Pacific Northwest Ballet tackles long-awaited Mark Morris number

PNB presents a well-received program but is the native Seattle choreographer's contribution what grabs the audience?
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Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers (L-R) Jerome Tisserand, Ryan Cardea, and William Lin-Yee in Mark Morris’s "Kammermusik No. 3."

PNB presents a well-received program but is the native Seattle choreographer's contribution what grabs the audience?

Rarely has a dance work in Seattle been awaited with as much excitement as Mark Morris’ new piece for Pacific Northwest Ballet. Morris, a Seattle native, has created only one other original ballet for PNB and that was more than 30 years ago.

Since then, Morris has garnered a reputation as one of the premier dancemakers in the world. He has created more than 130 works for his own troupe, the Mark Morris Dance Group, and for other companies as well, including American Ballet Theater and San Francisco Ballet. His ballets are in the repertoire of too many dance and opera companies to list and he’s won many prestigious awards, including one as a MacArthur “genius.”

Every Seattle performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group is a sell-out (most recently, at On the Boards) and local dance fans follow Morris’ work with a passion directed at few other choreographers. Anticipation for his new PNB ballet started to build as soon as the company made the announcement last season; it grew as Morris worked with the PNB dancers, behind closed doors, starting this past summer.

It would be a challenge for any ballet to meet these expectations although if anyone could have risen to the occasion, it would have been Morris. His intense musicality, wit, and ability to craft a tight, coherent dance work are legendary and his repertoire is brimming with ballets that delight on many levels. Of course, no choreographer can turn out a masterpiece every time and, as the new Kammermusik No. 3 demonstrates, Morris is no exception.

For all its striking visuals — jewel-toned costumes of pink and purple and a dark pink backdrop that becomes partially obscured by a black curtain — Kammermusik No. 3, set to Paul Hindemith’s cello concerto of the same name, breaks no new ground. On Saturday night, Carrie Imler and James Moore led PNB’s talented troupe through a series of geometric patterns that showcased Morris’ flair for sharp, angular movement. But the three other world premieres on the program, all by PNB dancers, justifiably generated far more enthusiasm. For all its technical proficiency, Kammermusik No. 3 is devoid of emotion, lacking Morris’ hallmark humanity; in the end it’s a series of well-executed steps but without visceral effect. Whether this was Morris’ intent — the desire to create a “pure movement” ballet — or a lack of simpatico between him and the PNB dancers is hard to know; what is clear is that Kammermusik No. 3 is unlikely to be considered a standout in the Morris canon.

Of the three other pieces on the All Premiere program, Kiyon Gaines’ Sum Stravinsky is the most polished but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Gaines’ development as a choreographer. Two of his previous ballets are in the PNB repertoire and he has created works for other companies as well. As Sum Stravinsky amply demonstrates, Gaines has clearly mastered the craft of dance making.

Set to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks concerto, Sum Stravinsky beautifully captures the energy of the music and its difficult rhythms, with dancers moving this way and that in ever changing patterns. The dazzling costumes by Pauline Smith — a range of blues and turquoise — plus elegant blue drapes framing the blue backdrop and luminous lighting by PNB resident designer Rico Chiarelli all add to the visual sumptuousness. Gaines’ lightning-quick steps allow the PNB dancers to look as fleet as ever; Kaori Nakamura and Benjamin Griffiths created a sprightly opening section while in the second “Allegretto” section, Kylee Kitchens showcased her exquisite line with Joshua Grant as her dashing partner. In the expansive third section, Lesley Rausch, whose technique is never in question, and Bathkurel Bold looked more emotionally engaged (and appropriately so) than usual.

Both Margaret Mullin and Andrew Bartee show promise as emerging choreographers. By her own admission, Mullin’s balletic Lost in Light, set to an original score by Dan Coleman, owes a debt to Anthony Tudor. Tudor, one of the giants of 20th century ballet, was noted for his ability to plumb psychological depths and in her program notes Mullins writes that Lost in Light was inspired by the loss of a friend. Although Lost in Light has no distinct narrative, there is a sense of longing in Mullins’ beautiful lifts as four couples appear and disappear in a series of lyrical, sweeping vignettes. All eight dancers looked completely at home in Mullin’s neoclassical style, with Kylee Kitchens and Jerome Tisserand developing into one of PNB’s most appealing partnerships and Laura Gilbreath continuing to gain in authority and technical skill.

Opening the program was Bartee’s arms that work. Bartee dances regularly with Olivier Wevers’ troupe Whim W’Him and Wevers influence is obvious in Bartee’s use of socks (to allow the dancers to slide along the floor more easily), flexible torsos and theatrical flair. The set — a wavy structure from which vertical elastic bands stretch to the floor — provides a dramatic visual image as well as a vehicle for moving in front of, behind and through. In the playful opening pas de deux, James Moore pursued a sometimes-willing, sometimes-petulant Nakamura while Leah O’Connor’s sinuous gyrations mark her as one PNB dancer to watch.

One of the greatest pleasures of this particular production is the chance to see some of PNB’s most exciting young dancers. On Saturday evening, corps members Ryan Cardea, Angelica Generosa, and Leta Biasucci in particular brought sparkle to their ensemble roles while William Lin-Yee looked exceptionally dynamic. The PNB Orchestra did a superb job with the extremely wide range of musical styles on the program, with special kudos to cellist Page Smith for her sensitive solo playing in Kammermusik No. 3.

If you go: All Premiere, through Nov. 11 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets start at $28 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online.


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