Short Foray Away: Lecture and Dress Rehearsal

Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB)

Seattle, WA

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“Signature”       Photo Angela Sterling – Courtesy of PNB.

I know, I know…but, even if you HATE ballet (or think you might) – this may be the ticket for you – quite literally. For $30 you get to attend a wonderful low-brow lecture on the current ballet, usually with the charming, unassuming PNB director Peter Boal, and someone significant to the production you are about to see: set designer/costumer, choreographer or lead dancer. And you get a good seat to a fun evening that is not just watching ballet but also is about how ballet comes together in performance.

The lectures are always, all ways interesting. They are filled with wonderful behind the scenes anecdotes, info on the art of ballet and the ballet you are about to experience, and even some soap operaish (but, always kind) dishing on personalities of the American ballet scene or the current production. The lectures are filled with humor, honesty and interesting insights.

I, my husband and others who have attended with me have never been bored or disappointed by a lecture. We always are in awe of what we learn about the production, music and people involved. There is an audience Q and A and you will find yourself surprised at the interesting things others dare to ask! Or you may even discover your own hand going up and you are suddenly asking something that your newly inquiring mind wants to know.

The auditorium is small, comfortable and laid back. The event is unintimidating and inspiring. My belief is that Peter Boal, as PNB Director, sets the tone in his talented and growingly sophisticated ballet troupe making it ooze with a sincerity, authenticity and cooperation that shows in face to face events like this. He makes ballet accessible, as do these lectures. For that, I am grateful to have this opportunity to learn about ballet in an inexpensive, unique and fun way.

In past lectures, we have seen well-known American choreographer William Forsythe – whose interesting philosophies on ballet and modern works you either love or hate. (I was not in the “love” category…but the experience was interesting!) George Balanchine dancer Edward Villella was hysterical, gossipy and full of lively ballet tales from his long career. The renowned French set and costume designer Jeromè Kaplan, who has done several PNB productions including Don Quixote, Roméo et Juliette and Giselle, was a wonder and wonderful.

This lecture, we met a very young member of the PNB ballet corps de ballet, Price Suddarth, who is doing his first piece of choreography. He designed the work specifically for his co-dancers at PNB. He collaborated with Seattle composer Barret Anspach (including some Vivaldi titled VVLD – scroll down left side and click on movements to listen), and the PNB ballet costumer and lighting team for original costumes and simple but creative lighting. In his talking with Boal during this lecture, Suddarth explained in a very charming way his journey into the world of choreography and his world premiere of Signature – a play on words in that he purposely worked with each dancer designing with them the moves that showcased their strengths for this piece. It showed (that is too insignificant a word…it shined) in the ballet production. The dancers, as pointed out by Boal in the lecture, were generous and helpful giving him their all to make the work…well, work! Though he highlights 15 dancers, the principle dancers to the corps de ballet, in the end Suddarth worked with nearly everyone available of the 48 dancers in the troupe!

With your ticket to the lecture comes the perk that you get seated in the best seats in the first tier. The first floor is closed to everyone but the dancers and the “important” people watching and working – who are also fun to observe. A slight drawback: it is first come-first serve seating so there is a bit of a mad dash to get to the assigned saved sections first. My strategy is to sit close to the bottom rows in the lecture (also best for seeing and hearing!) and scoot out the door stage left (exit to your right) to the elevator to the second floor. If you are a sprinter you can make your way up by walking. There are really no terrible seats and I have always been satisfied with those I have been able to get. But I do skedaddle my way up as quickly as I can without knocking over any elderly people who are always in attendance and vying for the best seats as well. Best not to act like Seinfeld’s George Costanza in a fire!

This is a laid back, casually dressed crowd with an appreciation of ballet without any snobbery or pretense. I love that. It is a nice crowd with which to watch ballet…and their reactions are the first public opinion the dancers will experience. They are not an overly excited and/or easily pleased group. They appreciate good ballet dancing and they appropriately reward the dancers with applause and occasional whoops and hollers in just the right places.

The best thing about this short foray away is getting a behind the scenes glimpse from the orchestra trying out the music, to the dancers performing the pieces in public for the first time, to watching the notes being given by choreographers to the stage manager supervising the creation of the curtain calls. You see the performance and much more.

This particular production has a lot going for it. There are four pieces. Emergence is a stunning visual. Crystal Pite’s choreography is said to be inspired by Steven Johnson’s book “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software” with wonderful eerie lights and set touching on themes of bees, hive hierarchy but also birth, conception, gender, and creation. Odd, quirky and never still with so many on stage, virtually the entire troupe. The lighting is mesmerizing and the movement often insect-like. The males all have wing-like looking tattoos on their backs. The music is electronic, loud and full of creaking and crackling sounds that do remind you of bugs – cicadas!

The Calling is a single dancer and singer with shockingly beautiful sound, costuming and choreography. Suddarth’s The Signature is exciting and definitely inspired by Forsythe, as Suddarth had said it was in the lecture. It is so beautiful in its flow and glides that unlike Forsythe who is modern with a touch of ballet this is more classic ballet with a touch of modern. You can see the dancers giving it their all in the musculature of the amazing leaps, leg lifts and arching arm movements. It is beautiful with wonderful complicated melodic music that has some of the orchestra sitting above and behind the audience for great effect. Sum Stravinsky is the piece most likely to not excite but its blue setting, subtly toned tutus, costumes and Balanchine tenor is not displeasing. Both Emergence and Signature use almost the full troupe each featuring lots of dancers doing interesting dancing. It is a feat for PNB. It is amazing!

If you are not a ballet lover, this ballet may be one you could try – short interesting pieces that are not like what we usually picture ballet to be. (And certainly with enough of the traditional stuff to make it still feel like ballet for those who love it already.) There is much to enjoy and experience above and beyond the dancing. It is running this Thursday thru Sunday, November 15th. Maggie Larrick’s review in the Queen Anne/Magnolia News was the most accurate I read of the performance, which doesn’t surprise me as we have worked together and I know her work. For opera and ballet reviews I respect her opinions over others – she is descriptive and usually right on.

The Final Word: For $30 the dress rehearsal/lecture ticket for PNB is one of the best entertainment values in town, in my estimation. Try it; you might like it. It truly is a fun way to get introduced to ballet in general and the Pacific Northwest Ballet in particular. The regular 2015 season, offers some really interesting pieces and story ballets with dress rehearsal tickets in February, March, April and May.

Added Bonus: Tickets are usually available the night of so if you get the urge at the last minute to give this a try you can usually get a ticket. It is held in McCaw Hall (free tours) and to see the curtain is worth the trip. It sparkles…like the ballerina’s earrings that send shards of silver light to the seats even in the last row. (What are they made of? And I want a pair for Christmas!) The gift shop is very interesting with artsy things often related to the ballet you are seeing and always ballet in general. There is a coffee and wine bar if you are in the mood and a small café, Prelude. If you are wanting a bit of exercise before or after – a walk under the Space Needle on a non-drizzly night taking in the Seattle Center grounds (map) and the International Fountain is a perfect setting. Parking is fairly easy (especially across the street at the Mercer Street Garage for $15). Dress rehearsals are on Thursday nights and it is usually a wonderfully non-crowded night.

If you love the dress rehearsal…you can go back for a performance which will be a whole other experience and even better…because you are now in the know.

PS: This year after an over-25 year love affair, PNB is retiring its popular holiday production of the Sendack/Stowell Nutcracker and will be introducing George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker – (scroll down for a short video clip, views of sets and costumes and ballet summary by Boal) using George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography with new whimsical costumes and sets by Caldecott Honor Book Award winner Ian Falconer (best known for the “Olivia” series of children’s books). Boal himself worked with Balanchine and learned the role of the young prince in this ballet as a child. He cites lagging ticket sales, a personal love of this choreography and the excitement of new designs by American illustrator Falconer (whose work Boal’s daughter loved) as a reason for the change, one about which Boal is excited. Going might just create a new holiday family tradition and certainly would make a great short foray away for the whole family!

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