True joy with PNB at the Opera House this week

'Contemporary 4,' a four-piece repertory program, celebrates the glory of man at a time when that's exactly what humankind needs.

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PNB principal dancers Karel Cruz and Carla Körbes in 'Concerto DSCH,' part of 'Contemporary 4.'

'Contemporary 4,' a four-piece repertory program, celebrates the glory of man at a time when that's exactly what humankind needs.

After the multiplying images of Japan’s natural disasters of the last week-plus, is there any way to ram some sort of grounding stick into place? In this glass-walled age where one nation’s disaster is seen and felt by people around the world, how does the imagistic snowball ever stop rolling? How does one hold tragedy’s drowning force and time’s forward ticking in a single frame?

If you haven’t already tried it, I recommend concert dance. Of course a dance concert cannot contextualize a world crisis, but I have found a gentle solace since March 11 in two great programs: Sarah Michelson’s full-evening work, “Devotion,” at On the Boards (which ended last weekend, unfortunately) and Pacific Northwest Ballet’s current “Contemporary 4” repertory program featuring works by Mark Morris, Marco Goecke, Paul Gibson, and Alexei Ratmansky, which runs this weekend and next (March 18-27).

There’s something about watching our meager human form swell and gesture and transmute that kindles the beginnings of fresh hope. Trotting off to see a dance concert last weekend, in particular, felt very strange. Yet if there is any choreographer who can mime and reflect both life’s crushing punitive force and man’s redemptive capabilities, it is Michelson.

The tension between the absorbing pull of repetition and the forward drag of narrative/composition is the centerpiece of “Devotion,” and it’s an arduous 18-round fight. There are only six dancers in the two-hour-plus work, and usually only one or two onstage at a time, but the piece generates blazing heat (even before Michelson sends a giant lamplight rocking out over the audience).

Glory is manifest time and time again in this amazing work: from the first sight of Michelson’s singular, intense movement lexicon (angular, transition-less phrases moving from deep lunge to long balances, like watching the work of a kid wailing on a thick-legged Gumby doll) to the unbelievable ecstatic physical events that rise incrementally and impossibly and will leave you wondering if you really saw what you just think you saw. (Yes, that skinny-boned blond dancer indeed performed hundreds of chainé turns in a row...and she’s only 14 years old and flew in all the way from Cardiff, Wales, to boot.)

This weekend the glory of man lies at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

In this elaborate, formal setting, a single spinning dancer isn’t going to be enough — the trappings of the Opera House stage necessitate choreographic rigor and design genius on top of sheer performance stamina. And yet the revival of Paul Gibson’s endearing chamber work for four couples, “The Piano Dance” (2005) really does a miraculous job of swelling to fit the huge space.

It could be a trifle, yet its elegance and economy rises to amazing heights thanks to a perfect combination of design (costumes by Mark Zappone, lights by Lisa J. Pinkham), music (a smorgasbord of piano works played beautifully by Christina Siemens) and a cast of dancers: Chalnessa Eames, Rachel Foster, Benjamin Griffiths, Margaret Mullin, Lesley Rausch, Josh Spell, Jerome Tisserand, and Seth Orzo (standing in for Jeffrey Stanton on opening night).

That a small piece like “The Piano Dance” can achieve greatness is such a happy thing. Especially when the larger, more-heralded bookends of the evening — Mark Morris’ “Pacific” and Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” — also achieve their greatness.  There really is joy at the Opera House this week!

The opener, a company reprise of Morris’ “Pacific” (1995), established the tone of artistic dedication and wonderment that pervades the “Contemporary 4” program. Set to Lou Harrison’s serene and transporting score, “Pacific” is Morris’ plot-less, episodic piece for nine dancers that seems a paean to the American West, not simply the work’s ocean moniker.

The joy in the communal, the buoyancy of the melodies, the airy phases of the background scrim — there’s a kind of serene, modern response to the gusto and elegy of Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo” here. Harrison’s music not only organizes Mark Morris’ choreography, it seems to organize Morris’ mind too. The piece feels so broad, yet so focused and harmonious. It’s a wonderment, too, to how craftily Morris has incorporated the women’s pointe shoes into his vision. The women’s movements have an extra extension and curvature thanks to the shoes.

But then, thanks to floor length skirts of fabric around the men’s waists, the male dancers too have an extra sweep and something. Kudos for the casting (all those beautiful long limbs curving and cresting): Laura Gilbreath, Benjamin Griffiths, Kylee Kitchens, Carla Körbes, Ariana Lallone, Lucien Postlewaite, Lesley Rausch, Josh Spell, and Olivier Wevers.

The serene mood of “Pacific” gets revisited and reimagined during “Concerto DSCH” (2008), Alexei Ratmansky’s otherwordly, effervescent group romp that closes the program. In the last few years Ratmansky’s work has fueled the greatest evenings at both of America’s leading ballet companies (New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre) and you’ve just got to love Peter Boal for getting Ratmansky out here promptly and allowing us a firsthand chance to see why.  

“Concerto DSCH” is an extraordinary blend of virtuoso dance, tableaux, traditional folk-style ensemble power; it’s hard to figure out how it achieves all that it does. And frankly, I didn’t even try. At first viewing, I was just so starved for its confident, elegant concoction of joy and humor and technique — and so delirious with the gushing warmth of the Shostakovich score — I just let the episodes wash over my grateful, giggly, dropped-jaw self without thought.

The piece is unpredictable, fun, and quirky, descriptors that are used a lot with Twyla Tharp, yet for me Tharp rarely exudes actual warmth and good feeling like this. Ratmansky somehow checks his ego at the door. This piece runs on heavenly gas — not gritty, individual steam.

With bold, colorful costuming and a Russian-flavored heft to the bravura classical jumps and turns, “Concerto DSCH” fills the stage with an environment that comes as close to a recreation of the Serge Diaghilev era of bold, artsy, emotional ballet in Paris as I’ve ever been able to imagine. The characters assemble and interact unpredictably; individuals stand out boldly, then recede; the ensemble — after whipping things up furiously — deftly slows into a barely-ambulatory frieze comprised of simple human gesture.

“Concerto DSCH” is a piece that seems to exist beyond linear time. It is ordered and conceived, but in terms of emotional character everything is happening all at once, from the moment the curtain parts. And what is happening feels to be beyond circumstance, gender, place, or person. Pinch me, please!!

One last note: Unfortunately, I literally had a hard time seeing the evening’s world premiere piece, German choreographer Marco Goecke’s “Place a Chill,” which was featured right after Morris’ “Pacific.” Set to Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1, the work features a tour de force movement vocabulary of whizzing limbs (inspired by the story of cellist Jacqueline du Pré’s musical genius and her eventual MS disintegration), but it is set on a severely darkened stage, with men and women both wearing dark baggy cargo-esque pants, and my eyes had a terrible time focusing. (That’s probably part of the point here.)

Yet when my eyes can’t focus I keep repeatedly closing them, and I miss the dance, especially its arcs and transitions. In this pathetic, fractured viewing, I did come away with a memorable image of the lightened spread of James Moore’s back,  a lovely echo to Goecke’s other PNB ballet, the “Mopey” solo, which also features Moore turned upstage for long lengths. But I must see “Place a Chill” again, and luckily there are a bunch more performances this week and next.

If you go: “Contemporary 4,” through March 27 at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets cost $27 to $165 and may be purchased by phone (206-441-2424), at the box office (301 Mercer St., Seattle), or online.


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