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Ballet Now!

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PNB's Ballet NOW! program, which closes tomorrow night, consists of four pieces: Lynne Taylor-Corbett's Mercury to a Haydn symphony from NYCB's 1992 "Diamond Project," William Forsythe's Artifact II from the longer Artifact choreographed in 1984 to solo violin music by Bach, Kent Stowell's 1997 Palacio Dances to music by Bolcom, and Val Caniparoli's Torque to silence and two pieces by Michael Torke. I saw this afternoon's performance.

My impression of Mercury when I saw it in '92 and during PNB's 1995 run was that it was a waste of time for principal dancers, whose joie de vivre seemed forced. While two principals did perform today, the mostly young cast was truly convincing that not only were they given great opportunities, but that they really liked their jobs.

In the first movement, Pantastico was superb, and although she is way beyong the choreography technically, she danced with committment and a clear sense of rhythm and shape. Her partner Jordan Pacitti had very soft, clean movement. I thought a little "oomph" was missing, but he was very nice contrast to Pantastico. In the corps choreography Nicolas Ade "popped," with energy and musicality. What I did find interesting though was late in the first movement, where the corps men partnered Pantastico. Three of the men, including Ade, partnered her like corps men. But the fourth, Karel Cruz, managed in three relatively short phrases to convey the sensitivity and attention that eluded Pacitti. When the men had mini solos in succession, it was Lucien Postlewaite who was most impressive.

The second movement is really a set-up for the guy. Stacy Lowenberg showed good cheer throughout, even though the choreography was made for partner Jonathan Poretta to shine. What was great about Poretta's performance was that he was attentive to Lowenberg throughout, and didn't try to hog the spotlight that was already his. I found Kylee Kitchens disappointing in the third movement adagio. Unless he's dancing Corsaire, her partner Stanko Milov tends to be one of the most self-effacing partners in the company. Kitchen's movements in the adagio didn't have much weight or shape, and she couldn't match him in presence. As leaders in the fourth movement, Mara Vinson was a wonder, with beautifully articulated feet -- in the air, because there wasn't much pointe work -- and she matched Noelani Pantastico's energy and strength. Le Yin also danced softly and roundly, which is unusual for what I've seen of him so far. What was consistent with my memories of past performances was that the second half of the fourth movement, when all of the couples and corps members are onstage, is where the ballet really starts. But there was some wonderful dancing in the 3.5 movement "prelude."

Artifact II opens with a black wing panel downstage, but open wings going back, so that the lighting is exposed. The corps, dressed in gold unitards, surrounds the two sides and upstage. Downstage center is a figure in a dark grey unitard, facing upstage, with a couple to her right -- Patricia Barker and Jeffrey Stanton in this performance -- dressed like the corps. Almost immediately, when Bach's music starts, the second couple -- danced here by Melanie Skinner and Casey Herd -- emerges from the upstage row of corps. Whenever The Other Person (as the woman in grey is known) is onstage with the corps, the corps follows her arm and hand motions, like a giant game of "Simon Says." There's even a section where the two principal couples, alone on stage with her, also follow her movements.

The pas de deux that the principal couples perform through various "movements" -- broken by the sharp "thud" of the curtain dropping quickly -- are very much like the ones from "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated," which is not surprising, considering the power of Bach's solo violin music. The corps worked seemed very architectural to me, as they formed various line patterns on the stage in each movement. (Only once did they run, across the stage from one side to the other.) In one notable movement, where The Other Person was absent, they fell to the ground in a row upstage, and proceeded to break unison. An arm would pop up here or there in the line, until they started to cross their arms over each other, with some even creating a chain between them, the only real communication up until that point. I found the corps to be very powerful, and even though I'm not sure exactly what the whole thing means, I have a sense that the ballet was saying something very real, though pattern and movement.

I usually don't like Melanie Skinner's dancing -- I find her a bit rigid -- but Forsythe's choreography fit her like a glove. In this cast, she looks like Patricia Barker's sister, and the two couples seem related, partially because the two women have a marked physical resemblance, but also because they move in similar ways, at least in this ballet. (The two leads in the other cast, Lallone and Nadeau, are about as opposite as you can get.) Skinner danced like Barker's equal and without apology, which was wonderful to see.

Palacios Dances was a Silver Anniversary Celebration tango-based "puff piece," originally choreographed for Patricia Barker. Barker always looks strained to me in pieces where she's supposed to act "light." This afternoon, it was danced by Louise Nadeau and Paul Gibson. I never thought I'd hear myself saying that Louise Nadeau was wonderful, but she was. The emphasis was on leg work, and hers was crisp, yet light, with terrific tango rhythm. I always love seeing Paul Gibson; there just wasn't enough of him in this piece. What saved Nadeau's performance from the technical people were her bright red tights, for the lighting had the pair in the shadows, which is not Randall Chiarelli's mo. The same was true in Torque., which followed.

I know that dancers need new ballets to grow, and that often artistic directors will look at a dancer in a new light when an outside choreographer brings out that dancer's best qualities. I also know that some attempts have to fail, and I'm usually willing to sit through the failures. My litmus test for new ballets is whether it would be worth an injury to rehearse and perform it. My answer for Torque is "no," especially for the women. Caniparoli's choreography looks like much of Peter Martin's corps choreography to Michael Torke. I suspect this has to do with the music phrases; I don't remember any other Caniparoli choreography having the same frenzied look to it. What happened to the women was almost criminal: in the blur of racing limbs and chaine turns, rather than bringing up the level of corps woman's dancing to the level of a principal, it talked down to them so much that it brought Principal Kaori Nakamura's dancing down to the level of the corps. I don't think there is any woman in the company who could have made much of this choreography.

Torque is ultimately a men's ballet, and I think Caniparoli should have stuck with an all-male cast. He had one interesting solo for the man in orange, danced by Kyon Gaines, in which there were a lot of angular versions of steps and jumps. (It could have been something I ate; the friend I went with just loved the ballet, although her binoculars may have focused a little too much on Casey Herd :clapping: ) The only thing that made this worthwhile for me was the performance of Lucien Postlewaite, in gold. He ate up space in every direction, a true stage animal. He looked like he was having the time of his life. And he's only an apprentice! I don't know how he partners, but he has the stage present and physical gifts of a Principal Dancer. He's the most talented man I've seen come out of the corps in the last ten seasons.

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I saw the Saturday matinee of this program, the only mixed rep this autumn. I've been trying to focus on some of the soloist women lately, see who's being positioned to advance. The company has a strong group of principal women right now, but you always have to be looking forward.

Noelani Pantastico is certainly getting a lot of opportunities right now -- she was the opening Aurora last spring in their Sleeping Beauty, had a go at Odette during the run of Swan Lake and led one of the movements in Taylor-Corbett's Mercury in this rep show. She's got a strong technique, but even in powerful work she's not a percussive mover -- she has a kind of serenity that overlays whatever she's doing. She can use this to her advantage in the right situations -- she performs one of the main women in the Martin's Fearful Symmetries where she looks like an odalisque in those pretzel-twisted shapes, implacable, but detached. She was just fine with the technical parts of Beauty, and the acting didn't ask her to be anything beyond what she is, a charming young woman. (I've often thought this was a good "first" program-length ballet for an aspiring woman -- despite all the fuss made over the balances in the Rose Adagio, it's a do-able work) Her Swan Lake wasn't as developed, which makes sense to me -- the technical stuff was all there, but the characterization was weaker, a kind of generalized sadness in the white acts and an imperious quality as Odile. I would have like to see more transformation when she meets the prince, and more seduction when she's gaming him. It was fine as a first performance, but more because it showed where she can go, rather than where she is. She reminds me a bit of Patirica Barker when she was at the beginning of her career, not technically per se (Barker has always been an agressive technician) but in a kind of hyper-respect for choreographic details -- they both seem to do exactly what has been asked of them in that regard. Barker has really bloomed in the last few years -- as she's found more fluidity in her upper body she's aquired a stronger expressive nature to go along with it. Pantastico is at the beginning of that process, but if all goes well, it should be a treat to watch it unfold.

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