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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 20, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 12
Pacific Northwest Ballet: 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe'
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Pacific Northwest Ballet: 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe'

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

'THE VERTIGINOUS
THRILL OF FORSYTHE'
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
MCCAW HALL
March 13-22


The Pacific Northwest Ballet's current program is a full evening of works by the innovative and controversial choreographer William Forsythe, brought together by the equally daring director of PNB, Peter Boal, and performed by the brave and brilliant young dancers who take their lives in their hands (and their feet) to perform these technically difficult and risky dances.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'vertiginous' means 'liable to cause vertigo or dizziness; a state of giddiness' - thus 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe' refers to the three dance sequences that are performed at dizzying - and therefore thrilling - speed. By playing on the title of one of the sequences, 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,' director Boal invites us to focus on the vertigo-inducing qualities of the choreography, and on the amazing skills of the dancers who are capable of executing Forsythe's challenging steps. The dancers themselves have said in interviews how thrilled they were to work with Forsythe, how attentive and helpful he was to each dancer, and how he enabled them to rise to his challenges with confidence. Here's my take on these dances, in reverse order of their presentation, but in the order of my sense of vertiginous thrills:

'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated' (1987)
Nine dancers take turns stalking with apparent indifference onto a bare stage, singly, in pairs, or in groups only to burst into dance to an industrial soundscape by Thom Willems. They show off a spectacular range of edgy moves, sometimes in unison, sometimes in competition. I appreciated the detached mood of this work that allows the viewer to simply watch and admire the imagination of the choreographer as inscribed in the bodies and silhouettes of the dancers. This ballet has been around for a long time - last seen in Seattle at PNB in 2000 but with sections available to be seen on YouTube as far back as 1987 - and thrilling in all its parts. It's a dance that doesn't depend on dangerous speed but on the virtuosity of the dancers, whose bodies are frankly and proudly on display, as if in a gym where each dancer is showing his or her chops while pretending the others aren't watching. Though I'm a big lover of classical music, the rhythmic scraping and clanking of the sounds in this dance were the perfect accompaniment to this show-offy display. There are moments where the dancers are asked to improvise - I assume when they are standing somewhat apart from one another - so that the dance has a dimension of collaborative originality in every performance.

'New Suite' (2012)
This collection of seven duets to Handel's Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 and Luciano Berio's Duetti per Due Violini Vol 1 is not exactly new in that they are harvested from Forsythe's years of choreographing longer works in various settings - many in Germany where he was the choreographer in residence at the Frankfurt Ballet. Each couple in this suite was wearing color-matched outfits - a pair in blue, a pair in maroon, a pair in yellow, etc. - and each was responsible for a section of the suite independently from any larger concept of the suite itself, though the music and the costumes suggested such a unity. Though I wish each duet had related to the others more deliberately, they were clearly the creations of the same maker who, over the arc of time the works were created, remained interested in the embodiment of the music on the limbs of the dancers. I was struck by what appeared to be the foregrounding of the male dancers and their virtuosity - which is the opposite of the usual male role in ballet. For instance, when the blue duet began with the girl alone on stage, her movements seemed fairly routine until the boy came out and raised the level of excitement considerably, just as the male partner of the yellow-clad duo was given, in my opinion, far more charming and challenging moves than his partner. When in the post-dance conversation I asked about this apparent favoring of male choreography, director Boal explained that Forsythe is interested in giving male and female dancers equal time and exposure which, in a tradition where the men usually take the back seat as 'cavaliers' to the women, makes them appear to be favored in Forsythe's choreographic world when, in fact, they simply have their fair share of the spotlight.

'The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude' (1996)
If you've seen the PNB posters all over town you've seen the women's 'modern tutus' - rigid green disks that encircle their waists as if they were wearing lily pads or space girl outfits. These re-imagined costumes by Stephen Galloway are certainly modern in appearance, as are the men's backless unitards, but they did nothing to modernize this speedy dance and seemed like a distraction to me, especially since both the dance vocabulary and Schubert's music were a return to the old ballet tradition rather than an exploration of the newer one as 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.' The only new aspect of this breathless dance for three women and two men was the speed, which I assume is the 'exactitude' in the title. While I was impressed by the skill of the dancers as they moved in unison through the whole dictionary of classical ballet turns, steps, and leaps, I kept wishing they would slow down so that we the viewers could absorb what was happening. As it was, we saw a lovely classical ballet performed at hyper-speed in costumes that appeared to have been shipped to the wrong address. It was vertiginous, alright, but I would have been more thrilled if the pacing were varied beyond 'dangerously fast' and the costumes were less distracting than 'Try not to notice my robot-skirt.'

Orchestral Interlude: Overture from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart (1786)
In honor of the PNB orchestra's 25th anniversary, we were once again treated to a wonderful musical moment in keeping with the mood of the evening, I was impressed with conductor Emil de Cou's interpretation of this familiar operatic overture which, detached from its opera, lost its anticipatory quality and took on a much more deliberate and complete life of its own. Rather than singing in its opera voice, it articulated measures in well-executed battements. Mozart would have been as pleased as the audience was to hear this wonderful piece performed with such a distinctive voice. Bravo Maestro de Cou and orchestra!

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