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Celebrating 125th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky
By Erika Wilson
Posted June 3, 2007

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Molissa Fenley’s “State of Darkness”

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Kiyon Gaines and company dancers in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements”

All photos: Angela Sterling


June 17, 2007, is the 125th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s birth—and the Pacific Northwest Ballet is marking the occasion with a dynamic 11-day festival to honor the composer’s contribution to the world of dance. “Stravinsky 125” features four ballets with choreography set to various Stravinsky pieces, from the playful Circus Polka to the darkly intense Rite of Spring.

Igor Stravinsky was born near St. Petersburg in 1882, studied music under Rimsky-Korsakov, and moved to Paris in 1911. His collaboration with Sergei Diaghilev and the famous Ballets Russes produced the Firebird and Petrushka, two exotic ballets based on magical Russian folktales. But French audiences were not yet ready for The Rite of Spring, whose stark and primal score, combined with daring modern choreography, led to riots on opening night in May of 1913. Stravinsky nonetheless continued to compose for the ballet. He moved to the United States in 1940, and his decades-long partnership with the legendary choreographer George Balanchine produced some of the most definitive pieces in the twentieth-century dance repertoire. Two of the four pieces featured in Stravinsky 125—Rubies and Symphony in Three Parts—are Stravinsky-Balanchine works, while Circus Polka was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and State of Darkness by Molissa Fenley.

The opening night of Stravinsky 125, on May 31 in Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in Seattle, began with the hushed and eager anticipation of a full house collectively holding its breath. The orchestra, under the direction of Stewart Kershaw, began the evening with the “Greeting Prelude,” an arrangement of “Happy Birthday” composed by Stravinsky himself and played this evening in his honor. After this brief welcome to the audience, the scarlet curtain lifted on Circus Polka, originally composed by Stravinsky in 1942 for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus as a ballet for elephants. Thirty years later, Jerome Robbins choreographed a new version in which young dancers take the place of the baby animals. In this Seattle premiere, students of the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, wearing tutus in cotton candy shades of pink, green, and blue, whirled about the stage in time with the carnivalesque music. (There is even a ringmaster in a top hat and tails who theatrically flicks a whip, encouraging each young dancer to reach her place in time.) At the end of the ballet, the dancers create a formation that spells I.S. in homage to Stravinsky.

Rubies, choreographed by George Balanchine to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra, is the glamorous second act of Balanchine’s three-part Jewels. A fusion of traditional and modern styles, Rubies combines sumptuous costumes of red satin, velvet and gold with jazzy steps that give the piece a Broadway feel. Soloists Kaori Nakamura and Olivier Wevers, supported by Ariana Lallone and a mixed group of twelve male and female dancers, exhibited a graceful exuberance that meshed perfectly with the playful syncopation of the woodwinds and piano. The ensemble-duet-ensemble structure of the piece enabled the lead dancers to take the stage alone in the middle of the ballet, in a beautiful passage that ended in a lilting embrace. In the final portion of the ballet, the company shows off a vivacious, sassy energy, dancing in a classical style that has been rhythmically transformed by the Jazz Age.

The evening took a dramatic turn with State of Darkness, a solo tour de force choreographed by Molissa Fenley to the music of The Rite of  Spring.  Fenley premiered the award-winning piece herself in 1988, and was in the audience for the PNB performance, a Seattle premiere danced with thrilling intensity by Jonathan Porretta. State of Darkness begins with a single spotlight illuminating the bare stage; the soloist, bare-chested and wearing simple black leggings, appears in a beam of light surrounded by bluish darkness. The Rite of Spring, conceived by Stravinsky as a musical representation of pagan sacrificial rituals, begins quietly but builds quickly to an almost frightening intensity. The brass and tympani are by turns grandiose and threatening, and Porretta’s body mirrored the wildness of the music, skimming the stage with fluid, avian grace. Flying, praying, listening and watching, Porretta’s body alternated between strength and submission, one moment seeming to direct the music, the next bending helplessly under its weight. The lighting, designed by David Moodey, bathed the bare stage in the deep blue and coppery yellow of water and sunlight, so that at times Porretta seemed to be dancing through a sea of gold. In the dance’s final moments, he emerged from the darkened wings of the stage and stepped gently and gratefully into a single circle of white light. The audience burst into an immediate standing ovation, which continued as Fenley appeared on stage to wrap Porretta in a joyful embrace. State of Darkness was a somewhat unusual departure for the classically-focused PNB, but if the enthusiastic response to the premiere is any indication, modern dance may find a place within its repertoire as well.

The final piece of the night was another Balanchine work, Symphony in Three Movements. Costumed in plain leotards of pink, black, and white, the dancers took to the stage in a large ensemble, with male and female dancers in couples and small groups. As in Rubies, the dancing was jazzy and athletic, with an almost kaleidoscopic interplay between symmetrical and random forms. In contrast to the ominous mood of the Rite of Spring, this music was lighter and well-suited to the upbeat choreography. The simplicity of the costumes contributed to the mood of informality, and the women wore their hair in long ponytails rather than in the traditional tight chignon, giving this powerful ballet a playful feel.

            For nearly one hundred years, Stravinsky’s music has been a rich source of creative inspiration for choreographers, from George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins to Molissa Fenley and beyond. In its mix of musical styles and choreographers, the PNB’s Stravinsky 125 highlights the composer’s multifaceted contributions to the world of dance, and serves as an excellent introduction to his work as a composer for the ballet.

            Stravinsky 125 runs through June 11 at McCaw Hall in Seattle. For further details and tickets, visit the Pacific Northwest Ballet website at



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