Pacific Northwest stars in Wolf Trap’s night of dance, music & postcard-pretty film


Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers perform during Wolf Trap's “Face of America” series. (Andrew Propp)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic August 28

There was a lot going on at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on Wednesday night. Film clips of mountains and snow. An indie rock band rising from the orchestra pit. More nature film. Dancers walking on, walking off.

Audience members walking out.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

This is what happens when there’s too much going on and no organizing principle. What is the compelling reason for folks to stay in their seats? “Because they paid for them” isn’t good enough.

The one-off concert featured Pacific Northwest Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, the Seattle-based, Grammy-
nominated Band of Horses and lots of footage of national parks in Washington state. They were brought together, awkwardly, for the latest installment in Wolf Trap’s “Face of America” series, in which the national park for the performing arts spotlights other national parks around the country.

Look at it as the Park Service’s effort to gin up much-needed recognition. Look at it as a noble effort to celebrate the nation’s natural beauty. Either way, the series is a poor frame for an artistic endeavor. You don’t sense an original, artistic vision. You do feel, strongly, the guiding hand of a bureaucratic mission. Especially in Wednesday’s program, in which the high-definition film presented on a 45-foot screen over the stage was like flipping through a postcard rack in a park gift shop: Sunrise. Riverbanks. A single duck.

When I found myself staring at a fox in a meadow, that little voice inside me started pleading — no, screaming: Tell me something I don’t know!

Thank goodness for the dancing. The first piece was Trey McIntyre’s “Robust American Love,” created last year and performed by five members of ­Portland-based Oregon Ballet Theatre in loose blue jackets and open-front gowns. The costumes underscored the swoony, haunting nature of the steps and the music, recorded by another Seattle folk band, Fleet Foxes.

Most affecting was a solo performed by Alison Roper, a dancer with such supple facility that she could be a separate species. But there was a tender acceptance of human frailty in McIntyre’s choreography for her, with its ever-shifting emphasis on different parts of the body: now the arms, silky and light; now the feet, stuttering, hesitant; then shoulders, exposed and vulnerable. He knows how to hit all our pleasure buttons, showing us our own form in recognizable movements, turned into an expression so smoothly connected and ethereal it feels like smoke.

By contrast, Andrew Bartee’s “Dirty Goods,” commissioned by Wolf Trap for this event, was firmly rooted in the rich, black earth and snowy slopes of Washington’s Olympic National Park. Film of the park and of six Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in it formed the backdrop for the same dancers appearing live, strutting across the stage in strict linear formations.

At times, the film perspective threw the little live figures down below into sharp relief. However, you tended to focus instead on the inscrutable activities of their giant film counterparts, standing in deep snow with reddened, ­expressionless faces; racing through the woods, or balancing on moss-covered tree trunks like hyper-agile, futuristic nature lovers naturally selected for flat stomachs. The music was by Portland electronic band the Chromatics, providing a welcome undercurrent of astringency. Here was a fresh creative vision that united film, dance and music but didn’t truck with sappy predictability.

Unfortunately, by this time — the evening’s end — a good number of spectators had already left, in an exodus prompted at least in part by the end of Band of Horses’ 45-minute set. These five fellows were as likable as they come, and their music went down easy. But dropping a live music concert into a raft of stage performances and film interludes was not easily done; the transitions were rough.

At the end of their set, lead singer Ben Bridwell had to point out to us that this was, in fact, the end, so we could applaud as they sank back into the orchestra pit. Cue another film of park propaganda, and of course a lot of people chose that moment to head to the parking lots, missing out on “Dirty Goods.” It’s a shame, but I can’t blame them.

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