A beautiful fairy princess falls in love with a donkey who prefers to chew on grass instead of returning her affection. We've all been there. It can be a bit depressing to watch stories of unrequited love unfold onstage, but Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" includes brilliant comedic twists and heavy social commentary that aren't lost when the story is presented through dance rather than script. Pacific Northwest Ballet's current production of "Midsummer," in the company's repertoire since 1997, delivers a solid storytelling experience with fast paced choreography.
The beautifully detailed sets from the legendary Martin Pakledinaz are intentionally reminiscent of a Pacific Northwest Forest scene--giant pinecones hover over the stage while evergreens hang in the background and a giant toadstool and buggy-eyed frog bookend the dancers in selected scenes. On opening night, the always lovely and technically perfect Laura Tisserand danced a charming Titania and a stern-faced Kyle Davis performed a strong and convincing Oberon. But Jonathan Porretta's Puck was the highlight of the evening, nailing that fine art of comedic timing and jumping many more feet into the air than one would expect of someone who recently sustained a torn achilles tendon. Porretta will retire from PNB at the end of this season and although dancer retirements are inevitable and always a bit sad, this one's really gonna sting. Porretta is that rare ballet dancer whose artistic mastery and technical proficiency seem to be matched by a deep spiritual maturity that makes his performances particularly memorable.
Other notable performances* this evening include soloist Ezra Thomson's Bottom: the donkey-headed tailor doomed to fall under Titania's lustful gaze. Thomson has an almost eerie ability to communicate story and emotion with his body, he can write an entire character with the sweep of an arm and performs a solid duet with Tisserand even though it looks like he can barely see out of the donkey mask. Angelica Generosa molds gracefully into almost any role she's given, but fairy flitting and quick, pristine footwork are among her most noticeable masteries. Additionally, soloist Elle Macy just keeps getting stronger and more expressive and shone in her solo as Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, although her pas de deux with Dylan Wald's Theseus lacked the same energy and flow as her mile-high leaps and killer fouettés. And the bugs! 25 Pacific Northwest Ballet students in charming little antennae danced in a variety of formations throughout the whole ballet with perfect timing and coordination that rivaled a professional corps de ballet. Go Bugs!
I'm not usually a big fan of the pomp of classical story ballets, but according to the program notes Balanchine wasn't super keen on it, either. Jeanie Thomas' reprinted 1997 program notes talks about how Balanchine eschewed "the excesses" of traditional story ballets and opted to choreograph "Midsummer" with fast-paced mime and exacting choreography rather the hallmark slow, sometimes painfully boring plot-setting scenes common to ballets like "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker." Instead, the flow of PNB's "Midsummer" has the same feel as the flitting fairies that decorate both acts, as jovial as you'd expect your Shakespeare to be and as filled with steamy, unpredictable encounters as Burning Man at sunrise.
Pacific Northwest Ballet's Midsummer Night's Dream runs through April 19-21, info here https://www.pnb.org/season/midsummer/#casting
*I didn't talk about Lesley Rausch's Divertissement pas with Jerome Tisserand because I ran out of time--there are two children climbing up my back as I type this--but Rausch's performance Friday night was breathtaking. See the brilliant Marcie Sillman's fine review of Rausch's performance here.
Baby's First Cherdonna
I took my three year old son to see performance artist Cherdonna Shinatra's current show, "DITCH" at the Frye Art Museum last week. Perched on my lap on a bench in a windowless gallery covered with carnival colored fabric and tiles, my child sat rapt through the entire hour. His first dance performance outside of a studio. His first feminist performance art. His first Cherdonna--an artist whose ethics and artistry I've deeply admired for years--and it appears my tiny offspring is also quite the fan. Proud mama, right here.
Cherdonna Shinatra--the performance persona of Seattle artist Jody Keuhner--is a contemporary dance performer and choreographer who also describes her work as as "part bio drag queen." For the uninitiated, this means that Kuehner's Cherdonna is female, like Kuehner. She looks like a drag queen with large, expertly painted and caricatured feminine makeup and sometimes a huge blond wig perched atop her glittery head. "DITCH," an hour long performance shown six days a week for three months at the Frye (the free art museum!) is easy for a three year old to watch, and a little like church for his mother*.
"DITCH" is performed by Cherdonna and her dance company of six, DONNA. The choreography starts out light and airy with a 1980s Jazzercise feel, but gets dark and heavy as the piece progresses. For a kid, "DITCH" looks like a bunch of women in bright shorts playing around with a clown, all of them making exaggerated facial expressions and skipping and playing with hula hoops. For me, "DITCH" is a look inside the mind of every female-identifying person who stresses about being judged. Because she is. We all are.
The dancers move around the small-ish gallery, surrounded by audience members seated on a few low benches or on the floor. The walls are covered with giant swaths of brightly colored cushioned cloth, the corner of the gallery made up to look like a headless torso. Dancers emerge out of a vibrantly patterned vagina and skip around the floor, eyes wide with the faux innocence and delight of little girls at a country fair. As the piece progresses, the music changes from carnival-themed to something dark and foreboding and Cherdonna's movements become slow and pained. All the while, she smiles and makes occasional happy squeaks. Cherdonna, ever the perfect woman, never sacrifices her joyous facial expression even as her costume falls partway off or she loses a shoe in an effort to execute a warped version of a relevé. The other dancers begin to frown and shake their heads at Cherdonna, meanwhile still smiling and flirting with the audience. No one stops moving, and eventually they all disappear back into the pretty giant vagina. The colors on the walls are still loudly pink and blue and yellow and polka dotted, the lights still bright--everything is still pretty. That's the way we're supposed to be, right? Pretty and vivacious in the face of, well, anything?
This show is stunning. It is weird and loud and made me *feel* a little more than I'd planned on, but it's been stuck in my head for a week. Cherdonna's movements--breathy, slow, hunched over at times, startling and rambunctious at others--call out the shitty parts of living in a female/femme body while also making fun of societal norms that force these expectations. We're all done with it. I'm done with it. I want my son to see these expectations as weird relics instead of something he has to fight, but I'm still a bit lost on exactly how to teach him to think differently. Thank god we have Cherdonna to help us out.
DITCH runs at the Frye through April 28th. Tickets are free! Take your kids.
*This is a compliment, I like church.