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Next Step

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The Next Step program was presented last night. Originally a loosely assembled program of company dancer-choreographers who had to enlist their fellow dancers for a program presented during the PNB season, Next Step transitioned to a program of new work by company dancers made on PNBS Professional Division (PD) students performed during Student Performance weekend, giving PD dancers the opportunity to work in the studio with choreographers who are making work directly on them.

Dancer (until last weekend)-choreographer Kiyon Gaines became the formal coordinator of the project, and he has grown the scope of mentoring, analysis, and breadth of what is offered to the choreographers in the program. As he said in Q&A's, he wanted the dancer-choreographers to access what he didn't have when he first started to choreograph through the program, from the art and structure of choreography to costumes and lighting to writing program descriptions and bios.

This year there were six company choreographers, from first-timers Steven Loch and Charles McCall to fifth-timer Ezra Thomson. The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO), conducted by Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, played for Steven Loch's, Charles McCall's, and Kyle Davis' works.

The program opened with Chelsea Adomaitis' "film muet" set to songs sung by Edith Piaf for three women and a couple. The women wore black, knee-length dresses and soft-heeled shoes. Abby Callahan, Abigail Diedrich, and Jessica Pelluer were the trio, each of whom had a short solo establishing her individual style, followed by a pas de deux with Madison Abeo and Kyle L. Davis that captured their elegance. They were later joined by the trio. There was a lilt and lightness to the work.

Asked in the Q&A what it was like to be the only woman among the five choreographers and coordinator Gaines, she replied, "Getting asked that question!" She later said that she had plenty of support from her fellow choreographers, and after Peter Boal said that one possible explanation is that the women have a harder schedule than the men, Adomaitis said she did not do any rehearsal during "Swan Lake" (April 2015).

Next was Steven Loch's 14-minute pas de deux to excerpts from "Scheherezade." Daena Bortnick wore a thin-strapped below-the knee dress in light apricot with gold trim, and Joshua Shutkind a white short jacket and pants and small turban with a feather; they were designed and made by Loch's mother, Nancy Loch, with costume fittings done via FaceTime and delivery services between Seattle and Texas. In the Q&A Loch said that he first heard the music in 2002 when Michelle Kwan used it for her Olympic free skate, and that many skaters have used it, including Meryl Davis and Charlie White, 2014 Olympic Ice Dance champions. (Going back before he was born, the brilliant team of Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert used "Scheherezade" for their 1984 Olympic free dance; after being coached by a member of the ABT staff and ended their program with the Siren's slide down the Prodigal's legs from "Prodigal Son," they lost the Olympic bronze medal because one judge decided it wasn't the right kind of dance. But I digress.)

The figure skating influence Loch described in the Q&A was included in what was a traditional, conventional piece of choreography that was beautifully danced by the long-limbed Bortnick and Shutkind. It featured a combination lift that started upstage right as a grand lift after which Shutkind carried Bortnick downstage left and she "dropped" quite daringly into a lower lift that brought a spontaneous mini-ovations. Loch gave these dancers the greatest challenge of the night: there were several times in the pas de deux where the dancers had to pose for 5-10 seconds while the grand music washed over them and remain convincingly in character, which is a challenge for seasoned professionals who are more schooled in neoclassical ballet and who perform mainly neoclassical and contemporary ballet. Loch said that conductor Radcliffe was happy he chose this music, as the SYSO performed the complete work recently. Kudos to the violin soloist for his or her brilliant playing.

The last piece in part 1 was Charles McCall's "Descendant Inklings," set to Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. It was costumed from the shop selection; I'm not sure any of the costumes were made for the same work, but with each dancer wearing a different one, they all worked well together. A work for six dancers, it opened with two women and three men and went from a strictly neoclassical idiom to one that fractured into others. The opening section of five showed a remarkable talent for moving and grouping people onstage, which is often the last structural piece a new choreographer absorbs.

The women, Abby Callahan and Brittany Rand danced big, with energy and lushness, and the men, who were more different in style, were vivid performers, but that was the rub, the peril of live music: the energy of the playing in the first and third movements didn't match the dynamism and pulse of the performers. I've heard the music played with the kind of energy that matched the dancing, but this sounded more like background music to a lovely garden wedding. The playing was more successful in the second movement, where the strong adagio dancing of the two women in the first part of the movement rode the music beautifully rather than being constrained by it. Partway through this movement the style changed, which was more intellectually than kin-esthetically engaging, although well-danced.

Price Suddarth said that last year he had created a role for Kyle L. Davis, but Davis was injured. This year, inspired by an exercise that Ezra Thomson did with his dancers, Suddarth created a solo-ish work for Davis called "Duet?" to a recording of first movement of Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto. (For those who relish bad movies, it was the great, driving piece that Amy Irving's character played in "The Competition," after the piano string broke during her Mozart attempt.) The "ish" is that about halfway through this long solo -- oh to have that kind of stamina! -- Davis spotted his partner, a tennis ball, which he handled expertly before and after each attempt to rid himself of it. It was wonderfully performed and delightfully funny without getting close to being over-the-top.

Davis, a standout in corps roles this Spring, was the most completely formed dancer in the program -- elegant, musical, clear, clean, quick, with fast, seamless transitions and acceleration and wonderfully controlled changes of speed, and able to launch movement from nowhere and to end with grace -- but next season, he'll lose the "L." -- PNB already has a "Kyle Davis" -- and we'll lose him to Ballet West II, along with Brittany Rand and Joshua Shutkind. (Is Adam Sklute smarter than Peter Boal? Discuss.)

The original Kyle Davis choreographed the long-titled, "A Hundred Ways to Paint the Portion of a Plane Bounded by Such a Curve, Part Two" to the melodic second movement of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 1, beautifully played by the SYSO. This was another greatly challenging piece, a pas de deux for an exceptional Angeli Mamon (in a corset-back leotard) and Jesse Newman, in which he used stillness and required patience and presence from his dancers. There wasn't a lot of momentum with which to express the movement or overt emotion, even though there was a lot built into the music, and Davis made several interesting, quiet choices during the swelling themes. Davis has a voice that comes through strongly, and his dancers expressed it as strongly.

The last work was Ezra Thomson's "There are no rules" set to music by Craig Chaquico (Jefferson Starship). It was a group work for the first and last parts, with an (overly) long solo in the middle. Thomson knows how to move dancers around very, very well, and this was the strongest aspect of the work. The central solo was not successful: it didn't bring out the strengths of his dancer, and there was little about the choreography that made it look like it would impress if danced by someone else. It was a sharp contrast to some of the group work he did in which his dancers, especially his female dancers, looked masterful and dynamic, in particular the shortest, dark-haired dancer, which was quite remarkable, given the numbing nature of the music. (The dancers were grouped in the program as six women and four men, and apart from a few I recognized from other pieces in the program, I couldn't identify her by process of elimination.)

In the Q&A Thomson said that his costumes, which were sleek leotards and skirts for the women, were designed by PNB soloist Elizabeth Murphy, who is starting a line of leotards, and that she dyed the men's costumes to match the women's. When that line comes out, I hope she does brisk sales, because the dancers look great in them.

Randall G. Chiarelli did the lighting for all of the pieces, and his work enhanced all of them. He seemed to be having a great time with Scheherazade, especially.

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