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Tricolore: Millepied et Balanchine

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Here are some extra thoughts about this program, before the second weekend starts up.


We’ve had several conversations on this website about dance companies’ desire to frame a mixed repertory show with some kind of theme – whether you like that kind of meta-commentary, or think it’s just a marketing ploy, it’s a phenomenon that’s here to stay for awhile.  So PNB came up with the French theme for their season opening program – after all, two of the works are by a Frenchman (Benjamin Millepied), and the third was originally made for the Paris Opera Ballet.  This may feel a bit contrived, or at least it does to me, but in the big world of marketing, it’s how things get done, and so voila!


Back when PNB premiered Millepied’s “Three Movements” in 2008, several people (myself included) compared the work to West Side Story and the choreographer to Jerome Robbins.  Millepied’s group of young people out on the town do have a certain connection to Robbin’s “Dance at the Gym,” but looking at the work again, I think I was just responding to the suggestion of character and narrative – the newer work doesn’t display Robbins’ fundamental tools as a craftsman.  When Robbins filled a stage with movement, you never felt like you lost track of the main focus – you knew who the story was about, and where they were located on stage.  Millepied actually reminded me a bit of Merce Cunningham in his use of space and shape – anywhere on that stage could have been the center of attention, and anyone in that cast could have been the focal point.  We watch the main couple as their relationship develops, but there’s the sense that we could have made other choices – followed other people – and learned other lessons.


Laura Tisserand did double duty last Saturday, dancing with her husband in the matinee and with Miles Pertl that evening.  Millepied has structured the main duet with a couple of moments where the woman shrugs off the man – they have a bantering kind of conversation, but just as it looks like it might move into more serious territory, she pulls back or walks away.  Laura Tisserand doesn’t make this into big drama – it’s more about a date on a Friday night than it is a lifetime commitment – but in the end they leave together.  We’ve seen her dance with her husband before – they have a lovely quality together even though she’s on the tall side for supported turns.  Her performance with Pertl was new to me, but they looked like an excellent fit – he managed the twisty bits just fine and kept the attention on the flow of the choreography.  Lindsi Dec and Joshua Grant were a vivid secondary couple on Saturday night – their clarity made me wonder what the work would be like if we were following them as the main focus.  Benjamin Griffiths had some wonderful moments as well, especially in a long sequence crossing the stage – his phrasing was nuanced and clear.


Millepied has crafted a lot of terre a terre material here – there are air moments, but a lot of the dancing is right on the ground.  A lot of beats without big time in the air to do them – it’s tricky stuff.  Towards the end, there are some folk elements as well – a long line of grapevine steps, and a set of concentric circles are like social dance steps from an earlier time.  I don’t know if that was deliberate, or if I’m just reading in, but it all reinforced the sense of the group. 


With this and “Appassionata,” it’s interesting to see how Millepied uses ballet vocabulary.  In Three Movements, which I think was made while he was still dancing with NYCB, you really see that fleet relationship to technique – people whip through complex phrases in a casual manner, high fiving at the top of a lift.  Virtuosity is a commonality – it doesn’t really signify anything particular.  They slide in and out of manege without any specific preparation or final flourish.  The real emphasis is on a sense of ease.  In “Appassionata,” I think ballet technique is supposed to mean something more.  Virtuosity implies a kind of high drama or artifice.  It’s not a part of everyday life.  The opening section of is full of big, technical dancing, large sweeping phrases that ride on the back of the piano score.  Like “Three Movements”, this is a ballet about relationships, but in the case of “Appassionata” there are only three couples, conveniently color-coded (red, blue, and purple), making it easy to follow them around the stage. While in the earlier work couples seem to come together and part easily, these three pairs have more history – they’re in the middle of these relationships, and when two of them swap partners we track them.   


Like “Three Movements,” Millepied has a central couple here, and also like “Three Movements,” the woman doesn’t seem sure that she’s committed to the relationship.  Several times, at crucial moments with her partner, she leaves, either in a rush or thoughtfully, and he follows.  We don’t really get more explanation than that, but it’s a recurring motif.  Last Saturday afternoon the Orzas danced these roles, which gave the whole thing additional friction.  Sarah Ricard Orza was able to convey a sense of fragility without looking weak, almost like she was hearing voices in the ether.  Elizabeth Murphy danced the role in the evening, along with Karel Cruz.  She made a more high-drama effect, especially in the second half of the work, where the dancers have changed into gauzy tunics, and the women have changed into soft shoes and let down their hair.  The opening duet in this half, for the lead couple, starts with them face to face, swaying back and forth – for awhile I thought they might be in a trance, or even dead, but whatever the specific context it is definitely a different world that they were inhabiting.  The ballet made me think of Balanchine’s “Liebeslieder Waltzer,” and its intimation of public and private environments, but in the older work, the formal world is performed in ball gowns and heeled slippers, while the uninhibited world comes with pointe shoes and neo-classical technique.  For Millepied, those are the tools of the public and formal world.


The program closes with “Symphony in C,” which is a welcome chance to see several leading dancers in one work.  As choreography, the work is built like a tank – it just keeps going and going.  Lindsi Dec (with Steven Loch) and Noelani Pantastico (with Seth Orza)  made comeback appearances in the first section, and both looked lovely despite their time away.  Dec’s arabesque might be a smidgen lower, but she’s got a wonderful calm demeanor here that more than makes up for it.  She’d started her career with PNB as a cheerleader type, all smiling dynamics, but she’s put effort into finding a more nuanced approach to her roles, and she’s got some real depth now.  Pantastico came back last year with the Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette,” but this was another chance to see her in a more exposed classical part.  Her time in Monaco has really sharpened her expressive skills – she’s making some very specific choices about her performance. 


Sarah Ricard Orza and Laura Tisserand both got a go with the second movement.  The oboe in the score and some of the more iconic movement phrases always remind me of “Swan Lake”  -- we’ve had a chance to see Tisserand as O/O, but watching this makes me want to see Sarah Orza in the role as well. 


In the third movement I was beginning to wonder if Leta Biasucci’s smile was almost too large for her head – she radiated a special confidence in this gut-busting part.  She has the same kind of clarity and specificity that Carrie Imler has – I’ve often wondered if it’s a product of their experience with Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.  In one lift, she takes off with a sissone, and then snaps the legs shut in mid-air as her partner carries her along.  Elizabeth Murphy had a very sunny time with the part as well – she was as bouncy as Tigger.


Angelica Generosa was like a fabulous hostess leading the fourth movement – she had a look for everyone.  Rachel Foster seemed a bit more stressed about it all – she’s coming back from some tricky surgery, and I’m thinking she’ll relax a bit when she gets her feet back underneath herself.


The finale is like watching someone put all the gifts under the Christmas tree – they just keep piling up until they overwhelm you.

Edited by sandik
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I, too, would love to see Sarah Ricard Orza as Odette/Odile, and I hope that happens when "Swan Lake" next returns, not just because of the gorgeous work she did in Second Movement in "Symphony in C," which she also danced again last night, but also because of the gorgeous work she did in "Appassionata," which she danced again this afternoon.


Public service announcement:  San Francisco Ballet is sharing some of its segment with PNB and Houston Ballet.  PNB's time slot is 2:30-3:00pm PDT on Tuesday, October 4.  We learned today in the Q&A that Carrie Imler will featured in the opening 10-minute segment, including describing what it was like to come back from maternity leave, and the last 20 minutes will be about getting ready for Opening Night.


We talk a lot about Robbins when discussing "3 Movements," but my Robbins moment is in "Appassionata."  Near the beginning of the second movement, when the dancers appear in their jammies and the woman is in slippers, the central couple stands facing one another, and the woman leans into the man with her head and shoulders, and he leans backwards, and it's an "in your face" moment, as if the change of clothes and time of day doesn't matter.  He responds in kind, but her aggressiveness grabs you, particularly since she's walked away from him before, and he's run after her each time.  At the end of the movement, he leans into her, but more softly, and she leans back, and then forward again, and it reminded me of the end of the tempestuous third couple pas de deux of "In the Night."  The woman in "Appassionata" does not prostrate herself at the feet of the man in surrender, but there's a more subtle yielding, a shift in that relationship:  at least the wall is down.  This was particularly vivid with the Orzas.  Equally vivid was the playfulness and lightness of the section soon afterwards that starts with the syncopation; perhaps it's this which causes the softening of heart.


"3 Movements" is best seen from at least one Tier up, and I preferred the view from First and Second Tier even to the Gallery Upper, which is the side extension of the Dress Circle.  There's a discernible shift in the last movement from the way the groupings and couples interact and offset each other to when the entire group joins in shifting patterns -- circular, serpentine, and straight lines -- until they run offstage, and these are difficult to follow from the Orchestra, although individual performances from close up can be arresting.  The large stage and the distance added to the sense of momentum and sweep, and it's so much more effective on the McCaw Hall stage than at smaller venues like the Joyce Theater.


The folkiest of the patterns also pop, in contrast to the social dance aspect of the central pas de deux, which was emphatically a tango in Laura Tisserand and, especially, Miles Pertl's performances.  When Rachel Foster danced it this afternoon with Jerome Tisserand, she was all sharpness and supreme confidence and assertiveness -- a masterful performance -- in contrast to L. Tisserand's sleek coolness.  If there was a parallel to "West Side Story," stylistically, Laura Tisserand and Pertl were Sharks, and Foster and Jerome Tisserand were Jets.  


The movement style fit Lindsi Dec like a glove.  I would have loved to have seen her dance with her husband, Karel Cruz, in the central pas in "Appassionata."  PNB is lucky to have couples with great chemistry and simpatico: Dec and Cruz, who have been terrific together as both Kitri and Basilio and Mercedes and Espada in Ratmansky's "Don Quixote" and in"Petite Mort," and they were very moving in the central pas de deux in Ochoa's "Cylindrical Shadows," the Orzas -- it's hard to forget Ricard Orza's "not impressed" Woman in the Purple Dress in "Fancy Free" and how he slowly tries to bring her around, just as one example -- and Lesley Rausch and Batkhurel Bold, whose self-effacing partnering was instrumental in her development as an artist, particularly in full-lengths.   The simpatico speaks volumes onstage.


On the other end of the spectrum, Steven Loch stepped up to the plate bigtime, partnering both Lindsi Dec and Carrie Imler, who was an established Principal Dancer while Loch was still a young student at his home studio in Texas, in First Movement in "Symphony in C" with style and aplomb.  In the Q&A, he exuded youth and positivity -- it's hard to feel grumpy in his presence -- and I loved his Usain Bolt in PNB's #22pushups for #22Kill video challenge, but on stage, he exudes maturity in serious dramatic roles, like in "Appassionata."  In the opening of the last movement, he and Margaret Mullin were blazing, and they took my breath away.  


I remember reading an interview with Harrison Ford, in which he described how his then-wife, Melissa Mathison, by page 25 (or some low number) whodunnit in "Presumed Innocent."  I'm not that kind of reader, but I'm :blushing: and :wallbash:that it took me five performances  to realize that Millepied establishes the drama in "Appassionata" within the first 30 seconds, when, during the daytime First Movement, one red and one blue meet onstage, and then their color-coded partners arrive, and they all look at each other.  The partners already knew on some level that they'd stumbled onto something.


In "Appassionata," in terms of energy and movement quality, Elle Macy (blue) and Margaret Mullin (red) both danced with a maelstrom of energy and directness -- Macy especially last night, matching Jerome Tisserand's  abandon -- while Leah Merchant (red) and Noelani Pantastico (blue) danced with sensuality and a more dramatic arc, and I found it fascinating to see each role approached so differently, but with the same balance and contrast between the dancers in each cast.


If I was struck by the purity of Angelica Generosa's dancing in Fourth Movement of "Symphony in C" last weekend, I was doubly struck this afternoon, when she was partnered by Benjamin Griffiths, who is the exemplar of pure, pristine dancing.  In this ballet, they were a match made in heaven.  Watching Madison Taylor again as a demi in Second Movement in "Symphony in C," I noticed how elegantly Henry Cotton presented her.


The Q&A guest dancers last night were Angelica Generosa and Matthew Renko, who danced Third Movement of "Symphony in C," and they revealed themselves to be great friends on and off stage.  Between demi and Principal roles Generosa performed five in this run.  (On paper, with all six roles in "Appassionata" major roles, and nine major roles out of 16 dancers in "3 Movements," it looked doable for the corps to focus mainly on "Symphony in C", but proved to be a bear of a program, with so many injuries and surgeries in the Company at the moment.)  Renko did double-duty as a First Movement demi and Third Movement Principal in at least two performances I saw.  They spoke about dancing together.  Renko said that he feels more secure dancing with this friend, and that there is less tension and more freedom, and he feels they will laugh about it afterwards were anything to go awry.  (Renko has changed his hairstyle since the end of last season, when it was more Michael Landon-esque.)  


Renko said that he started at a local school and then went to North Carolina School of the Arts when he needed more serious training, and then he attended to SAB.  He danced with NYCB and Suzanne Farrell Ballet before joining PNB.  When the dancers were asked how they keep smiling, Renko said that Suzanne Farrell told him that smiling actually makes you feel differently and boosts your energy, and it also helps him breathe.  He described how in most roles you get a more calm entry, but in "Symphony in C" Third Movement, "You go, go and keep going.  You can't feel your calves, but you realize you're still dancing." 


"Symphony in C" was life-changing for him as his first Balanchine ballet, in a staging by Melissa Hayden.  It was plotless, but with all of the energy of a full-length, and the corps was essential.  He said he barely paid attention to what the Principals were doing.  (Victoria Simon, who staged the ballet this time for PNB, told the corps that they were the ballet.)


When asked about roles that they were especially proud of, Generosa cited "Stars and Stripes," which she performed at 15 at the SAB workshop -- she trained locally in NJ until switching to SAB -- and for which she had been coached the year before by Patricia McBride.  Renko cited the Principal role in "La Source," which he performed with Suzanne Farrell Ballet:  it was his first Principal role, and the first time he felt free on stage and to be himself, without doing just as he was instructed.  He also noted "Year of the Rabbit," at PNB, which was the first time a choreographer came in and chose him for the role.


When asked what attracts them to a ballet, Generosa said the steps and the story.  Renko said it was the music:  if he doesn't like the music, it's hard to appreciate the ballet.  He doesn't like to act in particular, but wants the music to make him feel something, and he was particularly moved by Stravinsky's "Baiser de la fee" (which he danced early on in his PNB career.)


Boal said that nothing scared them.  Generosa seemed a little sceptical, but that was because she said she'd just auditioned for the part of Anita -- PNB just had singing auditions, in which 15 women and 4 men tried out.  (The men for the part of Riff, which Lucien Postlewaite performed before he left for Monte Carlo.)  He also pointed out the generational continuity:  these dancers had studied and had been coached by Hayden, McBride, and Farrell, each of whom was central to the Balanchine rep and who had learned from the Master.


Peter Boal said that Francia Russell had done all of the prior stagings of "Symphony in C," but she has decided to stop staging ballets, and Victoria Simon staged it instead.  In the context of answering someone's question about rep, he said that sometimes he brings in a ballet with a particular dancer in mind, and Renko was the dancer when he chose "Opus 19: The Dreamer," which is programmed for the last program of the season.  


When asked about announced casting, he contrasted PNB to companies like Paris Opera Ballet and ABT that announce at least Principal casting well in advance.  (I think Royal Ballet does this as well.)  He said they post casting 10 days ahead of Opening Night, but that dancers have a decent idea since they are called to rehearsal.  He said that sometimes dancers lobby for parts, and, if they express interest, he might allow them to attend rehearsals to give them the opportunity to learn parts, although they won't expect to be cast.


When asked about casting for "Appassionata," he said the stagers (Janie Taylor and Sebastien Marcovici) chose the dancers based on movement quality, not rank, but also that he recommended Elizabeth Murphy, whom Millepied did not know.  (Boal noted this afternoon that in Paris, he wouldn't have been able to cast Steven Loch with Carrie Imler or Lindsi Dec, because the hierarchy is more strict at POB.  Presumably, that would have been an issue with Loch, Pertl (who replaced an injured Batkhurel Bold in the run), and Macy in "Appassionata," since they switch partners a lot, so, yay stagers and yay Millepied.)  The pairing of Murphy with Cruz was new and a gamble that paid off.  He also said to expect to see more of them together, and also more of the Orzas, since she is dancing up to the same level as her husband, role-wise.   She also looked great with William Lin-Yee in "3 Movements" and "Symphony in C."


Boal also said that he originally had chosen another Millepied work for the program, but that Millepied contacted him in February to say he was working on "Appassionata" and thought it would be a good choice.  He sent sections of rehearsal footage, with notes about what he expected to change going forward, and PNB, which had already budgeted for a different production, changed things around.  


The guest dancers in this afternoon's Q&A were Carrie Imler and Steven Loch.  Boal praised their work ethic, always taking class and rehearsals seriously.  Imler said that she doesn't get nervous or stage fright, except for last Friday night (opening night), which was her comeback.  (Before she was nervous, but not after she got onstage.)  This is her 22nd season with PNB.  In speaking about how she's changed, she said she less focussed on steps and technique, knowing she can rely on them, and now focuses on artistry.  She noted that she had done First Movement before, which gives an opportunity for change and growth. and also that there were differences in staging in "Symphony in C,"


She spoke about her early training -- her parents were advised to put her in ballet class when she was 5 -- and how they moved to Carlisle so that they would have to keep transporting her 2-year-old brother back and forth.  She did the summer program at PNB, and Francia Russell and Kent Stowell told her that if she were in the school for a year, they'd probably have a job for her.  She had agreed to go to Pennsylvania Ballet, although she hadn't yet signed a contract, but she was dancing in "Serenade" at Chateau Ste. Michelle, where PNB used to perform in the summer on an outdoor stage, and Roy Kaiser saw her and said, "I guess you're not coming to PA Ballet."  (We are very, very lucky this happened.)


She said that she once was off seven months due to a hip injury, but this was 15 months -- her son, Markus, is 6 months old -- and the hardest thing was losing confidence.  She said, though, that there were a lot of people pulling for her, and she returned quicker than she thought.  Pilates helped a lot.  Loch said it was an honor to welcome her back to dancing as her partner.  


When asked to give advice to younger dancers -- some of Imler's students were in the audience for when she taught the younger grades, which she had to give up because of rehearsal conflicts -- she said 1. Take class seriously and 2. Listen to the music.  She said it's not about technique or extension ("Not that I've ever had that") but being able to play with the music.  (Which she did, beautifully, in "Symphony in C," especially this afternoon.)  Loch told them to trust their teachers, and to soak up everything they could, and that when it gets the hardest, remember why you dance in the first place.  


Imler is looking forward to "La Source," and Loch waxed ecstatic about "Pictures at an Exhibition," which he had seen with Whelan, Peck, and Mearns, and fallen in love with.  He said it's a long piece, but that he didn't want it to end.  Boal told us last week that it is performed to the piano version, and that Allan Dameron would be playing it. 


When asked what kind of music they listen to outside the theater, Imler said classical, and that there was always classical music playing in the house, but also that her brother has turned her on to country music.  Loch said he listens to pop radio, not so much for the subjects of the songs, but for the sound.  He likes Ariana Grande, and when he goes back to Texas, it's country all the way.  


Loch was asked how he could switch from style to style -- he danced in all three works -- and he said he focused on one at a time.  In "Appassionata," the dancers come on stage and look at the other five, and he said seeing his friends on stage brings him into the world of that ballet.  After each, intermission is time to reset and focus on the next ballet.  


Peter Boal said that "Symphony in C" was a great ballet for the PD's and younger dancers; the majority of the company didn't have much time to absorb the lessons, and there were many last minute substitutions.  He was vague about when "Theme and Variations" might be back, acknowledging it was a ballet, like "Swan Lake," that brought up the level of the dancers.  He's thinking about bringing in the full "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3," which ends with "Theme and Variations." 


PNB is planning to have Doug Fullington record an abridged version of his excellent pre-performance talks that will be downloadable.  When asked if social media puts butts in seats, Peter Boal wasn't sure, but Steven Loch noted the big social media presence of the PD's (on Instagram), and how this drives interest in the program.  He noted the very high levels of the dancers who are coming into the program now.


The orchestra played beautifully, and it really kept up the tension in the Reich, with each transition clear.  


:flowers::flowers::flowers: to Allan Dameron.  I cannot write enough how beautifully he played the Beethoven.








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I didn't realize until this morning that "Tricolore" was a lead-up to Steve Reich's 80th birthday today, and Seattle radio station KING is streaming a 24-hour marathon of Reich's music.  Go to the link below, and click "Now playing on our streams" at the very top of the page and select "Second Inversion.". There will be a brief donation ask, and the stream.



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