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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 8, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 23
PNB's 'Love & Ballet' an exceptional reprise of great contemporary dance works and music
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PNB's 'Love & Ballet' an exceptional reprise of great contemporary dance works and music

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
'LOVE & BALLET'
MCCAW HALL
Through June 10


This program is a wonderful reprise of four recent works by contemporary choreographers that we've seen at PNB over the last two years - Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millepied, and Justin Peck. It's important to bring contemporary works back within a year or two because a one-time viewing of new creations is not enough for audiences to learn and remember what was distinctive about an emerging artist. We don't need to see 'Swan Lake' every year, or even every other year. We know it, we love it, and we look forward to its eventual return. But works like 'Tide Harmonic' by Christopher Wheeldon make a big impact when they first appear - I've never forgotten that amazing move where the women flip over onto one toe while their partners rock them back and forth like weird sea creatures in a current. But I may have forgotten the context, and the patterns, and Joby Talbot's fabulous music. We need all that again - and YouTube can't be relied upon to give you the full picture in between times. (Let's not even talk about the difference between digital and live performance.)

'Love & Ballet' could as easily be called 'Love Ballet' - because seeing these works again makes you love ballet in its new life with new dances and choreographers as much as you love ballet in its mature life with the dances we already love. Here are the dances in order of presentation:

'Tide Harmonic' (2013)
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon; Music: Joby Talbot

This work was commissioned by PNB and the music was written specifically for dance by the British composer, Joby Talbot, who describes the work as '&a kind of a water symphony.' Even if the dancers weren't dressed in subtle fishtails and watery colors you would know that this was all about a tide pool. The gestures are gentle, flowing, and creature-like. When I first saw it in the 'See the Music' program in 2015, my companion turned to me with a face that fairly glowed in the dark and said 'Wow! I feel like a better person for having seen that!' - and I couldn't agree more. Talbot's lush, percussive music together with Wheeldon's strange variations on familiar moves evoked a mysterious, tidal world without being overly literal. It brings you magically into another universe of creatures - sometimes beautiful, sometimes weird - as the couples organize and re-organize themselves into duets, trios, quartets and various other configurations that merge and melt away. Wheeldon creates the unfamiliar through the devices of the familiar - moves we love to see in conventional ballet but which are cleverly and subtly transformed. One of my favorite passages was performed by a male duo, arms entwined, whose legs moved together but whose torsos created variations that conjured a symbiotic mirror-creature that must surely exist somewhere in the water-world. When you see this ballet you realize that it's something you always wanted to see, but had no idea it could possibly exist.

'After the Rain pas de deux' (2005)
Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon; Music: Arvo Pärt

The 'rain' in this compelling, intimate dance, is sex, as you can easily tell from the fact that the dancers are quasi-nude, moving to the sleepy, dreamy music of Arvo Pärt. His atmospheric sound cloud, 'Spiegel im Spiegel' ('Mirror in Mirror') is as much a partner with the lovers as a backdrop for their post-coital settling. Their moody coming-together and parting - in what General Director Peter Boal calls 'origami-like poses' - is a very elevated version of the human condition and particular moment most of us are familiar with - if only our hum-drum lives were as interesting as this (and our figures as svelte). This work premiered at PNB in 2008 and is a showcase for its most experienced dancers - one of whom, Karel Cruz - will be retiring soon. What a loss to the dance community, but what a privilege it has been to have seen him so often.

'Appassionata' (2016)
Choreography: Benjamin Millepied; Music: Ludwig van Beethoven, 'Piano Sonata 23 in F minor, Op. 57' (c. 1804-06)

Danced by three couples to the impressive solo piano performance of Allan Dameron, Millepied's 'Appassionata' is more narrative than Wheeldon's 'rain' dance. Both the movement and the costumes suggest that the couples are on their honeymoons - or some other form of passionate encounter - and that we are witnessing a discovery that normally would not have an audience. When I first saw this work in the 'Tricolore' program in 2016, I was very moved by the way dancers were infused by Beethoven's familiar music, and how the dance in its many permutations of partnering is so intense and energetic that, like sex, the couples end up panting, sweaty, and glowing. We even hear the heavy breathing - an unusual phenomenon in an art form that tries to fool you into thinking it's easy. Particular signatures of Millepied's choreography - the diamond-shaped leg formation of lifts, the hopping, alternate-leg jetés, the pin-wheel arms - conjure the sense of a choreographer with a point of view that we can see from work to work, but that we can also see in the other choreographers in this program. It's as if certain expressions in dance - like expressions in language - catch on and spread until they seem like natural elements of contemporary ballet.

'Year of the Rabbit' (2012)
Choreography: Justin Peck; Music: Sufjan Stevens

This work was commissioned by the New York City Ballet, where Justin Peck was a dancer, and first seen in the 'Director's Choice' program in 2016. It earned Peck a PNB commission, 'Debonair,' in 2014 and made him the subject of a fascinating documentary film, 'Ballet 422' in which Peck, then a 25-year-old soloist, was commissioned to create that company's 422nd dance, following in the footsteps of City Ballet luminaries George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. What a daunting set of expectations! Here's a young guy who is expected to step into the shoes of giants. Can he do it? Will we witness his brilliant career develop over the coming years? I was in some doubt when I first saw this work, and was underwhelmed by 'Debonair' - but on re-viewing I can see what others saw then: that this is a really, really talented dance maker who will surely continue developing his considerable talent. One of his special skills is knowing how to manipulate and deploy the entire corps de ballet, which 'Year of the Rabbit' uses in tiers, as three layers of dancers line up in three rows, popping in and out of each other's lines like a team of cuckoo clocks going off all at once. They are less Greek Chorus and more cheering squad as one of their number capers before them in a 'My turn!' moment. Peck is adept at managing groups in interesting and charming ways, at one point having the corps stack their heads in a sideways puppy pile, and at another point having the central boy surrounded by girls who sink into splits while the central girl is surrounded by boys who do one-legged push-ups. It may sound simple, or even corny, but the effect - the cascading effects of Peck's imaginative manipulation of the corps - adds up to a fully developed universe in which the extras are the stars. The girls' blue razor-pleated skirts with white piping, and the boys' blue tee shirts create the impression of a uniform in the sort of school I wish all the children in the world could attend - fun, challenging, inventive.

This reprise of great contemporary dance works and music should be on your list of things to do that make you happy to be human. You can still see it this weekend - get over to McCaw Hall and Love Ballet! (https://www.pnb.org/)

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