Modern Masterpieces, Pacific Northwest Ballet March 15-24, 2013
Modern Masterpieces is a collection of four dances, three by acknowledged masters George Balanchine, Ulysses Dove and Twyla Tharp. The evening’s wild card was a world premiere called Mozart Pieces, choreographed by PNB ballet master Paul Gibson. Taken as a whole, Modern Masterpieces presented audiences with a sampling of the evolution of contemporary ballet from the mid 20th century forward.
Repertory programs like this are always hard to write about. The temptation is to write about each dance individually: the genius of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, how he almost perfectly synthesized his dancer’s movements with Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, creating the physical embodiment of an aural artform; Ulysses Dove’s ability to evoke huge emotional response through his disciplined, almost austere Dancing On The Front Porch Of Heaven; how Twyla Tharp’s 1986 work In The Upper Room uses whimsy and swirling energetic movement to conjure an illustration of the neural synapses in our brains. You could easily craft an essay about each of these choreographers, each of these dances. Each was immensely satisfying in its own way. If you haven’t seen Dove’s work, or a Twarp ballet, Modern Masterpieces is the perfect introduction.
But the evening, taken as a whole, served a bigger purpose for PNB, and for its audiences. When Peter Boal arrived in Seattle to take over artistic leadership of the company, he said he wanted to build on what Founding Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell had created. While PNB presented dances by many choreographers, the company’s repertoire was focused on the work of Stowell, and of George Balanchine. Specifically Boal wanted Northwest audiences to gain familiarity with other choreographers: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Ulysses Dove, to name just three. The 2013-2014 artistic season will include another evening devoted to Tharp, as well as program of dances by Jyri Kylian.
Modern Masterpieces gave Boal a chance to demonstrate PNB’s facility with newer choreography, as well as its skill and love for George Balanchine. Concerto Barocco, staged by Francia Russell, was nothing less than a revelation. The eight corps members spent months learning, then refining the intricate and demanding dance. To see them perform it to the achingly beautiful Bach concerto (played will skill by the PNB orchestra with violinists Michael Jinsoo Lim and Brittany Boulding) was to get a glimpse into the mind of the composer. In particular, Lindsi Dec and Laura Gilbreath were a stunning set of “violins” with their long limbs moving in synch.
The dancers were equally up to the challenge presented them by Ulysses Dove. Dancing On The Front Porch of Heaven is an elegy to love and loss. The six performers, clad in white unitards, dance to Arvo Part’s melancholy Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The women, Maria Chapman, Rachel Foster and Lesley Rausch, have never looked better: precise and technically competent. They are required to hold themselves taut to execute Dove’s slicing, angular choreography. When Foster is passed from man to man, though, she seems like a feather floating on air. Andrew Bartee, Seth Orza and Jerome Tisserand were equally impressive. As the last peal of Part’s score fades away, the curtain drops on the six dancers. They are together onstage, but isolated in their grief and solitude.
Twyla Tharp’s dynamic In the Upper Room was created in collaboration with composer Philip Glass, with costumes by the fashion designer Norma Kamali. It’s a wild frenzy of a ride. The dancers flick, spin and dart from partner to partner, like random couplings. Kaori Nakamura is a sparkling presence; Jonathan Porretta is sharp and precise, and somewhat astonishing, as he twirls long Lindsi Dec around his body the way a majorette twirls a baton. Not every company member was at home with Tharp’s choreography, but things move so quickly in the Upper Room that the audience doesn’t have time to dwell on any imperfections.
The dancers had no major problems (with the exception of one unexpected collision) with Paul Gibson’s contribution. Mozart Pieces was a pretty collection of ruminations set to excerpts from various compositions. Carla Korbes lends exquisite shine to any work she performs, and her solo was liquid and lovely. Unfortunately, Gibson is not yet the choreographic equal of Tharp, Dove and Balanchine. Earlier this season PNB featured new work by company members. Gibson’s dance might have been better served on that program.
That said, Modern Masterpieces was a highly satisfying evening. I saw the program twice, and easily could see it two more times. Concerto Barocco reveals new secrets with each viewing; Ulysses Dove’s work stuns with its emotional resonance. And most of all, the PNB dancers satisfy with their range and artistry.