Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Contemporary 4 Makes it Simple—and Stunning

Written by Steve Ha

Soothing, Cimmerian, vibrant, and prismatic, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s CONTEMPORARY 4 is a quadruple bill that is best described by the simplistic color schemes each piece takes root in.  Absent are conventional flourishes and ornate tutus, as the program favored sleek costumes and streamlined choreography that allowed for the movement to speak for itself, and more importantly breathe on its own.  Conveying the moods and perspectives of four distinct choreographers has rarely been achieved in such crystalline fashion.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Karel Cruz and Carla Körbes in Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, presented as part of CONTEMPORARY 4, March 18 – 27, 2011.  Photo © Angela Sterling

Opening the program was the halcyon Pacific, a dance by Seattle born choreographer Mark Morris.  Beginning on stage was a trio of men, bare-chested and wearing only cascading, crinkled georgette skirts that fade from blue to white, which cleverly hide any movement of the hips, the center from which all gestures of the legs are dictated.  The resulting effect was that whenever the leg was presented (particularly in one motif that had the dancers in a high extension to the side with a downturned head, first exquisitely demonstrated dreamlike in slow motion by Lucien Postlewaite), each movement came as a complete surprise—whereas movements of the upper body were completely exposed on nude torsos.  To see each muscle of the back working to procure a positioning of the arm contrasted greatly with how the origins of the legs were obscured by the free-flowing costumes reminiscent of hakamas (a type of Japanese skirt tied around the waist and worn over a kimono).  The movements were at first frieze-like in specificity, rigid and geometric, and when a quartet of women dressed in green overtook the stage, hints of a more forgiving fluidity became evident.  Punctuating the work was a duet with principal dancers Carla Körbes and Olivier Wevers, shifting in costumes and mood to warmer reds, which was reflected in the luxuriousness of soft, floating arm movements.  Alluding to the transient nature of the ocean, they were the calm before the storm; the finale a poetic tempest where the entire cast of nine dancers precipitated wave-like into harmonious patterns.

Marco Goecke’s Place a Chill, a world premiere piece set to Camille Saint-Saëns’s fiery Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op. 33 (majestically played by cellist Page Smith), was a maddening spell of shadows and starkness.  Accompanying the furious chains of cello melodies were fluttering hands, quick undulations of the spine, and seemingly indiscriminate linear jabs into the air.  It was not a work of technical virtuosity; the dancers often found themselves stationary, while all attention was drawn to their furious but mind bogglingly precise arm motions.  Going beyond merely dancing to the music, the choreography seemed to find its essence in the vibrations of the strings themselves or the air spiraling through woodwinds, the mechanical properties that actually produce sound.  It is not a piece where interest is easily maintained, having relatively few changes in style and dynamics, the only shock (albeit quite the unforeseen one) being a barrage of chairs dropped from the ceiling.  It is something of a tribute to famed cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose recording of the concerto initially inspired Goecke, as well as the story of her decline, having been confined to a wheelchair while suffering from the symptoms of multiple sclerosis before her untimely death.  Invoking frustration and angst like an inaccessible itch, the piece seemed to find its success in a handful of dancers who verged on the brink of sheer lunacy.  When soloist James Moore and corps de ballet member Andrew Bartee twitched with such conviction it was difficult not to succumb to the vision of an infernal and macabre world.
Next came a restaging of Piano Dance, a work by PNB’s very own ballet master, Paul Gibson.  A series of short vignettes to an eclectic assemblage of piano solos from John Cage to Chopin, paired with the resplendence of simple red costumes that revealed the contours of the dancers’ bodies, the color itself emphasized an overall sultry, jazz-like feel.  Each dance represented a single human emotion by virtue of the range and texture of the musical selections, from playful to flirtatious and always sensual.  The choreography manifested in a blend of balletic phrases with one or two curious gestures that set the tone for each piece, such as the saucy Chalnessa Eames quite audibly grabbing the posterior of her partner, Josh Spell, with a most gumptious slap.  The rest of their duet being less straightforward, they engaged in something of a perverse waltz, with Spell at one point attentively perching her in a beautiful arabesque as she coyly smiled at the audience.  In another duet with a much more ominous nature, soloist Lesley Rausch came to life, exuding a mystifying intensity, sinking to the floor in half splits and unfolding her body into expansive lines that filled the stage.  Despite the austerity of her demeanor, Gibson had her in strange inverted lifts, peering through her partner’s legs and drawing chuckles from the crowd, highlighting the way in which comedic moments have a way of appearing even with the most serious of intentions.  In contrast, the reworked finale of Piano Dance is a breath of fresh air, a dazzling array of airy jumps and driven, familiar ballet movements.
The final dance on the program, Concerto DSCH, is a brilliant, multi-faceted gem by one of the most sought after ballet choreographers today, Alexei Ratmansky.  Donning unembellished two-toned costumes combining muted and rich colors, the dancers took to the stage with whimsical aplomb to the introductory notes of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto No.2 in F Major, Op. 102.  The scene gathered momentum when Carrie Imler sparked a fervor with a series of glittering quick-footed pirouettes, her fellow dancers delighting in jubilant (and often witty) steps of their own around her.  Ratmansky successfully finds the depth of Shostakovich’s music, dividing the instrumentation into corresponding choreographic sequences and layering a wealth of narratives into the work, created by recognizable instances of human emotions and relationships between the dancers.  Though there is no overlying story arc, there is industrious playing, romantic nostalgia, great humor, reassurance, and a multitude of other relatable impressions.  The Andante featured a pas de deux with Carla Körbes partnered by Karel Cruz, a sweet interlude where she seemed never to touch the ground, an homage to her innocence and the purity of love between them.  When the dancers gather in a line and walk downstage together, the moment is pedestrian compared to the more rigorous choreography, but created an intimacy that cannot be told in ballet steps.  The third movement revisited the dynamism of the first, weaving in even more thrilling bravura technique in a perfectly seasoned, festive finale.  Nothing is to be overlooked in Ratmansky’s ballet, and Concerto DSCH is one in particular that is sure to reveal a myriad of individual company members’ personalities in different casts.
A viewing of CONTEMPORARY 4 is an opportunity not to be missed: a fine display of ballet in updated forms that are sure to resonate with current audiences (especially if the inaugural performance of its two-week run serves as any indication).  Tickets can be purchased through Pacific Northwest Ballet’s website (www.pnb.org) or by calling the box office at 206.441.2424.  Further information about the company, its dancers, as well as casting details are also available on the website.