PNB Displays its Crown Jewels

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Pacific Northwest Ballet is by all accounts a versatile company: they are capable of tackling a broad range of contemporary work as well as the most virtuosic of the classics. But there’s just something right about watching them perform Balanchine–it’s in their blood. The dancers have been steeped in the style, first passed down from founding Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell (who worked directly with Balanchine) and carried on through current Artistic Director Peter Boal, who held a long tenure at New York City Ballet. PNB’s dancers look at home performing Balanchine. That’s not to say it’s easy–far from it–but they rise to the challenge with gusto. With this comfort comes room for play which produces thrilling moments of both daring and beauty. The company exhibited all of this in their presentation of George Balanchine’s Jewels (1967) on opening night of the season this Friday, September 26.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists William Lin-Yee and Elizabeth Murphy with company dancers in Emeralds Photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists William Lin-Yee and Elizabeth Murphy with company dancers in Emeralds
Photo by Angela Sterling

Balanchine’s ballets stand as pillars in the repertory of companies around the world; they have been widely performed and regularly lauded since Balanchine’s death over thirty years ago. This near deification of Balanchine has been criticized for trapping the ballet world in amber, leaving little room for new choreographers to emerge or new forms to evolve. Though this argument is not without merit, there’s a perfectly good reason for the glorification–the man was a genius. In Jewels, a non-narrative ballet in three acts, not only does he show us three completely different styles of ballet–French Romantic, jazzy neoclassical (a style he essentially invented), and Imperial Russian–but he paints three different eras of history. Furthermore, each ballet presents a different version of romance and love. While Jewels is often broken apart and performed individually, when viewed as a whole, these representations are even more apparent, and their impact is that much greater.

 

Emeralds, the first and most sedate of the three gems, is Balanchine’s depiction of French Romanticism; it drenches the viewer in nostalgia for an era of pastoral elegance and demure chivalry. Long green tutus waft with every waltz and leap, and the sweeping melodies of Gabriel Fauré lull the viewer into a dreamy haze. Both lead couples, (Elizabeth Murphy with William Lin-Yee and Lindsi Dec with Charles McCall) performed with sensitive tenderness, but Dec’s lanky grace seemed most befitting of this rarefied world. The lively trio (Kyle Davis, Amanda Clark, and Margaret Mullin) delivered brisk, sparkling interludes. In Emeralds, the romance is tender and filled with yearning. The men trail the women throughout, then suddenly finish alone onstage, arms outstretched as if searching for their lost loves.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Leta Biasucci and principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Rubies Photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Leta Biasucci and principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Rubies
Photo by Angela Sterling

Rubies proved to be evening’s true crowd-pleaser. Filled with flirtatious energy, it evokes the 1920s jazz era: snappy syncopations bring out every nuance of Stravinsky’s music, sky-high kicks hark to sassy showgirls, and deep plies and thrusting hips give it a charged sexuality. Newly promoted soloist Leta Biasucci created the most lasting impression. Vivacious and arresting, she positively sizzled in the leading duet with principal Jonathan Porretta; their spot-on musicality brought extra zip to the choreography. What makes Biasucci so interesting to watch is her ability to instantly shift her physicality between emotions. She’s playful and flirty one moment, then indulgent and seductive the next. With Rubies, the romance is all about the tease. There’s no doubt that the women are in control: they flirt and preen, and the men prance like ponies (quite literally) after them. It’s rollicking fun with a distinct “Look, but don’t touch” element to it: when Biasucci and Poretta lazily entwine their arms she allows only one fingertip to coyly touch his palm, and smiles knowingly at the audience. The same holds true for the work’s female soloist, Laura Tisserand, who gave a commanding performance on Friday–a feminine ringmaster of sorts. Her dominance reached a peak when the four corps men partnered her, one to each limb. She seemed to rotate on a pedestal, splayed into various poses, admired and revered from every glinting angle.

 

Diamonds topped off the evening with a sparkling flourish. The piece conjures Imperial Russia, with Tchaikovsky’s score providing proper grandeur and the courtly processions rooted in a lively Polonaise. The central pas de deux, danced by the inimitable Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold on opening night, was near perfection. Slow and challenging, the duet can easily appear arduous, but Körbes made each movement a revelation. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that she will retire from PNB at the end of this season, or that she was injured for so much of last season, but watching her onstage feels a bit like holding a precious treasure. She radiates elegance and expresses a depth of emotionality, not to mention her complete technical mastery. In short, she’s a true ballerina. Here, she and Bold portrayed a delicate relationship. They first approached each other with simple stately walks, meeting in the center of the stage where she gently accepts his hand. Their affection felt more egalitarian than the pairings of the previous ballets. The male neither swooned nor chased, and while the woman was still the revered object of beauty, she was partnered with respect and admiration.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold in Diamonds Photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold in Diamonds
Photo by Angela Sterling

Diamonds also showcased the vitality of the company as a whole. For the finale, the entire corps filled the stage, each rank and file moving in exact synchronicity; their sparkling precision was like watching light scatter and refract through the facets of a gem. Opening night jitters were minimal, and there was nary a bobble or unbalanced moment within the ranks.

 

Jewels may lack a narrative, but it is still packed with emotion and telling relational dynamics. While somewhat anachronistic in its exclusive heteronormativity, the ballet still feels relevant today, giving us a balletic perspective on relationships of the past, or at least how Balanchine viewed them. Jewels also reinforces the extensive versatility of ballet as an art form. Not only is it capable of depicting a broad range of tones and emotions, but Balanchine used many of same steps in each piece to produce these extremely different effects. A gleaming spectacle, like the jewels themselves, the ballet provides beauty for beauty’s sake. And from the way PNB performed on opening night, there’s much more beauty and memorable performances to look forward to in the coming season.

 

Jewels runs through October 5. More information can be found at pnb.org.

One comment

  1. This was a great way for the company to open their season, and for Boal to show off some of the younger members of the company (38 debuts over the two week run) I just wanted to add that, while you can’t really overestimate the influence of Russell and Stowell on the development of the organization, the Balanchine influence was a part of the equation even before they arrived. Back when it was still called Pacific Northwest Dance, PNB’s first ballet mistress was Janet Reed, who was a member of several companies led by Balanchine. She was followed by Melissa Hayden, who spent the majority of her long and vivid performing career with New York City Ballet. So that influence is ingrained even deeper than we might first think.

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