Pacific Northwest Ballet

' Paquita,' 'Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,' 'Esmeralda Pas de Deux,' 'Theme and Variations'

by Francis Timlin

February 1-7, 2003 -- Mercer Arts Arena, Seattle, WA

The Saturday, February 1, 2003 performance began with an announcement that the orchestra would play Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus" as arranged by Tchaikovsky -- best known to many of us as the Preghiera from "Mozartiana" -- in honor of the seven Columbia astronauts. It was a hypnotic moment -- and a difficult shift from the transcendence of that work (and its balletic associations) to a work in another dimension altogether, "Paquita."

However, the corps entered against a dazzling backdrop with similarly dazzling costumes and smiles and did their level best to make us suspend our thoughts about troubles for the time being. There were some casting changes from the previously published rosters. In the Pas de Trois, instead of Jonathan Porretta and Chalnessa Eames, we saw Le Yin and Jodie Thomas, together with Tempe Ostergren. Among the four variations, Melanie Skinner was particularly outstanding.

I have seen relatively little of Le Yin since he came to PNB. My impression on Saturday is that he has developed a more controlled onstage presence during his first full season here. His jumps remain spectacular. Jodie Thomas was particularly fine in her variation (to a very difficult flute variation).

The principal leads were taken by Carrie Imler and Casey Herd. Imler has no apparent difficulties with centering or effortless balancing; she also appears to be a natural turner. Her fouettes were solidly on the mark -- no tours of the stage for her -- and I counted 34 including the multiple flourish at the conclusion. Herd has quickly earned favor among many audience members for his radiant and youthful presence. It is difficult to realize that he was a member of the corps only a year ago and joined the company as recently as three seasons ago. There were a few minor partnering glitches attributable either to nerves or lack of seasoning. These did no harm to the overall sense of verve in the performance.

The corps was in excellent form throughout, with certain dancers performing double duty in both corps work and in variations. A dancer who never fails to catch my eye: Rebecca Johnston.

Following intermission, Louise Nadeau and Jeffrey Stanton fulfilled my expectation that there would be no partnering difficulties in the "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." Nadeau's performance felt weightless and effortless -- and very French to me. Stanton acquitted himself well.

I was disappointed that the published casting for "Esmeralda Pas de Deux" was changed with no announcement or explanation. I had hoped to see Kaori Nakamura and Olivier Wevers (who are responsible for setting this version on PNB). Despite my disappointment, I was pleasantly rewarded by the performance of Noelani Pantastico (another recent promotion from the corps to soloist) and Astrit Zejnati, a returnee to the PNB fold after a short stint at Miami City Ballet in fall 2001.

Patricia Barker's appearance with Stanko Milov in "Theme and Variations" was the element that turned this performance into an occasion. There is a new element of ease and maturity in Barker's performance these days that speaks well for her two decades of commitment to this company and its core values in the Balanchine repertoire. Whereas technique has always been present, now there is nuance and subtlety. I was particularly taken with what seemed to me a new-found freedom in epaulement and port de bras -- another reason to look forward to "Sleeping Beauty" this spring. "Theme" is one of the roles to which Barker has become ideally suited and it feels like a rare privilege to see her performing at her current level. Milov was an attentive partner.
The ensemble was finely tuned and the whole affair exuded polished assuredness. The double tours for the men at the conclusion of the finale have never been more thrilling.
There was a minor disappointment in the lack of a post-performance discussion -- I always find these enlightening -- but, perhaps the feeling was that everything that needed to be said had been said onstage. I hope to catch at least one more performance in this series this week.

I enjoyed a second performance of this repertory program on Thursday, February 6, 2003. "Paquita" is a ballet designed to be seen straight on from the center, and my seats were positioned to far better advantage. The ensemble work looked fresher and more precisely engaged. Patricia Barker, partnered by Batkhurel Bold, turned in some of her finest work to date in the principal role. I continue to marvel at her new-found freedom and fluidity from the arms and shoulders upward. Bold is a marvel in his own right -- spectacular elevation and splendid control -- all refreshingly lacking in any hint of arrogance or display of ego. It was a pleasure to see their partnership. Jonathan Porretta, Chalnessa Eames and Tempe Ostergren performed the Pas de Trois. Porretta, although appropriately classically subdued, had the opportunity of displaying his marvelous elevation and line, in a too-brief appearance for the evening. Among the four variations, we were surprised and delighted to have Carrie Imler in the fourth and final variation, where her precision, speed, elevation, and turning facilities induced an outburst of audience cheering.

Jodie Thomas and Le Yin debuted in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." Thomas shares some training background with Barker: both were students of Lynne-Marie Williams (a former Boston Ballet principal who operated a studio in Spokane) and both subsequently trained at PNB School. Observing her at the outset of the Pas de Deux, my mental camera flipped to an image of Deborah Hadley, with whom she shares some physical and movement qualities. Yin, a principal with Houston Ballet until a year ago, is still new to the PNB repertoire and appears to be enjoying learning and polishing new roles. He is tall, has excellent line and a fine elevation. While there were a few tentative moments in this performance -- it was, after all, their first time out on stage with this work -- there are no major conceptual flaws here.

"Esmeralda Pas de Deux" received the same charming performance by the same couple -- Noelani Pantastico and Astrit Zejnati -- as the Saturday evening performance. I understand that Carrie Imler and Oleg Gorboulev were to have made a third cast, but Gorboulev is temporarily out of commission with an injury of some sort, which had necessitated a reshuffling of the remaining casts.

With Carrie Imler and Jeffrey Stanton in the leads, "Theme and Variations" had a different set of performance dynamics from the Barker/Milov cast on Saturday evening. On this occasion, my eye was drawn especially to Imler's variation. Her splendid petit allegro, marvelous facility for turning and jumping, and finally, her musicality, comprised the high point of this performance for me. The ensemble of corps and soloists was, once again, in its element. It was a pleasure to once again see Christophe Maraval onstage in one of the soloist roles and Batkhurel Bold appeared to enjoy having one final pass at the double tours.

Friday, February 7, 2003 was my third and final performance of this program.

"Paquita" was noteworthy for its pairing of the youthful soloist Mara Vinson with the also-youthful principal Stanko Milov. I am certain that is must be most reassuring for someone new to principal roles to be partnered by someone of Milov's stature and strength. Vinson was late in starting the fouettes but nonetheless managed 29 with a slight hitch at the finish. Milov would have pleased me by increasing his level of attentive solicitousness toward his partner. But these are minor quibbles in what was, overall, a highly satisfactory performance. The cast of the Pas de Trois was possibly the most satisfying of the three performances. I was especially impressed with the double pirouettes (alterating left and right) from Astrit Zejnati, who, in addition to striking just the right balance of care and attention toward his two partners, also conveyed a clear sense of enjoyment and verve in his role. The cast for the four variations was also among the strongest overall of the three performances I attended: Melanie Skinner in the first, Jodie Thomas in the third, and especially the star turn by Carrie Imler in the fourth.

In "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," Patricia Barker exuded Farrellesque radiance, partnered by Batkhurel Bold. This is another ingenious move to bolster Bold's level of confidence while forcing him to confront the obvious intimidation factor. When Barker dances, expectations are very high, increasing the pressure on those who partner her. Great things are clearly expected from Bold (who was also the featured artist in the program bill). His continuing development is a pleasure to observe. It almost goes without saying that Barker continues to extend herself beyond even those very high expectations.

"Esmeralda Pas de Deux" with Kaori Nakamura and Olivier Wevers was a clear highlight of the evening for me. This demi-caractére work found its stride amidst the seemingly small but highly significant musical and movement dynamics brought to the roles by these two dancers. Glances, gestures, the innate musicality and dramatic sureness of both of the performers truly projected this work across the proscenium and had the audience in their grasp the entire way.

"Theme and Variations" featured the second of two performances by soloists Noelani Pantastico and Casey Herd. I applaud the artistic directors for affording relatively young soloists the opportunity to gain performance experience in major roles. Principals obviously do not emerge fully formed out of nowhere. The performance was very well done and well supported by the superb ensemble of corps and soloists.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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