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    PNB School Show: Ballet from the ground up

    Tots in tutus, teary-eyed parents and lots of amazing dance at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual school performances.
    PNB School graduating student Enrico Hipolito.

    PNB School graduating student Enrico Hipolito. Photo: Nathaniel Solis

    Dance Chance student Enrico Hipolito in class at PNB at age 10.

    Dance Chance student Enrico Hipolito in class at PNB at age 10. Photo: PNB School

    PNB Level I students in 2012 school performance

    PNB Level I students in 2012 school performance Photo: Angela Sterling

    The season is over at Pacific Northwest Ballet. It’s been a fine one. Fans won’t be seeing the company again until late September. So why are they smiling? Because the best is yet to come. The season celebrates a roster of ballets. But on Saturday ballet lovers will be gathering at McCaw Hall for two presentations that celebrate the art of ballet itself: the company’s 32nd annual School Performance.

    Does the idea of a dance-school recital call up images of tiny tots in tutus and teary-eyed parents? The PNB School show has plenty of that: When the curtain first goes up on a stageful of poppets arrayed like a bed of new-planted posies, there are plenty of blissful sighs in the darkened house, not to mention tears furtively brushed away.

    But then the music starts and the poppets begin to dance: The posies become sea anemones, their arms floating gently and harmoniously in configurations codified half a millennium ago. One of the glories of PNB’s professional company is its mastery of the subtlest of balletic arts, the use of arms to create a harmonious volume of space around each dancer’s body. 

    At PNB, teaching that art begins on the first day. Even on the professional stage, you sometimes see a dancer who doesn’t quite yet know what to do with arms and elbows. Not on the PNB stage; not in the PNB School.

    So what, you say, that 20-odd little girls (and the occasional boy) know how to wave their arms to music. Oh, but that’s just the start. The Level II students follow the Level Is to the stage. These more advanced dancers are starting to explore space, not just occupy it. And their pleasure in doing so is enough to squeeze tears from a stone. The wonders continue through performances by Levels III, IV, V, VI and VII. In the course of an hour or so you experience the birth of a dancer, see the art of ballet evolve from literal baby-steps to virtual flight.

    The grandest moments come at the end, of course; the stageful of boys of all ages radiating pride and esthetic testosterone, followed by the men and women of the graduating, pre-professional class (accompanied by fellow virtuosi from the Seattle Youth Symphony) performing real ballet, some of it created on their bodies, some drawn from the professional repertory they’ll soon be dancing for as a living. 

    In past School shows we’ve seen these kids in Balanchine masterpieces like Chaconne and Cortège hongroise. This year they’ll be dancing a movement of Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, as well as kicking off Twyla Tharp’s year-long PNB residency with her 1996 work Sweet Fields. The piece, inspired by early American hymns and Shaker tunes, ie performed to live accompaniment by the Tudor Choir. 

    But don’t get the idea that you sit through a lot of kid-stuff to get to the pay-off. The PNB School presentation is all pay-off, and enough inspired dancing to keep you energized until September rolls round again.

    If you go: The 32nd Annual School Performance, Saturday, June 15, 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $30 to $70. More information and reservations at the PNB box office.

    Roger Downey is a Seattle writer interested in food, the arts, the sciences, and urban manners. He is currently working on a book about the birth of opera in 1630s Venice.

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    Posted Fri, Jun 14, 5:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    The Paris Opera Ballet has a lovely annual tradition, the Grand Defile, where everyone in the organization, from the youngest student to the veteran character dancers, crosses the stage in procession. Other ballet companies have used the defile for various occasions (Pacific Northwest Ballet staged one at the retirement celebration of their former directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell). PNB's school show has a similar feeling to it -- I'm always thrilled to be able to go and witness that kind of passage.


    Posted Fri, Jun 14, 8:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    Sure is nice to read Roger Downey on the arts again. He's the best in the city!

    Posted Sat, Jun 15, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

    Just a quick correction: The evening show of the School Performance is at 7:00, not 7:30.

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