As a dance critic on deadline for my reviews, I almost never see more than one performance of any production. That’s just fine with me since unless there are major cast changes, few productions merit a second look right after the first one.
The current PNB program, however, is that rare exception. Having been wowed by both the choreography and the dancing at Friday’s
opening night performance, I could easily have gone back again later in the weekend. Two of the three works were so choreographically complex and technically challenging that they really deserve more than one viewing to fully appreciate all their nuances. The program runs through March 24.
The program opened with David Dawson’s whirlwind “A Million Kisses to My Skin” which Dawson created in 2000 in a farewell to his performing career. Dawson was just 27 at the time and “A Million Kisses” was his first full-blown ballet, a combination of facts that almost defies belief given its sophistication in structure, musicality and intricacy. Dawson has said he wanted to accomplish two things with the work — to pay tribute to what he had learned as a classical ballet dancer and to capture the joy of dancing that drives every professional performer. He easily succeeds on both counts.
“A Million Kisses” unfolds at such speed it’s impossible to keep up with all the balletic elements that Dawson throws at us. It seems as though he uses every turn in the book from ballet greats George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, and Marius Petipa. There are tip-toe, twirling chaînés, pirouettes and piqués galore and just as many leaps, from Balanchine’s signature split-leg leaps to classical grand jetés. Despite its many classical components, this is a distinctly contemporary ballet. Arms, legs, and torsos are hyperextended, bodies fling themselves into the air, and every step is delivered with urgency.
Despite the dancers’ pale blue and white leotards, this is a red-hot ballet and the nine PNB dancers, all of them principals or soloists, breathed fire on opening night. From Carla Körbes’ flowing arabesques to Lucien Postlewaite’s dynamic leaps, every one of the performers brought his or her own style and personality to the movement. At the same time, the ensemble — rounded out by Sara Ricard Orza, Lindsi Dec, Laura Gilbreath, Maria Chapman, Lesley Rausch, Seth Orza, and Jonathan Poretta — held together beautifully in the large group sections. Sometimes Dawson had them dancing in unison, sometimes passing a swoop or swirl from one to another but regardless of what technical challenge he presented in “A Million Kisses,” the troupe carried it off with aplomb.
Watching “A Million Kisses,” set to Bach’s “Concerto No. 1 in D Minor” and played elegantly by conductor/pianist Allan Dameron, it’s obvious Dawson has a profound understanding of music. As the score changes from allegro to adagio and back to allegro again, both the steps and the emotional tenor of the choreography change as well. PNB’s dancers luxuriate in Dawson’s breakneck, expansive style and on opening night looked like they were having the time of their lives. It was clear the audience shared their enthusiasm; even before the final curtain hit the floor, there was an outburst of applause.
Victor Quijada’s “Mating Theory” was equally successful though it is completely different in mood and style from the Dawson ballet. Raised in the street dancing culture of Los Angeles, Quijada studied ballet and other dance forms before becoming a member of companies headed by Twyla Tharp and Eliot Feld. In 2002, he founded RUBBERBANDance in Montreal and in the ensuing years has created a highly original hybrid style based on his experience as a ballet dancer by day and a B-boy by night. “Mating Theory” was commissioned by PNB for the New Works program; it was an inspired choice by PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal to showcase not only one of the most exciting choreographers working today but also the extraordinary versatility of the PNB dancers.
“Mating Theory” begins with two groups of five dancers each — one all female, the other all male — staring each other down in a Jets-Sharks-like face-off. The groups start to circle each other warily, undulating this way and that, sniffing each other out like animals do. The eerily lit stage and rumbling sampled score by Jasper Gahunia add to a sense of foreboding and we have the feeling that a confrontation could break out at any moment. For the remainder of the ballet Quijada skillfully weaves the dancers in and out of each other in ever changing patterns and combinations. At one point, four of the males encircle one female while four females perform a dance of seduction with the other male. Tension builds as the two groups continue their gyrations but Quijada surprises us by having both groups dissolve into the wings without the sexual violence we were expecting.
In a strikingly beautiful pas de deux, a male and female (Lucien Postlewaite and Rachel Foster) twist around each other, getting as close as is humanly possible with ever actually touching. Postlewaite reaches out an arm to Foster but she is just a hair too far away; Foster curls her body around Postlewaite almost but not quite brushing up against him. This is a mating dance that is clearly not going to have a happy ending but in the shadowy world that Quijada creates in “Mating Theory” the chase is interesting in its own right.
The ten PNB company members — besides Postlewaite and Foster they included Andrew Bartee, Lindsi Dec, Eric Hippolito Jr., Carrie Imler, Margaret Mullin, Leah O’Connor, Price Suddarth, and Ezra Thomson — looked completely comfortable in Quijada’s sinewy style, proving once again that PNB’s dancers can move seamlessly and confidently among radically different dance styles.
Rounding out the program was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Cylindrical Shadows.” The work was co-commissioned by PNB and Olivier Wevers’ Whim W’Him, which premiered it in a slightly different version last year. Unfortunately, the work didn’t grab me any more this time around despite an elegant pas de deux for Kaori Nakamura and Postlewaite. Theirs is a special partnership and PNB’s strongest paring; whenever they dance together there is an emotional connection that transcends the movement. Nakamura and Postlewaite are perfectly suited physically — he is just the right height when the petite Nakamura goes up on full pointe — and bring out the best in each other. The firecracker Nakamura is always a little more lyrical when she dances with Postlewaite and he is at his athletic best with her. Together, they infuse whatever ballet they’re performing with affection, and in “Cylindrical Shadows,” make us believe instantly that they are a young couple deeply in love.
As for the rest of “Cylindrical Shadows,” Lopez Ochoa’s flowing style is easy on the eyes and the projected tree-forms on the backdrop adds a lovely visual touch but in the end the work doesn’t break any new ground. When sandwiched between the dazzling “A Million Kisses” and “Mating Theory,” it is like a light summer breeze, warning of a big storm to come or providing a gentle breather afterwards.
NOTE: On Friday night, New York’s Joyce Theater Foundation announced that PNB has received the second Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance. The $25,000 grant will enable PNB to commission a new ballet that will premiere at the Joyce during its 2013-14 season. In addition, Artistic Director Peter Boal will be honored at the Joyce Theater’s gala on April 4.
If you go: Pacific Northwest Ballet New Works, through March 24 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets, $28-168, are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online at pnb.org.