by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
Pacific Northwest Ballet's second presentation of the season is a spectacular (and auricular) collection of three dances by contemporary choreographers - one of whom is a member of PNB's own company, soloist Kyle Davis. It was an opening night of sheer excitement. I've never heard the audience chatter and bubble so much at intermissions. The pressroom was unusually crowded, loud, and animated. It was as if everyone had touched an electric fence and gotten a jolt of amazement.
Each of these three dances challenged and entertained us in three entirely different ways, from awe to sighs to laughter - and each was completely successful. Here are my impressions in the order of presentation:
'A Dark and Lonely Space'
Choreography: Kyle Davis
Music: Michael Giacchino
The musical forces for this creation story of a dance might have overwhelmed less carefully constructed choreography. PNB Music Director and Principal Conductor, Emil de Cou, led an orchestra of 100 players and a chorus of 80 singers from the Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union in an opening sound blast that conveyed the creation of a universe (or galaxy, or star system, or planet & something enormous). The singers were arranged in four audience boxes high along the sides of McCaw Hall; the orchestra included an unusual complement of percussion and horns. One soprano, Christina Siemens, was onstage the entire time as the creative force in a huge planet-like construction. The effect was fantastic - an announcement of gigantism that might have daunted a lesser choreographer than Kyle Davis. I have never seen any of the works Davis has created for PNB's NEXT STEP and School programs, but his debut on the main stage was many things: audacious, brave, fascinating, and gorgeous.
We learned in a pre-opening discussion that Davis is a fan of composer Michael Giacchino's work and requested something to set a dance to. Instead of the ten or fifteen minutes of music Davis hoped for, he got a 45-minute symphony. Giacchino created his 'Jupiter Ascending Symphony' for a film of the same name, and PNB had the confidence to invest the resources of 24 dancers, costumes by company principal Elizabeth Murphy, Reed Nakayama's mysterious scenic and lighting designs, and massive musical resources to realize Davis' debut. It was a smart move by PNB's Artistic Director, Peter Boal, who now has a work of great complexity and beauty, and a choreographer whose talent is as promising as the vast scenario of his ballet.
I use the term 'ballet' because Davis works within the classical vocabulary that he himself has mastered as a soloist and prize-winning dancer (Prix de Laussane, 2008). Yet in a current trend of mixing dance genres he uses the barefooted-modern technique for four mysterious figures who weave in and out of the creation scenario with the long gowns and dramatic full-bodied gestures that evoke Martha Graham. There is also a narrative semi-pantomime character - an amorphous creation seeking identity, danced barefooted by Leta Biasucci and her double, Rachel Foster (roles danced by men in an alternate cast). Their female duet - (alternately male duet) - is angularly tender, awkward and coordinated as the figures get used to being alive. Their presence marks a long-developing trend in choreography of same-sex duets - unconventional, but conjuring human realities formerly hidden. I remember the first all-male love duet I ever saw on a main stage. It was Rudolph Nureyev's choreography of Romeo and Juliet when Romeo and a partner - Benvolio? Mercutio? Tybalt? - can't recall - dance with each other as only men and women had before. This was at the American Ballet Theater - 1979 - very new, even shocking, and it has taken a long time for ballet choreographers to exploit what now seems like an obvious and enriching direction in which to move.
But the real glory of this production, in my opinion, is how Davis has manipulated the corps de ballet - the other twenty dancers who enter and exit in fascinatingly regimented groups, break into graphic patterns of arms and legs, and whirl around like cosmic dark matter. They're even dressed as dark matter in this very outer-spacey universe. For a work this massive it was important to construct dances-within-dances to vary the pace and interest as the music unfolds. For my money, though, I was fascinated by the corps and could watch Davis' group dances all day. My dance buddy for the evening summed up the total effect when the lights went up: 'If it never ended I'd die happy!'
Choreography: Alejandro Cerrudo
Music: Dustin Hamman, King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Olafur Amalds, Nils Frahm
It's hard to imagine what could follow all that overwhelming bigness, but Alejandro Cerrudo's 'Silent Ghost' for ten dancers in various configurations was a perfect follow-up. I have no idea what the title means - it could have been called 'Dance X' and still have been as moving to watch. Cerrudo's 'Little Mortal Dance' was the hit of PNB's Director's Choice in 2016, so it was a real joy to see this wonderful dance-maker return. He's developed many of his signature moves, especially the semaphore movements of the arms in which the dancers perform the simultaneous complexities together against a blank backdrop - almost like shadow figures. In 'Silent Ghost' we see bird-like forms appear and disintegrate to compelling, sinuous music. In the opening sequence, as men take shapes that freeze and melt away, we see two dancers bent at the waist, arms outstretched, undulating from the hips to the finger-tips as if they were wands of kelp in a gentle stream. The inventions are too numerous and flowing to even remember, much less describe, but the unforgettable duet that ends the dance is so seamless, surprising, and elegant in its lifts, carries, and partnering that you can see what love is. That sounds corny, I know - but it's the truth. My dance buddy turned to me at the end and said, 'It gives me a reason to live to next Thursday.' I imagine that if he were to see Cerrudo's work every Thursday, he might live forever - or at least die happy.
Choreography: Alexander Ekman
Music: Franz Josph Hayden, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert
This hilarious dance was the perfect ending to an amazing program. Sixteen dancers - all dressed in asexual pants and skin suits - do an opening sequence in which they're alternately confined and attached to individual white squares that they use as percussion instruments, dance platforms, and walls to hide behind and pop out from. The dance is a send-up of critical analysis, opening with a voice-over of a plummy-voiced critic who uses all the jargon that gets ridiculed by non-academics. (The academics in the audience - of which I am one - understood the critique perfectly, but the language of critical theory sounds laughably pretentious in any setting other than academic conferences). A 'critic' in a classic pose walks slowly through the crowd of wildly gesturing dancers while the voice-over expounds on deeper meaning - a joke that returns at the end of the dance when everyone is fully 'naked' in skin suits and posing with potted cacti on their heads like caryatids and statues of Greek gods and goddesses.
Yet even without the framework of meaning versus meaninglessness, this dance is a winner. The endless variation of individual movements amaze with their inventiveness, then amaze further when they snap into simultaneous gestures - sometimes kneeling with upper body dances and sometimes with full-body choreography as simple as running in place - which, in this case, created a wonderful effect as the lights isolate one group 'running' in one direction, then another in the opposing direction, then the whole group describing a sort of running wallpaper - all to the drama of Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden.'
So, at the risk of being a critic with a plummy voice, I can't help but notice that the first section is choreographed to Hayden's string quartet 'The seven last words of Christ' (hardly cheerful) and the last section is inspired by a memento mori, 'the dance of death' that Schubert completed in 1824 to confront his own coming death from syphilis in 1828. And while the Beethoven contribution is from his glorious 'middle' period, it's described as 'melancholy' by musicologists. All of this is in contrast to the delight and humor of the dance itself - a reality that includes a young couple coaching each other through a duet that is entertaining in its conversational ordinariness and its clever, expert dancing. Thus, (we critics like to say 'thus'), the humor of the dance rubs up against the serious subtext of the music (we also like to say 'subtext') so that it isn't only funny - it's grounded in the ironic humor of mortality. How's that for a plummy critique? But it's true - a brilliantly funny, melancholy, revelatory dance that pretends to be less observant and serious than it is.
So just in case you haven't got the message, you'd be crazy to miss this one - or, put another way, if you only go to one dance concert this year go to 'All Premiere' at PNB, performed at McCaw Hall through November 11.
OK, OK, go to The Nutcracker, too - but seriously, you won't see better dances all together in one place as PNB's 'All Premiere.' Bravi, tutti!
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