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Letter from Seattle, 7-12: Rites of Spring
From Balanchine to Fenley to Lowenberg at Pacific Northwest Ballet & School

By Renée E. D'Aoust
Copyright 2007 Renée E. D'Aoust
Photography copyright Angela Sterling

SEATTLE -- Post-modernists often deconstruct great works of art, but in "State of Darkness," set to Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps," and performed May 31 - June 10 by Pacific Northwest Ballet at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Molissa Fenley doesn't concern herself with un-doing Nijinsky. Fenley places just one dancer onstage. Instead of an ensemble, we see a physically actualized dialogue of soloist and musical score, which was conducted with verve by Stewart Kershaw, PNB'S music director. (The acoustics of McCaw Hall are superb, and apparently these performances were only the second time "State of Darkness," created in 1988, had been performed with a live orchestra.) In the two performances I caught, Rachel Foster performed June 1, and James Moore danced the June 2 matinee. David Moodey's stunning lighting design involved dramatic shifts of opaque white to midnight blue that seemed to syncopate with Stravinsky's savage rhythms. The lighting often foretold the movement, changing a second before the soloist switched from walking a diagonal to carving a circle, or when she transformed from bird to cat.

It is impossible to describe Fenley's piece without reverting to animal descriptions. "State of Darkness" has different movement themes that could just as easily be thought of as different animals, yet the human is always present. There is a signature circling of the arms, and it occurs in three ways. In one, the arms circle almost like a jogging warm-up or a boxer readying to enter the ring; there is a straight line, and we follow the line through the air to form the circle. In another, the arms circle with the elbows bent, so that the sensation of flight is created. The hands are still up in the air, open in a wide "V" -- a Fenley port de bras and a vigorous invocation. And finally, the arms circle with the elbows entirely bent, the port de bras no longer moving from the shoulder or the back, the hands clutched into the body, the wings now broken. It hurts to watch.

On June 1, Foster coolly demonstrated her ability to defy black holes by negotiating the pull of emptiness. She is not sucked into darkness, nor is she cornered by the exotic madness that is the call of Stravinsky's high bassoon. Rather, she stands in the central circular spot of white light, surrounded by that midnight blue, and suddenly descends, one leg bent, one leg straight to the side. The descent is lyrical, powerful. Foster pushes gravity down, deeper into the earth, elegantly revealing a way to negotiate our earth-bound lives.

She sculpts and shapes the air around her body, expressing through one sharp motion across her throat, performed starkly and quickly, the very ordinary strength required to face each day. The arm across the throat repeats across the forehead, causing me to think to myself, "This maiden might dance herself to death." Fenley wouldn't succumb to such sentimental weakness. She insists that our individual lives matter. The dancer withstands the force of ritual, withstands the force of darkness in our culture. This dance dialogue with Stravinsky ends in with a virtuosic step forward. Choreographer and interpreter show that no matter life's curves, it is possible to breathe. The dancer's feet are firmly on the ground, the movement is recognizable, accessible, athletic, and as if that weren't enough, Foster is full of grace while encompassing the magnitude that is "State of Darkness."

At the Saturday matinee, James Moore performed a different, no less important, more febrile interpretation. The difference between the two interpretations was not simply one of gender. Moore's long torso and short legs are uniquely suited to Fenley's work. He performs minute movements that resonate throughout the theater. His listening skill is amazing; the right palm cups over the top of the ear, and he oils his eardrum. Of course, that's impossible to witness, but I think you get the sense of how I saw an interior organ on the exterior of his body.

Fenley's choreography includes subtle allusions to Nijinsky: the archaic arm briefly stopped mid-flow and the slight, occasional protrusion of the buttock muscles evoking a primitive sense of propulsion. Closed movement that arises out of the small performance spaces of a downtown choreographer are present, but on McCaw Hall's proscenium stage, and as performed by Moore, these smaller motions weren't lost, merely writ with palpable ease, particularly the crumbly contractions of the abdominal muscles and the tiny, intermittent, scratching hand motions that referenced and in some cases paralleled the abdominal isolations. Yet if I describe these movements as primitive contractions and isolations, I do not give due credit to their refined, receptive, and rippled qualities. Think of bird bones, which are laced with air cavities, combining lightness and strength. Then hear the pumping, barbaric rhythms of Stravinsky's 'Sacre.' Molissa Fenley crafts the body as a hollow cavity; instead of blood coursing through arteries and veins, Stravinsky's rhythms pulse through, making emotions and the subconscious visible.

"State of Darkness" is audacious in its simplicity and utterly bold in its ability to turn our way of seeing the world into a spiral instead of a line. Fenley choreographed the dance during earlier desperate days of HIV/AIDS. Now in 2007, our "State of Darkness" shows the dying gasps of American Exceptionalism. What redeems us is not death, but humanity in the presence of loss. We stay. We live. We step out of the human ritual of war. It's possible -- to stop. Writing in 1989 in High Performance magazine, Ann Daly called the work "an incantation: a rather desperate act of faith in the future of humankind." The incantation is one we still need to hear and to heed. (New York audiences will have the opportunity to do so in December, when Fenley's company performs the piece on one of her Joyce Theater programs.)

The other ballets on the program were also set to Stravinsky: Jerome Robbins's "Circus Polka," and Balanchine's "Rubies" and "Symphony in Three Movements."

Does anyone else find the ringmaster's whip in "Circus Polka" slightly freaky? It's a long enough prod to be used on members of the Order Proboscidea, which is fitting given that Balanchine originally choreographed it for elephants in the Ringley Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The whip snaps didn't bother the gaggle of little girls in the cast as they gazed adoringly at principal Christophe Maraval, who retires this season.

During Benjamin Griffiths's June 1 debut in "Rubies," he looked tentative with the superb Noelani Pantastico, who articulates her fingers in ways usually reserved for the spine. By the matinee the next day, Griffiths had already matured and approached Pantastico with the same abandon with which he performs his jumps. On a similar note, the four men surrounding Lindsi Dec looked intimidated by her luxurious développé and hesitant to rotate and stretch her leg. In general, the men in the corps need a little more Popeye, a little less Olive Oyl. Nevertheless, PNB is a must-see company of exquisite dancers who combine heart and technique, elegance and power.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Kaori Nakamura and Jeffrey Stanton in Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements." Angela Sterling photo copyright Angela Sterling and courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.

"Symphony in Three Movements," conducted by Allan Dameron, showcased the particularly strong partnership of principal dancers Kaori Nakamura and Jeffrey Stanton. I love the moment in the lyrical second movement when Stanton cradles Nakamura from behind. She covers her eyes with the back of her hand, and as he lifts her into his chest, arching backward, her feet stay flexed and her knees bend. Her partner only feels the ridge-like bony protrusions of her vertebrae. Likewise, the back of her hand, the bony part, is what she feels on her face.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Kaori Nakamura and Jeffrey Stanton in Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements." Angela Sterling photo copyright Angela Sterling and courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Part of PNB's stated mission is to "educate and develop dance artists as well as enthusiasts" and to evaluate how it's pursuing that task. On June 16 -- the day before what would have been Stravinsky's 125th birthday -- I attended the annual school performance (in the afternoon) and choreographers' showcase, also performed by students (in the evening). Jean Georges Noverre once wrote (as cited by Mindy Aloff in last year's "Dance Anecdotes," from Oxford University Press): "As for the positions, everyone knows there are five of them.... I shall simply say that these positions are good to know, and still better to forget, and that it is the art of the great dancer to neglect them gracefully." The upper level and professional division PNB school students are beginning "to neglect [those positions] gracefully." In the choreographers' showcase, the breakneck footwork and funky moves in Kiyon Gaines's four-movement "Infinite Intricacies" were an all-out blast. Stacey Lowenberg's "Rushed Goodbye" was a promising choreographic debut; however, Lowenberg doesn't need to rely on pop-music lyrics for emotional impact. The impact exists within an intricately-structured sinewy duet with intertwining lifts and embracing arms, which at certain points hug the air more than the lover. Partnered by Mark Wax, Leah O'Conner, leaving the school to join the company proper, already has the ability to let movement convey the inner world of the heart.

The other pieces on the program -- all commissioned premieres -- riffed off of themes of bully women, fashion runway culture, really mad wilis, and (bear with me here) vaudeville.

In "Mad Maidens," set to the third movement of Francis Poulenc's "Concert Champetre," does choreographer Brian Reeder really mean to suggest that bullies always win? While I appreciated the two all-female trios set against each other with repeated motifs, particularly a fantastic fall from a pirouette to a collapsed fourth position on the ground with a waif-like hand stretching back to the point of defied gravity, the idea that the fall represented domination by the competing trio really disturbed me.

Sonia Dawkins was careful in the program notes to inform us that her "Cu Ture" (no 'L') "is a fashion archetype dance, driven by heavy rhythms and blues beat." Dances based on direct imitation are hard to pull off without seeming superficial, I think, and "Cu Ture" ended up looking more like a series of poses without much dancing at all. I have trouble when dancers are asked to perform ballet in a wham-bam fashion, with lots of angry punch and not much substance.

While the poses in Dawkins's piece were obvious, the meaning of Melissa Barak's "Of the Name They Do Not Speak" was impenetrable. That is, until the lights went up and a dancer sitting behind me explained it to his friends: "It was, like, the wilis on acid take revenge." Once I thought about the never-explained ominous diagonal light, I decided Barak might be experimenting with a theme based on mad wilis. Somehow, I just don't think Vivaldi's music is the best choice for revenge.

Olivier Wevers choreographed a vaudevillian parallel duet, "Liora and Andrew." The Charlie Chaplin walk looks finicky and awkward in pointe shoes, but Andrew Bartee gave the flexed-footed ramble a jaunty air. Bartee is studying this summer at the Royal Danish Ballet School in a brand-new exchange program established by Peter Boal that honors the PNB school's recently retired teacher Flemming Halby, a former Royal Danish Ballet dancer.

While the choreographers' showcase is an opportunity to premiere work, this one showcased the fine training dancers receive at the PNB school from superb teachers such as Halby. The poise of each and every dancer -- no matter the level! -- was ultimately more important than whether the wilis got their revenge or Charlie Chaplin learned how to walk in pointe shoes.

While a dancer in New York City, Renée E. D'Aoust trained at the Martha Graham Center and performed with the Kevin Wynn Collection and other companies. She subsequently graduated from Columbia University (BA) and the University of Notre Dame (MFA). Her writing has been published in literary journals and magazines, and D'Aoust has received Idaho Arts Commission grants, the Julie Harris Award for Emerging Playwrights, and several other awards. A chapter, "Graham Crackers," of her current book project, "Body of a Dancer," received an Associated Writers Program nonfiction award and a "Notable Essay" mention in Best American Essays 2006.

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