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S & H Ballet Review

Pacific Northwest Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, 2 – 6 July 2002 (H-T W)



One wonders why foreign ballet companies are not a regular feature in London’s cultural life - the exception being the Kirov Ballet, which thanks to a clever promoter receives VIP treatment by being able to perform either at the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum for extensive seasons. But where are the great companies from Europe or from overseas? The National Ballet of Cuba, New York City Ballet or the American Ballet Theatre, only to name but a few, have not been seen in London for ages. Sadly, there are understandable reasons to avoid the British capital. Despite decades of fighting and lobbying for an adequate dance house, there still does not exist a theatre with a stage big enough to accommodate those companies. They have to cope with the new Sadler´s Wells Theatre, which is sufficient for middle scale companies, but certainly not for the big ones. If they spend all that money to visit London, they rightly want to be seen under the best possible conditions - and they do not exist. Furthermore, London is well known for the hostility of some of its critics towards anything foreign. It is a well-known fact that certain companies and their directors or choreographers have avoided London in the past for exactly those reasons.

 Therefore, the recent visit of the Seattle based Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), under its artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, at Sadler´s Wells Theatre was more than welcome (2-6 July) even if the dancers had to cope with a stage much smaller than they are used to and with the unavoidable jetlag. PNB had left an unforgotten mark during its first ever visit to London - also at the Sadler´s Wells Theatre in February 1999. Then, we experienced a breathtaking interpretation of George Balanchine´s A Midsummer Night´s Dream, never seen in this country before and, subsequently, filmed by the BBC, and a mixed program of American choreographies. It is important to know that PNB´s huge repertoire, consisting of choreographies by Kent Stowell, contemporary works commissioned for the company and classics from the ballet and modern dance repertoire, also includes twenty-five masterpieces by George Balanchine. Both artistic directors were once soloists with Balanchine´s New York City Ballet (NYCB), while Francia Russell was one of the first ballet masters chosen by Balanchine to stage his works all over the world. Thanks to these two outstanding personalities PNB, the NYCB of the west coast, is firmly rooted in the Balanchine tradition.

 The company opened its short season with Silver Lining, a two act evening long showpiece celebrating the genius of Jerome Kern, choreographed by Kent Stowell and first seen in Seattle as the grand finale to PNB´s 25th anniversary in 1998. The orchestral arrangement of thirty Jerome Kern songs by the Seattle based Russell Warner, in the American way brass orientated and gigantic, had been overpowering in its dynamic versatility and rich colours. Congratulations should go to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which managed this enormous task under PNB´s Oxford born music director, Stewart Kershaw. For Kent Stowell Silver Lining has been a labour of love and it is to his and all the dancers credit that one felt the labour only occasionally, but was generally overwhelmed by the sheer love, humour, spirit and never ending energy on stage.

Jerome Kern´s musicals are quintessentially American. Being not too familiar with his output I was fascinated by the variety of tunes and songs, interpreted on stage by the charming soprano Valerie Piacenti, the elegant baritone Erich Parce and even all the dancers. One can have differing opinions about dancers singing - but why not? It worked well and they seemed to enjoy it. But most of all I admired how Stowell transformed the ballroom dancing this music originally asks for into mainly pure classical dance, most of it on point, thereby using the whole range of classical steps and combinations with great effect and imagination. Be it in solos, pas de deux or big ensemble scenes, the dedication and commitment of Kent Stowell and his dancers created a ballet feast of pure entertainment, wit and charm, danced with bravura, ease and obvious joy. The colourful back drops (Ming Cho Lee) and the range of constantly changing costumes (David Murin) played their own distinctive part in creating this unusual version of the American musical theatre tradition. But, ultimately, it was left to the more than forty beautifully trained dancers, who triumphed with a technical fluency and presence one rarely experiences. To single out one of them would not be fair.

Obviously, Silver Lining did not aim to be high art; it mirrors American gaiety and light-hearted temperament. Personally, the evening reminded me of a quotation from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe´s prologue at the theatre in his famous play "Faust", where the manager stresses: "But the main idea is a lot of action. The people come to see things happen; that´s what they like. If a lot is spun before their eyes, so that they can stare with surprise, in the long run you´ve succeeded, and you´re a made man."   

The second program confronted ballet as being one of the most sensitive of the arts, but sadly only in a more or less abstract way; any narrative piece like Limon´s The Moor´s Pavane (not seen here for a long time and part of PNB´s repertoire) was missing. With Balanchine´s Divertimento #15 and Fearful Symmetries by Peter Martins as the two pillars of the evening the contrasts could not have been more convincing. Balanchine´s divertissement for five principal girls, three boys and a corps de ballet of eight girls, choreographed in 1956 for his NYCB, uses Mozart´s Divertimento No.15 in B flat major(K.287). This time, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had a few problems, especially with the solo violin in the last variation of the second movement. Never mind, Carrie Imler danced this variation with such clarity, style, impeccable technique and musicality that the rough violin sound became unimportant. For me, this work, choreographed mainly on the music and on each little phrase, but not so much on the flow of the music, is more sweetex than sugar. It asks for grace, beauty, delicacy and a fluent instinctive musicality, all of which those PNB dancers possessed to the extreme. What a joy, to watch the superior elegance of the Prima ballerina Patricia Barker, primus inter pares of a Balanchine ensemble par excellence.

Peter Martins, who succeed George Balanchine as Ballet-Master-in-Chief of NYCB in 1983, is himself a prolific choreographer, firmly based in the Balanchine tradition. His Fearful Symmetries (1990) to the by now overused, explosive and dangerous score by John Adams is difficult for any orchestra to tackle yet here the RPO was in full control. It had one disadvantage: red costumes in front of a red back trop, which only occasionally changes to blue. Seeing this plot-less ballet for 23 dancers with its endless energy and enormous speed at the end of an altogether exciting, but also exhausting evening, wears one out. My eyes got tired and I have to admit that only a second viewing fully convinced me of its artistic and inventive potential - a brilliant and breathtaking piece, but also a tour de force for the entire ensemble, which did the choreography proud.

The centre part belonged to Jardí Tancat (1983), the first ever work by Nacho Duato, a former member of Netherlands Dance Theatre and now the artistic director of the Madrid based Compania Nacional de Danza. This passionate and intense piece for three couples, based on Catalonian folk tales collected and sung by Maria del Mar Bonet, is danced bare foot and asks for a more contemporary dance like approach. The six dancers - outstanding Ariana Lallone, Kaori Nakamura and Olivier Wevers - had no difficulty in switching styles, thereby creating the necessary atmosphere in which this deeply emotional work could breath.

It was unnecessarily followed by Petipa´s Le Corsaire Pas de Trois, staged by Yuri Fateev, giving three alternating casts the possibility to shine. Sadly, I missed the second one, but the third cast with Kaori Takamura (Medora), Le Yin (Ali) and Astrid Zejnati (Conrad) were near perfect in this spectacular virtuoso showcase and justified its otherwise dubious existence within a program rich of diversity and artistic challenge. The rare, refreshing attitude of all the dancers and their incredible flair, style and presence, as well as their masterly interpretations, made this an enjoyable evening. I wish PNB well and only hope the company will be able to return to London, to give us more of its rich Balanchine repertoire.


Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt

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