Reliving the second wave of modern American dance

Pacific Northwest Ballet mounts an ambitious festival, celebrating choreographers with Northwest connections. Works by Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, two giants of the American avant garde, earn our critic's close attention.
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Kylee Kitchens and company dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet performing <i>Inlets 2</i> by Merce Cunningham. (Angela Sterling)

Pacific Northwest Ballet mounts an ambitious festival, celebrating choreographers with Northwest connections. Works by Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, two giants of the American avant garde, earn our critic's close attention.

Merce Cunningham is 88 this year. In the pantheon of American choreographers, he stands among the tallest and is still producing idiosyncratically beautiful dance works when most men his age are pushing up daisies or trying to remember if they put their pants on that morning. With an enormously inquisitive mind, and an undiminished passion for exploring the possibilities of movement, he has been for over 60 years a constant collaborator with the great visual and musical artists of the day. Increasingly hobbled by physical infirmities, he now makes choreography for his company with the assistance of computer software, a reflection of his long-time interest in new technologies. Born in Centralia, Wash., and educated at Cornish College of the Arts, Cunningham last brought his company to Seattle in 2001 at Meany Hall, where they performed two masterpieces, Rain Forest with sets by Andy Warhol (1967) and Biped from 1999, which integrated live movement with giant dancing computer-generated images. Cunningham's early work constituted a second generation of "modern" American dance, the first being led by Martha Graham, in whose company he performed. The next generation, in the 1960s, had in its avant-garde New York's Judson Dance Theater, experimentalists who took inspiration from both Cunningham and his close collaborator, John Cage. One of Judson's mainstays was the pride of Aberdeen, Wash., Trisha Brown. She made her first real impact in the early 1970s with dances that took place on the rooftops and sides of buildings in Manhattan. Brown soon began creating concert works that took everyday gestures through a process of accumulation and abstraction that evolved them into free-flowing dances. Like Cunningham, she has world-class artistic collaborators such as Robert Rauschenberg and has thrived here in the U.S. and internationally. The works of these two Washington-born giants of American contemporary dance were on display at McCaw Hall last week during the "Celebrate Seattle" festival presented by Pacific Northwest Ballet, devised by their enterprising artistic director, Peter Boal. This ambitious festival, with four different programs running April 5-22, explored a large swath of work by choreographers associated with Seattle or the Northwest through birth, training, or residence, including Mark Morris, Donald Byrd, Mary Sheldon Scott, Toni Pimble, John Alleyne, and Christopher Stowell (son of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell), all of whom now direct their own troupes. Merce Cunningham's contribution for the festival's Program A was Inlet 2 for seven dancers. The music by John Cage consists of the gurgling sounds of water as it passes through large amplified conches. Manipulated dexterously by percussionists of the ballet's orchestra, this soundscore created a spare and evocative aural accompaniment for the dancers. Cunningham, the ultimate modernist, asks the audience to make sense of his dances from their own interpretations and experiences, more than through any cues that he provides. This can be disconcerting to those expecting to be "told" what to see by the choreography and music. He further baffles the viewer by creating a 360-degree world, where dancers can face in any direction, and with multiple events happening all about the stage with no central focus. The dancers usually don't hear the score before they perform the piece, which is composed independently of the choreography. Cunningham further challenges his artists by often re-ordering the movement sequences before any given performance, using various methods of chance, like throwing dice, to shuffle them around. Cunningham is one of the field's most prolific and inventive devisers of individual movements and phrases, perhaps the best I have ever seen, and his dances sometimes contain so much kinetic information – standing, running, lying, floor work, jumping, partnering, twisting, bending and arching torsos, ballet-like leg extensions and arabesques, deep plies, quick changes in facing, comic gestures large and small – that it can be exhausting trying to take it all in. Although game, the PNB dancers appeared still a bit tentative with what they had to do, the three men especially. That's not unexpected given the newness of the work to them, and the other festival repertory demands that I suspect tested their time and attention. I was told that PNB looked at several Cunningham works but chose Inlets 2 because of its strong Seattle associations: Cunningham, obviously, but also Cage, who likewise attended Cornish, and Morris Graves, the great Northwest painter who did the original sets (not used in PNB's version). One could imagine other reasons: The work is a good fit for PNB with its placidity, is visually pleasing to the eye, and is one of Cunningham's more contemplative and languid pieces with space to breath for its four women and three men. The "water music" seemed especially suited to our locale, with program notes indicating Cage was inspired by the Northwest. Given how Cunningham and his collaborators create work, one doesn't look for a storyline or concrete imagery, but somehow in almost every dance it is there for me. Our imaginations seem to demand it. And with the sounds of water, and the gentle meanderings of the performers about the stage, the occasional burst of energy by one of the men, and the flutter here and there of a hand or arm, I conjured up the eddies and swirls of water at play, and a flock of birds upon a lake. Trisha Brown's work was of a much different flavor. Boal chose to show three short dances, all based on a "Spanish" theme, and each done in a straight path working from stage left to right. One dance appeared in each of the three acts of the program and made for quirky, droll, and thoroughly beguiling curatorial choices. Opening Program B of the festival was Carmen Overture from 1986, taken from Brown's first introduction to working with opera, in this case with director Lina Wertmuller at Naples Teatre di San Carlos. Set to the well-known Bizet music, it was a miniature comedy of manners. With arms held above their heads in flamenco-like pose, or bent low as if bulls or their tormenting picadors, the eight dancers entered and crossed the space with leg lunges and proudly held torsos. Their haughty demeanor continued, until a few dropped to the floor here and there as if unable to continue the conceit, before they popped back into place and exited. It all took about five minute or less. The play on Bizet and Spanish "attitude" took a witty turn in the next piece, Carmen Entre-acte. A woman enters, in long dress and shawl, arms again held high - and holds the position as she slowly crosses the stage and falls into the arms of her waiting courtier. Except she doesn't shift or soften, but holds her rigid position. He, in turn, just lets her fall and fall until she reaches the floor, still frozen in place. Only the fringe of the shawl slowly yields to gravity. Spanish Dance, Brown's final work, is performed in a bright slash of light on the forestage in front of McCaw's garish red curtain at the end of the second intermission. It's an early signature work of Trisha Brown's from 1976 that shows her playing with a single simple movement and amplifying it into a dance through accumulation. No Bizet this time, but Bob Dylan singing Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." Five women dancers are spread evenly across the stage. The farthest left begins, arms again held high as in the other pieces, taking small steps with hips shifting languidly from side to side. As she reaches the next woman, they meld, and continue as a pair, back to front, and so on until all five are moving in a line together packed front to back like so many sensual sardines until they are stopped dead by walking into the proscenium wall. It's quick, it's funny, and it's a precursor of the more complex dances yet to come in Brown's career. There were a number of other pleasures to be seen in Programs A and B. Among them were the wonderful dancing of Noelani Pantastico, Lucien Postlewaite, and Olivier Wevers in Val Caniparoli's energetic romp, Torque; the lush choreography, inventive stage design, and excellent partnering by the guest artists from Oregon Ballet Theater in Christopher Stowell's Adin; Ken Tabachnik's powerful and effective lighting for all Ms. Brown's works; and the boffo world premiere of Sense of Doubt by PNB's Ballet Master, Paul Gibson. Skillfully choreographed, fast-paced and dramatic, Sense of Doubt was a perfect showcase for the finest dancing that PNB can offer. Special kudos again to Ms. Pantastico, who should, if she hasn't already, trade mark that last name. The Celebrate Seattle Festival presented a wonderful panorama of concert dance from Seattle and the Northwest, and Pacific Northwest Ballet is to be congratulated for taking the risk - both aesthetically and financially. However, if done again, I hope Boal will consider choreography and dances from some of our finest ethnic artists to give a more complete picture of concert dance in our community.


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