Variations on a Theme by Balanchine: Pacific Northwest Ballet at Works and Process

Variations on a Theme by Balanchine: Pacific Northwest Ballet at Works and Process

Carla Körbes and Seth Orza rehearsing "Swan Lake" at PNB. Photo from the New York Times, by Jesson Mata.

Pacific Northwest Ballet has become a pretty familiar presence at the Works and Process lecture-dems at the Guggenheim. They’ve mastered the format, offering up well-planned, informative, and superbly-executed presentations organized around a single, clearly-articulated theme. PNB’s artistic director, Peter Boal, does not fly by the seat of his pants, as so many of the participants at these W&P evenings tend to. Nor does his surrogate, Doug Fullington, the company’s director of education (and Boal’s right-hand man), who often leads the show. If memory serves, they company has presented an evening dedicated to Petipa, and another focused on the archival material upon which its new staging of Giselle was based, and yet another on Balanchine’s spin on Petipa. There may have been others. This weekend (Sept. 9-10), Boal and six dancers gave the gathered balletomanes a glimpse into Balanchine’s reworkings of his own ballets over time.

If the subject of these discussions sounds like minutiae, it’s not far from the truth, but like most interesting things in life, that’s where the fun lies. Boal’s dancers—who included Carla Körbes, whose soft, graceful lines suffused the small theatre beneath the Guggenheim with a warm, pellucid glow—showed little excerpts of Apollo, The Four Temperaments, Agon, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, all created in the period 1928-1960. Needless to say, these dances were performed hundreds of times during Balanchine’s life, by many a dancer. Boal succinctly and clearly showed, with the help of his dancers, just how Balanchine had fiddled with this or that detail to suit a particular dancer—or his own whim—and how these fiddlings had altered the ballets in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. PNB has a long history with Balanchine, going back practically to the company’s very founding, in 1973. Francia Russell, who danced for NYCB from ’56 to ’61 and was a ballet mistress under Balanchine, co-directed PNB from 1977 until Peter Boal was asked to join in 2005, and is still the company’s primary stager of Balanchine ballets. As Boal pointed out last night, she is a direct channel to the Balanchine of the fifties and sixties, so it makes sense that her stagings—for which Balanchine gave her complete freedom—reflect the esthetics and dancers of that particular period. A period that included people like Suzanne Farrell and Diana Adams, as well as Jacques d’Amboise and Eddie Villella. Let’s just say it’s not a bad period from which to draw.

One of the most effective devices used by Boal at the lect-dem was that of having two dancers, side by side, performing the same phrases of music, in two slightly different versions. That way, one could truly see—in the starkest terms—the shifts in emphasis, nuance, or in overall feel. The most striking transformation, at least to my eye, was in the “Melancholic” male solo from The Four Temperaments, danced here by Benjamin Griffiths (new version) and Matthew Renko (old version). The original choreography for “Melancholic,” it turns out, angrier and more angular, with jabbing gestures and an air of self-flagellation. The newer version, re-conceived for the dancer Bart Cook in the seventies, had a kind of droopy, languorous passivity, closer to what we think of as “melancholy” (i.e. depression). In the former, Mr. Melancholic is his own tormentor; in the latter, he is beset by external forces and an essential lack of backbone—well represented by Cook’s eerily pliant back.* (Of course even these differences must be taken with a grain of salt, since they were revealed to us by living, breathing dancers with characters and performance qualities of their own. Renko is an electric, quite exciting dancer, while Griffiths seems more peaceable and plush. Very different dancers.) In another revealing moment, Körbes demonstrated the way Diana Adams had held her arms in a particular passage of Terpsichore’s solo in Apollo, sort of out and behind the torso as the body leaps forward, instead of with one arm held out to the front. This open position gave the movement a kind of expansiveness and freedom that was very pleasing. It turns out that this is the way the variation is danced at PNB.

There was some inevitable discussion of Balanchine’s truncation of Apollo, from which, in the seventies, he excised both the final ascent to Mount Parnassus and the expressionistic birth scene. No-one quite knows why he did this, and many people are still upset about it. I happen to like Apollo both ways, and we’re lucky in that we can see both versions right here in New York, the older, less stylized one at American Ballet Theatre, and the sleeker, more self-consciously “classicized” one at New York City Ballet. I also think that the newer ending, which culminates in a starburst pattern for the three muses’ legs, is rather nice, if perhaps not as dynamic as the processional of figures ascending a dark staircase at the rear of the stage. Either way, it’s a stunning ballet, and the pas de deux for Terpsichore and Apollo, danced with infinite tenderness by Körbes and Seth Orza—both former City Ballet dancers who seem to be thriving in Seattle— brought tears to my eyes, as it always does. All I can say is, at least Balanchine didn’t cut that part. (I should mention that the pianist, Christina Siemens, was excellent. Her rendition of the floating melody of this pas de deux, just a few descending notes gathering into a poignant harmony, was extremely lovely. Somehow, the piano reduction of the score suits its tone almost more perfectly than the orchestration, at least in this salon-like setting.)

It was a pleasurable way to spend a Monday evening, with just enough learnin’ to make it all seem like time extremely well spent. As a kind of farewell kiss, the dancers performed a mashup of the showstopping Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, created for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow in 1960. Körbes, again dancing with the handsome Orza, almost leapt off the stage several times in the signature flying swan dives, one of the elements that make this pas de deux such a fun, wild ride. She is an utterly fearless dancer, but without any superfluous pizazz. But truth be told, all the dancers—the other two were Maria Chapman and Lesley Rausch—performed impeccably. A group from PNB will perform an excerpt of Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel at Fall For Dance (Oct. 4-6), and the entire company will travel to New York for a week-long season in Feb., at which time they will dance an all-Balanchine program (alas, one night only) followed by Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, at City Center.

And if, like Boal, you don’t like to come to a performance unprepared, I recommend perusing the recent book Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear, an almost obsessively-detailed fly-on-the-wall account of PNB’s inner workings as observed by Stephen Manes, a technology reporter and author of a biography of Bill Gates who shadowed the company for over a year. If nothing else, the detailed biographical sketch of Peter Boal in its opening pages is well worth the price. It explains a lot about how this understated, almost fastidious man—a beautiful dancer—has come to be such a strong leader for this company.

As a parting gift, here is a video Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Works and Process “After Petipa,” from last year:

After Petipa, May 31 2012

*Thank you to friend and fellow dance-maven Carley Broder for helping to clear up my initial confusion about which version came first.

** Comments are welcome. If you would like to receive an alert when new pieces are posted on the Dance page, please drop me a line at You can also check my updates on Twitter @MarinaHarss or peruse my personal page at

Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N more


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