Monthly Archives: October 2009

Review: Smuin Ballet: Fall Program

Shannon Hurlburt in Fly Me to the Moon. All photos owned by Smuin Ballet.

Shannon Hurlburt in Fly Me to the Moon. All photos owned by Smuin Ballet.

A few weeks ago, I attended a Smuin Ballet performance for the first time with their Fall Program. Having heard about them several years ago on their famously sold out run in New York, it was a thrill to be able to finally be able to see them live after hearing such positive things about the company from some very picky New York dance fans who are only used to the best dance in the world.

The Smuin Ballet is a small-ish company, yet even in this economy overrun by cutbacks, you get the sense that they are a company that are doing many things right. My first impression when I walked into the Palace of the Fine Arts is the remarkable diversity of its audience. Not only were there the standard white-haired dance crowd, but there was a healthy representation of youth, that elusive target dance audience to build up future audiences – from young professionals dressed to a tee, to the more alternative crowd not normally seen at ballet performances. On a weeknight! Why is it even striking me, as a regular ballet goer, that ballet viewing is a not-big-deal activity that you can pop by the theater for some post-work relaxation with some friends after dinner and drinks? A paradigm shift, indeed.

Another tremendous asset to this company is choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert. Her world premiere piece, Soon These Two Worlds, was the highlight of the night. Set to the music of the Kronos Quartet called Pieces of Africa, Seiwert showcases an intelligent take on the quirky, sweetly lilting music. Propelled by tribal beats, Seiwert combines movements deeply rooted in classical ballet vocabulary with angular geometry and an earthy groundedness with a lower center of gravity in a seamless concoction that’s never obvious or forced (i.e. as opposed to many modern choreographers do these days, announcing loudly, “This is avant-garde choreography”). Surprisingly, this simple concept feels incredibly fresh. Seiwert shows a strong sense of musicality, and there is a thrill in the mercurial steps that constantly shifts and changes at lightning speed. There is a seamless whirlwind of sharp angles and floaty suspension, a playful lightness and athletic attacks. In typical Smuin tradition, this choreography includes a dramatic pseudo-storyline of a couple that comes together and gets gently pulled apart by the corps. This neither adds nor detracts from the piece. A communal warmth pervades, and it is a breathless and thrilling celebration.

Smuin’s Medea followed, where Smuin’s strongly compelling choreography was unfortunately overshadowed by over-the-top theatrics, from the smoke wafting from Medea’s cape to costumes that were suggestive to the point of distraction. I enjoyed this piece much more in rehearsal, where the choreography was more visible without the melodramatic lighting and costumes. The pas de deux between Jason (Matthew Linzer with statuesque lines), and Creusa Princess of Corinth (Terez Dean dancing with sensual edge) is a witty exploration of a gentle yet illicit love story that gets dominated by sensory overload.

Robin Cornwell as Madea. All photos owned by Smuin Ballet.

Robin Cornwell as Madea. All photos owned by Smuin Ballet.

The company lets loose in Michael Smuin’s Fly Me To the Moon, set to the music of Frank Sinatra in the spirit of Broadway. You get the sense that the Smuin Ballet feels truly at home in this piece, with this company that shows itself to be a company of performers that sell every single moment to the umpteenth degree. It struck me how rare it is to see this much nostalgia without a hint of irony or darkness (such as Paul Taylor’s Company B or Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite). It was a bit one-note for my taste, but no one seemed to mind as the audience reveled in the rosy nostalgia of simpler times. It offered the perfect moment of escapism in these rocky times.

Be sure to catch this program in February in Walnut Creek. This program will also be shown in Mountain View and Carmel. The Smuin Ballet’s holiday program begins on November 27.

The Smuin Ballet

Review: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Romeo et Juliette

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

This past weekend, I took a trip up to Seattle and got to experience the wonder that is Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Romeo et Juliette. It was a production totally worth the trip.

Truth: Romeo and Juliet has never been my favorite ballet. Despite the witty music by Prokofiev that accompanies the ballet wonderfully conducted with acerbic bite and lush overtones by conductor Stewart Kershaw, I’ve become so numb to the overtold plot. The characters are just a tad precious and one-dimensional victims blamed on a closed-minded society. The Elizabethan costumes feel outdated, and Romeo and Juliet spend an awful lot of time running around the stage, emoting, either alone or with each other.

The PNB production changes all of this for me, and more. It reminds me that it truly is a timeless story, with a wealth of untold beauty still left to discover. Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot ingeniously uses a seamless mixture of gestures, ballet, and sharply modern angles to tell a richly detailed and dramatic story. With its sleek and minimal sets by Ernest Pignon-Ernest and lighting by Dominique Drillot, this production solves the problem of bringing this overdone story of Romeo and Juliet into a production that the modern ADHD blockbuster loving audience will clamor to see. And so it succeeds.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Olivier Wevers (center) as Friar Laurence, with (L&R) corps de ballet dancers Jordan Pacitti and Jerome Tisserand in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Olivier Wevers (center) as Friar Laurence, with (L&R) corps de ballet dancers Jordan Pacitti and Jerome Tisserand in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot made this ballet read more like a well-written novel, rather than a ballet where characters and plot are mere vehicles for spectacular dancing. The result is a production that’s smart, ingenious, heartfelt, dramatically tragic, and wickedly funny. The ballet opens grippingly with the freakishly weird Friar Lawrence, danced deliciously by Karel Cruz, a character torn with the responsibility and burden of playing a vital part in this tragedy. Romeo lies dead on the side. Friar Lawrence’s mouth opens in a horrified, soundless scream at the horrific results. This opener brings to mind the prologue of the Shakespearean play, where the conclusion is presented before the play flashes back to the events leading to the conclusion. Themes of fate and destiny and chance are reflected in his tortured movements, and at one point, he tries to stop the sets as they move around the stage, as if trying to prevent the deadly ending.

Carla Korbes. Photo © Angela Sterling

Carla Korbes. Photo © Angela Sterling

Juliet danced by Carla Korbes, is not the typical Juliet, naïve and virginal, unaware of her entry into womanhood and marriageability, a sacrificial lamb in the hands of fate and family pride. This Juliet is the one who first spots Romeo in the crowd. She’s the one who, after escaping his advances, runs to him and makes the first move to kiss him. In an emotional climax in the balcony pas de deux, Romeo slides through her legs and she flings herself back in a gorgeous moment of vulnerable and eager surrender (photo above). Dancing before the bed in the bedroom scene, she reaches urgently towards the bed first as they are spinning around in the throes of young love, and lays seductively on the bed to urge him to join her. Korbes’ Juliet is a woman with spirit and wit, and for the first time, I believed that this is a Juliet that could have the brains and courage to participate in such a risky plan. Korbes’ performance is one of the moment with every moment fresh and new, perfused with thrilling spontaneity and heartbreaking determination.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Romeo and his friends act as a lot of college boys that I know, and they aren’t the gentlemen or as old-fashioned as they are sometimes made out to be. They’re hormonal, passionate, moody, and have fiery tempers that flare at alarming rates. Romeo, danced with boyish vulnerability by Lucien Postlewaite, hesitates at first in the balcony pas de deux that’s refreshingly awkward, hesitant, ecstatic, and more than a little erotic. He reveals his uncertainty, insecurity, and doesn’t always know what he wants. He cops a feel during the normally pure and ideal balcony pas de deux (ah, young love), and gently and wholeheartedly grows into the passionate lover who stumbles onto the love of a lifetime. When he kills Tybalt, he seems to lose it as he kills with unspeakable violence. Mercutio is the class clown who knows no bounds where everything is a joke. Harassing the nurse, he accidentally ends up palpating Tybalt’s pecs instead. He doesn’t realize when things go too far, leading to his self-destructive tragic demise. Jonathan Porretta skyrockets through the air as Mercutio, giving him a heart of fire in an explosive performance that’s unexpectedly heartfelt as well.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Batkhurel Bold (as Tybalt) and Jonathan Porretta (as Mercutio) in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Batkhurel Bold (as Tybalt) and Jonathan Porretta (as Mercutio) in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

There are many more noteworthy characters to mention. Lady Capulet and Tybalt, danced by Ariana Lallone and Batkhurel Bold, represent the stern and severe Capulet family. Lallone’s tall lines give Lady Capulet a regal, proper air that leaves no room for love in her daughter’s plan for marriage. Bold, as Tybalt, was an intimidating force. And was I the only one who imagined a disturbing incestuous relationship between Lady Capulet and her nephew?? Jeffrey Stanton as Paris sniffs Juliet in a creepy manner in a brief moment near her, revealing himself to not quite be the ideal husband material as Juliet’s mother made him out to be. Carrie Imler took over the stage as the nurse who was both sassy and motherly.

Maillot’s richly cinematic Romeo et Juliette proved to be that classics never grow old. Classics were never meant to be museums of tradition or to be coddled, but to be infused with fresh intellect, humor, and emotion. Audiences want to be swept up and entertained as well as intellectually challenged, and this moving production wildly succeeded. This production is a rare jewel that deserves to be seen again and again.

Pacific Northwest Ballet website

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Carla Körbes in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Photo © Angela Sterling.

PNB’s Romeo et Juliette: curtain call

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Hi everyone – I’ve been feeling guilty about being so behind on my blogging. Right after coming back from Seattle, I got swamped preparing for a huge committee meeting today (wish me luck!), and then I’m off to Smuin Ballet tonight. I really wanted to give Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Romeo et Juliette a thoughtful, detailed review. So for now, I’m posting a curtain call photo of the performance’s luminous leads, Carla Korbes and Lucien Postlewaite.

I also have to share a giddy fangirl moment – Tonya, you inspired me! The backstage crew at PNB were nice enough to lead me backstage to meet Carla and to say hello. There couldn’t have been a more thrilling moment for me, and it was a pleasure to tell her how amazing her performance was. She was so sweet to meet with me, even though she hadn’t even changed out of her costume yet.

It’s a production that was totally worth the flight up to Seattle, and it’s a production that the world needs to see. More to come soon.

Check out PNB’s Facebook page for photos and videos, and Carla Korbes’ personal take on The Winger.