PNB's Broadway Festival: The rich and familiar melds with the new

Along with the iconic Sharks and Jets, an elegant surprise and a gratifying bit of hope for an anxious time.
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Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers, with soloist Seth Orza (center) as Riff, in Jerome Robbins' <i>West Side Story Suite</i>, part of PNB's Broadway Festival.

Along with the iconic Sharks and Jets, an elegant surprise and a gratifying bit of hope for an anxious time.

Broadway Festival, Pacific Northwest Ballet'ꀙs admirable venture into musical show-biz opened last weekend at Seattle Center'ꀙs McCaw Hall with a program rich in iconic American music and dance. A decidedly mid-20th century affair, it had familiar tunes and lyrics from Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and the ground-breaking jazz of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. It also had the work of two great American masters of movement, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. The most pleasant surprise of the night, however, was Christopher Wheeldon'ꀙs lyrical and elegant Carousel (A Dance).

Rather than following the story line of Carousel, the great 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical replete with class struggle, domestic violence and belated redemption, Wheeldon created a new, more abstracted pure dance work that referenced the narrative of the original using the music, The Carousel Waltz and If I Loved You, but with a more dreamy vision that softened the harshness of the original story. With his complete set of skills, one can see why the Englishman Wheeldon, at age 36 a former dancer and resident choreographer with New York City Ballet, and now director of his own company, is so much in demand by ballet troupes.

Thought of as a "contemporary" ballet dance-maker, he is as much a neo-classicist, with Carousel (A Dance) displaying his sure hand with ensemble work and pas de deux — the latter performed beautifully at this performance by Jodie Thomas and James Moore — and with his gift for expanding a generic vocabulary into a more organically unfolding movement style that fit the PNB dancers well. The work was originally choreographed for New York City Ballet for a one-time only event in 2002, but its success landed it in that company'ꀙs repertoire, and its PNB premiere this past weekend. The lovely costume design by Holly Hynes, particularly the women'ꀙs flowing dresses, added much to the dance'ꀙs allure.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was the oldest dance on the Broadway Festival program, and looked it. Created by George Balanchine in 1936 as the closing number of the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes, Slaughter is a charming period piece, choreographed by this Russian artist only three years or so into his new life in the United States after many triumphs with Diaghilev'ꀙs Ballet Russes, and a peripatetic life after that company'ꀙs demise in 1929.

In Slaughter we see Balanchine the showman who went on in the following 10 years to choreograph for several more Broadway musicals, including three more Rodgers and Hart shows, as well as Hollywood films. He pulls out all the stops in this final dance number of On Your Toes, a show with a book about gangsters mixing it up with a ballet company.

The ballet number Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is considered by many as the first dance in a stage musical to advance the narrative of the show, rather than simply acting as what was sometimes called "moving scenery." It parallels a similar impact that Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan'ꀙs choreography had in the Fred and Ginger film musicals of the time. In the ballet, set in a tawdry night club, "The Hoofer" falls in love with a "Striptease Girl," only to have her killed by her jealous "Big Boss," who is slain by The Hoofer, who in turn is supposed to shoot himself in despair.

The version of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue performed by PNB is the one restaged in 1967 as a stand-alone ballet for Balanchine'ꀙs own company, New York City Ballet. It is certainly not a great dance, or even a very complete dance when seen without the rest of On Your Toes, but audiences certainly enjoy it, and it must have been fun for Balanchine and the dancers. This particular dance marks an important point in the development of Balanchine's career, as well as that of the American theater.

It'ꀙs half character acting, half ballet dancing with a European sensibility, informed more than a bit by the music hall, with perhaps a touch of Kurt Weill. Viewed at the time primarily as a Russian venture, ballet in this country in the 1930s had not yet forged a distinctly American identity.

It is for these reasons that Slaughter stood out in the Broadway Festival program, but it also had a theatrical conceit going for it: bookends from the original play, with one of the characters planning a hit on The Hoofer before the ballet actually begins, to take place at the very end of the ballet. It was fun for the audience to see Jonathan Poretta play the part of a bad boy ballerino, faux-Russian accent and all, setting up the hit in front of the curtain before it rises, and at the end, James Orza as The Hoofer refusing to stop dancing lest he be plugged by the goon with the gun now sitting up in a balcony box of McCaw Hall.

Orza played his role with fine panache, and Carla Korbes brought technical fluency to the Striptease Girl, though too perky for the distanced sultriness the role seemed to demand, especially when compared with Vera Zorina (Balanchine dancer-wife No. 2 of four) performing the part in a brief film clip from the 1939 film version shown at McCaw at the start of the evening. Everyone else in the PNB version was having a grand old time, abetted by the terrific orchestration of the Rodgers score by Hershy Kay.

The Big Enchilada of the Broadway Festival was the PNB premiere of Jerome Robbins'ꀙ West Side Story Suite, dances from his landmark musical that premiered on Broadway in 1957. This suite, restaged by Robbins so as to tie the dances together when out of the original context of the whole show, had its first performance in 1995 with New York City Ballet, when Robbins was in the final stages of his illustrious career and had settled in as a resident choreographer of that company.

With music by Bernstein and lyrics by a young Sondheim, these dances have worked their way deeply into the fiber of American popular culture. When a theatrical trailer for the 1961 film version was shown prior to the dance, many in the Broadway Festival audience snapped their fingers along with the Jets'ꀙ leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn).

Therein lies the challenge for a ballet company. When we snap our fingers, we know the reference to the Jets. When we see that iconic moment, arm reaching up, leg lifted to the sky, head flung back, we know it is George Chakiris of the Sharks. We know it is West Side Story. We know the movie, and we know the play from high school productions, college and community versions, and the recent staging at our own Fifth Avenue Theater. More than any other dance piece in this concert, we came to see what we already knew. And we came to see how PNB would do.

When I was a young dancer in New York in the mid 1960s, it was not often that a ballet or a modern dancer crossed over into musical theater. This was the province of "gypsies" who could deliver a number to the second balcony. It happened, of course, but the thinking at the time was that you needed different sets of technical skills and performance qualities.

I don'ꀙt know how exclusive the different camps of dancers are these days, and certainly the range of PNB'ꀙs repertoire is quite demanding on its dancers, so it was intriguing to me, and I'ꀙm sure to many others, to see how dancers of the 21st century would do at performing the cool, percussive "jazz dance" vocabulary of a half-century earlier.

In watching the trailer from the film version, there were snippets of The Prologue, in which we first meet the Sharks and the Jets on the streets of New York. I was amazed at how these dancers hit a movement, like a still photo, then release so quickly out of it as if they had never really stopped moving, even for a microsecond. How every movement is so clean and clear. How deeply low they go to the ground and still keep their legs under them, and how fast they change directions, speeds and levels. How they drive the beat of the music, even dance around it, rather than waiting for it to come to them.

Some say there are only two kinds of dancing, good and bad, and that all that changes is style. However, the style of the dancing in West Side Story Suite is key to its success. I noticed in the program notes that these dances had been set on PNB by two former New York City Ballet dancers, now specializing in setting the works of Robbins and Balanchine on other companies. Therefore, West Side Story Suite was taught by ballet dancers to ballet dancers, making it another step removed from the original, which itself fused jazz, ballet and vernacular dance. And throw in the changes wrought by Robbins over time, known as a constant tinkerer with his choreography, ask some of them to sing, and you get a real test for the PNB dancers, some of whom projected a real sense of style, of place and time, others less successfully so.

I think of these dances as, for the most part, showcases for men, yet some of my favorite performing in PNB'ꀙs version was from the women. The same Carla Korbes who was too pallid for me in Slaughter proved as Anita, the top girl of the Sharks, that she was nicely up to the Latin-inflected Dance at the Gym and America, perhaps owing something to her real-life upbringing in Brazil. She was joined in America by the splendid swivel hips and sass of Lindsi Dec. I also liked Sarah Ricard Orza, who showed us how a starry-eyed young Maria should walk towards Tony when she first lays eyes on him across the gym.

Among the men highlights included the contained anger, sureness and get-down dancing of Batkhurel Bold as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks and Anita'ꀙs boyfriend. There were also some nice moments for the men in the cool, understated dancing of parts of The Prologue, but at other times they lacked the needed punch of percussive movements.

PNB was most successful in the Dance at the Gym number, much of which was originally, according to the program notes, created by choreographer Peter Gennaro, and not Robbins. Perhaps it was having the mass of both gangs onstage at the same time, young men and women together; perhaps the velocity of the mambo dancing and the music very popular in the late-50s energizing everyone; perhaps it was the sheer vivacity of the dancing emblematic of hormonally charged youth. As part of this segment, I never really liked the starry-eyed Maria and Tony gazing-across-the-room-shtick, especially the Vaseline-covered lens treatment in the movie, but here it worked nicely for me, and seemed more transparent, less false sentiment.

And I liked the final segment, the Somewhere Ballet, coming after the Rumble scene and the deaths of Bernardo and Tony. This was not the ending from the play, but it spoke to our time, even though staged by Robbins more than a decade ago. It is a cruel time now, filled with anger and anxiety. We do hope for a better somewhere. The staging was kind of corny, the sentiments a little trite, the dancing a bit unfocused, but it still gave me a chill. We can hope for better. Yes we can.

Broadway Festival completes its run at McCaw Hall, Thursday through Sunday, March 19-22


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