By RM Campbell
Every so often Pacific Northwest Ballet devotes an evening to the work of George Balanchine, such as the mixed bill which opened Thursday night at McCaw Hall. These programs are always welcome not only because they are danced well, but they are done with an authentic voice.
The company, which merged from the embrace of Seattle Opera in the early 1970’s, has always done Balanchine. His ballets, his style, his philosophy are at the very root of the company. All of the company’s artistic directors were members of New York City Ballet, which he founded with Lincoln Kirstein. Janet Reed and Melissa Hayden, both stars, were the first. They didn’t stay long. Then, in 1977, came Kent Stowell and Francja Russell. They are now called founding artistic directors, which is not accurate historically but in fact, they made the company over a span of more than 25 years. At the beginning there was little more than a fledging school, no money and a lot of hype which turned people against the company and Stowell and Russell. After some years running the Frankfurt Ballet, they wanted to return to the United States to live and raise their sons. So, they stayed. Ballet in America was just starting to blossom, and blossom it did in Seattle. What we have now is a result of their hard work, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. When they retired Peter Boal, a leading dancer at City Ballet, took their place. And so the tradition continues. Fortunately, Boal has had the good sense to keep Russell in the ballet studio when she is in town to coach dancers and to stage various Balanchine ballets. Within hours after the opening she goes to Milan, with Stowell, to stage more Balanchine — “Ballet Imperial” — a debut for her at La Scala.
Two of the ballets on PNB’s program — “Serenade” and “The Four Temperaments” — were staged by her, and her crisp, immaculate style remains true. Boal staged the third ballet, the ebullient “Square Dance.” The three ballets were choreographed within 20 years of one another: “Serenade,” in 1934, the first ballet Balanchine did in his adopted country; “Four Temperaments” came a dozen years later and “Square Dance,” in 1957. Stowell and Russell arrived in fall with their first assignment to get “Nutcracker” on stage. It was a struggle and performances were not pristine, but audiences came and the company began to move forward. Only two months later, Russell set “Four Temperaments” on the company. Undoubtedly it was not ready for such a challenge but challenges it needed and the dancers had Russell’s sure hand, one that Balanchine trusted, to guide them. The next season opened with “Serenade,” again with Russell staging the work.
Both ballets have gone through major shifts since their premiere. Russell uses the versions she knew when she was with the company in the late 1950’s and 1960’s as soloist and ballet mistress. Indeed, when the company made its City Center debut in midtown New York more than a decade ago, the critics were particularly interested in seeing what Russell had remembered. It was an education. That is what we see today, with their steps and spirit intact.
“Serenade” is always welcome, for the sheer beauty of movement, the now iconic steps and gestures, the sheer fluidity that mirrors Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C. The ballet is done by so many companies all over the world that it has become one of the best-known, and loved. The music, chronologically between “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” is Tchaikovsky at his most romantic. It is lushly enveloping. The choreography is enveloping too but for different reasons. Seamless phrases are everything. Alastair Willis, who conducted, captured it in the music, and Russell captured it in the dancing, each with translucent textures. It is hard not to succeed in “Serenade,” but it is not so easy for the movement to be distilled and even-handed. It was on Thursday night. There was also a sense of mystery quietly evoked, imbued at every moment in a fastidious but lyrical performance. The women in the corps, sometimes called “the sisterhood,” moved with graceful wonder and liquid style. They sustained the sense of the piece with seeming ease and elegance. Special note to Mara Vinson and Kaori Nakamura.
“Four Temperaments” is historically important and it has also played a major role in PNB’;s repertory. At one time, it was as close as the company got to a signature ballet, particularly on the road. It is not hard to see why. It is modern in its edge, the breaking with tradition yet holding onto it at the same time. It is bold and cool, a kind of ritual, a work of genius like “Serenade.” What seems so amazing to me is how contemporary it appears today, more than a half century since its inception. And endlessly fascinating. There are several major parts, two solos for men (Jonathan Porretta and Olivier Wevers), one for a woman (Ariana Lallone) and one for a couple (Nakamura and Jeffrey Stanton). In a word, the dancers were brilliant, although for different reasons. Porretta in “Melancholic,” was poignant, a quality he did not always have. Indeed, his dramatic abilities have strengthened to equal his sure-footed technique. Wevers, in “Phlegmatic,” never seems to fail, whatever his assignment, and he did not in this work. He took the whole work, with its many parts, and made it a coherent whole. Lallone, in “Choleric,” was perfectly cast, at once theatrical, imperious and completely persuasive. Nakamura and Stanton possessed sweeping clarity.
“Square Dance” was performed between “Serenade” and “Four Temperaments.” It is not of earth-shattering importance, but it possesses so much eclat, coupling American country dancing and European court dancing, that it entertains at a very high level. That is provided the dancers are up to what Balanchine throws at them. It has long been a part of PNB’s repertory and is now the responsibility of Peter Boal, who once danced the steps. There is elegance allied with sheer fun. The leading couple were Lucien Postlewaite and Carrie Imler. Postlewaite grows as an artist every program it seems and certainly that would be the case with “Square Dance.” His sense of lyrical expansion has rarely been greater. When PNB was in New York some years ago, before Imler became a principal, maybe even a soloist, critics took note of her; That promise has been fulfilled. In this piece, her electric technique is put to a full test for speed, quickness, versatility. It is extremely difficult. There are so many details that need to be executed with little preparation or rest. Imler took no notice. She danced through all the tough stuff with finesse and confidence and force. This was sheer bravura dancing,
There were several dancers in leading roles we have not seen recently on opening night, including Imler, Porretta and Stanton. They have been missed.
It was very welcome to hear an orchestra in the pit again, even if it is only a string orchestra, plus a piano for the :”Four Temperaments,” played with accuracy and astuteness by Christina Siemens. Some ballet companies, financially pressed, have dropped the orchestra all together. One hopes that will never happen in Seattle. Allan Dameron and Judith Yan were the able conductors in “Square Dance” and “Four Temperaments,” respectively.