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All Balanchine? Alright!  
By
Rosie Gaynor

Posted September 24, 2007

 

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Kaori Nakamura and Batkhurel Bold in George Balanchine's "Ballet Imperial"
Photo Angela Sterling
 

    It may be called All Balanchine, but there’s actually some variety in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s current rep. The three pieces presented show Balanchine in the ’20s, ’40s, and ’50s, and it’s fun to see the difference.  

    Prodigal Son

    This is the earliest piece on the program. Balanchine created it for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Somehow it still feels avant-garde to me. The sets and costumes are by Georges Rouault (his first theatrical commission) and the score is by Sergei Prokofiev. There’s not much classical ballet in it besides the title character’s iconic leaps. Instead, look for flailing arms, stomping, a carousel made out of bodies, circus tricks, and some strangely funny crotch-tickling. Even so, it’s an effective, affecting piece, and PNB does it justice. 

    It’s probably not a huge exaggeration to say that Prodigal Son has more acting in it than all the other Balanchine ballets put together. I love it. The bad guys are scary…the Siren is even scarier. (No pas de deux for her. Try: pas de dominatrix.) Good luck to the poor, petulant, prodigal teenager who meets up with them in the terrifying Prokofiev score.  

    In his performance of the title role on Saturday afternoon, Jonathan Porretta created a fully rounded character whose emotions seemed to dictate his movements. Lucien Postlewaite, who danced the same role opening night, was particularly heart-wrenching in the scenes of abject misery.  

    Ballet Imperial

    A little bit—okay, a lot—of frosting never hurt anyone, not even a Seattle audience. We clapped when the curtain went up on the corps, dressed in Martin Pakledinaz’s gorgeous costumes, in regal stance in front of a royal backdrop.   

    Balanchine made this piece in homage to—take your pick (the books disagree)—Petipa, the Imperial Ballet, the Maryinsky Theater, and so there is a hierarchical cast, classical formality, gracefulness of carriage, and brilliance. Forty minutes of this? Not for nothin’ did Ballet Imperial make the New York Times’ best-of-season list in 1943.  

    The corps plays a major part in this ballet, and so I’m grateful former PNB artistic co-director Francia Russell with her exacting standards returned to stage this difficult piece. The 22 dancers might not have been perfect across the board, but they are the life of the piece and it was absolutely, absolutely thrilling when they danced in unison. Among the dancers in the lead roles, Kaori Nakamura was her usual clean, precise, musical self, Noelani Pantastico made my not-so-favorite part interesting, and Batkhurel Bold and Casey Herd pulled off impressive jumps. 

    A historical note from Bernard Taper’s biography of Balanchine:  This piece was created for a 1941 tour to South America, a tour that was the “first attempt the American government had made in the direction of sponsorship of the performing arts and, as such, laid the grounds for the State Department’s cultural exchange program.”  Hear, hear. And, a little irony:  Supposedly one purpose of the tour was to show that the U.S. was not a “grasping imperialist.” I’m not sure Ballet Imperial entirely refutes that perception, but, oh well.  

    Square Dance

    I was a little wary of this piece, having heard it was Balanchine’s attempt to weave together ballet and American square dancing…with music by Vivaldi and Corelli. It didn’t take more than a few steps to make me realize it would become one of my (25) favorite ballets. The footwork is amazing and exhilarating, for the leads and the corps alike. Yes, you can see the square dancing in the patterns, but they are beautiful, and honored, and the movement is, thankfully, Balanchine—All, as PNB promised, Balanchine.

 

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