|Best Feet Forward
by Sandra Kurtz
There are probably as many clichés about beginnings (start with your best foot forward, begin as you mean to continue, a good beginning is half the battle) as there are projects that people have begun, which is why it's tricky to write about Peter Boal's inaugural program at Pacific Northwest Ballet without sounding like an aphorism. But he has indeed begun with his best foot forward, and I would be glad if he were to continue as he has started. It's not so clear that a good beginning is half the battle in this case, if developing a thriving ballet company is indeed considered a battle at the beginning of the 21st century. Boal has assembled a strong collection of works for "Director's Choice," his first program in his first season in Seattle, and the dancers have matched it in the strength of their performances, but at least some of the credit for that goes to the recently retired Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. A ballet company is the product of long-term development, and although Boal has begun well, it will take some time to see the results of any significant changes he might make.
What is easiest to see now is his choice of dances and of dancers. This opening salvo included some smart and thoughtful decisions, and some unexpected results. Boal chose a pair of Balanchine works new to an audience already familiar with the choreographer's ballets, a Forsythe from existing repertory, and a piece by Jerome Robbins, whose dances are less well known here. His "In the Night" opened the program on a subtle note, as the audience sighed at the twinkling "starlight" that begins the piece. When it was first made, many critics felt it was a thinner extension of his seminal "Dances at a Gathering" but it has proved a long-lived work, its trio of couples offering a variety of dramatic challenges for the performers. Like Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, Robbins can create characters and tell their stories within the confines of classical ballet, and the various relationships we see in this work, from the tenderly conventional to the tempestuous, all exist in that world.
As you might expect, Boal has brought fresh eyes to casting decisions, and although long-time audience favorites are still featured, they may be seen in roles outside their usual fare. With her height and her extraordinary facility, Ariana Lallone often dances works that put her at the center of a vortex, like the Harlot in Kent Stowell's "Carmina Burana" and Choleric in "The Four Temperaments." She isn't often put in softer or more romantic roles, but last spring she gave a tender performance in selections from Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer," and Boal is using that facet of her skills in the Robbins casting her with Stanko Milov as the mazurka couple. In this part, her quickness, which is usually joined with strength as she powers through the space, is tempered by her knowing relationship with her partner and the shifting accents of the folk dance itself.
The volatile moments in the work are left to Louise Nadeau, partnered with Christophe Maraval as the third couple. Rushing at him and running away, thrashing or fretting, Nadeau dances on a fine line between character and caricature without putting a foot wrong. He has a temper as well, so that when she prostrates herself toward the end of their first duet, he is not just a noble and forgiving cipher, but someone who cares deeply for a difficult woman.
Between this ballet and a new production of Balanchine's "Duo Concertant," this is Nadeau's program. She has seemed a bit subdued in the last couple of seasons, but has re-emerged with the initial gala program in September and this series of performances. Initially paired with Li Yin (who is coming back from an injury himself) in the Balanchine, she takes the initiative to his more subdued interpretation. When they step away from the piano to begin dancing she leads the way, looking back once to make sure he's coming, and taking his hand to draw him out further. From there she breezes through the catalog of references to other Balanchine ballets ("Serenade," "Prodigal Son." and "Apollo" most notably) until she's caught by the spotlight and made into an icon. In another cast, Noelani Pantastico and Olivier Wevers are more evenly matched in their blithe enjoyment, so that the reversal at the end is less dramatic.
William Forsythe has often remarked that he feels like a descendant of George Balanchine, and seeing his "Artifact II" on this program with Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements" points up that relationship. Although the general ambience of the two works is very different, (the matter-of-fact ritual feeling in Artifact not much like the bright lights and zest of Balanchine's industrial athleticism) their use of the corps de ballet is equally unusual. In both works the ensemble opens up the space (sometimes literally, standing in the wings) and clears the way for the solo figures. And towards the end of "Symphony in Three Movements," the cast does a series of slashing arm gestures as grandly arbitrary as anything in the Forsythe canon.
Boal has made some interesting casting choices here as well, pulling Chalnessa Eames and Karel Cruz out of the corps to partner with Christophe Maraval and Maria Chapman, and introducing newcomer Carla Körbes (whose departure from NYCB was roundly lamented) to the Seattle audience. Ariana Lallone and Olivier Wevers have both danced this work before, and their ferocious performance builds on that familiarity, but the others do equally well. Eames repeatedly stalks and pounces, while Körbes makes the overarching patterns of the choreography as clear as a cookbook.
Carrie Imler and Jonathan Poretta are often cast as powerhouse dancers so it's really no surprise when they come flying out of the wings in the first section of "Symphony in Three Movements," but like the Energizer bunny they just keep going on and on. Jodie Thomas and Jordan Pacitti don't have that same reputation yet, but their performance had a similar intensity. Both of them are fairly compact, moving quickly rather than getting tangled up in a welter of limbs, they are deceptively powerful. Patricia Barker took some time to find her equilibrium in the central pas de deux. Usually serene even in the most twisty moments, during the opening weekend it took her until midway into the duet, as she and her partner majestically rise and sink in long, smooth phrases, to project her standard sense of control.
Everyone seems to be dancing full-out and then some, perhaps a result of Boal's coaching, or just a desire to find their spot in a changing environment. During all this shifting the audience gets to see some different faces in unfamiliar roles, either developing new skills or polishing up existing ones. As he continues the long process of building on foundations already here, Boal graciously acknowledges the debt to his predecessors whenever he speaks in public. Which is often, as he is introduced and re-introduced at lectures, fundraisers, panel discussions, and curtain speechesjust as Stowell and Russell said goodbye over and over throughout their last season, it looks like Boal will be saying hello at least until next June.
Volume 3, No. 39