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PNB School Show - June 15

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I had the good luck to watch a rehearsal yesterday, of the PD students learning Twyla Tharp's Sweet Fields for the annual school show. Tharp made this work in 1996 for her own company, using Sacred Harp music. It has an Americana feel to it, rather like Graham or deMille. The vocabulary is not specifically ballet, and the kids are still grappling with the use of space and weight -- it was fascinating to see them work things out. I'm not sure what else is on the program for the show, but this is worth making the effort for, all on its own. The Tharp website has been recently buffed up, and there's a very nice entry about this work here

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The school show is always big fun, but it’s a very specific kind of performance. In many ways, it’s like sitting with a Nutcracker audience – many of these people really haven’t been to another dance performance, and so they’re often more transparent in their response. They applaud, they cheer, they chat (sometimes during the performance, which is frustrating) – the lobby discussion is all about the kids, rather than the choreography.

I only saw the evening program, and so didn’t see the small kids – as a critic I could probably score one of those tickets, but they are a very hot commodity, so I usually don’t push. The evening show includes the usual demonstration-style works for the kids from levels V-VII (and I have to admire their teachers for creating works that get 40+ kids on stage, moving around so that everyone gets a chance to shine) and then excerpts from existing rep for the level VIII and Pro Division kids. It’s an interesting mix of skills and goals. You can easily think of the level V performers as “kids” – the divisions aren’t age-specific, but most of them are early high schoolers, deep in the throes of adolescence. They’re spending a huge amount of their time in the studio, and they’ve almost all been on stage for Nutcracker or some other ‘big group’ ballet over the course of the year, but they are still sorting themselves out. Many of them will leave ballet in the next couple of years, either by their choice or by the school’s. There were 42 level VI girls listed in the program (the last level they offer at the Bellevue school, go higher and you have to get to Seattle) and there were 24 at level VII. The next year they winnow again – there were only 14 young women in the level VIII, and their performances are folded in with the Professional Division dancers. You don’t have to have graduated from high school to be in the Professional Division, but it helps – their day is so full of class and rehearsal that there’s very little time for academic work.

Marisa Albee, Bruce Wells and Le Yin made the showcase works for the earlier levels – Albee and Yin did great work with their classes. It’s interesting to see how a teacher’s own education is reflected in the work they make for students – in many cases they seem to replicate their experiences. Yin has been a professional dancer in many different settings, including PNB, but watching some of the decisions he makes in his choreography for students I see technical choices I think come from deep in his own background – preparations for turns, sequencing in jumping phrases, upper/lower body coordination. I may be reading in here, but it’s fun to think about. No surprise – Bruce Wells made a really coherent piece for his class. He’s got a real talent for making actual dances for student level performers – the choreographic structures are as sophisticated as anything else you might see during the run of the company season, but the technical challenges are appropriate to the skill set of the student dancers. You find these kind of works all over the place in music, but not so much in dance.

For the next cohort of students, we bring a slightly different set of expectations with us. We mostly see them in excerpts from existing repertory, where we have a clear idea of how it should look and what they should be able to do. We see them in the same way we see any dancer in those works, measuring themselves against a known standard. As an observer at an event like this, it makes for a real paradigm shift. Most of the level VIII students performed in the opening section of Serenade, bolstered by a few Professional Division dancers. This is one of the works from the standard repertory that does work like Wells’ party piece above – the technical challenges are within the grasp of an advanced student, but the dramatic and interpretive context is far more sophisticated. Indeed, in The Shapes of Change, Marcia Siegel describes it as a “graduation piece.” I’ve always thought that her chapter on Serenade was the most insightful discussion of the ballet I’ve seen – her characterization of the ensemble as a group of equals, whatever their technical “rank,” seems dead-on to me. The PNB students gave a lovely reading of the work – it was a pleasure to see it with these dancers.

The PNB school is not a carbon copy of SAB, but they do follow one of their practices – there is almost always a Balanchine work on the program for their school show. It’s usually an interesting addition to the season – it isn’t always a work that’s in the main company’s repertory. They’ve done La Source and Cortege Hongrois in the recent past, so we’ve had a chance to see them even though the company doesn’t perform them. This year it was the 3rd movement of Brahms Schoenberg Quartet, which the company has danced, but not too recently. There were a few shaky moments, but altogether a very credible performance. Enrico Hipolito and and Therese Davis danced the main couple with lots of switching hands tricks – their turns were sometimes a bit wobbly, but the rest worked quite well. His jumping turns were especially nice. (disclosure – he went to school with my kid, so I know him outside the theater) Balanchine made some really distinctive ensemble sequences here (lots of alternating changes of level) and the group was lovely and clean.

Peter Boal has made an excellent connection with the Seattle Youth Symphony over the last few years, so that the ensemble plays live for part of the school show. (they also sometimes play for the Next Step program, depending on the rep) It’s a great opportunity for the students to have a live music experience, and for the musicians to see what playing in a ballet orchestra is like. But sitting in the audience, one of the big things you notice is that the SYS comes with its own claque – they’ve got a big, enthusiastic fan base. They show up and they let you know that they’re in the house – I think most of them were sitting house left in the balcony for this show, and my left ear was ringing a couple of times.

Boal has been very upfront about his desire to include contemporary dance in the PNB repertory, and this is extending to the school as well. They have always had some modern and ethnic dance training in the syllabus, but it hasn’t always been represented that clearly in the annual show. This year they’ve taken a big, big step, and learned Twyla Tharp’s Sweet Fields. Tharp is in residence here this year, making a new work for the company and fluffing up the other rep, but this was an extra benefit. The work, which she made on her Tharp! Company in 1996, after she left her artistic associate position with American Ballet Theater, is an excellent example of her hybrid style – you need the grounded power of modern dance to make it work, but it takes advantage of the articulated skills most people get from ballet training. Her dancers at the time were very widely educated, and it shows in the work she made for them. The PD students tore into this, and had a real triumph with it. Much of the work is deceptively simple, in keeping with the source materials – it’s set to early American vocal music and based on Shaker dances. It’s incredibly exposed – any little mistake in sequencing or initiation and you stand way out. The vocabulary is drawn from running, skipping, rolling, walking – but it’s a complicated matrix. The whole ensemble rocked, but Kelsey and Perry Bevington looked especially strong, as did Hipolito in a tricky post-modern solo. Isaac Aoki and Alex Hyman also stood out – Tharp made some great work for men in this dance, and they stepped up. Adding to the thrill was Doug Fullington’s Tudor Choir, performing the score live. They’ve recorded a couple of CDs of early American vocal music (including shape note singing) so they know this material inside out. (if you’re not familiar with this repertory, I really suggest you look for it)

The school show is by way of a graduation ceremony for a chunk of the kids on stage. Several of the level VIII dancers are going to the University of Arizona, one to Vassar, one to the training program at LINES in the Bay Area, and three (Grace Haskins, Angeli Mamon and Brianna Moriarty) to PNB’s Professional Division. 14 students are moving on from the Professional Division, two (the Bevington sisters) to the Cincinnati Ballet training program, two to apprentice at the Grand Rapids Ballet run by former PNB dancer Patricia Barker (and Isaac Aoki joins the main company), and Christian Poppe moves to an apprentice position with PNB. Others are going to Ballet Austin II, the Dutch National Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet II, Nevada Ballet Theater, Los Angeles Ballet and the Oregon Ballet Theater apprentice program.

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