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European-American Topics - Culture - PNB's All Robbins

PNB’s All Robbins: Three Good Stories and Lots of Laughs
By Rosie Gaynor
Posted June 2, 2008

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta and guest artist Glenn Kawasaki (at bar) in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free. Angela Sterling  

    PNB now has five Jerome Robbins pieces listed in its active repertory—and the company is adding two more next season. It’s enough to put on an All Robbins show, and PNB did just that, opening on Thursday night to an appreciative audience.  

    The program consisted of Fancy Free, In the Night, and The Concert. It is interesting to see three of Robbins’ works in one night. On the surface, there’s not an obvious stylistic similarity between the pieces. I’ll be thinking about it more carefully when I return later this week, but if I had to say right now what makes a Jerome Robbins piece, I would say a concern for honesty, a sense that the starting point is human behavior instead of dance, and a sensitivity to music.  

    The evening begins with the sailors-on-the-town ballet Fancy Free. On Thursday, this piece did not exude the same energy I’ve seen the company give it in the past: it was not exactly the orchestra’s best-ever half-hour in the pit. I missed the collaboration that conductor Stewart Kershaw and the dancers are so often able to achieve with each other across the footlights. Muddy notes and unreliable pacing made it hard for the three sailors to coalesce as a team right from the get-go.  

    Still, Robbins tells a good story, and there was much to enjoy. This ballet features charming characters, pays attention to little details (an eyebrow raised here, stockings adjusted there), and with a light hand draws some truths about human nature.  

    Thursday’s cast of excellent actors carried off their roles with honesty and even depth; every move, every expression looked natural, made sense, and added to the story or characterization. Just as memorable as Jonathan Porretta’s amazing jump from the bar (see image above) was the moment when he is torn between wanting the girl and wanting to fight. The debate took place on his face, in his body, in his movement, in the timing of that movement, and in the music: perfect. Casey Herd ’s character was so proud of his Latin moves that this wolf became charmingly vulnerable—and funny.  Josh Spell danced the sweet sailor (Frank Sinatra’s “Chip” in On the Town, the movie that eventually grew out of this ballet), and he did so adorably. Louise Nadeau, Noelani Pantastico, Kylee Kitchens, and Sokvannara Sar rounded out this strong cast. 

    In the Night followed. Its three pas de deux, danced to Chopin nocturnes, are variations on the theme of love. Pantastico and Olivier Wevers danced the gentle first pas de deux, stepping onstage calmly, with that beautiful care they both give to simple movements. Ariana Lallone and Stanko Milov danced the majestic second pas de deux. This is the most lyrically, classically beautiful I’ve seen Lallone; what accounts for it? Robbins’ movements, Chopin’s music, Christine Redpath’s staging, Anthony Dowell’s costume, Milov’s princely partnering? I wouldn’t give up Lallone’s other strengths, but it’s lovely to see this side of her dancing as well. Nadeau and Karel Cruz danced the stormy third pas de deux. The woman in this section definitely has baggage, and it’s fun to see Nadeau and Cruz deal with it.  

    In the Night ends with all three couples onstage together, discovering, perhaps, that theirs is not the only way to experience love. To me, this is the most interesting part of the work, as the three couples’ different styles and moods intertwine.  

    (Watching Wevers walk toward Pantastico in this last section of In the Night, I had, once again, the revelation that some dancers can own the stage just by moving a finger, while others can be super-talented and dance their hearts out and still not fully connect with the audience. This star quality is something you expect from principals like Wevers and Pantastico, but you see it also in soloists Chalnessa Eames and Lucien Postlewaite and corps members James Moore and Stacy Lowenberg. I don’t know how they achieve it, but it’s so exciting.)  

    In the last piece of the night, The Concert, the curtain rises on a front drop bearing a deranged-looking piano drawn by (balletomane) Edward Gorey. It reminds me of a hissing cat rearing up on its bared claws: this is not going to be just any concert, that much is clear.  

    When the front drop itself rises, we see a real piano onstage. The pianist (Dianne Chilgren, who provided excellent accompaniment for In the Night and so was vigorously  applauded during this onstage appearance) walks pompously across the stage, tosses her tails, whips out a hanky to dust the keyboard, glares at the audience for snickering…and her Chopin concert begins. 

    So does the laughter.  

    We meet the onstage audience one or two at a time as they take their places and create a  concert-goer community. The characterizations alone are hilarious (we meet the intellectual, the romantic, two chatty women with rustling candy wrappers, a bossy wife and her cigar-smoking, newspaper-reading husband, a shy boy, an usher, and a passionate, bespectacled termagant) and the stage action is even funnier.  

    Laughter goes from intermittent to almost continuous, however, as the onstage audience’s daydreams are played out.  

    One of the early scenarios is “The Mistake Waltz.” It starts so properly but begins to unravel almost immediately, right after Lowenberg nods a correction at Pantastico. Right arms show up where left arms should be, one dancer steps to the left when the group moves to the right, one is up, the rest are down—not to mention the painful mess the women make of a Balanchine daisychain. It’s all the stuff you expect dancers to get right, because they almost always do. The whole, hilarious mess eventually comes to an end, the dancers managing to achieve what looks to be a symmetrical final tableau. But, as the audience claps, Rachel Foster ever-so-slowly, almost-imperceptibly, adjusts her arm into the correct position. Which, of course, sets off another round of laughter. 

    The Concert was definitely the hit of the night, showing the company’s across-the-board acting skills and the dancers’ ability to work as an ensemble. Favorite moments? Standout performances? Favorite aspects? There are too many! Leaving McCaw Hall that night, people kept breaking out in after-shock laughter as they recalled their favorite moments.  

    The best part about the humor is that these surreal stories are played not for laughs, but straight out—which of course only makes them funnier. And though some of the jokes are ballet jokes and others are on the adult side, a first-grader friend of mine readily responded to the humor and thoroughly enjoyed the piece. With cigar-smoking butterflies and ballerinas whose purple Thing 1 and Thing 2 hats flutter as they walk, what’s not to enjoy?  

    So, who got the biggest workout of the evening? That’s a toss-up. Dianne Chilgren not only played two whole ballets, she also ended The Concert by running around onstage with a butterfly net. Jonathan Porretta started the evening out with virtuoso jumps in Fancy Free and returned for the last piece as the husband, a military man, and as a very energetic, determined, lusty butterfly. Noelani Pantastico, however, took on three roles,  navigating huge changes in character and style. (Oh! How we’re going to miss this young woman when she leaves at the end of the season to dance with Les ballets de Monte Carlo!) Or maybe it was the audience? That’s a lot of laughing for a Thursday night—or, indeed, any night. 

    PNB’s All Robbins plays through Sunday, June 8. Tickets are available at or 206-441-2424.


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