Pacific Northwest Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
June 22, 2022
Diamonds, Waiting at the Station
Pacific Northwest Ballet returned to New York this week for a six-performance run at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, under the auspices of the Joyce Theater Foundation, which ended its run on Sunday. It was the company’s first visit in six years, and it coincided with PNB’s 50th Anniversary, and the Joyce’s 40th.
The company brought with it three overlapping programs. The first, a Gala, included Diamonds, from George Balanchine’s Jewels, and the New York premiere of Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station. The other two were three-piece repertory programs, both of which included the Tharp piece and one by Crystal Pite (Plot Point), and one program added a dance by Ulysses Dove (Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven), and the other a dance by Alejandro Cerrudo (Little mortal jump). The only program I was able to attend was Wednesday night’s Gala, which is unfortunate because I suspect that either of the other two programs may have suited the company better.
In certain ways, this Gala program was a tale of three cities: New York, where one of the pieces premiered and is widely known and revered, and frequently performed by the New York City Ballet; Seattle, where the second piece premiered and which presents the company in its best light; and New Orleans, the locale and inspiration for that second dance.
PNB has made fairly regular visits to New York; occasionally to the Joyce, and occasionally to City Center. Each time it brings with it a repertory program (although it did bring Pierre August Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette to City Center in 2013, which I reviewed highly favorably). That’s understandable at the Joyce, since it has a smaller stage, but certainly not at the Koch Theater. When the program for this special Joyce engagement was announced (it had originally been scheduled for two years ago, but Covid got in the way), I’d hoped that PNC would present one of its evening-length productions. Instead, this engagement was more repertory. Apparently, either the costs of bringing a full-length are prohibitive, which is a distinct possibility, or the company just doesn’t do many full-lengths and consequently believes that a repertory program is more representative. Regardless, repertory programs usually (though not always) do not carry much excitement, and ticket sales, with them. And such programs that include one or more dances familiar to regular New York City dancegoers likely would generate even less excitement.
I understand why PNB opened its New York engagement with a one-time performance of Diamonds, for symbolic reasons if nothing else – this being the house that Balanchine built, and because its Artistic Director, Peter Boal, was once a New York City Ballet Principal. And less than a decade ago one of its leading dancers, Carla Korbes, had been a highly-regarded former NYCB Soloist.
Now, however, at least based on this Diamonds performance works by Balanchine do not appear to be its forte. With one exception, this was a disappointing performance. For whatever reason (perhaps jet lag or lack of rehearsal time on the Koch Theater stage), the PNB corps looked raggedy from the opening seconds – off timing, off positioning, off energy and not at all the unified-looking whole that Balanchine’s choreography was intended to display. I regret tarring all with such comments, since some (including those featured) executed better than others, and since there was an overall improvement in the concluding promenade and coda, but by then the damage had been done. [The corps appearance looked nothing like the patterning in the attached photo, which was taken at a prior performance in Seattle.]
When the leads took over, Lesley Rausch, who danced the ballerina role, delivered an adequate but too careful performance (perhaps the product of nerves), but to her credit she did not convert the bulk of her performance into a redux of Odette (as some do). She, too, loosened up considerably during the promenade and coda, but combined with the relatively dumpy looking costumes and bone bare set, it all looked deficient.
The one consistent bright light in this Diamonds was the male lead, James Kirby Rogers, whose partnering was quite good, and whose solos were exceptional – as fine as any I’ve seen. Indeed, his performance awakened the unusually moribund Gala audience, giving them something to applaud enthusiastically rather than dutifully.
Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station is a different matter. It’s wonderful. It may not be the best of Tharp’s work, but even less than the best Tharp is better than most anything else. And, maybe since it was choreographed on PNB (it premiered in Seattle in 2012), the company looked very comfortable with it.
In many ways, the story is a corollary to Tharp’s monumental In the Outer Room (though here the “outer room” is the train station), but even if one doesn’t see it that way, Waiting at the Station is great fun to watch. And it features very fine performances by its featured dancers: James Yoichi Moore as the Father; Kyle Davis as the Son, and Angelica Generosa, Joshua Grant, Elizabeth Murphy, and Lucien Postlewaite, a quartet of dancers who add in intermediate level of focus to the stage action.
The “Waiting at the Station” part of Waiting at the Station is, in reality, a cover for a far more impressive theme: that of a father passing his knowledge – in this case his dance knowledge – to his son. The problem is that, like most sons, this one is in rejection mode. The subject is explored superficially, but sufficiently well to provide the dance with a unifying theme beyond its style, diverse as that style here is.
The piece is venued in 1940s New Orleans, which comes into play as much by the ballet’s score (seven songs by musician, composer, arranger, and New Orleans-based rhythm and blues artist Allen Toussaint, who passed in 2015, three years after the dance’s premiere) as anything else. The most well-known of the songs, at least to me, is “Mother-in-Law,” but they all provide the essential NOLA background. To Toussaint’s music, Tharp incorporates a plethora of dances, led by the quartet (usually in pairs), with the twelve-dancer corps spread mostly upstage as a sort of background tableau, but who at times join in (and maybe lead) action away from the upstage perimeter. The piece also includes three female characters called Three Fates, dressed in gold (all the costumes were by Santo Loquasto, who also designed the set), who resemble in appearance pop-singing girl groups of the 50s and 60s (like The Supremes), and who appear to represent welcoming angels of death – not so much in a negative way, but as an event to look forward to – consistent with a happy recognition of a life well-led and a jubilant send-off to a better place, like the characteristic New Orleans funeral processions, one of which is visualized in the performance.
The story, essentially, is of a man, a Father, who waits at a train station for his trip … elsewhere, and intends to pass his dance talents off to his son before he leaves. Father gives an example or two of his bravura dancing, but the son, apparently teen-aged, is focused elsewhere. Only when a bevy of dancing young ladies appear does the Son wake up – apparently recognizing one of dance’s side benefits – and joins and eventually leads the girls. Whatever it takes. [I hasten to add, in this day and age, that this is not portrayed as a “negative” act in any way. The Son’s presence is welcomed, and the implication of a motivation behind the Son’s sudden interest is my own.]
The dancing quartet was outstanding, with Murphy and, particularly, Generosa executing brilliantly, as was the corps. But it was the Father and Son who energized all aspects of the piece. While at times Davis’s performance evoked images of a Drum Major crossed with an Energizer Bunny, Moore came across as the most ebullient and somewhat comic of male dancers – something of a cross between Gene Kelly and Bill Irwin.
The movement is non-stop, invigorating, and somewhat less stocked with characteristic “Tharpian” movement than usual, but whatever’s there is more than sufficient to make the dance recognizable as a Tharp creation. Although the dances are apples and oranges, compared to Diamonds, here the cast breathed life into an already lively dance, and the fun was contagious. And the piece comes equipped with its own “train,” the appearance of which as it burst through the rear curtain is far more welcome than similar train appearances in, say, Anna Karenina and The Red Shoes. The audience, which primarily appeared to consist of Gala attendees and critics, roared its approval when the piece ended.
I look forward to PNB’s return – and maybe next time it’ll bring with it a program that might prove more exciting to New York dancegoers.