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Flash Review, 6-21: Not The Same Old Song And Dance
Byrd's "Seven Deadly Sins" & More at Pacific Northwest Ballet

By Terry Hollis
Copyright 2002 Terry Hollis

SEATTLE -- It was feel good night at the ballet late last month, when Pacific Northwest Ballet presented "Song And Dance," three works that either left you dripping in romanticism (Kent Stowell's "Hail to the Conquering Hero"), titillated like a voyeur (Donald Byrd's satisfying "Seven Deadly Sins") or sitting in the audience at the Mercer Arts Arena with a goofy optimistic grin on your face. (Lynn Taylor Corbett's "The Ballad of You and Me.")

Stowell's ballet looks like every dancer's dream, one of those pieces that lets you indulge the movement for no good reason. I knew I was in trouble when I looked down at my note pad during "The Ballad Of You And Me," set to the music of Pete Seeger, and it was blank. Instead I sat there peeking behind the wings like a kid searching for Christmas presents, wondering what was coming next. Reading through the program I saw that the piece had a section set to "We Shall Overcome" and I wasn't quite sure if I was ready to sit through a classical rendition of the Civil Rights Movement. But, as Ms. Corbett sent the dancers surging back and forth across the stage and literally surfing the music, the section ended with me thinking; "That was one of the nicest things I've seen on any stage in a long time," and I sat there with a big goofy grin.

"Hail to the Conquering Hero" was originally made as a tribute to George Frideric Handel on his 300th birthday. Stowell made a ballet that is very pretty, very abstract, but that still has some dramatic situations to send the dancers into ecstasy-driven penchees. There's no story, but Stowell has singled out Stanko Milov as a sort of everyman hero. Milov gets to go through all of the motions of selfless heroism; oddly his first triumphant solo comes before his wounded, battle-worn section with a group six ladies, but that's part of the fun of abstract drama like this; you can throw in love affairs, fights, anything and no one expects a resolution. Ariane Lallone, who looks too tall to move like she does, delivers a spit-polished "Hornpipe" solo. Lallone's quick coupes pop up into pirouettes that change direction in a flash. She is almost unrecognizable from her performance as "Carmen" earlier this year. Unfortunately, the ballet ends with a candlelight procession that didn't make a whole lot of sense, even in an abstract ballet. But it was pretty.

At the beginning of Donald Byrd's "Seven Deadly Sins" we hear a loud, continuous knocking sound that goes on and on and on. Eight of the company's men come rushing out in the middle of Adrienne Lobel's set (picture an overhead view of the L.A. Freeway) and put themselves through the paces of Byrd's technically cruel choreography. But, the mood changes as (ballet crush) Patricia Barker comes out as Anna along with "she of the raspy voice," vocalist Greta Matassa. Byrd takes us through each vice in tableaus made up of Kurt Weill's beautiful music (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht), incredibly simple but glamorous costumes, and huge signs that fly in and out telling us which vice is which. (Brecht and Weill created the score for Les Ballets 1933, the short-lived company founded by Boris Kochno and George Balanchine, who choreographed the work. To read about the Paris Opera Ballet's recent version, click here.)
Above left and right: Patricia Barker with other Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in Donald Byrd's choreography for "Seven Deadly Sins." Angela Sterling photos courtesy PNB.

Anna's travels take her from her Louisiana home to the big cities of America where she is taught a thing or two. She's forced to give up her pride as an artist and don a g-string to make a few bucks; there's a great section with the company's men playing costumers in a striptease parlor. They hammer out beats on their chairs, and as Ms. Barker entices them they are knocked to the floor and bounce up and down (out of control) on their butts. The audience loved it. She is "owned" by a rich suitor who teaches her that affection can be bought. "Wrath" is played out when Anna goes to Hollywood and gets caught up in the nasty game of back-stabbing. Ms. Barker has some juicy dance passages that she burns through with no problem. Probably one of the most effective sections is "Gluttony" with singers upstage setting a huge table, dancers center stage performing liquid acrobatics around another table, and Ms. Barker being trussed up in a corset and dress (think Blonde Ambition tour) and ending up beautiful but unable to breath. The piece ends with one part of Anna dead, and the more mature version thinking about her lessons and travels. Mr. Byrd sticks to black, white and silver as colors for the set design.

Other choreographers have had problems trying to fit Weill's difficult music and accompanying text with dance. Mr. Byrd does a beautiful job smoothing out the rough edges, with ballet as the movement base and an almost cinematic look from city to city. The final effect is like seeing someone's life flash before your eyes.

"The Ballad of You and Me" could have been really hokey. The curtain comes up and the Americana to the nth degree tableau makes you wonder. But Seeger's music is honest and grounded and Ms. Corbett plays it cool instead of hitting us over the head with messages. With each song there are three video screens above the stage flashing images of union strikes, landfills, and civil rights marches that do nothing to distract from the action on stage. Part of the reason is probably the laid-back quality of the choreography. As active and beautiful as the piece is, it really steps aside and lets the music do the work. Kaori Nakamura and Jeffrey Stanton dance a beautifully spare duet to the title song. Jodie Thomas leads a platoon of willing soldiers in "Big Muddy." And "We Shall Overcome" takes the dancers and relentlessly whirls them around the stage until they can barely stop themselves, and they loved it. And I grinned.

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