The current Pacific Northwest Ballet production, Love Stories, has an unusual structure for a regular-season performance: It’s largely a selection of crowd-pleasing short works showcasing a select group of solo dancers rather than the company as a whole. But as Friday’s opening night demonstrated, there are special pleasures in such a program, most notably the chance to appreciate the established and emerging talent of individual artists and to enjoy a program of glorious music by composers as varied as Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky.
Of the five dances on the program, four were equal contenders for “most satisfying.” Only George Balanchine’s Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée” disappointed (more on that later). In keeping with the love stories theme, all the works featured an explicit or implied romance, and each showcased the ability of PNB’s dancers to infuse even the simplest gestures with feeling.
This was especially true in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, a reverie set to Debussy’s haunting score, with hints of Vaslav Nijinksy’s original 1912 choreography. In Robbins’ telling, the faun is a male ballet dancer going through his paces in a dreamlike ballet studio and instead of several nymphs, the object of his romantic imaginings is a leggy ballerina who wanders in for her own practice. Jerome Tisserand, a member of the corps with the presence and skill of a principal dancer, brought an especially elegant touch to his role as the lover, especially in the opening sequence where, bare-chested, he begins warm-up exercises on the floor then rises to endless extensions.
Tisserand’s beautiful proportions and long muscles are ideally suited to the gentle flowing motion of Robbins’ choreography, and there were moments when he seemed more a river of liquid silver than a flesh-and-blood human. Kylee Kitchens brought her own ethereal quality to the ballerina role, floating ghost-like into the “studio.” With her elongated line to match Tisserand’s, Kitchens was the perfect partner for the sensuous interweavings of the central pas de deux and when she floated out of the studio it was easy to understand Tisserand’s longing for her return.
Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite were an equally powerful pair in the balcony scene pas de deux from Jean Christophe Maillot’s stunning Romeo et Juliette. There’s a good reason this full-length ballet has become a PNB audience favorite, and no matter how often Postlewaite performs the role, he brings a freshness to Romeo’s youthful yearning. As he courts Juliette with a series of swooping gestures, Postlewaite takes us up to but never over the edge of Romeo’s adolescent swooning. The perky Nakamura does an equally convincing job in her combination of coyness and exuberance. The genuine affection between the two of them brings an emotional authenticity to the tale of the star-crossed lovers.
Postlewaite brought the same intensity to the famous Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake although the focus here is squarely on the evil, enticing Odile and her dazzling 32 fouettés. Carrie Imler is arguably the most powerful ballerina among PNB’s talented group and she tosses off those whiplike turns with abandon. From the moment she stepped out on stage in her diamond-studded black tutu, Imler commanded our attention and showed yet again why she can be relied on time after time to deliver the goods in whatever role she’s given.
The other classical excerpt on the program was the final act from Ronald Hynd’s Sleeping Beauty and newly appointed principal dancer Lesley Rausch was the clear star here. It has been exciting to watch Rausch’s rise since she joined the corps in 2001 and with this performance, she has clearly “arrived” as an imposing presence, far more than just a lovely technician. Rausch has consistently brought solid dancing to her performances but she now has that special quality, so hard to dissect, that keeps all eyes on her. In the Sleeping Beauty excerpt, her Princess Aurora overshadowed everyone else on stage — quite a feat given the talents of the other dancers, including Lindsi Dec, Sarah Ricard Orza, Seth Orza, Rachel Foster, and Jerome Tisserand, who appeared in the third act variations. Batkhurel Bold as Rausch’s prince was a strong and reliable partner but it was Rausch’s radiant star turn that made the Grand Pas de Deux come alive.
In the company of such blockbuster dances, Balanchine’s Divertimento from “Le Baiser de la Fée” was a major disappointment. Newly acquired by PNB, it doesn’t have a distinct narrative but is nevertheless clearly a love story between a couple whose attempts to connect with each other are continually interrupted by a corps of female dancers as fairies. Balanchine created the work to a score he commissioned from Stravinsky for New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival but he wasn’t completely satisfied with it. He continued to tinker with it and the version we see today is considered the final incarnation.
Although PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal and other former City Ballet dancers have a special fondness for the work, it’s an odd ballet, full of awkward postures and challenging movements, especially for the male soloist. Jonathan Porretta did his best with the peculiar hip positions, leaps, and turns but never fully settled into the unusual style. Kaori Nakamura fared better as Porretta’s love interest but even she struggled a bit.
Based on having recently seen an excerpt of the work performed by City Ballet dancers, I’d say this is a ballet that requires repeated experience to master the tricky technique. Even at that, it’s not a Balanchine masterpiece despite the lovely sections for the female corps which PNB’s dancers managed with grace and charm.
One of the greatest delights of the evening was the music. Under new Music Director Emil de Cou, the PNB Orchestra sounds better than ever. The range of scores on this program is particularly varied and whether playing the delicate Debussy or the grandiose Tchaikovsky, De Cou and the musicians brought an emotional intensity to each piece. In a city that appreciates great music, the PNB audience has taken note, and the orchestra’s performance was given appropriate recognition and applause.
If you go: Pacific Northwest Ballet, “Love Stories,” through November 13 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets $28-168 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online at pnb.org.