

#22 sandik

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Posted 14 November 2007 - 10:14 PM

about ownership

Much of ABT's current Tharp rep is work made for her own company.


I think you've put your finger on a major element in all this -- Upper Room was one of the last (possibly the last) work that Tharp made for her original, pre-ABT, company. She holds a clear copyright to that work. I'm not sure what her contractual relationship was with ABT and with NYCB, but I imagine that the commissioning companies had some kind of vested interested in the works she made there.

I don't want to imply any sense of manipulation on the part of Tharp and her administrators in this kind of distribution. Some of her works are more accessible than others -- Sinatra is an excellent example of her use of popular music/culture and is a great introduction to her aesthetic, as well as being a turning point work in her development. I'm just a greedy girl, and want to see as many of her works as possible in active repertories.

#23 Helene

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Posted 14 November 2007 - 10:32 PM

Tharp collaborated with Jerome Robbins on Brahms/Handel; the big guessing game when it premiered was What Was Robbins's and What Was Tharp's? (It had a great cast: If I remember correctly, Calegari and Cook were the greens, and Ashley and Andersen were the blues.)

Besides Push Comes to Shove, and the Sinatras for Baryshnikov, she made at least one other work for ABT, For some reason I'm also remembering a major role for Martine van Hamel, maybe to some tough Bach (for solo cello or violin)? PCTS did not die out immediately when Baryshnikov stopped dancing it; I do remember excellent performances by Danilo Radojevic, but not much else besides the Sinatra works.

#24 doug

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Posted 15 November 2007 - 08:33 AM

In my experience, a commissioning company usually retains the right to perform the new work exclusively for a period of time (say three years) before the choreographer can license it to another company. The choreographer holds the copyright for his/her choreography.

#25 Helene

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Posted 19 November 2007 - 11:55 AM

I recently saw Scott/Powell's modern dance work, "Geography," at On The Boards, and immediately afterwards felt a familiar reaction -- great music, great lighting, great costumes (these by Mark Zappone, just gorgeous), some wonderful dancing, and the choreography, just okay -- but since then, the image of one of the dances, a section in which the tapestry dress was a second character, like a pas de deux for Mary Queen of Scots and her demons, keeps coming back, making me re-evaluate.

I can't say that a week after seeing the final performance of "Contemporary Classics," I feel a change of heart. So here goes:

In "Director's Notebook" in the "Contemporary Classics" program notes, Peter Boal wrote, "A first time viewer might guess that "Agon" was the most contemporary, edgiest, and most recently choreographed work on the program." It is almost shocking to think that it was 50 years ago that Balanchine and Stravinsky reached into the past de- and re-constructed music and dance forms in what was, by all accounts, a fulfilling collaboration, and, in the process, drew the line in the sand: where does classical ballet go from here? Balanchine continued along his creative path for another 25 years, choreographing neoclassical masterworks in many musical styles and influences, and pretty much left that question for others to ponder.

In constructing a program with "Agon," where does an Artistic Director go? "Apollo" is a programming favorite partner, often on an "All Balanchine" program; last year Paris Opera Ballet may have tried to answer the question by programming William Forsythe's "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" with the two Balanchine works, along with a Trisha Brown piece. It's a tricky thing to choose current ballets to stand side-by-side with one of the great 20th century masterworks of any genre. Boal chose another route and coupled "Agon" with three modern dance works that were remarkable for their smoothness -- even were they were lines, like in the Tharp, there were no edges. What is curious is that none of them is among best work of each choreographer, or at least in the case of Marshall, her best dance work. ("Kiss" in my view, is another genre.) Once I realized this, I was still left to compare the others to the masterpiece's virtues, and the one in which neither a great work nor great music is absolutely necessary is the marriage of music and movement that exemplified the great Balanchine/Stravinsky collaboration, and as we've seen from the best companies, the level of dancing and the dancers' commitment can well exceed the quality of the work.

In the last performance of the program, a mostly young cast triumphed in "Agon." In the first Pas de Trois, Lucien Postlewaite shaped the Sarabande in one logical piece, contrasting fluidity and precision in his response to the music. If I had one qualm about the casting, it was in pairing Maria Chapman and Sarah Orza in the Galliard. Chapman is a very balanced dancer, and when she moves, however softly or forcefully, it is of one piece. Orza is a very athletic dancer, very powerful in her legs and torso, but her arms seem like an afterthought: it's as if her feet need to take her there --now!-- but her arms need to catch up. While hers was a compelling performance on its own, I prefer the pairs in the pas de trois to be complementary, contest or no contest.

In the Bransle Simple, Kiyon Gaines and Jordan Pacitti were just that. Both have plush plies, are around the same height, and are muscular, and their energy and style was magnified by their similarities. Miranda Weese was lush and luscious in the Bransle Gay, teasing the rhythm out of every phrase.

Lesley Rausch and Karel Cruz danced the Pas de Deux. Rausch has many gifts, but what sets her apart from the other women in the company is the way she uses her upper body; her epaulment is shaded, proportionate, and open, and it is employed as often as her pointe shoes. Here was no exception: in one of the iconic roles of the Balanchine repertory, she used her upper body to give the role a whole-bodied fullness I had never seen before. An example of this is during the supported splits, where her torso was lifted from the waist, and spiraled up and around through her shoulders and neck. Cruz had an unfortunate stumble during these, from which he recovered quickly. Rausch and Cruz were well-suited in these roles, with long straight legs creating the clean and precise extensions and angular shapes for which the choreography calls.

Ironically, Agon, the only ballet on the program, is relatively grounded, with a few strategic lifts and a handful of high jumps, addressing gravity in ballet terms. The two middle works, Susan' Marshall's "Kiss" and David Parson's "Caught" used simple technology to defy gravity, to very different effect. "Kiss," is an aerial work, with the two dancers, in this performance Mara Vinson and James Moore, attached to ropes by harnesses at their legs and pelvis. One might guess that the airborne parts would be joyful and fulfilling, but to Arvo Part's extended, mournful phrases -- the score is "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" -- speed and flight were ambivalent and fleeting at best, and destructive at worst, as the two alternately reached for the other in vain or pushed each other away. James Moore swung suspended and broken from the waist, his feet skimming the floor, unable either to be grounded or reach Vinson. Only when the two were relatively still and earthbound, sometimes because their ropes were intertwined, were they rooted and connected.

Both the long arc of the swinging ropes and the ways in which they twisted and unfurled was a perfect visualization of Part's writing. I can think of no other physical response that has both the contrast of high and low within long, sustained brushes, in which a mere touch in passing can be a highlight. Even pairs figure skating, which has the continuous flow, is limited by gravity in the arc and timing of the highs. I suspect that because of its erotic, although not explicit, aspects that the piece either resonates and moves, or leaves the viewer cold. I'm firmly in the former camp, and Vinson and Moore were even more deeply intense than they were when they debuted this work a year and a half ago.

In "Caught" which followed, being airborne was to be free. The work opened with a bit of generic under-the-influence-of-Paul-Taylor movement under a shifting white spot. To me, it was neither recognizable as the same movement repeated in the second half, nor a compelling contrast to what followed. While the frozen images of a dancer in flight, aided by the hand-held strobe control that demanded split-second timing to be effective, were pulse-quickening, the piece was a one-trick pony, and it could have been performed to any number of pieces or silence; the music by Robert Fripp wasn't integral. Nonetheless, it was fun and expertly performed by Casey Herd. The reaction of the woman next to me the second the lights went up was a delighted, "Yummy candy!"

The program closed with Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room," with its striking decor: a curtain of upstage fog from which the dancers emerged and into which they faded, lit with a wedge of light cutting through the fog (original lighting design was by Jennifer Tipton), and costumes by Norma Kamali, whose white-with-black-striped jumpsuits for the sneaker-clad "Stompers", highlighted with red socks, in what looked like designer prison garb. Set to a nine-movement score by Philip Glass, the Stompers, in row of twos and threes took the stage and performed attractive but relatively static movement phrases, occasionally punctuated, mostly by the fuschia-toe-shoe clad Kaori Nakamura, the lead "Boomer," who was superb in the role. The "Boomers" mostly followed suit; the patterns were so straight that a diagonal line was a feature and a simple circle with three dancers was a highlight. For movement after movement of medium-slow, medium-fast, medium-medium music, I waited and waited for some booming and maybe a little stomping, but from where I was sitting -- the back of Gallery Upper -- it was to no avail. The dancers kept swapping out pieces of clothing, wearing more and more red, but changing clothes did not change the character of the steps and phrases, which remained intricate and steady, and like many Glass scores, the development taking place in tiny increments. According to Peter Boal, the commissioned score was not completed in time, and Tharp choreographed the work to music by Mahalia Jackson, which gave the work its name. That is odd, because the choreography fit the Glass perfectly, and is nothing like what I would expect to Jackson, and this was its weakness: watching Tharp's response to the score it was a bit like watching knitting from a long distance.

What Tharp did not do, to her credit, was to set the modern people against the ballet people. The dancers embraced the work and were superb, and they looked like they enjoyed performing it. Jodie Thomas has a great affinity for Tharp's work and came alive as a "Boomer." It's an embarassment of riches to look on stage and see the young trio of Lucien Postlewaite, Benjamin Griffiths, and James Moore as "Boomers." Any opportunity to see what Carrie Imler will do with a role is one I'll take. When we're lucky, we see a dancer who so absorbs the style that he or she dances like a native speaker; in this work, it was Chalnessa Eames. If the past is any indication, the dancers will transform what they've done with this piece, particularly the loose upper body work, into the neo-classical works throughout the upcoming season.

It's a great time to be a ballet lover living out West.


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