“When Your Arms Ached, I Watched the Mountain Hold it’s Fragile Form"- A rehearsal and conversation with artist Alia Swersky
Alia Swersky holds my arms over my head by the wrists, whispers something softly into my ear and then lets go. It is the middle of Swersky’s new solo performance piece, "When your arms ached, I watched the Mountain hold its fragile form," and I, who usually balk at audience participation, am in the middle of the stage.
When Alia approached me during a rehearsal viewing and whispered, “I’d like you to join me in the space, you can say no, it’s ok,” I followed her without a second thought. Alia led me around the performance space and prompted my body’s movements, holding my arms up and letting them fall, gently guiding my steps while I kept my eyes closed and walked by her side. When she picked up my arms I kept my muscles mostly limp, trusting her to let them fall only when they were safe from hitting anything that might hurt me. I felt completely comfortable, more powerful and at home in my own body than I remember since giving birth to my son.
Alia Swersky’s artistic and physical power is contagious. The culmination of two years of creative and physical preparation, "When your arms ached, I watched the Mountain hold its fragile form"is a combination of durational performance, dance, art installation and dance improvisation that communicates the parallel traumas experienced by female-identifying bodies and mountains. The show requires an incredible amount of energy to perform. In the first two hours Alia rolls around on the floor of the performance space at Base Experimental Arts in Georgetown in a “silent durational ritual,” designed to demonstrate the passage of time and to engage the audience in silent reflection.
“For me,” says Swersky in a phone conversation, “the passages of tribes and women and migration through the mountains is right there with the image of the female body rolling around.” Alia incorporates a huge swath of pink fabric into her movements, her hair and the fabric blowing slightly around from wind produced by small fans on the corners of the room. “It’s sensual and sexy with the pink fabric, a soundscape, an environment that I hope people will come into to feel as opposed to being expecting to be entertained. My hope is that people will feel comfortable coming in and laying down, writing, thinking--the ritual deepens the experience of the performance because it contextualizes it.”
Accompanied by music and soundscape by Monika Khot, an enormous mural of a mountain by artist Mya Kerner, and lighting by Amiya Brown, Alia Swersky’s performance is an experience, something to think about rather than to just observe and go home--but there’s also a lot of room to enjoy art and the presence of other people.
The performance section of “When your arms ached” is packed with symbolism, intense emotion, and beautiful dancing. Swersky’s background in classical dance, improvisation, yoga, meditation, motherhood, and life come together with choreography that is packed with technically brilliant and unique movements. At one point, Swersky faces the audience and points one long, perfectly arched foot at the ground while vibrating her upper body almost violently. The juxtaposition of visually stunning physicality combined with disturbing violent messages are synonymous with “the onslaught of violence of our culture and our environment and on woman and woman’s body,” says Swersky. “I’m not trying to be an environmental activist in this piece, but the metaphor of the fracking of mountains and rape are there.”
Despite these heavy themes, "When your arms ached, I watched the Mountain hold its fragile form" isn’t a piece about sadness or panic in the face of cultural and environmental degradation. “While there were some things going on in my life while I made this piece, some of the actual physical movements like the shaking and holding my arms up demonstrate a rite of passage back into my purpose after abandoning my art in some ways.”
Swersky wants her audience to experience this rite of passage as a way to connect to the idea that “we aren’t alone, that connections to one another are essential,” she says. This is why the section where she holds an audience member’s arms for them is so important.
“I’m from Colorado and I’ve always had this sense that I had to be as strong as the mountain,” says Swersky. “We think that it’s strong and stable but the mountains are always changing and eroding, just like us. None of us can get through this alone. You can be belittled by it or you can take charge of it. Be as big as the mountain and look into the male gaze and be in charge.”
"When your arms ached, I watched the Mountain hold its fragile form" runs May 17-19 at varied times. Schedule and tickets here, more about Alia here
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.
I took my dad to opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. It was our first dad/daughter hangout in years and my dad's first glimpse of a professional ballet company in action. It was also the first time I was enthralled by a performance of Sleeping Beauty, but it wasn't that the production had changed or the dancers any more talented or engaged. I'm seeing things differently these days.
I was lucky to live the dream of the 90s through my early twenties and thirties. My social life revolved around a neighborhood coffee shop, I lived alone in an small basement studio on Capitol Hill, and I payed my way through college with a collection of weird jobs. I had a good time but existed under a cloud of jaded antipathy for anything that smelled remotely of The Establishment, and this included princess-driven classical ballets, stay-at-home parents, and Subarus.
Oops. Look at me now.
Twenty years later I make part of my living writing about classical ballet, I stay home with my three year old son and low and behold I drive a flippin' Subaru. The highlight of my February was a classical ballet fairly dripping with princesses, sparkles, and the most incredible technique and artistry I've seen in my decades of watching world-class dance.
Pacific Northwest Ballet is known for tall, leggy ballet dancers but is increasingly embracing a diversity of physique in their company. Some dancers, like opening night's Princess Aurora Lesley Rausch, are tall and long-armed, with gravity-defying grace and arabesques that seem to stretch for days. During her pas de deux with Jerome Tisserand's Prince Florimund, Rausch's strength was at its finest and the flicks of her head at the end of turns, her leg extension and expressive hands gave the impression that it was her mastery of movement that guided the orchestra, rather than the conductor (no offense, Mr. de Cou--we know you're a master).
There was an equal magic to the small-framed dancing from newly-promoted principal dancer Leta Biasucci's Bluebird, her strong legs and expressive face flitting appropriately through the variation while easily maintaining the same authority onstage as Rausch's Aurora and Lindsi Dec's Lilac Fairy. I don't point this out to criticize dancers' bodies but to point out how perfectly Pacific Northwest Ballet nurtures the individual physicality and artistry of its dancers. Artistic director Peter Boal doesn't aim for a company of identical automatons--he operates a company of artists who develop their own talents and style and very clearly enjoy their work. Everyone onstage in Sleeping Beauty--especially the outstanding Jonathan Poretta as the weirdly beguiling Carabosse--was having a super great time!
It's painfully obvious when dancers aren't enjoying themselves onstage, it can ruin a show. But Rausch's face clearly exhibited a passion and joy for her work along with the intense concentration that guides her through her increasingly exceptional dancing. Wouldn't it be great if we could all enjoy our work like this? If our bosses encouraged us to be our best selves and to incorporate some amount of play into whatever we're producing? This hard-won mastery of skill and play, I realized while watching Sleeping Beauty, was the pinnacle of success. I never succeeded as a ballet dancer but this equation is exactly what I experience as a mother.
I like to think that I look as happy and passionate about my jobs as Rausch's Princess Aurora. Most of the time I probably do not, my eyes bagged from lack of sleep and my frizzy hair tucked under a hat as I chase my son through the Arboretum or drag him through Fred Meyer at rush hour. But I am, I promise. And I wonder if artists and parents are the only ones who can consciously do this at work without getting canned.
I've never reviewed The Nutcracker. There was never much I wanted to say about it publicly, even when the Seattle ballet-loving public mourned the loss of the beautifully mysterious Maurice Sendak/Kent Stowell version after Pacific Northwest Ballet switched to George Balanchine's Nutcracker in 2015. For me, Nutcracker was always an easy Christmasy uplift, a way to get lost in the sparkle of traditional classical ballet, a bump in memory that made me feel twenty or thirty years younger for a few days afterward. But in all of that it was always just a comfort ballet with nothing mind-blowing or weird enough to pitch to an editor.
Until this year. On opening night, newly promoted PNB principal dancer Leta Biasucci's Sugar Plum Fairy blew my mind. Biasucci is a favorite for many; her dancing is sharp and exacting, her smile authentic, her stage presence making every character she dances immediately believable and adored. But lately Biasucci's technique is more refined and mature, surpassing her previous tendencies to sometimes rush through steps and hide her deeper personality and artistry from the her audience. Now she adds just the right amount of time and physical presence to the end of her movements so that her extended fingertips, feet, or facial profile are as stunning as the difficult step she's just completed. At the risk of sounding cheesy, Biasucci paints a picture with the emotion and energy of each movement and with her increasing technical skills she has the promise of becoming one of the greats. And I'm not the only one who thinks so--even the tiny chatty balletomane behind me only spoke once during Biasucci's and principal dance Lucien Postlewaite's pas de deux, "MOM, she's soooo beautiful!" Check out the end of Leta and Lucien's standing ovation-worthy grand pas here on PNB's Instagram.
Another memorable performance on opening night was young dancer Jack Kaspar's Nathaniel, Drosselmeier's nephew turned Little Prince. Dancing these important roles is understandably overwhelming for many young Nutcracker dancers and sometime that stress shows up in a lack of energy and enthusiasm in the characters that need to communicate a big part of the ballet's storyline. This year Jack Kaspar's classy, smiley stage presence and impressive miming skills brought a lot of fun to the potentially boring-as-heck beginning of Act II, and his battle and party scene performances were pretty darn good too. Keep rocking, Jack Kaspar.
Also noteworthy were exceptional performances by Joshua Grant as Dr. Stahlbaum, Seth Orza as Drosselmeier, Angelica Generosa as the Marzipan Shepherdess, and Toy Soldier Kyle Davis. So what's different? What's going on in the company this season to make everyone shine like this? What's going on in the dancers' lives? What do they think about while they're dancing? When I write criticism for publication, I often ask the art creators about this stuff but I've never asked it of a dancer performing the work of other choreographers. Maybe I should. Balanchine's Nutcracker choreography has been performed god knows how many times since its 1954 New York City Ballet premiere but each dancer must put their own mysterious, indelible artistic mark on it to become as good as Biasucci's performance on Friday night.
I love it when my classical ballet experiences are mixed with a little drama.
When Pacific Northwest Ballet announced that their 2018 Director’s Choice program would include choreographer William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, I got super excited for two reasons: 1) I love this mysterious little ballet based on Robert Scott’s Antarctic expedition; and 2) during its 2008 PNB premiere, some audience members hated it so much that they walked out of theater before it was even over. I didn’t get my drama fix on the Friday March 16th opening of Director’s Choice, but I got my Forsythe fix and no one (at least from my vantage point) left in a huff.
Some of my ballet-loving friends really hate One Flat Thing. Over drinks a couple of weeks ago, one of them turned to me out of the blue and said “Can you believe PNB is doing One Flat Thing again?It’s fucking STUPID!” But it’s not! It’s brilliant and complicated and pairs really well with a fat glass of syrah.
One Flat Thing consists of twenty flat metal rectangular tables arranged in even rows across the stage. Dancers sit on the tables, bound off of them, dance around and under and through them, every once in a while rearranging the tables back into perfect order before resuming their quick, powerful steps--sometimes dancing, sometimes moving with the normal (albeit much more graceful) movements of a group of pedestrians at rush hour. The dancers are dressed in the street clothes of hip, young Europeans: bright blue velvet pants topped with hooded t-shirts, leggings under loose cotton tops, hair in ponytails. For those more accustomed to story ballets with tutu-clad princesses and adoring cavaliers, One Flat Thing is a shock to the senses. The score by Thom Willems is loud and electronic, the sounds as angled as the cold metal tables. The choreography is a beautiful pattern of slow leg extensions and quick jumps that seem as random as the use of the tables, until you consider the background of the piece and Forsythe’s other artistic endeavors.
Based on his study of Robert Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, Forsythe’s use of the tables and lighting reflect the cold hardness of survival. The choreography mimics the unique ways that humans interact when simultaneously pushing for success and trying not to die. To get even nerdier, Forsythe's use of patterns and focus on individual bodies frozen in moments of chaos can be compared to his solo artistic work, much of which uses light, stark black and white settings, and studies of simple human movement to highlight the complexity of human interaction with nature. There’s some great stuff on Forsythe’s webpage about this work.
The other pieces in the 2018 Director’s Choice were not as memorable. PNB soloist Leta Biasucci and principal Jerome Tisserand danced proficiently in company member Ezra Thomson’s premier The Perpetual State, but the piece was too crowded with dancers, plot lines, and themes to make sense as a singular ballet. This oft happens with new choreographers, even the smartest ones. It’s almost as if there are so many ideas swimming around in the choreographer’s head that they are thrown together in one ballet and the potential brilliance of each gets lost in a cacophony of over-ambition. Thomson has some great ideas though, and it will be interesting to see where they lead in the coming years.
Choreographer Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels was headed up by the reliably fiery PNB principal dancer Lesley Rausch, and Forythe’s other piece of the evening, Slingerland Duet, was perfectly executed by the astoundingly graceful and otherworldly legs of Laura Tisserand and Karel Cruz.