Ballet, butoh, and Magnificent Martha

Three dance performances with a common theme: the evolution and reframing of a choreographer's art form.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Chalnessa Eames and principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s "Afternoon Ball."

Three dance performances with a common theme: the evolution and reframing of a choreographer's art form.

Ballet, butoh, and Magnificent Martha were all in town last week — a great treat for dance lovers.

Starting on Wednesday, Japan’s Sankai Juku appeared for a single performance at The Paramount, followed by the venerable Martha Graham Dance Company gracing the stage of Meany Hall, and Pacific Northwest Ballet performing an evening choreographed by Twyla Tharp, who was in attendance in the audience.

Although it was a happenstance of scheduling that had these programs so closely together, there was a connective tissue that united them. Each offered a text on the evolution of a choreographer’s vision, and through it the reframing of their art form.

PNB’s second  “All Tharp” program (the first was in 2008) opened a 10-day run this past Friday at McCaw Hall. Under artistic director Peter Boal, the company looked splendid, ably meeting the considerable demands that the Tharp choreography placed on them.

Tharp, born in Indiana, had her formative years and early dance training in Southern California, where her father was said to have run a drive-in movie theater. Perhaps her closeness to the film industry in some way explains her catholic tastes in dance, and her abiding interest in popular culture, as her career has traveled back and forth between ballet and modern dance on stage, Broadway, films, even television, never quite settling on one approach over another.

Tharp’s superb grasp of technique and the uses to which a disciplined and well-trained body can be placed, along with her interest in a variety of movement forms — ballet, modern, jazz, tap, social, and folk dance — results in choreography that draws from many sources yet results in unified, if not always successful works. Ballet in particular has benefited from her unique perspective.

A brainy experimentalist in her first decade with her own all-female company, Tharp was known for a distinctive movement style that emphasized a freely moving body, bringing to mind the words “offhand” and  “squiggly.” She first became known to ballet audiences with her 1970s and early '80s works, such as “Deuce Coupe” for the Joffrey Ballet, set to the music of the Beach Boys, and “Push Comes to Shove” with Mikhail Baryshnikov and “Nine Sinatra Songs,” both for American Ballet Theater.

Of the two works commissioned by PNB, both in 2008, “Opus 111,” set to a Brahms string quartet, had lyricism and musicality, accompanying lovely and gracious flow in the complex steps and partnering. It was an excellent showcase for the skills of the 12 fine performers. The other offering, “Afternoon Ball,” was a character study centering around a struggling punkish young man (Jonathan Poretta) aspiring entry into a better world. I found it contrived and cloying, but many in the audience seemed to think otherwise.

The work that best put together all of Tharp's interests was created for the Boston Ballet in 1994 and first performed by PNB in 2006. “Waterbaby Bagatelles” had witty and multiple riffs on bathing beauties, Aquacades, Hollywood and Broadway musicals, and bygone innocence.

Dressed in shades of blue, the company pleasingly cavorted about the stage, dancing under a remarkable grid of moveable fluorescent lights designed by Jennifer Tipton, a genius of illumination, with stylish costumes by Santo Loquasto, longtime designer for chic dance. The bagatelles of the title were seven short pieces of music from an eclectic grouping of composers that blended together effectively as a score and were testimony to Tharp’s musical aptitude.

The previous evening it was something completely different, as Sankai Juku visited Seattle with its most recent work, 2008’s “Tobari – As if in an Inexhaustible Flux.” The choreographer Ushio Amagatsu, who still performs with the eight-member troupe, created the company in 1975 and it has been a fixture on the world dance touring scene since 1980, including several visits to Seattle.

Amagatsu’s work has been identified as butoh, that dark, glacially moving, and dramatic form that emerged in Japan after the Second World War — an eerie, mysterious and apocalyptic strain of movement theater. Although Amagatsu was not the creator of butoh, and there are many practitioners, including a number here in Seattle (even a local butoh festival annually), he and his company are its most visible proponents.

“Tobari” is not a strong work. Its seven sections often were repetitive and, taken together, did not offer a unified and compelling vision. The music all too often was jarring, sometimes sounding a bit like a bad score for a Fellini movie. Though the visuals still were powerful — robes, gowns, bodies all white with rice flour, dramatic gestures — they did little to reinforce a piece that lacked drama and mystery at its core. There was a sense that the performers were going through the motions of something done far better and more persuasively in the past.

To my eye, having seen butoh-inspired material now for 25 years or more, Sankai Juku seemed more than a bit trite. One wondered where Amagatsu will go next, and if this one weak work was just that, or signaled the decline of what was once an original and persuasive voice.

The dramatic performers of Sankai Juku know the grand gesture for sure, but the grandest of them all was Martha Graham. Her company, now run by former principal dancer Janet Eilber, was last seen here in 2007 at the Moore Theater, and it was unfortunate that the first portion of the Meany program was similar to that seen three years ago.

There were reconstructions of works from Graham’s years with Denishawn, the Los Angeles-based school and company of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, from which Graham emerged as a young and seasoned performer; “Lamentation” from 1930, the extraordinary solo that put Graham on the map; and segments of the landmark anti-Fascist 1936 work, “Chronicle.”

Following them after intermission were three obvious and mostly forgettable short dances commissioned in 2007 by the company to commemorate 9/11, using a film of Graham performing “Lamentation” as their creative inspiration. Showing the film prior to this piece seemed unnecessary given the live performance of it only a half-hour earlier.

The program was completed by Graham’s last work, completed in 1990, one year prior to her death. “Maple Leaf Rag” is a lighthearted and delightful romp to music by Scott Joplin that allowed Graham to poke fun at her serious self. Its use of Joplin, and Cakewalk dance steps, both still popular in Graham’s early youth, made this final work something of an elegy amidst the otherwise high spirits.

In 2007, the company seemed a bit shaky, but it was far stronger this time around — in particular Katherine Crockett, who brought depth and pathos to “Lamentation,” and Ben Schulz, who ably played a cross between Nijinsky and King Tut in Ted Shawn’s 1919 “Gnossienne.”

Both “Lamentation” and “Chronicle” were vivid reminders of how extraordinary an artist Graham was, and the central role she played in forging the “new American dance” in the first half of the 20th Century. The Meany concert took the form of an “informance,” with Eilber introducing each dance and giving charming anecdotes about the choreographer. I’m sure many in the audience appreciated this, but for me it was a mistake, somewhat patronizing to the viewer and unintentionally condescending to the choreographer.

Context is important, but we can learn if we wish from program notes, pre-concert talks, and information easily available on the web. Graham’s voice was in her dances. They are what we need to see to appreciate her as an artist. They are her stories, and her legacy to us and to future generations.

If you go: "All Tharp," Pacific Northwest Ballet, through Nov. 14, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle, 206-441-2424. Tickets cost $27 to $165 and are available at the box office, by phone or online.


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