PNB reexamines Tharp

Twyla Tharp’s Opus 111, presented as part of ALL THARP, Nov. 5-14, 2010. Photo Angela Sterling

By R.M. Campbell

Over the past five years, since the arrival of Peter Boal as artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet has been busy acquiring works of Twyla Tharp, including a pair it commissioned a couple years ago. Those were the product of a long residency when Tharp was in house, working with dancers, meeting donors and indulging the press. They are invariably evocative, sometimes compelling, sometimes witty and always inventive. One’s attention does not wander away at any moment.

The company revived three of those pieces Friday night at McCaw Hall: “Opus 111” and “Afternoon Ball,” the commissioned works, plus “Waterbaby Bagatelles,” first danced by PNB four years ago. It was a splendid night at PNB, first-rate, with attention to details and acute dancing by the whole company. I liked “Opus 111” better than I did at the premiere as well as “Waterbaby Bagatelles.” Perhaps they were better danced. Tharp returned to town for the evening.

“Opus 111” is Tharp’s view of Johannes Brahms, taking his Viola Quintet in G, and making a purely abstract piece. The composer intended this work to be his last, but it is hardly autumnal, or as one musicologist noted, a “mournful cry of farewell.” It is fresh and untroubled, bursting with energy. So too Tharp’s choreography. Her ideas are free-flowing, abundant and rich and can be quite faithful to the spirit of the music, although never in a slavish way.
When Brahms is witty, so his Tharp. When he is rustic, so is Tharp in a highly amusing way. And she lovingly suggests the Hungarian influence. I remember thinking that Tharp had run out of steam in the final movement, but its sheer ebullience caught my eye this time. Was it better danced? Perhaps. Certainly the dancers had confidence in the steps Tharp devised for them and seemed both relaxed and disciplined, filling out the movement with marvelous detail and elan.

“Afternoon Ball” is a very different work. It has a program of sorts, real characters. The principal couple at the premiere was astonishing —

Charlie Neshyba-Hodges and Kaori Nakamura. On Friday, Jonathan Porretta took the male role and Chalnessa Eames the female. It was very good to see Porretta on opening night. His absence has been noted. He is arguably the best technician in the company and has become one of the most versatile. When he joined the ensemble in 1999, he was bright-eyed, fresh-faced, full of enthusiasm. A jester in many ways. Then one did not see the other side of the coin, the kind of dancer who has dramatic skills such as required in “Afternoon Ball.” He was compelling — actually Porretta is always compelling — intense and completely persuasive. His character is one of anguish and pity. All that Porretta summoned and more. Eames is very good as the girl, wholly different than what one would expect. Olivier Wevers repeated his role as the guy almost totally divorced from his surroundings. He is so loose, so quick, so seemingly nonchalant, so arresting he doesn’t seem quite real. How well he dances. The well-manicured, polite couple — Ariana Lallone and Jeffrey Stanton — that serves as counterpoint to the trio was just right.

The costumes for “Opus 111” and “Afternoon Ball” were designed by Mark Zappone. Yet again, he has captured the mood of the moment with subtlety and flair. The performance was dedicated to the memory of his mother, Katherine E. Zappone. Randall G. Chiarelli’s lighting design was apropos.

I did not remember “Waterbaby Bagatelles” with any fondness. That seems inexplicable to me now. Not everything, of course. The concluding sections of the work seem less successful, more routine than the first ones. The lead dancers were superb: Batkhurel Bold, Carrie Imler, Lucien Postlewaite; Carla Korbes, Karel Cruz, Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths. Bold seems to get better every time I see him — freer and more poised. Cruz, Griffiths and Foster are also on a steady upward rise. Postlewaite, who is asked to do much and does it well. Korbes is simply an astonishing dancer. Imler is also a dancer of great accomplishment, wonderfully consistent.

The music-making was mixed. The Brahms quintet, led by the orchestra’s new concertmaster, Michael Jinsoo Lim, was excellent. Alan Dameron conducted the Vladimir Martynov for “Afternoon Ball” ably. The music for “Bagatelles” was taped. In listening to this mostly orchestral music, I hope people appreciated the difference between canned music and that which is live and excellent. We are lucky to have an orchestra, slowly developed by Stewart Kershaw, who retired last season, of this quality.

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