McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington; June 14, 2013

Dean Speer


Providing the material and the means is key to developing not only current creative artists but also the next generation. Pacific Northwest Ballet has been very smart in doing this for more than a couple of decades beginning with “Summer Inventions” and continuing today with a choreographers’ showcase cleverly titled “Next Step.” This iteration matches aspiring choreographers from the Company with Professional Division students from PNB’s robust School.

This year’s edition was not, overall, quite as strong choreographically as it has been in some previous years, but did have some hidden nuggets and certainly featured outstanding dancing. I habitually find myself suggesting that every choreographer check out, read and study Doris Humphrey’s “The Art of Making Dances.” It’s an excellent primer and has such great admonitions as, “All dances are too long” and “Symmetry is lifeless.” Some of what was on the bill inadvertently fell into all-too-easy compositional sandtraps, such as too much unison or trying to mimic the music, rather than using it as a springboard.

One of the strongest was the concluding work, where Ezra Thomson showed us how much he loved us in his “Ich Liebe Dich” set to Viennese composer Gustav Mahler’s ‘Adagietto’ from his Fifth Symphony. The first time I heard this glorious music was when Karen Irvin, then the chair of the ballet department at Cornish College, made a pas de deux for Kathleen Mitchell and a partner to this score, set on the tiny stage of the original Cornish Theatre on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Mitchell later became a principal with the San Francisco Ballet, so perhaps this portends great things for this cast as well – Julie Turner, Jacqueline Schiller, and Isaac Aoki, supported by an all-female corps.

Thomson knew to have the cast lineup go from short in the middle to taller at the two ends, rather than the reverse, as this better shows off the center soloist. In his “Fanfare and Waltz” from ‘Sylvia,” Kyle Davis, by contrast, made his first opening corps line the opposite, which was rather unfortunate as it often hid the tall and talented Laurel Benson. The one clear thing that Thomson could have done sooner was to have taken the corps off the stage after the setup for the pas de deux – my mind was shouting “Get the corps off! Get the corps off!” which he finally did, but then brought them back on a little too early. Trust your instincts and don’t allow yourself to think that the stage needs to be busy with lots of dancers. Let the pas de deux play itself out.

Davis had great initial success when he tackled a “Sylvia” pas de deux last year and my initial reaction to the press announcement was two fold – excitement in anticipation since his first was so good but also an “Oh, no!”as I believe he should have been pushed to do something else, to have found other material with which to be challenged. His foray this time was nice, clean, and very pleasant but bland with too much unison and not enough of a full deployment of the eager corps. The solo motifs for Benson, while showing off her extension became predictable and were neither developed nor varied enough.

Titled for someone who was sidelined by injury, Jonathan Porretta’s “Beila” reflected his own buoyant energy as a trio for soloist Saho Kumagai and the duo ‘corps’ of Benson and Therese Davis with ‘cello soloist Naomi Tran playing one of Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas. Lovely.

When you make a title using something blithe like “I don’t know what to call it,” you invite media curmudgeons such as myself to immediately chime in with “And we don’t either!” Kidding aside, you know you’re in trouble when a colleague friend leans over and asks, “Are those PDs [Professional Division students]?” Regardless of the subject matter or message that you want to get across, I strongly feel that one of the jobs of any choreographer – whether making dances for young students in a small school or on the world’s stages – is to make the dancers look good. This work had a bit of a split personality – two dances in one. Sometimes the cast appeared to be lifeless zombies, slumped back and staring out at the audience, and at others, quick and energetic as when Andrew Bartee had them do very fast, sharp arm gestures partway through. The piece became more interesting and picked up toward the end.

The most romantic work – it received a standing ovation – was a duet for Kumagai and Aoki made by Price Suddarth to music by Arnalds. The choreography impressed me as being springtime green – fresh, happy to be alive, reaching to the sun and bursting with life – and in this case, great feeling. “The Spaces Between” deserves another viewing.

“Marquise” by Sean Rollofson used its four dancers effectively – it was clear Rollofson was comfortable with his cast and his material – to music familiar to television viewers as used for a theme by a jewelry company.

Three couples vied for air space in Eric Hipolito, Jr.s’ “Give me flowers while I can still smell them” to a Mozart quartet could easily be described as a chamber ballet to chamber music. Lovely tones and interesting lines. Pleasant with a lingering aroma.

Four of the works in Next Step were accompanied by live music – a terrific thing and made possible by partnering with the Seattle Youth Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Rogers Radcliffe.

Next Step was supported by a number of people who are committed to the vision and of the importance of providing a forum for creative talent. A workshop where this talent may be nurtured and then seen – and burnished. They and PNB are to be commended and roundly applauded for giving this gift to the world.