State of Darkness at Pacific NW Ballet

JamesMooreKissI reviewed Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2014 Director’s Choice program on Monday.

I could say so much more about “State of Darkness” … this piece set off bottle rockets in my brain and it will probably take a while to make sense from all the patterns.

My mind has been churning on this dance since I saw it last week, and although I have yet to make sense of all the patterns, I need to say much more about it.

According to choreographer Molissa Fenley, she was so taken with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” she began using it when she practiced. Her routine evolved into a dynamic solo that explores themes of fear, animal presence, and the shift from power to loss of self-control.

When Fenley presented the ballet in 1988, she faced predictable gender-based criticism; not only was she considered arrogant for breaking free of ensemble dance and performing her own choreography solo, but the dance was “unfeminine.” It was powerful, aggressive, and violent. Further, Fenley herself appeared androgynous dressed in black tights and with a short haircut.

At Pacific Northwest Ballet, the soloist is male, but none of the uneasiness of blurred gender lines is lost. Instead, the flowing, gentle parts of the dance stand out. The dancer skips in circles around the stage with windmilling arms, and eyebrows shoot up in the darkness. Like the music, which evokes both the soft warmth of spring and its freezing storms, “State of Darkness” teeters between strength and grace. Grace and strength are required of every ballet dancer. But visually, grace is almost always expressed by female dancers, while strength is represented by the male dancers.  Because there is only one dancer, this piece will always include parts that are unsettling.

At PNB, Principal Jonathan Poretta is the usual performer. I saw the dance at a matinee, when Matthew Renko, pulled from the corps de ballet, danced. I was reminded of those TV episodes that presage a spin-off – with only about half a dozen dancers in the world having learned “State of Darkness,” this solo must be a career-defining moment for Renko.

Although “State of Darkness” has a lot in common with Mopey (a single dancer in a minimal costume on a starkly lit stage with no sets), Mopey is only 15 minutes long. The dancer in “Darkness” must hold the audience’s attention for a grueling 36 minutes of highly technical dance. Renko glistened with sweat visible from the second balcony. But the only time he showed even a hint of strain was when his legs seemed to shiver during a long-held eagle pose about 20 minutes into the performance. That was about the same time I started to feel lightheaded and realized that I had forgotten to breathe.

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Fenley talks about power and animal presence when she describes “State of Darkness.” Besides the forcefulness of movement, this is most obvious in representation of birds of prey. They stand out in an otherwise abstract piece, but the dancer’s floating arms and focused gaze are apt symbols when the topic is strength and grace. John Woo’s ballet of violence may be controversial; a falcon or an eagle on the wing is inarguably beautiful, even as its soaring flight presages the violent death of something small and innocent.

In my earlier post, I commented on how Fenley choreographed a different story from the one told by the music originally. Yet because the dance emerged from the music, there are enough similarities to force the audience to reconsider the original. The scene from Fantasia (which also reinterpreted the idea of “spring” to represent a more primal beginning than a seasonal one) was an obvious association. But I was surprised to realize how many other places I had heard the influence of Stravinsky’s music. I’ve always associated Conan the Barbarian’s soundtrack with The Planets, but “Rite of Spring” informed the oriental melodies of Thulsa Doom’s flesh cult. Early springtime’s barren ground was borrowed in the Twilight Zone and a few episodes of Star Trek as well. How marvelous that a single work could so powerfully evoke life from dawn of time through the final frontier! On the other hand, both prehistory and outer space exist in states of darkness.

Well, here I am, over 700 words and almost a week later, still making new observations, stumbling on new insights, but no closer to resolving a consistent theory on “State of Darkness.” Is there anything more satisfying than discovering a piece of art that perplexes you, that captures your mind and won’t let go?

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3 thoughts on “State of Darkness at Pacific NW Ballet

  1. I was glad I came across your post as Matthew is my son and it was the only performance he danced the part. He had told me it was demanding choreography but I didn’t realize just how long the piece is until I read this. Now I can fully appreciate what the piece exacts of the dancer.

    • Hi Mom! I think State of Darkness is kind of like a resume, because it really shows off everything a dancer can do – stamina, technicality, and expressiveness. I think Peter Boal must expect great things from Matthew that he gave him that role. I know I will be keeping an eye out for him after this. I really hope you get to see it the next time he dances it.

  2. Pingback: March by the Numbers | gemma D. alexander

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