Pacific Northwest Ballet has distinguished itself as a top-tier dance company nationally over the years, in part by commissioning new works by distinguished artists, including Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris. Using its resources to steward new work by established artists is key to attracting new talent, but the next step for the company is to give that resident talent the resources to become the next generation of master dancer-choreographers.
Each year, the Next Step showcase is a step forward for the company as a whole, but especially for its students and emerging choreographers. Members of the corps de ballet have produced over two dozen new works in the last five years, and each premiere is performed by members of the professional division of PNB’s school, giving the next generation of dancers vital on-stage experience. It also gives them the chance to work with the next generation of musicians, as Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra provides the live musical accompaniment for several of the pieces.
Next Step has a scrappy dynamism that sets it apart from most performances and feels particularly true to the character of a city that is still coming into itself. The pieces are short (10 to 15 minutes), set to a range of contemporary and classical songs and suites, and—with few exceptions—use costumes from the ballet’s shop. Some years there are truly extraordinary pieces that bear repeat performance. There was no such stand-out piece this year, nor was there anything truly bad, and the sequencing made for an engaging few hours.
film muet (Chelsea Adomaitis)
A macaroon to start the night: Three short pieces of choreography set to songs by Edith Piaf, with a sweet, smooth pas de deux in the center (Hymne a l’amour). Unfortunately, the dancers’ energy started low and stayed there, even when it should have had more joie de vivre. It’s not that the dancers didn’t look like they were having fun, but they didn’t look all that well rehearsed either. Trios were rarely together. Jetes were limp. All the same, it had charm, and Adomaitis did well to meet the character of each song, ending the sequence with a bit of high kicks in a line as Piaf belted, “Mieux qu’ça! Un petit effort…Voilà, c’est ça!” Listen up, dancers.
Scheherezade (Steven Loch)
This freshman entry from Steven Loch showed influence from the company’s bread and butter: Balanchine. The dancers Daena Bortnick and Joshua Shutkind were attired in new costumes by Nancy Loch, very much in line with the 19th century orientalism that inspired Rimsky-Korsakov to compose the symphonic suite to which the duet is set. SYSO played it beautifully, supporting the movements and extensions of Bortnick and Shutkind, who were the most confident duet of the night, even during some challenging holds and turns. The partnering is to be praised, as is the general prettiness of it all.
The problem is the characterization. The king was more a prop than a partner, with the emphasis on the eponymous heroine. Certainly, she is the center of this drama, but the antagonistic, sensual relationship in the source material was reduced to a passive courtship. Perhaps we are to assume that Scheherezade has already survived her 1001 nights of unfinished storytelling, and we are witnessing her triumph as the king relents, lets her keep her head and gives her his heart—but the music was inspired by the long seduction, the staggering multiplicity of worlds beyond Scheherezade’s own beauty. What we get here is a jejune romance, and this lack of fidelity to the source felt cloying and unimaginative. The ballet by Michel Fokine set to this suite was denounced by the estate of Rimsky-Korsakov. I feel the reaction would be similar in this case. At least we don’t have the king to deal with, because I think poor Scheherezade would not have made it a second night if she had danced this instead of telling a tale.
Descendant Inklings (Charles McCall)
The night took a lively, contemporary turn with this group performance. Mark Morris’ work is in the repertory of PNB, and I think his influence was felt in this piece set to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. McCall’s choreography displayed the most sophisticated group dynamics of the night, with lively duets and trios, sometimes sweeping, sometimes impish, in an askew symmetry faithful to the counterpoint of the music itself. The slight variations in costuming and little solos allowed for individuals to emerge, Isaac Bates-Vinueza in particular.
The orchestra had a moment or two of trouble, not entirely noticeable in the first and third movements, but no one onstage faltered, so all things considered this was probably the most successful piece of the night—a strong first entry from McCall.
Duet? (Price Suddarth)
Price Suddarth has been choreographing for PNB school productions since being promoted to corps de ballet in 2011. This includes one of my favorite Next Step premieres, The Space Between in 2013, and apparently I’m not the only fan he has: Suddarth will be taking his own next step and premiering a piece with the PNB Company itself this autumn.
His plucky solo set to Prokofiev’s third piano concerto allowed dancer Kyle Davis to show balance, athleticism and some dramatic chops as well. The duet(?) is with a tennis ball that Davis bounces around a bit before lobbing off stage—only for it to roll back persistently, more aggressively as he tries to get rid of it. Some viewers will call it gimmicky, while others will appreciate its slapstick. I see it both ways, but mostly I admire how it complements the frenetic, playful side of the concerto, breaks the dancer from a strict routine (even giving a little wiggle room for him to improvise when he misses a catch) without being too sloppy, and lands its conceit with a satisfying thud. It isn’t an instant classic, but it was genuinely fun and affirms that Suddarth is a budding talent with range.
A Hundred Ways to Paint the Portion of a Plane Bounded by Such a Curve, Part Two (Kyle Davis)
The music was beautiful (another fine performance by SYSO, this time of the second movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 1). The lighting and costuming were subdued and made dancers Angeli Mamon and Jesse Newman all the more striking. The choreography was solid contemporary ballet and demanded more strength, endurance and trust between the dancers than any other piece of the night…
And that is where things went wrong. Newman and Mamon started off strong, but a lack of confidence marked the performance: Holds were abbreviated; extensions were labored; stilted shakiness pervaded. The more novel forms and positions could not be enjoyed as they seemed ready to collapse. To put it bluntly, the dancers were too green for this piece. The magic of ballet is enabled by that illusion of effortlessness, but here the struggle was real. They have time to develop that strength, though, and when you put this one performance aside, you still have a piece of mature choreography.
There are no rules (Ezra Thomson)
When I read this title in the program, I had misgivings that it would be one of those amateurish free-for-alls one gets when choreographers attempt to be iconoclastic without mastery of self. I was only half right. It wasn’t that iconoclastic (felt a bit Jerome Robbins) but it wasn’t masterful either, and it did get sloppy. The lighting design was unforgiving to the audience, searing one’s eyes at the start, then dropping so low that one could see only a dappled mass of movement. It provided a forgiving cover to the dancers, at least, when all ten were running through frenzied motions.
It wasn’t a bore. Thomson created some novel arrangements with near collisions and spins that kept one attentive. A calmer center with simpler lighting gave respite from those more churning moments. It didn’t much cohere, and what was most jarring was not the dancing, but the musical selection: early nineties smooth jazz that I swear I heard on The Weather Channel as a child. At least the forecast for the week looks good, eh?
Suddarth seems to be moving on to bigger projects; newcomers like McCall are showing great promise. Classical techniques are still at the fore, but contemporary influences are embraced. Next Step 2015 wasn’t the most polished spread, but it was a success and another indication that Seattle will remain a magnet and incubator of great dance.