There was an exquisite moment during the performance I attended of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “New Works” program on Sunday, November 16, that seemed to have nothing to do with the choreography. It occurred towards the end of Benjamin Millepied’s energetic new world premiere, 3 Movements, set to a driving score by Steve Reich. As the dancers were launching into the final surging movement there was the briefest moment, a second or less actually, where the action paused and I caught the performers taking a collective deep breath before launching into the flat-out, non-stop finale. On one level it was a pure physiological function of packing in some oxygen; on another a powerful statement of the community of artists on stage.
Although I have not consistently attended PNB’s offerings over the years, I check in every now and then when a program sounds particularly intriguing. I liked the look of the troupe when under the direction of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. Well-trained and directed, the dancers always appeared to be part of an ensemble — people who knew and worked with each other on a daily basis, danced well with each other in performance. Even though ballet companies are a hierarchical structure with ranking by corps, soloist, and principal, there was always something democratic about PNB’s look, even with its classical emphasis.
This feel seems to have been maintained, perhaps even strengthened under Peter Boal’s direction. He has ventured into areas of repertory that have made PNB more experimental and daring than in the recent past. This takes some bravery on Boal’s part, as more traditional audiences (and financial supporters) might not so happily go along for the ride.
Not a choreographer himself, Boal therefore lacks the potential conflicts inherent in developing repertoire that would include his own work. This distance appears to have allowed him to emerge as a curator and educator in addition to being artistic director, one who carefully researches and measures what combinations of concert bills and choreographic works might please and stretch both company and audiences.
This is not to say that Boal has abandoned safe, crowd-pleasing programs, or that he should. There are still the Jerome Robbins works, The Nutcracker and other Stowell creations, and Balanchine favorites. Even in the experimental and challenging program that "New Works" turned out to be, Boal wisely chose to open with Mark Morris’ A Garden, a witty, pretty and well-crafted piece set to music by Richard Strauss.
The other three works on the Sunday matinee I saw, the closing performance of two week-end’s worth, were all hard-driving and high-energy, including one other world premiere, M-Pulse by company member Kiyon Gaines. The show’s most experimental and demanding choreography, at least from an audience’s perspective, was William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing Reproduced.
I can imagine that "New Works" may have not been the program that Boal envisioned when he set it up months or even a year or more ago, but one takes risks in committing in advance to unpredictable new choreography and premieres. It is also to Boal’s credit that he chose to schedule Forsythe’s piece for a second go-around, even after what I gather was a less than effusive reception last season when it made its debut in PNB’s repertoire. There is even a neat “Director’s Notebook” message from Boal in the "New Works" written program, giving some context for the choreography on display.
If Boal is taking some chances with his audiences with new repertoire, then the real risk is for the dancers. Performing a rotating series of works, both new and old over the course of a season is not at all easy for them. There are varying physical demands on bodies not always structured or with the natural capacity to achieve them easily, and calls for performance qualities and stylistic approaches that range from the understated subtleties of a Trisha Brown work to the giddiness of Jerome Robbins' The Concert.
In the program, the Morris dance was full of supple arms and legs, languid and nuanced movements, and sly wit. Oppose this with the Kiyon Gaines premiere replete with linear, hard edged, jam-packed movements to a percussive score. With a large company, not all dancers appear in each piece, of course, but many appeared in more than one. Over the course of a season this creates real demand on the physical, creative and interpretive capabilities of the performers.
It was good to see that the company appeared as comfortable with the frenetic and jarring Forsythe work, and Millepeid’s quick-paced and energetic action, as they did with the Morris piece. This not only reflects well on the dancers, but on those who do the casting and directing for the company. Reviewers of dance like to point to outstanding individual performances on any given concert, and there were certainly standouts in the New Works program. However, the uniform quality of dancing among all the company members was what most impressed me.
Boal and company walk a fine line between performing works that are familiar and therefore comforting to an audience and its expectations, and those that expand the parameters of what a ballet company can do and should be. I’d like to think that under his direction PNB will continue to be a company that honors traditions, and more importantly further expounds upon the possibilities for American dance of the 21st century.
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