New Works Brings New Challenges and New Triumphs at PNB

Written by Mariko Nagashima
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Lindsi Dec (front)
 and principal dancer Lesley Rausch in David Dawson’s
 A Million Kisses to my Skin.
Photo © Angela Sterling
 
Pacific Northwest Ballet opened their New Works program this Friday, March 16, 2012, with two works making their PNB premiere and one work making its world premiere. The evening began with the exciting announcement that PNB is the second recipient of the Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance from the Joyce Theater Foundation. A wonderful endorsement of Artistic Director Peter Boal’s mission of expanding PNB’s repertoire, the award provides a grant for PNB to commission a new work (the announced choreographer will be Alejandro Cerrudo of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago) to be performed in the intimate setting of the Joyce Theater in New York. If there was any doubt as to why PNB was selected as the recipient, the evening’s program of fresh and daring works dispelled them; the three pieces on display are prime examples of how Boal continues to push the company to new heights, usually successfully.
First on the bill was British choreographer David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin. Crisp, clear, and bursting with an effervescent energy, Kisses takes classic ballet and raises it exponentially. Choreographed as a depiction of the pure bliss sensation artists sometimes experience through their work; the dancers channel this ecstatic revelry throughout. The rigorous combination of steps demands the utmost clarity of technique and line which PNB’s dancers deliver with finesse. Such precision was all the more visible in the women’s simple leotards and the men’s sleek pants and shirts, all in various shades of cool blue. Dawson’s choreography amplifies every step; backbends dip dangerously low, legs extend to the splits and beyond, and arms stretch impossibly far from the torso. This extreme stretching of classical technique seems to liberate the dancers, heightening their exuberance. Each expansion of their arms creates a feeling of porosity, as if carbonation was bubbling from their skin, their heads tilt backward in delight. Divided into three sections mirroring the music (Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor), A Million Kisses is a constant cascade of rapid fire turns, bravura leaps, overextended poses, and daring partnering. Though the entire cast is remarkable, a stacked deck of PNB’s principals, Maria Chapman and Jonathon Poretta are particular standouts for their dazzling precision and charismatic flair, respectively.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s work Cylindrical Shadows creates an entirely different atmosphere: somber and reflective, tinged with haunting beauty. The seed for the work came from Ochoa hearing the news of the sudden death of a dear friend and talented dancer. The work centers on this idea of instantaneous loss, and themes of both disruption and continuity emerge throughout the work. Clad in a rainbow of solid colors, the dancers move through smooth gestures punctuated by sudden spasms, the fashioning of a human chain-link fence with limbs encircling bodies, brief moments of connection that wilt intangibly away, and a loose repetitive swinging of the arms evoking the ticking of a clock. Originally set on Whim W’Him (former PNB principal Olivier Wever’s company) last fall, the piece has since been expanded in length and number of dancers. The synchronous and gestural opening segues into rippling duos and trios. Kylee Kitchens’ contemplative detachment strikes the perfect chord in a trio with Andrew Bartee and Jerome Tisserand; she twists elegantly in the air but remains distant, as if it’s all happening with her slightly unawares. Lucien Postelwaite and Kaori Nakamura are stunning in a heart-wrenching duet, yearning for connection and mourning for its loss. In a gorgeous lift Postlewaite swoops up Nakamura in the crook of his elbows, lifting her angular frame while his hands reach beyond her. Michael Mazzola’s exquisite lighting adds to the atmosphere: outlines of a barren forest are projected across the back scrim and the dancers’ shadows play through the trees. The soaring aria from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas infuses the last section with melancholy and a quiet sense of inevitability. The final ensemble is both questioning and offering; they run off in a flurry, joined by Nakamura, leaving Postlewaite lying prone on the ground.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Rachel Foster (center)
 and company dancers in Victor Quijada’s 
Mating Theory.
Photo © Angela Sterling
 
The final work of the evening was Mating Theory, by Victor Quijada of RUBBERBANDance Group in Montreal. Though it’s safe to say that Quijada’s movement style isn’t entirely hip-hop, it’s just as clearly not ballet or modern, which is where the difficulty lies for PNB’s dancers. A distinctive fusion of genres, the choreography calls for a deeply grounded and slightly aggressive sensibility. The requisite hunched posture looks rather unnatural on such trained ballet dancers; they seem to tense instead of loosen to achieve this aesthetic, creating a disconcerting stiffness through the neck. The intense control of the body such choreography demands utilizes the dancers’ ballet training, but they largely lack the organic, earthy feeling necessary for this specific aesthetic. There were, however, many exquisite moments, none the less. The men are more adept at the transition than the women, however, and one section where all five men execute a passage of break dance moves, easily skimming the floor, is particularly mesmerizing. The punctuated, hiccupping movement is filled with sudden flexed arabesques, inverted pirouettes ending in stalls on the floor, and abrupt direction changes with kicking and extended legs. As eclectic as the movement, Jasper Gahunia’s music mixes classical with turntable scratches and pulsing electronic beats. This textured soundscape gives the work a driving intensity but also tends toward the overdramatic. Striking and confrontational, the work unfolds in a battle of the sexes (a kind of modern mating ritual) between the ensemble of five men and five women. There’s posturing within each group as well, but Rachel Foster and Postlewaite emerge as the leaders of their respective clans. They perform a tentative courtship; she stutters at every contact and they undulate as if trapped in a force field. Another highlight is a trio between corps members Margaret Mullin, Ezra Thomson, and Price Suddarth. Their constant flow of energy, impulses, and weight sharing requires complete trust in each other.
As a whole, however, the New Works program was diverse and demanding, clearly stretching the company’s range as both artists and athletes. PNB’s New Works runs through Saturday, March 23, 2012. For more information and to purchase tickets see: www.pnb.org