Dancing somewhere between heaven and hell

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

Pacific Northwest Ballet presents three powerful works by the African American choreographer Ulysses Dove.

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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙt 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 'ꀜNarrator'ꀝ 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'ꀙs 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.

There are many moments of dramatic tension, though I particularly liked the 'ꀜDemons of Light'ꀝ segment. Here, one by one, four women open their doors and are lit by harsh light while still inside. Each then moves forward while performing slow, sensual solos, all starting with some great hip action that you don'ꀙt see a lot of in "The Nutcracker" or "Giselle." The four excellent performers were Sarah Ricard Orza, Ariana Lallone, Lesley Rauch, and Lindsi Dec.

In 1992 AIDS was a death sentence for most and had decimated a whole generation of dancers and choreographers, porn had gone mainstream, more and more gays were coming out and speaking out, relations between men and women had taken on new dimensions. It was amidst all this that Dove made this fine and highly charged dance about the multiple faces of Eros. It was unfortunate that whoever writes the PNB program notes described this dance euphemistically as 'ꀜan atmospheric view of contemporary urban social issues.'ꀝ I think the ballet audience deserved better and more accurate words.

Two other works were included in the evening, Dove'ꀙs "Red Angels," made for New York City Ballet in 1994, and a revival of Victor Quijada'ꀙs "Suspension of Disbelief," the latter a messy and unconvincing dance that mixed many movement styles towards no particular end.

In "Red Angels" one could see references to the dances of George Balanchine, NY City Ballet'ꀙs founder and long-time artistic director. Again, with a lot of passion on display this was a vehicle that showed off the prowess of the PNB dancers. Tall and lithe Ariana Lallone, who when she stood in second position plie while en pointe was a sight to behold — especially while wearing a bright red unitard — and Postlewaite, dancing stunningly this whole night, displaying his clarity of line and intentionality of movement in a brief but superb solo. "Red Angels" had the benefit of live music composed by Richard Einhorn and performed in microtonal wonderfulness by guest violinist Mary Rowell.


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