Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” pas de deux might just be the most beautiful duet in the modern ballet canon. Just six weeks after seeing New York City Ballet stars dazzle in it at the Vail International Dance Festival, I was equally moved on Friday night by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Maria Chapman and Karel Cruz.
This was not the first time PNB has performed the work, which had its PNB premiere in 2008. But as the pas de deux, set to Arvo Pärt’s aching “Spiegel Im Spiegel,” and the rest of this all-Wheeldon show demonstrated, the company has settled into Wheeldon’s dynamic, demanding style, thanks to more time working directly with wunderkind Wheeldon and the continuing maturation of the company under Peter Boal’s direction.
The pas de deux is often performed separately from the full “After the Rain” ballet, but unlike so many duets that are excerpted from longer works, this one feels complete in itself rather than simply a microscopic glimpse into a larger dance. It’s clearly abstract with no discernible story line, but Wheeldon’s genius is in imbuing it with such feeling that the viewer can interpret the pushing and pulling of the male and female dancers in a myriad of ways. Are they former lovers remembering their passion, current partners coping with both the good and the challenging in their relationship, a man and woman longing for a nurturing love affair that neither has ever experienced?
Wheeldon doesn’t lead us to one answer but gives us so many extensions, twists, embraces, and lifts that even if all we want to do is watch the gorgeous, sculptural movement, that provides more than enough pleasure.
On opening night, Maria Chapman threw herself full-bore into the emotion of the steps; at times her intensity was almost too much to bear. Chapman has a beautiful, well-proportioned body and an elegant line, which she got to show off over and over again in the front and side bends that flow throughout the pas de deux. Karel Cruz was her technical equal but seemed emotionally disengaged so that the duet didn’t have quite the visceral impact that it does when performed by a more highly charged male partner.
The three other works on the program showcased the full range of Wheeldon’s extraordinary skill, revealing why he has been called the most talented choreographer since Balanchine. Each ballet was completely different in style and feeling and each offered its own very special delights.
“Carousel” is Wheeldon’s distillation of the Broadway musical and uses a sound montage drawn from that show’s most memorable songs. In the lovers’ pas de deux, danced with grace by Carla Körbes and Seth Orza, Wheeldon subtly speeds up the movement as the music shifts to “If I Loved You” to reflect the evolution of their feeling from gentle flirtation to full-blown declaration of love. The choreography is full of steps suggesting the midway at a carnival and Wheeldon’s recreation of a carousel with women sitting stop the men’s shoulders and holding long upright poles is one of the most striking images in a contemporary ballet.
The company looked confident with Wheeldon’s lyrical, flowing style with Körbes and Orza a perfect match technically and emotionally. Körbes is at her best in roles that convey vulnerability and her Julie Jordan is the perfect foil for Orza’s masculine, swaggering Billy.
Orza was equally appealing in “Variations Sérieuses,” Wheeldon’s wacky behind-the-scenes take on a ballet rehearsal, last-minute substitutions, and every dancer’s desire for the starring role. PNB premiered the work in 2008 as part of its “Laugh Out Loud! Festival” and it continues to delight with its haughty prima ballerina, supercilious ballet master, nurturing premier danseur and ambitious young female.
Orza was hilarious, especially when his “premier danseur” forgets to take off his warm-up pants before stepping out on stage, and Sara Ricard Orza as the young dancer-turned-star evolved seamlessly from a frightened novice into a demanding prima donna in her own right. She is one of PNB’s most beautiful and most distinctive dancers, imbuing every role with natural elegance and charm.
Above all, “Variations Sérieuses” testifies to Wheeldon’s mastery of staging. The set by Ian Falconer duplicates the view from a theater’s wings so that the dancers are often facing upstage right, away from us. Somehow Wheeldon manages to move the dancers around during the rehearsal and the actual “performance” so that we never feel left out.
Rounding out the program and showing off yet another side of Wheeldon’s prodigious skill is “Polyphonia.” Set to 10 excerpts of music by Ligeti, it contains some of Wheeldon’s most complex choreography. The opening and closing music might be considered undanceable with their atonal, constantly changing rhythms, but Wheeldon miraculously makes sense of the near-chaotic sound. Four couples change direction at warp speed, sometimes in unison, sometimes at different times, coming together as a unified whole or pulling apart into their own spatial orbits. The middle eight sections are quieter and more lyrical, a combination of dances for two, three or four. The troupe of eight showed mastery of the more flowing sections. The sole disappointment was that only Kaori Nakamura brought the necessary attack to the first and last sequences.
As for the music throughout the performance, the PNB orchestra under Emil de Cou has never sounded better — crisp and clean when it needed to be, lush and full when that was required. Violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and pianists Christina Siemens and Matthew Goodrich played the Pärt and Ligeti with feeling and depth, demonstrating once again how fortunate PNB is to have musicians of such quality in the pit.
If you go: Pacific Northwest Ballet, “All Wheeldon,” through October 2 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets are $28-168 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online at www.pnb.org.