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Gibson's Muse is Music

by Leland Windreich

Published on CriticalDance.com August 2003
(This article originally appeared in the PNB Magazine)

Choreographers get their inspiration from a variety of sources. Those favoring narratives draw from popular literature—novels, short stories, plays, poems, mythology and folk tales. Historical events, philosophical, psychological or spiritual concepts, national character and social problems have preoccupied choreographers intent on conveying ideas through the medium of movement. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s vast repertoire has works reflecting all of these possibilities. But like their spiritual godfather George Balanchine, most creative dancemakers are motivated by the music they hear, music, which in their imaginations becomes inseparable from the dance language that emerges.

PNB’s Paul Gibson, who this month offers his second ballet for the Company, regards music as his exclusive point of departure for making dances. In recent years he has created over a dozen ballets for various American ballet troupes, and has been inspired each time by an established concert work to devise complementary choreography. Not limited by a fixation on any single period or type of music, Gibson has used such disparate compositions as the romantic Schubert/Liszt Wanderer Fantasy, the seductive strains of an Astor Piazzolla tango suite, and the saucy orchestral writings of Morton Gould. With Rush he is accepting a major challenge as he works to harness the commanding, restless music of the Czech Bohuslav Martinu.

The 33-year-old dancer approaches this new work with a rich background. As a youngster he studied both jazz and tap, excelling as well in gymnastics and baseball. At age 14 he began ballet training at the Allegheny Ballet Academy in Pennsylvania, and later supplemented his studies with summer programs at the School of American Ballet in New York. He won a scholarship at San Francisco Ballet School, where he ultimately joined the company in 1988 as an apprentice and became a full member within months. His six-year tenure at SFB brought exposure to a vast and varied repertoire ranging from Russian classics and Balanchine to the innovative works of Mark Morris, James Kudelka and William Forsythe

Gibson joined PNB in 1994 as a Soloist and quickly rose to the rank of Principal dancer. He has worked with a remarkably diverse roster of ballet and contemporary dance choreographers, learning from each a significant approach. Although his choreography makes no statements that could be considered derivative, elements he’s assimilated in the process of learning and performing are evident in his works. With Rush he may well be establishing his own unique position as a choreographer.

PNB conductor Stewart Kershaw suggested the Martinu Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani to Gibson as a possible score for a ballet. Gibson’s response on hearing the work was immediate, and the sweep and flow of the strings suggested the title. The work is in three movements, with the entire cast participating in the first and third.

During the first two weeks of rehearsal, new Corps de Ballet dancer Chalnessa Eames found he first movement of the Martinu score inaccessible at times. During her first opportunity to work with Gibson she began to see the shape of the score as he assigned counts to the music. “Now the music is in my body,” she declared. She is grateful for Gibson’s patient persistence and for his ability to convey exactly what he wants from his dancers.

“He knows what we can do,” Soloist Melanie Skinner remarks. “We’ve worked with him for years, and he knows our capabilities and our special talents.” Skinner frequently shares the stage with Gibson and has great admiration for his gifts as a performer. She is partnered by Batkhurel Bold in Rush.

Jeffrey Stanton, long-time friend and colleague of Gibson (they met as teenagers at San Francisco Ballet School) sees traces of style from contemporary choreographers who have worked with PNB in recent years in Gibson’s Rush but praises him for characteristic originality. Because their dance education and experience is practically identical, the men share similar influences, and a natural rapport in the studio is inevitable. This new work represents their debt to George Balanchine, whose influence dominated their formative years in San Francisco and Seattle. Rush, Stanton observes, has more of the classical precision of a Balanchine opus and less of the off-balance and dangerous elements they have encountered in physically challenging pieces by William Forsythe and Kevin O’Day.          

Gibson created his ballet in segments and rehearsed it accordingly until the work was completed. Ballet mistress Anne Dabrowski, present at all rehearsals, kept a close vigil on a complex exercise in movement.  The dancers incorporated the challenging ballet into their experience through the miracle of muscle memory. Their performance will ensure its success.


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