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All Premiere: Dove/Martins/Quijada/Tharp

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I saw this program Thursday night.

The first piece on the program, Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, opened under a white overhead light with a small group of dancers in white unitards, the women's with a wonderful detail in the bodice: thin radial straps meeting at a thin circular neckline. Both the choreography and the music, Arvo Pärt's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, 1977," repeated three times. (This was the same music Susan Marshall used in last year's Kiss.) At times in the work, there were three diagonal circular lights, at others, small individual lights, one for each dancer.

While on the whole, I thought the vocabulary was limited, particularly for the women -- there seemed to be a lot of second-position plié on pointe, with a variation where one foot was out to the side, making a rhombus – I found one part particularly lovely: the beginning of a pas de deux for two men -- in this performance Le Yin and Anton Pankevitch -- in which they alternately yielded exquisitely toward each other. For most of the work, though, I found the music moving, but not the choreography, which I found a bit dull.

The second part opened with Louise Nadeau and Jeffrey Stanton in Valse Triste. Of all of the works on the program, this is the one I was least looking forward to; I'd seen it a half dozen times in the season of its premiere and the next one, and I never really liked it. Last night changed my mind about it, because I realized what didn't really capture me was -- blasphemy! -- Patricia McBride in the lead role. Nadeau danced the lead alternately with gentility, wistfulness, and sadness. It was a finely-wrought portrait, though danced with expanse. Just beautiful.

The theatrical conceit of Suspension of Disbelief was an opening in which the set was stripped bare, to the light towers on the sides, with dancers stretching, talking, and hanging out. While this might have been edgy if it were done at the Palais Garnier, Mariinsky or Bolshoi Theaters, or any number of older, ornate theaters, it didn't make sense for an audience in a rather plain (but comfortable) auditorium whose remake is only a few years old, nor for one that spent a couple of years in a hockey rink in a tenure that opened with Kent Stowell's Carmen, in which the light towers were visible, the stage was stripped bare, etc. etc. (Just as it wouldn't shake anyone up at the Opera Bastille.)

What I found most fascinating was that with a reputation for his hip-hop works, Victor Quijada created for the men a work of remarkable fluidity, in which the energy and movement created waterfall effects. The score was an original one by Mitchell Akiyama, and it opened with a Bernstein/Glass hybrid, and the opening for the men had the dramatic tension of the Sharks or Jets of West Side Story without the self-conscious staginess of Robbins (or some of the Tharp that followed). The work also look like it needed those five men – Taureen Green, Benjamin Griffiths, James Moore, Lucien Postlewaite, and Olivier Wevers -- for it’s lifeblood. There are so many terrific men at PNB that I’m certain there could have been at least three casts of men, and I suspect that I would have gone away feeling the same way regardless of cast, and that is a real gift.

The parts for the women were less successful, and I think the reason was two-fold: the music was more Torke-like and dull for the sections in which they danced, and their ‘Hood was a bit Kirkland (WA)-esque. Only Rachel Foster had grit.

Jonathan Porretta had a couple of fabulous short solos –- again the music picked up – and showed not only technical brilliance and theatricality, but also the sense that he is game to try anything, that if he had been asked to spin on his eyelashes, he would have given it a shot.

I’ve seen a lot of Tharp’s choreography, both for her own company and for ballet companies, and while I admire the cleverness and musicality, I’ve never seen a piece that I loved until Waterbaby Bagatelles. First the score was my cup of tea, everything from Webern to Piazzolla, and with the Kronos Quartet (recordings) playing. I was lucky to have been given the heads up about Carla Körbes’ performance in the third section in which she was partnered by Karel Cruz. The pas de deux was fluid and straight –- no winks here – in contrast to most of the rest of the work, and she danced it brilliantly. The only distraction was the set, a series of horizontal florescent lights hung from the ceiling. Lowered for this part of the work, from the First Tier they threatened to decapitate the dancers; it’s hard to imagine what people in the Second Tier didn’t see because of the set.

Another section in which the women shone was the sixth, in which ten men do sequential tour-de-force solos, to the audience of Kari Brunson, Lindsi Dec, Kylee Kitchens, and Stacy Lowenberg, whose perfect comic timing was a delight.

There were many terrific performances among the men, but the one that stood out to me was Benjamin Griffith’s razor sharp dancing and relentless energy and attack.

While not all of the works were even, there was something truly satisfying about the juxtaposition of these pieces, and with a new work on it, this was not entirely predictable. This was a program in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

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Before I mention the two dancers who took over lead roles, I want to mention a few performances from Thursday and today that were standouts, and which I inexplicably forgot to note.

Olivier Wevers danced the male solos in Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven with elastic tension, and almost convinced me that the ballet was more substantive than it was, and that goes for Chalnessa Eames in her short pas de deux with Wevers. Maria Chapman danced with intensity; I with there had been more to get intense about.

In Waterbaby Bagatelles Bold danced with freedom and agility, with huge leaps that left him hanging in mid-air. I think I just take this for granted now when he dances, which is completely unfair, and it's well worth noting and repeating.

Jodie Thomas, who was Benjamin Griffiths' partner in Waterbaby Bagatelles, again showed the affinity for Tharp that she had in Nine Sinatra Songs, dancing crisply and with directness, and she did a mean tango with Griffiths. In the Q&A that followed today's performance, she was thoughtful and articulate.

In this afternoon's performance, Mara Vinson danced in Valse Triste, partnered by Casey Herd, sharing another Patricia McBride role with Louise Nadeau. I mention this because she showed so much more dramatic nuance and shade than she did in another McBride role, the second movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet from just a few seasons ago, particularly in her facial expression. While the ballet has a background story, it's not rooted in distinct episodes and mime, like The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty, and I think she reached another level in it as a performer.

Maria Chapman danced the main pas de deux (section III) of Waterbaby Bagatelles with Karel Cruz. They looked terrific together: she's almost as tall as he is when she's on pointe, and her stretch is enormous. Her legato dancing was impeccable and lyrical, and she and Cruz looked ab fab in the royal blue unitards with light blue belts, and in the group sections with Thomas/Griffiths and Imler/Bold, her energy was delightful.

I'm sorry I missed this program when I was away last weekend. I would have loved to see all of the casts.

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