In kindergarten, almost every kid has the same favorite subject in school – Choice Time. Choice time usually disappears in third grade, but when it does appear in later life, it’s usually still a favorite. For me, that means the annual Director’s Choice program at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Of course, it’s the director’s job to pick the programs, so in a sense every program is the director’s choice. But the idea behind Director’s Choice is that for this one program, the director picks ballets he likes best without consideration for budgets and ticket sales. I doubt that the director is ever free from those considerations, but it’s a nice idea and it is true that Director’s Choice includes more premieres and bolder works than other programs throughout the season. Which is why I always end up liking it best.
This year was even more special to me, because for once, I only brought my kids to the introduction of the blog post, but was free to attend and enjoy the actual ballet for myself, without consideration for what kind of value it may have for kids or how to help kids understand and enjoy it. Even better, my companion for the evening is a dancer herself, so I could share her insights that I would never get on my own.
Empire Noir – the most metal ballet
Music: Greg Haines
Choreography: David Dawson
Staging: Rebecca Gladstone
Set Design: John Otto
Lighting Design: Bert Dalhuysen
Costume Design: Yumiko Takeshima
Duration: 24 minutes
Premiere: June 17, 2015; Dutch National Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: March 17, 2017
My first thought when the curtain rose was “Star Trek.” The dark stage was dominated by a colorless construct that wrapped around it in a swoosh that felt like a set from the Enterprise. In the Q&A afterwards, dancer Joshua Grant commented that the structure made one feel trapped in a bubble on stage, so maybe the space ship isn’t too far off. But the nerdiness ended there. Greg Haines’ music was spare but percussive and insistent. I felt like I had heard it danced to before, but the other Dawson piece in PNB’s rep used Bach, and Haines was nowhere on the PNB rep list. Maybe I was thinking of Arvo Pärt. The dancers in black leotards were all angles, broken wrists, overextended limbs, larger than life until collapsing and moving on.
Empire Noir was an unsettling combination of starkness and bombast more usually seen in black metal than in ballet. I had to remind myself not to throw horns when the audience leapt to their feet at the end.
[Aside: I used to be a little embarrassed at what an easy audience Seattle was. It was like remaining seated for applause was considered bad manners here. In recent years, that seems to have changed, and now I find that I miss our old provincial enthusiasm.]
[Another Aside: When PNB first started performing ballets that stretched the limits and definitions of ballet, there would be an awkward pause before people remembered their manners and rose to applaud. Now, these are the pieces that get the warmest response. I wonder if it’s shifting demographics, or shifting tastes?]
My dancer friend remarked afterwards that it was impressive how each dancer maintained their center as they moved through such stretched out poses. That, and something about the way they built their movements from their hips were what made the result still feel like ballet despite the nontraditional aesthetic. Grant made a similar comment, saying that Dawson’s choreography still uses the ballet idiom, but stretches each movement beyond what has been done before. As snowboarders say, he’s progressing the sport.
Grant also talked about how demanding the piece is, both mentally and physically. It is a dance that requires absolute commitment and attention for the performer to be able to pull it off, because it’s either perfect or you didn’t do it.
Dark imagery, abrasive music, nontraditional interpretation of beauty, and a fiendish demand for technical proficiency – Empire Noir is the most metal ballet ever.
New Suite – a clinical poetry reading
Music: George Frideric Handel (from Concerti grossi, Op. 6, 1736-1741), Luciano Berio (selections from Duetti per due Violini, Vol. 1, 1979-1983), and Johann Sebastian Bach (Allemande, from Partita in B minor for solo violin, BWV 1002, 1720)
Choreography: William Forsythe
Staging: Laura Graham (Handel and Berio duets), assisted by Oleg Klymyuk (Bach duet)
Scenic and Lighting Design: William Forsythe
Costume Design: William Forsythe and Yumiko Takeshima
Duration: 25 minutes
Premiere: February 25, 2012; Dresden Semperoper Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: March 13, 2015
You can’t really get any more buttoned up than Handel, and after Haines, the music for New Suite was a reverse shock. PNB has performed this piece before, and I know I saw it (I still have my Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe ticket stub) but I didn’t remember it. Forsythe may be to Dawson what Shaun White is to Travis Rice, so it’s always a little surprising for us old folks when he isn’t the one on the bleeding edge. But New Suite was most like a poetry reading: eight short pas de deux, unconnected to each other, but following a carefully selected (if difficult to define) progression. Fortunately, Forsythe never succumbs to Poet Voice.
The first few couples wore pale colors and danced very old-fashioned ballet-y (I know balletic is better grammar but ballet-y captures the feeling better) movements. As the costumed became more saturated, the dances set to Berio seemed more modern, although still very comfortable and familiar. Toward the end, with Bach and Handel, there seem to be a relational focus – sometimes the two dancers were doing their own thing without regard to each other, or took turns. But other times their movements seemed to be driven by an invisible force, a sort of magnetism or specific gravity that pulled the dancers together or repulsed them (like Maillot’s Romeo and Juliette – it’s one of my favorite things to see in dance).
After the intensity of Empire Noir, New Suite felt cool and cerebral, an almost clinical exercise in ballet theory. It was actually a relief. Interestingly, this piece was a new opportunity for several of the dancers. It might be the first time I’ve ever seen an apprentice cast in a pas de deux – and on a stage empty of other dancers, at that. At yet I forgot that fact while I was watching. Sarah Gabrielle Ryan and the others who were dancing outside their usual roles all seemed to be right where they belonged.
Her Door to the Sky – safe and warm
Music: Benjamin Britten (Simple Symphony, Op. 4, 1933-1934)
Choreography: Jessica Lang
Scenic Design: Jessica Lang
Costume Design: Bradon McDonald
Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce
Assistant to the Choreographer: Clifton Brown
Duration: 21 minutes
Premiere: August 24, 2016 (Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Massachusetts)
I was really looking forward to Jessica Lang’s Her Door to the Sky. I was familiar with her high-concept piece The Calling, and had heard about the way researched before choreographing. Her Door to the Sky was written for PNB; at the time Seattle Art Museum was exhibiting Georgia O’Keeffe. Lang took O’Keeffe’s Patio Door series as her inspiration. She was going to set her ballet to Copeland’s music, but when she found out O’Keeffe didn’t like Copeland, she switched to Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony. She could not have known that the Chamber Orchestra at my daughter’s middle school was going to perform Simple Symphony the day before PNB opened Her Door to the Sky, but it added to the rightness of the piece.
It almost didn’t seem right at first, though. I usually take it as a given that the execution will be flawless at PNB, but there were moments in the beginning of Her Door to the Sky when the dancers seemed uncertain. My friend confirmed that things were a bit off. Perhaps, as Grant described it, they really couldn’t feel their legs after the challenges of the previous pieces. Worse, I was a little bit bored. The dance was conventionally pretty, but the calm energy was something of a letdown after Empire Noir and New Suite, and the whole thing just felt safe.
But as the dance progressed, that became its appeal. The white floor and the Southwestern colors felt warm. The set’s regular geometry, moments of stillness, a lot of movement down on the floor, and the gentleness with which the dancers supported each other all contributed to a sense of security that was missing, not only in the other dances, but in the world at large these past few months. In contrast to the chaos of current events, the action on stage was always regular and contained so that the viewer knew where to look and could keep track of everything going on.
What was going on was not earth-shattering, but there were interesting innovations. The choreography was built around the set, which supported and framed the dancers. And there were some crazy lifts.
The dancers seemed to have found their stride by the time they got to those lifts (five men hold a woman by one of her legs as she undulates across the stage like the Luck Dragon). In the audience, you’re relaxed enough by then to enjoy the beauty of those movements without being distracted by details like whether they conform to the standards of ballet or even physics.
In the arts world, calling a piece comforting may be even worse than faint praise, but I left Her Door to the Sky feeling stronger and more energetic than I went into it, and these days that is a priceless gift.
Thu, Mar. 23 at 7:30 pm
Fri, Mar. 24 at 7:30 pm
Sat, Mar. 25 at 7:30 pm
Sun, Mar. 26 at 1:00 pm
Tickets are available online.