The Laugher Curve

PNB’s dancers prove oddity and agility can mix.

Every standup comic knows that the hardest thing in the world is to tell someone that you're going to make them laugh out loud, and then do it. But last week's Laugh Out Loud Festival from Pacific Northwest Ballet met the challenge, in part by poking fun at the ballet world itself.Christopher Wheeldon's Variations Sérieuses has a cast of lovingly drawn types (the fussy Balletmaster, the emotional Conductor, the tempestuous Ballerina) and a backstage plot that we watch from "the wings." It's a hybrid of contemporary elements (baseball caps and sweat pants) and the more romanticized perspective of films like The Red Shoes. Even the piece that the company is "rehearsing" looks a bit like Michel Fokine's iconic Les Sylphides, a staple of the Ballet Russe repertory. The plot twists (the Ballerina accidentally jumps into the orchestra pit, leaving The Young Girl to make a fabulous debut in the leading part) follow in that hyper-dramatic tradition, but everything is presented with great tenderness. Wheeldon obviously loves his heritage as he rolls his eyes at it.An appearance by Katerina Bychkova of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in that company's parody version of Fokine's Dying Swan also mocked and embraced ballet history. The original dance was a tour de force for Anna Pavlova, who would have audiences in tears as she sank to the floor. In this contemporary version, the dancer is molting rapidly as s/he bourrées back and forth. The bows, a textbook example of milking applause, are as long as the solo, and as carefully choreographed.With Shindig, PNB dancer (and here, choreographer) Olivier Wevers also sends up his own art form, dissecting a single extension into multiple parts and then overlapping the edges. The piece packs three different movements into the space a single one usually takes, literally turning the performers' backs on the audience and allowing us to see exasperation and failure. Wevers' was one of two works created specifically for the festival that tried hardest to actually "make funny dancing."The other was by Susan Stroman, a household word on Broadway (and around here) with multiple awards for directing and choreographing, among other things, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and the groundbreaking movement-theater work Contact. Her Take Five...More or Less would be at home at the 5th Avenue, or on Broadway, too. There are flirty girls and handsome boys, a sexy soloist followed by adoring men, the odd girl out that finds her man—danced to an orchestral version of the famous Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond score. The innovations here are mostly in the timing—the usual fours and eights of ballet phrasing are stretched and twisted to fit the notorious five count of the title tune.And in Lost Language of The Flight Attendant, a cleanly-crafted ensemble work, Brian Reeder juxtaposes academic ballet with gestures from airline safety instructions. In the lead role, Laura Gilbreath directed traffic, demonstrated the use of invisible oxygen masks, and handed out pillows. She was brisk and tidy, shepherding her passengers through the flight like an airborne Mary Poppins.This is the second year that PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal has included an intensive "festival" component in his programming—last year's Celebrate Seattle week included even more dances and guest appearances by other companies. The rotating programs and extra features of the festival structure are certainly exciting, but they are also a drain on company resources. In a post-show discussion, Boal admitted that preparations for the additional week of performances this year were "bruising," and that next year's offering, a single program of works based on Broadway themes, would be part of the regular season. Boal's still working toward a balance between challenging the dancers and the audience and maintaining the integrity of the company and its repertory.skurtz@seattleweekly.com

 
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