PNB Showcases Ever-Evolving Field of Contemporary Ballet

American choreographer Alvin Ailey is often quoted stating that his dancers needed a “ballet bottom” and a “modern top,” and this idea accurately applies to the entire field of contemporary ballet. The second offering in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2013-2014 season featured a program of four such contemporary ballets by two internationally renowned choreographers. Kylian + Pite presented works spanning both hemispheres and three decades. Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort (1991), Sechs Tänze (1986), and Forgotten Land (1981) come from his tenure as artistic director of Nederlands Dance Theater, which was an important time period in the continually evolving definition of contemporary ballet. At the recent end of the spectrum stands Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s Emergence (2009), originally performed by the National Ballet of Canada.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carrie Imler, with corps de ballet dancers William Lin-Yee and Andrew Bartee in Jiri Kylian’s Sechs Tänze.
Photo © Angela Sterling

Although a small slice of the extent of contemporary works, these ballets provided the audience with a wide swath of aesthetic within the field. Both Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze had a humorous, playful quality, using props in a stark black box setting. Forgotten Lands, easily the most classical of the works, displayed a lyrical quality. Emergence depicted an almost alien-like sensibility in rippling lines that articulated from shoulder blades, elbows, hips, and knees—it was also the only piece to use pointe shoes.

Showcasing six couples, Petite Mort began in soft shadows and sidelight. While the women waited in the darkened upstage, the men danced with foils as partners, their swords balancing underfoot, slicing through the air, and delicately arching around their flesh. In silence, the swish of the swords and the breathing of the dancers became the musical score. While opening night nerves seemed to break the men’s unison, each dancer pulled visual focus individually as soloists within the group. After the foils were exchanged for female partners, each couple performed brief pas de deux. Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand, in particular, excelled in effortless fluidity, natural and organic in quality. Fashion itself becoming a set piece when the women danced with large black dresses on wheels. Kylian’s theatrical styling invited humor as the women caressed and peeled back their lifeless dress-shaped shells to expose long limbs. Instinctive partnering between Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz, both well grounded despite their lengthy frames, showcased the sensuality of Kylian’s work where the very structure of the space shaped by the human body was enough to create meaning.

Sechs Tänze opened to a bare, black space, exposing the naked framework of lights above the stage. Dressed in white undergarments and powdered wigs reminiscent of composer Mozart’s time period, the dancers peered hesitantly through the fourth wall into the theater’s darkness. With surgical musicality, Kylian’s choreography was playfully naughty within a classical vocabulary. Although the dancers were more fully clothed than in the flesh-colored corsets of Petite Mort, this work seemed more emotionally naked, more human through its burlesque-like physical comedy and slapstick hilarity (including reappearances of both the foils and dresses from Petite Mort). While Petite Mort emphasized the men, Sechs Tänze allowed the women more life and freedom—in Sechs Tänze only the men donned the dress shells. A highlight was the trio of Carrie Imler, Andrew Bartee, and William Lin-Yee, who were completely invested in the movement as they danced on the edge of hysteria with precision in both energy and technique.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kylee Kitchens and corps de ballet dancer William Lin-Yee in Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land
Photo © Angela Sterling

In contrast to Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, Kylian’s Forgotten Land maintained a serious tone throughout. Forgotten Land recalled Kylian’s Svadebka, his version of Nijinska’s Les Noces, in its use of wide, deep pliés, traveling bourrées, lyricism, and partnering vocabulary. The ensemble began facing upstage, peering into the distance implied by the impressionistic colors of the backdrop. Sweeping, grounded bourrées, propelled by hip initiation, trailed extended arms. Throughout this first section, Kylian’s choreography maintained cohesion without unity, initiation and intent weaving the singular thread through the dancers. Benjamin Britten’s atmospheric music underscored a barren and dreamlike landscape, and Kylian’s musicality as a choreographer complemented Britten’s composition. Three couples dressed in black, in red, and in white evoked Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels. In a pas de deux, Bartee stood out due to an abundance of graceful fluidity, while Imler and Kiyon Gaines harmonized in their eloquent duet. The final trio of Imler, Chelsea Adomaitis, and Kylee Kitchens displayed the mesmerizing power of these strong women resigned and submitting to fate, a powerful finish to this understated dramatic work.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Andrew Bartee in Crystal Pite’s Emergence
Photo © Angela Sterling

In a program note for the final piece, Pite explains her journey in creating Emergence as she searched for a comparison in nature to the hierarchical structure of a ballet company. She chose a beehive. Against a large set piece—swirling black arcs that conjure a hive—masked dancers issued from a tunnel filled with brilliant light, the hive humming with menacing action. Pite’s sharp, angular choreography reproduced the alien attributes of insect activity with gestural ticks and robotic, combative intensity. While the details within Emergence exhibited Pite’s skill, the scale of the work downplayed the strengths of the 38 dancers onstage—they appeared miniscule against the vastness of the set. Bartee once again displayed his tremendous talent in a sacrificial solo, seeming at times utterly boneless, dancing to activate a visceral response in the audience. Rachel Foster also dominated effortlessly, exuding elegant confidence through her articulate limbs. Pite’s use of sheer numbers onstage was most effective in a dramatic repetition of sous-sus and mechanical arm movement, compelling in its simplicity.

Both Kylian and Pite have been artistic directors of well-respected contemporary dance companies (NDT and Kidd Pivot, respectively). In bringing these works to PNB, artistic director Peter Boal holds his dancers to the same level and quality of contemporary movement as these companies possess. Here, many of the dancers lacked the grounded energetic requirements of modern and contemporary dance as well as the necessary fluidity in the upper spine—both qualities antithetical to classical ballet. While the dancers’ beautifully pointed feet and leg extensions were on full display, such contemporary movement also requires dancing with weight into the floor and liquidity through the torso—Ailey’s “modern top.” Nevertheless, PNB’s performance of these works provides exposure of non-classical ballet to Seattle audiences and presented dancers with the challenge of stylistic versatility. The expansion of PNB’s repertoire continues to push the limitations of these classically trained dancers, allowing audiences to view different facets of the ever-expanding world of contemporary ballet.

Kylian + Pite continues at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center through November 17, 2013. For tickets and further information, see pnb.org, or call (206) 441-2424.

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