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Dancing somewhere between heaven and hell

Pacific Northwest Ballet presents three powerful works by the African American choreographer Ulysses Dove.
Rachel Foster in "Vespers."

Rachel Foster in "Vespers." Angela Sterling for PNB

When I saw Ulysses Dove perform with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the early 1970s, he was an odd presence in that wonderful but sober troupe. Cunningham’s dancers went about their business with a deadpan seriousness, even when they made you laugh, and their dancing was precise and contained. Dove was different. Thin and with legs like springs, he left an indelible impression, with an authentic joyfulness to his dancing that his body seemed hardly able to contain.

Dove died far too young in 1996, but in the decade and a half prior he had gained a reputation as a fine choreographer, obtaining commissions from a number of major ballet and contemporary dance troupes. Not having seen his work before, I got myself down to the Opera House at Seattle Center on Thursday night to see Pacific Northwest Ballet perform "3 by Dove," a program that included company revivals of "Red Angels" and "Vespers," and the PNB premiere of "Serious Pleasures," originally created in 1992 for American Ballet Theatre. (The PNB program runs through March 28 and you can watch a preview and get tickets here.)

"Serious Pleasures" was the major piece of the night: showy, sexy, dramatic, and beautifully danced. However, it is "Vespers" that stays with me. The work was made for Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in 1986, an African American troupe with a reputation for adventurous repertoire, and with whom Dove had his closest company association. It is stark and powerful — a stage full of six women and several simple bentwood chairs, melancholy lighting, the dancers dressed in variations of black dresses, almost as if for mourning.

"Vespers" seemed to be dancing somewhere between heaven and hell. The signature movement was an up-thrust arm as if imploring the divine, the women driven by some unseen force. Spare and affecting, the dance is described as inspired by Dove’s memories of his grandmother and other women at worship in their small church. The chairs onstage are sat upon, but also at times stand alone, as if there were unseen people sitting there. These women can be joyous, but Dove, an African American originally from South Carolina, also seems to be telling us what a struggle life can be.

The work begins with two dramatic solos danced lovingly by Rachel Foster and Kaori Nakamura, soon to be joined by four other women. A high point sees all of them sitting in a row of chairs all the way stage left, as if hesitant or unwilling to enter the sacred space. There were hints of Alvin Ailey, with whom Dove danced for several years, especially that outstretched arm and yearning movements, but also of Martha Graham, notably her own spare masterpiece of Americana, "Appalachian Spring."

Dove takes us to another sphere of the human condition with the closing work of the night, "Serious Pleasures," said to be about love and sex, or maybe just sex, in the time of AIDS, a disease that was to tragically claim his life four years later. For the most part this is not for the squeamish or romantic; it is hard-edged, carnal, and unyielding.

The evocative stage set is a series of louvered doors, leading into what seem like small rooms (though you can’t really see into them), a dancer housed in each, men on the left, women on the right all with their long hair undone. In this dance everyone comes out of the closet (but they also tend to go back in). All the way upstage there are short projected round pegs from which we first find Lucien Postlewaite hanging, a cruel image as if a piece of meat, someone doing penance, or an S and M device. He is described as the “Narrator” and acts as a kinetic tour guide into this very earthy realm.

Everyone dances furiously, in couples, groups or alone, the genders interchangeable, and a pall of anxiety and desire hangs over the stage like a heavy morning mist. Dove’s movement style is an eclectic one, from the ballet (this work was after all created for a ballet company), and from his experience in contemporary dance, with the performers going down to the stage floor and rising up again in all sorts of inventive ways, and lots of individualized movement. However masterful his movement, and here it is very rich, it is the intellectual conception and its theatrical realization that makes the dance so powerful.


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