Considering Crystal Pite

Color Cast Plot Point

Photo © Angela Sterling

Is Crystal Pite’s Plot Point, one-third of PNB’s enfolding fascination Her Story, as consequential and prophetic as Le Sacre de printemps (The Rite of Spring), a landmark moment of cultural shit-disturbance?

To the Parisians of 1913,  Sacre with Igor Stravinsky’s dissonant, “barbaric” score, and Nijinsky’s iconographic “anti-balletic” choreography were an invitation to a riot that May evening in the Theatre de Champs-Elysees.  More than 40 of that jeering, whistling audience had to be tossed out, while the sacrificial Chosen One had to dance to her ritual death in the glare of the house lights, counting (one hopes) the music over the din.

Don’t snort.  Clearly Plot Point, on its own, doesn’t carry Rite of Spring’s explosive charge.  But incrementally, as one more of Crystal Pite’s probing open-ended investigations of how we live, how we endure, what we must hold dear and what she calls “the unanswerable questions”‘ it’s quite consequential enough and characteristically unsettling.

(I can only bear witness to Pite’s earlier Dark Matters, to Emergence via PNB, to her jaw-dropping collaboration Betroffenheit, and now to Plot Point.  Enough to become a lifelong follower.  Betroffenheit which deals with trauma and loss with a ferocity that makes you fear for its central dancer, was barely endurable in early 2016.  Today its climate of dread and stomach clutching anxiety is our own.  Betroffenheit is coming back to the Moore Theatre next year.  Let’s see if stet is still the order of the day.)

Plot Point is more relatable, or at least more suburban than Pite’s previous PNB thriller, Emergence (“an eerily potent meditation on swarms and the hive mind” per critic-essayist Michael Upchurch.) P.P. is  danced to Bernard Herrmann’s music for the film Psycho.  Be at rest, “I did not want to make The Ballet Psycho,” the warm, soft-spoken Pite said to a rapt pre-rehearsal audience last week.  One really, really believes her.  What she does want to consider is story, and why we need it as much as we do.

Half the cast’s characters seem to be from a Fifties census: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Fernando, Celia, and the unsurprising Thug 1 and Thug 2. (You’re right, that’s Noelani Pantastico as Celia in the top picture, whose astonsihment is almost audible.)   The other half — their replicas — came to be as a result of Pite’s love for the little white plastic figures used by architects to give scale to their  “real” worlds.

The all-white gang move herky-jerkily, the women’s heels raise a noisy clatter, and when a brawl breaks out, as it does below, it’s a slo-mo wonder.  The ballet’s sounds, its fights, party chatter, impatient high-heels and even screams, are on a pre-recorded track.  The very observant are onto this in a nanosecond. . . . as they are to notice that replica does not mean “mirror image.”

White Cast

Photo © Angela Sterling

Enough.  This is, obviously, not an account of Her Story’s riches, which are varied and gorgeous; it’s barely a credible trailer for Plot Point.  Consider it an alarm:  a Crystal Pite ballet is an occasion of the mind and the heart.  Few other dance makers working today have her reach and in Peter Boal’s great PNB, she has dancers, a director and apparently a board (bless them!) in sync with her.  With only one weekend to go, miss this night at your peril.





Balanchine, Robbins and the Egg McMuffin

PNB Soloist Benjamin Griffiths (left) and Artistic Director Peter Boal. Photo © Angela Sterling

To watch a dancer pass down the details of a signature role, gesture to gesture, body to body can be like watching the flow of electricity. Or an excessively polite family squabble, “On the diagonal? Really??” It can be generous and at the same time carry the faintest sheen of regret. It is never dull.

Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s far-seeing artistic director, has been very, very good about coaxing formidable veterans of New York City Ballet to Seattle to coach PNB’s rising tide of dancers in “their” roles. And about letting the public in on at least one of these afternoons, as history and memory collide.

The sessions that hooked me, permanently, came last year, for a PNB staging of Balanchine’s Jewels. Over the course of a month, Boal lured Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul for Emeralds; Edward Villella with Rubies, and for Diamonds, the irrepressible Jacques d’Amboise, who worked in the plaid shirt and hiking boots he wore the next day on the trails of Mt. Rainier.
Utterly different styles, same knock-out effect.

Of course these dancers would help pass the torch. Peter Boal is one of their own, a full-on NYCB creation. He’d entered the School of American Ballet at the age of 9; he retired after a 22-year career in the company. As one of their Principals, Boal was both a supreme classicist, known for his “transcendent” Apollo, and a dancer with an intriguing experimental side. He was also a deeply gifted teacher. To imagine him shaping his own company? Heaven.

(Not to appear intentionally stupid, I do know the forces that really shape any dance company: its board of directors. I’ve followed company/board imbroglios my long life long, and I still understand their dynamics the same way I grasp the bitcoin. PNB’s board seems elastic enough to embrace Boal’s forays onto the truly cutting edge as well as to appreciate what it means to have the NY Times doughty Alastair Macaulay call today’s PNB “one of the world’s foremost Balanchine companies.” Bravo. Bravos, actually..)

Balanchine hung on to few works from his very early Diaghilev days, primarily Apollo and Prodigal Son. And when he set Prodigal for NYCB, in 1970, he chose Jerome Robbins as the Prodigal and Maria Tallchief for the Siren. (Those of us who saw that pair can still feel the scorch.)

After Balanchine’s death in 1983, when it fell to Robbins to coach a new Prodigal, he picked the young (and even younger-looking) Peter Boal, as his headstrong innocent. Now, with Prodigal Son on PNB’s 2015-16 opening program, it was Boal’s turn, in a mirrored classroom, with a small audience, to tutor two Sons and two Sirens. And also to revisit, dryly, some of the heart attack moments from the Jerry and Peter show, all those decades ago.

Robbins had plunged into their session abruptly:

What did you have for breakfast?”

In the pause that followed, Boal picked honesty as the best route around a non-sequitor.

“An Egg McMuffin.”

Robbins’ eyes swept the heavens. This was going to be worse than he’d imagined. Much much worse.

“What did THE PRODIGAL have for breakfast? What time did he WAKE UP? What time did his FATHER wake up? What did his FATHER have for breakfast? What have you heard about the SIREN over the mountains? How much MONEY do you have?”

Okay. That was Robbins’ approach: dancers as actors (and not incidentally athletes), directors as Intimidators in Chief. A prickly approach, but one that worked for him from ballet to Broadway and back to ballet again.

Not Boal’s style. In soft shoes, soft pants and a T shirt, he works quietly, giving a reason as he corrects. The Prodigal passes a large wine jug to one of his two friends. “He just bought it, it’s heavy,” Boal says. Now it is, so full it almost sloshes. He changes the angle of the Son’s face just slightly; now it shows his father – not his friends – that he’s leaving.

One of the Sirens enters, at the mercy of her yards-long red plush train.
“I’m not an expert on Sirens,” Boal says, “but. . . “ he had been able to watch an 8-hour tape from WNET of Balanchine working on Prodigal with Baryshnikov. “They began in English, then quickly switched to Russian, which I don’t speak, but it was. ..” He shakes his head at the memory.

In any case, as he works with one Son and one Siren, and she buries his face in her chest, Boal fixes the boy’s expression to show the audience that this gesture was not the Son’s idea.

He moves along to the overwhelming ending, although the tall dancer playing The Father hasn’t been called for this session. Boal fills in. “I could never play the Father, “ he says, sotto voce, “I’m too short ” Still, what crosses his face as he sees his destitute, humbled, grief-wracked Son, is everything we need to know about forgiveness, majesty and wisdom. And Peter Boal.

Peter Boal in 1970s Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Peter Boal in 1970s Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Paul Kolnik.