Anyone who has seen much of Olivier Wevers’ choreography knows that he has a quick wit and the latest outing of his company Whim W’Him shows off that wit in spades. Two of the three dances on the program are, in Wevers’ own words, “quirky comedy,” and one of them is so uproariously funny that belly laughs reverberated throughout Intiman Theatre at Friday’s opening night.
“Flower Festival” is Wevers' wacky take on one of the most delightful pas de deux in the classical ballet repertoire, but he has upended virtually every aspect of it. His point of departure is “The Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux,” which is drawn from a full-length work that August Bournonville created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1858. Designed to evoke the Danes’ 19th century love of Italy, the ballet showcased Bournonville’s distinctive style of flashing feet and youthful exuberance. Nowadays only the pas de deux, or duet, is performed, usually at ballet galas and special performances.
Although Wevers has retained the structure of the pas de deux — intro, slow section, individual variations, and a coda — the similarity ends there. Instead of a charming love duet between a young man and woman, Wevers’ “Flower Festival,” which could just as easily be called “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” is a dance-off, or more specifically a clothes-off, between two young men on a set brightly lit to resemble a boxing ring.
Lucien Postlewaite and Andrew Bartee, both of Pacific Northwest Ballet, enter the ring clad in business suits and ties. Soon, they take their places on shiny steel chairs at opposite ends of the ring and the dance-off begins. Bartee removes his shoes to reveal bright pink socks, then leaps to the center and begins a macho series of jumps and turns. He swaggers back to his chair, at which point Postlewaite, not to be outdone, whips off his shoes and begins his own testosterone-driven variation in turquoise socks.
Taking turns taunting each other, Bartee and Postlewaite gradually strip down to undershirts and boxing shorts, entwining each other in their ties, jackets, and pants as they remove the articles of clothing one by one.
Rather than end “Flower Festival” with a pose, Wevers has the lights go down as Bartee and Postlewaite are still struggling, turning each other by an outstretched leg in an endless circle of one chasing the other. It’s a clever and appropriate conclusion to a delightful romp that had the audience on its feet almost before the stage went to black.
Postlewaite and Bartee have settled into an easy alliance as dance partners and while Postlewaite, a principal at PNB, has sometimes overshadowed Bartee, a member of the corps, that was not the case in “Flower Festival.” If anything, on Friday night Bartee seemed to take to the muscle flexing with even more gusto than Postlewaite, surely a sign of Bartee’s increasing confidence as a dancer.
The other comic work on the program, a solo entitled “La Langue de L’Amour,” revealed a sly, sexy side of former PNB dancer Chalnessa Eames that PNB’s repertoire never gave her a chance to show off. Dressed in a filmy short pink dress, pointe shoes and pixie haircut wig, Eames bounced out on stage to the joyful strains of the Allegro section of Scarlatti’s “Sonata in D Major.”
For the next 15 minutes or so, she played with and to the audience, blowing kisses, offering come-hither looks, and at one moment pointing to a stunned Batkhurel Bold (PNB prinicipal dancer sitting in the audience) as a spotlight turned on him and stayed there for the rest of the piece. Eames has a beautiful line and even with flexed feet and arms akimbo, she manages to look elegant. Wevers created “La Langue” specifically for Eames and the combination of his witty steps and her sparkling personality make for a charming and accessible gambol.
With “thrOwn,” the third and final new work on the program, Wevers broke the comic mood — with mixed results. It’s a weighty ballet that asks the question “What is just punishment?” and although Wevers intends for each one of us to answer for ourselves, the narrative is sufficiently unclear and the emotion too muted to fully engage us. Although the program notes suggest a through-story, "thrOwn's" three sections are in fact an odd mixture of story and abstract ballet. Even having read the notes, it was sometimes difficult to follow the story of an adulterous woman and her death by stoning, interspersed with simulations of various forms of capital punishment.
Wevers has bitten off a huge chunk of choreographic pie in attempting a narrative ballet. Although some sections are compelling (especially one that invokes frontier justice), “thrOwn” looks more like an abstract work with a few explicit narrative elements than a coherent exploration of how societies define justice and the lengths we would go to personally to achieve it. What is perhaps most surprising is that “thrOwn” is almost devoid of human feeling. in a ballet whose subject should evoke a strong visceral reaction, the dancers seem at an emotional distance, as though they’re acting out a powerful story with their bodies, but not their souls.
Despite these shortcomings, “thrOwn” does have its appealing elements: most notably the stunning earth-toned set by artist Steve Jensen. Christine Joly de Lotbiniere’s costumes enhance the look and feel of an unspecified Middle Eastern setting and Michael Mazzola’s dramatic lighting seamlessly turns the spaces from a desert environment to a prison to the American West. The five dancers — Eames, Postlewaite, Bartee, Tory Peil (formerly of Spectrum Dance Theatre), and Jim Kent — execute Wevers’ gnarled movements with technical precision and make for a well-unified ensemble.
If you go: Whim W’Him, Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer Street, through January 22. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day of show, $15 rush for students, online, http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/214802 or at the box office day of show.