Twyla Tharp’s last commission from Mikhail Baryshnikov when he was artistic director of American Ballet Theater, Brief Fling starts out in an almost Balanchine-esque manner in the way that it seems like a cute little ballet number with a few not-classical movements. Some of the women are in plaid shirts, and some of the men are shirtless and in plaid pants. (Dance costumes are hilarious, but they look great on stage, somehow, right?)
The dancers are divided into three groups, differentiated by their blue, red, green, and almost-white tartan/plaid costumes. They perform petite allegros and nice port de bras in their groups, running on and running off to cute music called “Country Gardens,” which sounds exactly like what you’d expect a song called “Country Gardens” to sound like, only to be interrupted by sharp drum music.
It’s almost a deconstruction of the plotless ballet, using the music to create a shift in tone that made many in the audience giggle, even though none of the movement was inherently humorous. A New York Times review of the piece upon its premier in 1990 said that Miss Tharp’s continuing investigations of what can be done with, or rather, to ballet technique is nothing if not physical. The dancers are athletically challenged in the movement, all of which is balletic and not at all modern. In this excerpt, you can see Kaori Nakamura do a gorgeous renverse, a move which is nearly impossible for normal human beings, or at least modern dancers like myself, to accomplish without going off of our center and following the spiral (like, to the ground, mostly).
It was a nice piece that reminded us that ballet can be humorous, and that it’s a tool we can use. However, I’ll be honest that I quickly forgot this piece as soon as the next one started.
Choreographed by the great Jiri Kylian in 1981 and originally created for the Stuttgart Ballet, Forgotten Land plays with the imagery and inspiration of land gradually threatening to overtake water.
The music, composed by Benjamin Britten on a commission by the Japanese government in 1940, is haunting and powerful and immediately captivating. It starts almost in medias res, as the writer in me would say, with little preamble.
The dancers make generous use of the upper Graham contraction and a posturing that is reminiscent of the chorus in Night Journey, however, it is used in a decidedly contemporary balletic way. The women are dressed in Graham style dresses with the sweeping skirts with a splash of color up the center. They move in solos, duets, and trios against a darkly lit stage with a backdrop suggestive of a beach at sunrise.
I highly suggest looking at this excerpt of the piece. The women are in soft slippers, a fact I did not notice until I was watching PNB’s rehearsal footage of the piece. With great rond de jambes and hunched Graham arms, Kylian arranges the movement as so to make the most of the music without being bound or controlled by it
I feel like it’s harder to even talk about pieces like this, because I was blown away by not only the dancers’ athleticism but the overall composition. It premiered over thirty years ago, but it feels like it was created yesterday; the vocabulary is accessible, and while there is no narrative or story or characters, there is a sense of something lost that you as the audience member can grasp onto.
Stravinsky Violin Concerto
This piece first premiered in 1972 at the New York City Ballet, and it was another composition created from the collaboration of Stravinsky and Balanchine. Stravinsky composed the concerto on a commission from an American composer, and it premiered in Berlin in 1931. It is not at all like his more (in)famous Rite of Spring, but it is subversive in the way that while he originally set out to write a traditional concerto, it has the “texture more characteristic of chamber music” and “virtuosity for its own sake has only a small role,” he wrote, speaking of the violin component.
The same could be said of the dancing. Balanchine follows Stravinsky’s score exactly, in that there is an opening “Toccata,” two “arias” and a finale “capriccio.”
The piece is interesting in the way that Balanchine had originally choreographed to this concerto back in the 1930s, on the Ballet Russes. When he went to recreate the piece, after Stravinsky’s death in 1971, he was unable to remember any of the original Balustrade. While some of us may bemoan if only Balanchine had an iphone to record with, he went on to create something that now sits among his many masterpieces. Perhaps letting go of the old isn’t such a bad thing.
As a typical viewer, I would probably have found myself least interested in this piece , though. It is a Balanchine piece, and he artfully mixes classical technique with unorthodox shapes, taking balletic liberties to get his dancers into positions like the one above. It is another plotless ballet full of lovely dancers doing lovely things with their bodies.
The ending had a section of unison by the entire cast that was immensely pleasing to watch. It was during this final capriccio that I realized that, while I may sometimes be a pretentious and artsy-fartsy dancer, I do like unity, and why the hell can’t there be more unity in modern dance?
That in and of itself is a mark of a good piece, I think; the ability to make the viewer have some thought or emotion or realization that they would otherwise have not had.
As usual, the pieces were all lovingly performed by the dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet. They all accomplish not only the technique required for these three very different pieces, but the artistry and energy and exuberance. All of the dancers onstage found a way to exist beyond themselves, their lines of energy extending far past the walls of McCaw Hall.