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Pacific Northwest Ballet

Posted on September 25, 2008

In his “Director’s Notebook” programme note for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s recent all-Tharp triple bill, artistic director Peter Boal refers to his own memorable dancing experiences working with Twyla Tharp. Now that he is choosing experiences for his 50-dancer troupe, Boal wanted more Tharp. When he sat down with the choreographer about two years ago to discuss his plans, Tharp agreed to make two new works for the company, which could then be presented with an older work of hers, making the repertory night a one-choreographer bill.

I saw the programme, which concluded with Nine Sinatra Songs, Tharp’s stirring, moving and witty take on ballroom dancing couples, during the final weekend of its run. The news, of course, was with the two premiere works that preceded the widely popular Sinatra piece. Each of the new offerings, Opus 111 and Afternoon Ball, are inspired by their accompanying music (Brahms’s String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op.111 and Vladimir Martynov’s 1994 Autumn Ball of the Elves), helping to make this programme a marvellous mix, a quality not necessarily easy to come by in such circumstances.

Two viewings of Opus 111 left me unsure of Tharp’s result. Costumed (by Mark Zappone) in an uninspired combination of lacklustre colours (dull purple, pumpkin, and brown over underwear of plain white), the four-movement excursion has what might be described as the appearance of a concentrated riff on a Massine “symphonic” ballet. Arranged for six pairs of dancers, Opus is fluent with coupled and solo movement invention that takes the up-beat performers from one contrasting movement of Brahms to the other with a smoothness and an eagerness that sometimes belies the music’s individual moods.

To my eye – one that has been fixed happily on Tharp’s canon for nearly 40 years – PNB’s dancers shine, particularly the luminous Carla Körbes and the suave Karel Cruz, harkening back with its soft-shoed locomotion to Tharp’s initial modern dance trained troupe. There’s a constantly and delicately churning dimension to the moves, but my focus on the stage pictures seemed uneasily split as the mirror image configurations that dominate the choreography deflected rather than focused the eye looking for coherent focal points.

If Opus 111 is a diverting display of lush and intense working on the dancers’ part, Afternoon Ball conjures an entire little world. Peopled by three down-and-not-quite-out protagonists with a secondary, almost hallucinatory additional couple, Tharp’s Ball intermixes the hard-scrabble setting of The Times They Are A-Changin (the choreographer’s short-lived, 2006 Broadway production), with the decorous, 19th century social atmosphere of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Tharp’s current choreographic assistant, the stocky, feisty and dynamic Charlie Neshyba-Hodges (appearing with PNB as a guest artist) rules the work as the main and most acrobatic participant in her Ball. Neshyba-Hodges’s sidekicks in the shadowy, asymmetrically canted locale devised by Randall G. Chiarelli, are an intense and punk-styled Kaori Nakamura and a lithe and puckish Olivier Wevers. Zappone’s costuming is distinguished here, artfully contrasting the full-of-fight trio in their ragtag outfits with the Empire-era inspired clothing of Ariana Lallone and Stanko Milov as the waltzing couple.

Ever since she emerged from her experimentalist phase in the 1970s, Tharp has bravely bucked the so-called “pure” aims of the all-dancing creations of so many of her contemporaries by working to reach her audiences with dances and dancing that tells something more about her dancers beyond their highly schooled and deft skills of moving. Afternoon Ball amounts to a compelling work both for its rich display of movement and for its effective conjuring of a place both mundane and magical. There is evident drama in this eccentric dance that while undeniable, defies explication and yet that haunts the memory.

Jodie Thomas and Lucien Postlewaite in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Twyla Tharp’s Opus 111. Photograph ©Angela Sterling.

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