Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Next Step” 2013

All in a row, more or less, in Davis' "Fanfare." Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

All in a row, more or less, in Davis’ “Fanfare.” Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

PNB had its 31st annual Next Step showcase earlier this month. The showcase is a vital opportunity for students to perform before an audience and for members of the corps and staff at PNB to practice (or begin) their work as choreographers. Coming from a company so driven by classical fare, and the works of Balanchine in particular, the program was surprisingly diverse. Less diverse were the demographics of the choreographers. It seemed a bit strange to me that all seven were male, but, all the same, each had their own style and voice.

In some cases, the dancing was not as virtuosic as one would like, but the potential of the piece remained clear. In others, the dancers shined despite less interesting material. Several of the pieces used the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra to provide live music, allowing for additional collaboration between young artists of different disciplines and a fully realized performance. Two of these pieces were the highlights of the night and I hope to see them performed again in the future.

 

“Fanfare and Waltz from Sylvia” by Kyle Davis

A video wherein the choreographer could speak about the work preceded each performance. The organizers were right to lead with the work of Kyle Davis, who spoke earnestly and intelligently about dance, the importance of live music, and the healing power of the creative process, as he choreographed this piece while recovering from an injury.

The work was traditional, making for a nice entrée into the evening, but that is not to say that it was predictable. Davis arrangements were pleasing and interesting, alternating between circular and braided movement and more linear forms. The dancers’ were mostly on point, but the movement was not in unison and even hand positions were sometimes glaringly off. It needed more rehearsal, to be sure, but the work itself was a lovely piece and I would welcome a repeat performance.

 

“Marquise” by Sean Rollofson

Rollofson’s video introduction did him no favors—it may be too much to ask all dancers to be articulate—but it at least gave some insight into why the piece was as it was. If you were to ask me what I thought of the choreography, my answer could only be, “What choreography?” The dancing was athletic, but so scattered that it came across as a montage from Charlie’s Angels. (I wish I could claim that comparison as my own because it is in fact a perfect way of putting it. Alas, a friend beat me to it after the performance.) Rollofson himself admitted in the video it was intended as a showcase for the four female dancers—all friends and soon-to-be graduates of the PNB school—to play to their individual strengths. I hope it worked for them. It certainly seemed like they all enjoyed themselves, but by not giving it any unity at all, the dancers weren’t showcased so much as lost among each other, leaving no lasting impression individually or as a whole.

It didn’t help that Rollofson chose Karl Jenkins’ “Palladio” as the soundtrack—AKA, the De Beers commercial music—which is about as unimaginative and bourgeois as it gets. His decision to use a rock-infused version (as if played by Mannheim Steamroller or the like) only made matters worse and really imprinted the performance with that slapstick Angels energy. Sorry, Charlie.

 

From Hipolito's "Give me flowers..." Photo by Lindsay .

From Hipolito’s “Give me flowers…” Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

“Give me flowers while I can still smell them” by Eric Hipolito Jr

This was the first piece of the night that combined truly challenging movements with a demand for unison. I give Hipolito credit for that, and can see the potential in the piece, even though the dancing was quite rough. Despite using WA Mozart’s “Quartet in F Major,” which SYSO could have played, Hipolito opted for a recording, and I don’t blame him. Dancers have to think more when performing to live music, and apparently the three pairs had more than enough to keep their minds and feet occupied.

I enjoyed the early American aesthetics, both in costuming and movement, as moments seemed to pay homage to Shakers and early musical theatre, then returned to the leaps and turns one more typically expects at the ballet. It was classic without being completely traditional. Randall Chiarelli (who designed the lighting for all seven works) made good choices in lighting, too, giving the dancers a melancholy but flattering twilight, a sense of vastness that never felt filled by the dancers, which was an apt but non-literal approach to the themes of mortality to which the title alludes. It is a piece that deserves to be revisited by the choreographer and perhaps more ably performed in the future.

 

“The Spaces Between” by Price Suddarth

The centerpiece of the night was also the highlight. Suddarth’s breathtakingly beautiful duet received a well-deserved standing ovation, thanks in large part to the dancers Saho Kumagai and Isaac Aoki, both of whom performed in multiple pieces throughout the night. Credit also goes to SYSO for their splendid performance of Olafur Arnalds achingly dulcet songs “Film Credits” and “Fyrsta.”

Isaac Aoki and Saho Kumagai in "The Spaces Between." Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

Isaac Aoki and Saho Kumagai in “The Spaces Between.” Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

So much could have gone wrong in bringing all these pieces together. The music is slow and melancholy and without much variation, setting Suddarth up to create something repetitive or redundant to the music. Instead, he used the repeating strains to develop the pair’s movements, balancing moments of intimacy, contact and control with delicate exchanges between the dancers where contact is refused or playfully avoided. Between the two songs was a gap of silence in which the dancer’s kept moving without missing a beat. One might have felt a strange sense that this gap was unintentional or too on the nose. Either way, the gap wasn’t disruptive to the piece, nor was it terribly effective in expanding on his theme. This doesn’t matter because it was so well executed in every other way—truly a beautiful work from an exceptionally promising young artist.

 

“I don’t know what to call it” by Andrew Bartee

I really want to like Bartee’s choreography because I enjoy his dancing so much. However, I have seen two pieces by him in the last month and both were disappointing. In both cases, the work was contemporary and attempted to address personal dynamics. The previous piece, “This is real,” dealt with jealousy between two female friends once a man entered the picture, but the effect was more “This is reality TV,” as the girls were reduced to a shrew and a simpleton, unflattering caricatures. “I don’t know what to call it” presents a much stronger female character who breaks from a synchronized, insular group dynamic, but the flip title says a lot about the choreography, which was performed with the control and unity that the theme demanded but was not terribly interesting or challenging to the audience.

This is surprising, as Bartee does not shy from challenges as a dancer. In the same show that presented “This is real,” he was exquisite in his solo performance of Annabel Lopez Ochoa’s demanding “L’Effleur.” Bartee shows real mastery of his body as an instrument and in the video preceding the performance he illuminated how as he choreographs he acquires more sensitivity to the way that dancers are unique in whence in the body they lead and move. This, he states, makes him more aware of his own movements, admitting there is more to learn even in realms where he is clearly more masterful than many others—and such humility is refreshing.

I am optimistic about Bartee’s future as a choreographer and dancer. He’s young and he’s definitely working to incorporate elements that will appeal to a more youthful audience, which is important for the longevity of dance. However, youth culture does not often have very interesting things to say. Meanwhile, he is still exploring and developing his own idiom of movement. Combined, these two aspects make the work seem jejune, indeed, but given time to mature they could lead to something truly unique and refreshing. I commend him and all the dancers and choreographers for putting themselves to this test as they are just starting out in their careers. I don’t know what to call it either—other than an indication of a promising career in progress.

 

“Beila” by Jonathan Porretta

Porretta is the most seasoned dancer and choreographer of the evening and his work set to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major was a solid little work. Cellist Naomi Tran performed well, as again did dancer Saho Kumagai with Laurel Benson and Therese Davis. Bach’s “Suite” is one of those universally known and beloved pieces that seems to embody the Baroque era, and the dancing was true to that—traditional but not derivative, never bravura but never too dull. It was not terribly memorable, feeling more like an etude, but one can’t demand that every piece to be a masterpiece. It was enjoyable and well-performed, and still felt unique among the six other pieces, proving again the range of possibilities cultivated in the program.

 

“Ich Liebe Dich” by Ezra Thomson

The night came to a satisfying close with this joyous production set to the “Adagietto” of Mahler’s Fifth. Even the introductory video was entertaining, as Thomson’s unpretentious, unaffected way of speaking about his creative process revealed an earnest artist who (without even trying) obliterates popular caricatures of ballet dancers and choreography as stodgy or fussy.

“Ich Liebe Dich” bookended the evening nicely with the first piece, filling the stage with strong, energetic performances that felt firmly in control. As with most all the performances, a little more rehearsal could have been beneficial, but if I were to rank them I would place this second only to Suddarth’s “Spaces.” While that piece feels more or less finished and contained, Thomson’s work could stand alone or be part of a much longer work—one that I would be happy to see. Between these two, the night was a resounding success, but the whole program left one quite certain that PNB is a world-class institution for dance and will remain so as it cultivates a loyal and local talent pool willing to take risks and—in many cases—achieve real beauty.