By Leigh Witchel
In Seattle, retirement is a family affair. Carrie Imler and Batkhurel Bold took their final bows during a special encore performance at Pacific Northwest Ballet after tenures of more than two decades each – and careers often intertwined. Imler, as Artistic Director Peter Boal described her, is “a dancer’s dancer”: a technical whiz from Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, the farm team for so many companies. She went to Seattle and had settled in, spending her whole career there. Bold, from Mongolia, was a powerhouse dancer, but often almost dour onstage when younger. As Boal joked, after being asked to smile onstage, he figured it out and never stopped.
We saw that from curtain up. The audience whooped as Bold and Imler stood ready for “Theme and Variations” grinning like two Cheshire Cats that didn’t disappear. They made a dual debut in “Theme” in 1999, and on this final outing they shot into the opening and the two initial variations at breakneck speed. It wasn’t a night for protocol, or at times even common-sense caution. Who dances their hardest roles at retirement?
Both were also dancing with injuries (as someone said after informally, “I think they had about a calf between them.”) Still, Imler has such strong technique that even off her peak form you could see her major league capacity: beautiful gargouillades that neatly articulated small circles under her.
Bold and Imler also took turns with other partners from their careers and lives. Bold danced with his wife, principal dancer Lesley Rausch, in a complex and fluid duet from Kent Stowell’s production of “Cinderella.” Imler hammed it up with her good friend and fellow principal Jonathan Porretta in the “Something Stupid” section of “Nine Sinatra Songs,” doing the physical comedy and mismatched partnering as if they were Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Benjamin Millepied’s “3 Movements” and Kiyon Gaines’ pièce d’occasion for Poretta and Imler both had similar punchy phrasing to minimalist music. Funny how post-Balanchine style has become as ubiquitous as faux-Balanchine once was.
“Carousel,” was made by Christopher Wheeldon in 2002, the same year as Wheeldon’s first Broadway attempt – and flop – “The Sweet Smell of Success.” He added (A Dance) in parentheses after the title, and it seemed as if Wheeldon put that in to reject the idea that this was a Broadway number. Using a a lead couple, demi-soloists and a corps, the work was structured more like a ballet. This was also made not long after his hit “Polyphonia,” when Wheeldon was experimenting with creating his own hybrid steps: wiggly-jiggly torso rolls and twitchy arms that made a second circle for novelty. Yet when the cast brought out poles to make a carousel, you could see a decade ahead to the blockbuster prop-laden productions Wheeldon would do both for Broadway and the ballet.
The final act was the hardest: the Black Swan pas de deux and coda. Both of them called upon every last technical reserve to go out with a bang Imler did double fouettés with arms flapped overhead; Bold inserted a series of double tours in succession, and she closed with a diagonal of sizzling chaînés.
It all ended with an uproarious curtain call with the company dancers, staff and family congratulating the two and Imler coaxing her hesitant toddler into the rain of falling petals. I was only lucky enough to see Imler’s career sporadically (and Bold’s less). She was a brilliant Myrtha in the historical production of Giselle the company did in 2011, a dancer with such acute physical control that it could have been considered an extra sense. It’s a shame not to have seen more, but a privilege to get a peek at a family celebration.
Earlier the same day, PNB put on the final performance of the main season with a program of Balanchine, Robbins and Alexei Ratmansky. Even though the company has always had a strong connection to New York City Ballet, “La Source” and “Opus 19/The Dreamer” are ballets that Boal was a noted exponent of – and he set them. Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” was a different exercise in translation. Staged by Wendy Whelan, it was one of the last ballets she helped originate at New York City Ballet in 2014.
Elle Macy is a long drink of water, sharper than Sara Mearns in her role, but just as wild when she slammed her hands down on the floor. Rachel Foster scrambled and turned in a solo that had been a vignette for Tiler Peck. Like Amar Ramasar, Steven Loch showed a massive range of emotion in a solo that led into a duet with Macy, and then into the final processional to “The Great Gates of Kiev.”
The hardest person to find an equivalent for was Whelan herself. Lindsi Dec and Miles Perti were not able to get in sync with each other in the duet made for Whelan and Tyler Angle. At the end of the ballet, Ratmansky had Whelan quote from “Dances at a Gathering” and touch the stage. When Dec did it without the context of Whelan’s impending retirement, that just seemed random.
But by seeing “Pictures” on another company, you had a broader sense of the original intentions. The dancers threw themselves into and beyond the movement; the overarching similarity between the two productions was the risky attack that held up all the way across the continent.
Robbins’ “Opus 19/The Dreamer” was made on Mikhail Baryshnikov but Robbins had worked with Boal intensively on it, and Boal danced it for his farewell. He was different, but as renowned in the role as Baryshnikov; his innate reticence concentrated the drama. The role was also pivotal for Whelan, who equalized the ballet, making the woman’s role seem less of a supporting character.
Boal chose a 21-year-old member of the corps, Dylan Wald, to dance the lead along with Sarah Ricard Orza. Callow and attenuated, Wald seemed less like an avatar for Boal or Baryshnikov and more like an heir to David Hallberg with his mix of paleness and shadows. The link to Boal was in the coaching: the trapped gaze in Wald’s eyes as he burst forward wasn’t just Hallberg, but Melancholic. Wald’s youth moved the balance between the man and woman back to unequal: Orza looked almost maternal when she embraced him.
Rising soloist Leta Biasucci is one of the company’s little gems: sparkling with a sunny, toothy grin. In “La Source” she showed off a knack for taking her soubrette’s physique and expanding its range. She’s long-limbed, and she used that length to fill out all the musical phrases. Biasucci seemed to divide the role from the waist down and up: the feet and legs speeding but the torso unhurried, reaching up to yawn back in cambré. Allegro is second nature to her, but the adagio quality was there as well.
Her partner, Benjamin Griffiths, had an elegant demeanor that recalled Boal without being a carbon copy, as he circled springing from assemblé to arabesque. In the soloist ballerina role, a role New York has become used to seeing as explosive, Angelica Generosa was calm and technically secure with clean jumps and beats that accented down into a neat pose.
The corps was less cohesive, and if there was any weakness it was in casting Biasucci and Generosa together. Both looked good individually, but they’re both small and quick. They were demi-soloists together in “Carousel” and they make great bookends – but two ballerinas pop more when they contrast. Boal’s staging brought speed back to a ballet that can get syrupy and pink. The orchestra, led by Emil de Cou, took the coda at a roaring clip.
Boal’s now run the company for more than a decade. Even when he wasn’t working with ballets he danced, you could see how he has shaped the company in Balanchine and after Balanchine. The bloodlines of PNB pass through him now.
copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel
“La Source,” “Opus 19/The Dreamer,” “Pictures at an Exhibition”
“Season Encore Performance” – Pacific Northwest Ballet
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, WA
June 11, 2017
Cover: Batkhurel Bold and Carrie Imler. Photo © Stacy Ebstyne Photography.
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