Valentine: a ballet doux to choreographers

When Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal scheduled the third "rep" of his season, he was thinking about the dances rather than the names of the pieces: "Ancient Airs and Dances," "Kiss," "Nine Sinatra Songs" and "Red Angels."

"When Ellen Walker [PNB's marketing director] saw the titles, she snapped her fingers and said it is a Valentine program," said Boal. "It is a sexy program. I didn't deliberately try to make it sexy, but I've been watching it in rehearsals and ... wow!"

Now grouped under Walker's suggested title of "Valentine," the program, opening Feb. 2, is Boal's love note to four choreographers who have impressed him. Some are old colleagues; some are new discoveries.

The first piece of the evening, Richard Tanner's "Ancient Airs and Dances," which takes a classical approach to Ottorino Respighi's three suites of the same title, has enchanted Boal from the first time he saw it in 1992.

"'Ancient Airs and Dances' was made at New York City Ballet when I was dancing there, but I wasn't in it," he said. "I would just go and sit out front and watch it. I kept telling Tanner how much I loved it, and he asked if I wanted to be in it. I said no, I just want to keep watching it. So I get to watch it some more here! But it also ties in with that great PNB tradition, very musical, very accessible, with a hint of drama. It's just a very satisfying piece and a great way to open the evening."

"Kiss" was something completely new that Boal discovered during the New York Fall for Dance Festival. He fell very hard for this contemporary piece by Susan Marshall. "I've only seen 'Kiss' once [before scheduling it here], but my response was so deep that I wanted to bring it to more audiences," he said.

Marshall placed two dancers in harnesses and suspended them above the stage floor. Dressed casually in street clothes, they moved together, separated and then returned to each other. "I loved the fact that it was dance, but it was such an unexpected way for dance to exist," recalled Boal.

Twyla Tharp, whom Boal calls "a natural force in American dance," revamped traditional steps of ballroom dancing to suit the mood of such Sinatra classics as "Strangers in the Night," "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" and "Somethin' Stupid." To get the dancers and the audience in the mood, she commissioned Oscar de la Renta to create the sophisticated costumes. Since its première in 1982, the work has been one of Tharp's most popular pieces.

For the PNB première, Tharp repetiteur Shelley Washington worked with the PNB dancers to introduce them to Tharp's choreography. "Shelley's another force in American dance. She danced with Twyla for years and with Martha Graham. It's been great watching our dancers with her. She can be very unsettling. She's got them laughing, and pushing, and falling on the floor, and some great art emerges from that process," said Boal.

For his final selection, "Red Angels" by Ulysses Dove, Boal decided to direct the dancers himself.

"'Red Angels' was choreographed on four dancers at New York City Ballet, and I was one of them," he says. "I don't have a history of [directing], but I'm staging 'Red Angels.'"

Dove died in 1996, at the age of 49, after contracting AIDS. His first commissioned work was "I See the Moon ... and the Moon Sees Me" (1979) for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. He choreographed several pieces for Jeraldyne Blunden's Dayton Contemporary Dance Company as well as choreographing works for American Ballet Theatre, Ballet France de Nancy, the Basel Ballet, Cullberg Ballet of Sweden, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, New York City Ballet and the Swedish National Ballet.

"One of the sad things about Dove was that he didn't have a company that he was based with, where he was the resident choreographer," said Boal. "It's been not quite 10 years since he died, but his work had a period where it wasn't seen. It would be nice for it to be rediscovered and brought back to life. I actually feel that is happening more and more this year. We're certainly going to do our part to bring Dove's work back to the public. It is great work, exciting work, and it shouldn't get lost."

Boal's clearest memories of working with Dove on "Red Angels" concern the man's energy and enthusiasm for his chosen art form.

"The power of dancing and the power of dancers - he would choreograph, and then he would sit in the front of the room and feel the piece coming back at him. He'd be so euphoric about it. Dove used to have us run it three times in a one-hour rehearsal, and we'd be just dying from exhaustion, and it was just because he wanted to see it again," remembered Boal. "He was just so happy to see it. He'd stand up and start moving with us. Dove wanted to hit every seat in the house and have them experience that excitement, living at your fullest through dance."

Boal hopes that the audience also will respond to this "Valentine" to the many different ways that a ballet company can express emotion through dance.

"I want the public to recognize how valuable a mixed repertory can be," he said. "You can see the work of four choreographers, with all the range that they bring. If you do only full-length ballet or focus on one choreographer in a program, it can be a very interesting evening, but I love the power of four choreographers in one night."

"Valentine" runs through Feb. 12. A special educational program on Ulysses Dove, including the film "Two by Dove," will be given on Feb. 7.[[In-content Ad]]