Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Pacific Northwest Ballet Shows Sophistication and Flair

Lesley Rausch
REVIEW: Brief Fling

Pacific Northwest Ballet
McCaw Hall, Seattle

The theme running through the sophisticated, contemporary triple bill now in repertoire for PNB is that of yearning. From the audacious fusion of classical and modern elements in Twyla Tharp’s Brief Fling, to the high art and drama of Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land, to Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, PNB’s dancers expressed panoplies of deep emotion: sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly.

Tharp’s Brief Fling is performed here with live music for the first time since its creation in 1990 for American Ballet Theatre. With a daring mix of the modern and the classical set against a background of ever-mysterious Scotland, the work depicts romantic yearning in a whimsical manner, set to a score by the late composer Michel Colombier and Percy Grainger.

The merging of the Baryshnikov and Tharp companies parallels the shifts between Scottish plaid-clad clan members and the impressively adroit Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand in tutu and male classical dance garb. This appealing duo executed the traditional classical steps, integrating subtle knee movements without missing a beat. Other soloists Rachel Foster, Sarah Ricard Orza, James Moore and Benjamin Griffiths kept the momentum lively and the pacing dynamic.

The choreography for Forgotten Land, created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1981 by Jirí Kylián, marries the director’s Czech sensibilities with his impressions of a painting by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Gloomy, brooding, yet ethereal and fantasy-like, the work takes its inspiration from Benjamin Britten’s 1939 Sinfonia da Requiem, and depicts the harsh but romantic elements of land and sea in Britten's East Anglia birthplace. Soloists Rachel Foster, Jerome Tisserand, Emma Love Suddarth, Steven Loch, Elizabeth Murphy and Seth Orza beautifully conveyed the gloomy, dismal atmosphere of Britten’s war torn country, with its constant overtones of death and destruction, via Kylián’s portrayal of the dark, somber tones of Munch’s painting style. Long, arched, sinewy movements, extended legs and arms, flowing white and red-black costumes all emphasized a different kind of yearning from that of Tharp’s tongue-in-cheek romantic dramedy: more tragic, more unrequited, and more aching than the more blatantly sexual desires portrayed in Brief Fling.

Elizabeth Murphy and Seth Orza
Balanchine was a mere 20 years old when iconic impresario Serge Diaghilev introduced him to the already legendary 48-year-old Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine admitted to being awed by the composer, 28 years his senior, and held immense respect for the older man, who was the same age as his father. At the time of their meeting, Stravinsky’s music was considered largely indecipherable to the modern ear. By the time Balanchine choreographed Stravinsky Violin Concerto for his groundbreaking 1972 Stravinsky Festival at New York City Ballet, the composer’s works were an integral part of classical music’s standard repertoire.

Of the more than 400 works Balanchine created in his legendary career, almost 40 of them were based on Stravinsky’s music. Stravinsky Violin Concerto remains among dancers the most popular of the 32 ballets Balanchine created for the Festival. Rightly so, as the ballet still leaps off the stage and into the spectators’ hearts with its ever fresh, arresting movements and eccentric charm, in a score that seems as if the steps were organically placed within the composer’s compositional framework.

The ballet contains not one but two Pas de Deux Arias, interspersed between the opening Toccata movement and the fourth, final Capriccio movement. Seth Orza, Noelani Pantastico, Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand sparkled in the Toccata, deftly executing conventional leaps and entrechats, Russian-style arm movements and stepping on the heels, against the background of rhythmically diverse Stravinskian themes and sub-themes. In Aria I, Rausch and Tisserand pushed the Balanchine/Stravinsky envelope further with a more contemporary take on the composer’s famed neoclassical style, adding their supple athleticism to the modernism of the piece.

It is in Aria II that the romantic longing is portrayed, fragile and introspective. Pantastico and Orza worked beautifully together to communicate the final resignation of the couple, giving in to the inevitability of separation. The Capriccio, performed with explosive energy by the entire company, wraps the package with a golden ribbon of highly charged, sophisticated balletic witticism.

From left: Seth Orza, Noelani Pantastico, Lesley Rausch, Jerome Tisserand & Company
There is no doubt that, even with all the yearning portrayed in its two Pas de Deux, the work overall reflects Stravinsky’s quirky sense of humor. In a joint interview with the composer in 1964, Balanchine relates his impression of Stravinsky’s music at the time of their meeting as largely indecipherable to the modern ear, but later on so accessible that people would whistle it on the street. “Not always,” Stravinsky countered, laughing. “Maybe in the bathroom…because (there) they are absolutely safe.”

The Seattle audience of hardcore balletomanes appreciated Stravinsky’s humor, as well as the jocularity of Brief Fling: laughing, chuckling and tittering softly at the playful use of Scottish folk tunes and reacting audibly in all the other appropriate places. Clearly Seattle is a town where ballet is deeply valued, and Pacific Northwest Ballet is sure to continue to deliver the quality and variety that Green City needs and desires.


BRIEF FLING plays for seven performances only, November 4 - 13 at McCaw Hall.

Photo credits/permissions: Angela Sterling

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