Attending the ballet has similar formality and revery akin to huddling straight-backed in a pew at church, or hobnobbing amongst old money at the Preakness. On your best behavior, tie cinched, pearls dangling, shoes and manner polished and the general attitude that next to a red carpet, this is the event that defines “High Art”. To attend the ballet and float around a grand hall with the demeanor of royalty is half the fun.
Even before the show has begun, the ‘pre-show’ is the procession of cultural clout ballet seems to wield: The conductor’s head pops up from the orchestra pit and the here-to-for restrained audience goes wild! Announcements are made of dancers being elevated to principle status; the leggy ballerina presented with a huge bouquet…and the audience goes wild! There’s a visual cue: that when whomever is on stage (posture perfect), and the arm is raised in a grand, slow sweep…the audience goes wild! Such is the cache of finery and pomp surrounding ballet; equal to perfection, that any grand gesture prompts giddy applause.
It’s a bit of a circus. Observing as subtle party crasher dressed in the camouflage of a suit, Seattle in attendance of the quasi religious rite that is ‘the ballet’ is a show in itself. The mixture of swooning adulation, hero worship and screaming Wrestle-mania fervor replacing the reserved social pinch is amazing to behold; and with two intermissions (enough time to throw down several drinks), the haute loosens even further and those stiff upper lips whoop and yell as we’re in Mad Max’s Thunder Dome!
The actual performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s current production of “All Wheeldon” in the Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at Seattle Center was indeed rather a spectacle as well. In fact, it was sensational.
Visiting New York City Ballet resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has been given a beautiful showcase in four original pieces presented here by Pacific Northwest Ballet. Somehow, the choice and placement of each work had a subliminal effect on me in that as each piece unfolded, so did the complicated abstract of form, revealing beyond expectation something entirely different. Like observing under a microscope, the growth and changeability of crystal. Heralded as the ‘next Balanchine’, Wheeldon successfully builds upon the vocabulary of ballet movement expanding into more emotionally assertive ‘modern dance’ sensibilities; a daunting challenge for sure.
To finally see the often ‘up-tight piety’ of ballet stretched and expanded upon was satisfying catharsis. How to grow, to be current and alive inside of the dance, while also being true to the origin, the purity and ‘correctness’ of what can so often be almost an exercise; this has become for me a bridge of a performance. Infusing contemporary sensibilities to classic gesture. Balancing something more than prescription ‘cliched’ emotion; I’ve seen it attempted before and come across as silly. This time however, PNB rises to the challenge and with this program also for me, legitimizes the celebrity showered upon these amazing athletes. The cheering audience had good reason to cheer! There were moments in the second piece: ‘After The Rain’ pas de deux that take your breath away. God-like and showing every muscle in play under flesh unitards, this was human perfection illustrated more than kindly by the exquisite choreography. You cannot believe the strength and balance on display. Like aerialists without the benefit of a trapeze or net.
The final work is an epic send-up of the ballet culture in general and melted my own high falutin’ attitude to sweet cream butter. A seeming cast of thousands, all busy rushing about in preparation of a grand, new work: “Variations Sérieuses” is the cycle of life in a ballet theater played out as timid ingenue arrives, is flirted with by the male lead, integrated into the core and then suddenly cast as star when the pompous prima ballerina takes a nosedive off the stage. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, this was a perfect balm for what is perceived by many (ballet being nothing but arch melodrama without much conscience), a sweet, self aware, balls out slapstick. Some unapologetic fun at their own expense…smart and delicious. My one and only disappointment was that we didn’t get to see the Black Swan bitch of a ballerina go flying straight out into the orchestra. More than made up for by the bulge factor of the male dancers. Can those tights get any tighter?!
My smart ass, initial cynicism was transmuted to awe and letting loose a few whoops along with the other revelers, I gave in to the feeling of euphoria that accompanies being free of doubt. This was a particular kind of party and not a cookie-cutter ballet performance by any means. The combination of flavors: Seattle’s taste for the eccentric yet breakthrough, standard setting zeitgeist against the trappings of high brow grandeur is a thrilling experience. PNB has a new fan.
PNB’s “All Wheeldon” continues through October 2nd.