Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “New Works”: A Review By Someone Who Knows Nothing About Ballet

Photo by Angela Sterling. Source.

I’m always amazed by the disconnect between how much time I imagine it will take to curl my hair, and how much time it takes in actual process. In the bathroom we have no clock for some reason and whenever I emerge, hair a touch singed but satisfactorily voluminous, I am inevitably just shy of late. I can’t leave the house without mascara, so I am just leaping get into my car at the moment when I am actually meant to already be at McCaw Symphony Hall.

The symphony hall’s closest parking garage costs thirteen dollars for an evening. I’m certain that I can find parking for free on Queen Anne’s residential streets, but in a cycle of haste leading to waste I travel too far down Mercer and end up trapped on the other side of Aurora, which is impossible to cross back over. I circle widely back to my starting point, and spot a prime parking spot in the free zone, only two blocks from 321 Mercer. I pass a meter maid as I swoop into the spot, usually a bad omen, but I’m certain of my good luck and in too much of a hurry to wonder if he portends evil.

I meet my friend, Joerg, at the bottom of the stairs, and he hands my ticket over with a flourish. Joerg is a German gentleman with a passion for cycling and ballet; I met him last summer at a party on a mutual friend’s rooftop. Joerg is on the board for Backstage Pass, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s social and educational group for patrons in their 20s and 30s, and he has invited me to several events so far; this is the first I’ve been available to attend.

The first bell has already rung, but Joerg invites me to the Backstage Lounge, where the wine and chocolates are complimentary. I take a glass of the red and try to look as though I belong; I hope no one asks me anything about dance. The first and last time I attended the ballet I was twelve. I went with my mother to a preview night so I could satisfy an arts and culture requirement for school. It was luminescent; strange looking back that I had not gone again. Until now.

The second (or third) bell rings. I turn around so no one can see me, and quickly tip back the remaining contents of my glass. I rush to Joerg’s side and he extends an elbow in a friendly gesture of gallantry; I lean into him and we find our seats. A soothing female voice over the sound system announces two changes to the cast, one male and one female. The audience murmurs appreciatively.
“No one will complain!” Joerg says, chuckling.
“Are their replacements good?” I ask.
“Oh, yes. The female dancer, Carla, is the closest thing the PNB has to a prima ballerina.”

The first piece, “A Million Kisses to My Skin,” begins. The curtain rises, and one lone ballerina strides purposefully to the front of the stage. I’m struck by the controlled stiffness of her walk. It isn’t what one would expect from someone who is, ostensibly, constantly aware of her own body.

She is joined by more danseurs, male and female. Their costumes are spare: plain leotards, tights and shifts, in varying shades of blue. Joerg points Carla out to me; I notice only that her thighs are less visibly muscular than some of the other danseuses, and lose her quickly among the lookalikes.

The dancers bound cheerfully around stage to a springy piece by Bach. When I later ask Joerg which his favorite piece is, he says, “A Million Kisses,” because the dancers’ exuberance illustrates the sheer joy of dancing. Evidently the piece pushes balletic boundaries, but I can’t tell; it looks like classic ballet to me, as I know as little of ballet as a hamster knows of calligraphy. I’m astounded and mesmerized by the easy grace with which every dancer moves. I know that there is effort and years of technical skill behind each pirouette, but the ballerinas look relaxed; they make their bodies move like elegant Silly Putty. I’m entranced by the globular buttocks of a prancing danseur, mildly smitten, until I remind myself not to entertain vain crushes on men who are probably gay.

The curtain descends and Joerg and I return to the Backstage Lounge. I snag another glass of wine as a male dancer steps up to a microphone in the corner. The danseur is dark-haired and slight; he wears khaki pants and chunky red skater shoes. He looks like a freshman in college, but he speaks confidently about the third piece, “Mating Theory,” in which he’ll be dancing. He looks a little wry, a little tender, as he remarks on the rehearsal process.

“Our choreographer, Victor Quijada, comes from a street dancing background, so his approach is a bit unorthodox,” he says. “During rehearsals, he would tell us, “pretend you’re suspended in water;” “pretend to be mashed potatoes;” “pretend the air is a brick.” I had no idea how to do those things. I still kind of don’t.” He is charming.


It’s already evident, as the curtain rises, that “Cylindrical Shadows” is a very different piece from “A Million Kisses.” The dancers are wearing fluttery shirts and dresses in ombre jewel tones, but they stand in rigid lines, moving their arms and heads in jerky unison. There is a purposeful dissonance between the street-influenced choreography and the classical music that accompanies it. It’s as if the dancers had learned to breakdance, but were conditioned to dance only to Bach.


 A pas de deux begins between an unusually tall danseur in blue and a danseuse in pink, and I wonder, briefly, if the gender dichotomy was intentionally highlighted. In a moment, however, I am thinking of nothing but the dance. It is excruciatingly sweet, the dancers so perfectly in tandem that they look like lovers long familiar, but still completely infatuated. The wine has kicked in by now, and I am totally enraptured, literally on the edge of my seat, a little tearful; I’m having flashbacks from my last great relationship. This, I think, is the height of dance, where every movement meets its complement. When the curtain falls, I applaud ecstatically.

Back at the Lounge, I juggle my clutch and my wine glass so that I may shake hands with Joerg’s friends and fellow patrons of the ballet. I notice a handsome bearded gentleman out of the corner of my eye; I can tell he’s looking at me, and I wonder if it’s because he thinks I’m pretty, or if there’s chocolate in my teeth. I meet Joerg’s chiropractor, an attractive blonde woman, and she asks me what I thought of the last dance. I’m still a little giddy and my praise, for the pas de deux especially, is effusive.

“It almost made me cry,” I gush, “and I’m not a crier!” She smiles indulgently.

The bell rings again and back we go to our seats. I surprise myself when I recognize that I’m excited. I didn’t know I could get excited for ballet.

 “Mating Theory” is the most modern of the three pieces. The women wear plain grey sheaths; the men are dressed like preppy frat boys in grey vests, suit jackets, and ties. The costumes, music, and lighting contribute to evoke an industrial, almost post-apocalyptic scene. The dancers seem divided, as though they are students in strictly boys’- and girls’-only schools. On one half of the stage, the danseurs are posturing, engrossed in a b-boy battle; on the other, the girls watch coyly, then jealously bully each other off-stage.

Another pas de deux begins, this a stark contrast to the love scene from “Cylindrical Shadows.” An earnest danseur pursues a dismissive ballerina. She seems vaguely irritated, but mostly bored, by his interest. As she is chased, the ballerina spurns her suitor repeatedly, arching her body in the opposite direction of every advance; she flexes a foot away from his touch, and he appears devastated. After several minutes of this, the danseur gives up, moving toward the wings of the stage. The light changes, likewise the mood; awash in the yellow glow of an epiphany, the ballerina reaches plaintively toward her beau, and the two are reconciled.

As we depart the symphony hall, I’m mentally rehashing the night already, feeling inspired, wishing I had thought to bring a notepad. I thank Joerg again and again for inviting me, promising my future patronage, pledging to write a review, to drag my friends along next time. He walks me to my car and says goodnight.

The parking ticket I discover on my windshield diminishes my euphoria only a little.

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