The dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet showed themselves at their best in the four contemporary works of Director’s Choice. Though ostensibly the big story was the world premier of Debonair by Justin Peck (at 26, already an “it” choreographer), the real story was the versatility and vitality of the PNB dancers throughout the evening.
Due to injuries, both casting and the program order were shuffled, but if you missed the pre-show announcement, nothing in the performance would have told you anything was amiss. The evening opened with crowd and dancer favorite, David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin. Named for how delicious dancing can sometimes feel, it is a visual feast, full of luxuriant extensions, daring changes of direction, and fiendishly delightful challenges. And sass. Sarah Ricard Orza’s confident strut straight downstage to open the piece was worth the evening right there. The dancers, in light blue, on a stage that is airy and light, looked fabulous and knew it. They let the glee that movement produces show through, and that ebullience was one of the great joys of watching Kisses. Sometimes the indulgent hyperextensions and arched backs can become a bit much, like eating one bonbon too many, but one soon has appetite for more. Surely it is one of the decadent pleasure in life to watch Carrie Imler fly across the stage in a series of leaps, or Margaret Mullin become a whirlwind of a jumping, turning daredevil. If the dancers or audience have any say, Kisses will return often.
After a pause, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s dark, aggressive duet, Before After, followed. Angelica Generosa was filling in for Elizabeth Murphy, and she performed with Murphy’s regular partner, Raphaël Bouchard, rather than her own. The work’s complex partnering made their seamless performance especially commendable. Showing a relationship in the process of ending, Generosa and Bouchard constantly pushed and pulled each other, gripping each other aggressively, not with the delicate fingertip touch of traditional ballet partnering. The movement was insistent: either insistently frenetic, or insistently still, with sharp and sudden transitions back and forth. They started in all black—socks, pants, and shirts—with a little color poking out. Partway through, they removed their black shirts to reveal the colored ones underneath, and reassessed each other. At the end, they stripped to bare torsos (Generosa with a flesh-tone bra), and seeing each other more fully, parted. Bouchard exited as Generosa sank fluidly and softly to crouch in the fetal position. This change of movement quality from anything that had come before was striking, one of the strongest moments in an engaging piece. Then Generosa mustered the will to stand, and walked off with strength in her own direction.
Inspired by Haitian Voodoo culture and the music of Haitian artist Toto Bissainthe, Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement was yet another complete change on this diverse program. Though a story of oppression, resistance, and community was suggested, Duato did not hit the audience over the head with a message, but rather wisely let the power of the dancing speak for itself. Rassemblement shows Duato in full-on Jiří Kylián/Nederlands Dans Theater mode. The barefoot choreography is unballetically weighty, jumps emphasize a heavy landing (not an aerial escape from gravity), torsos are flung, and the dancers’ elbows and wrists crook awkwardly. There is a lot of floor work for a non-modern dance company, and unlike in past years, the PNB dancers ate hungrily into the movement challenges. Several cast members were also in Kisses, and, impressively, they were barely recognizable from their earlier ethereal selves.
The grand finale was Peck’s Debonair. Though the newest work on the program, it was actually the most traditionally balletic of the evening. The curtain opened on a black-draped stage, with black and darkly shimmery-clad dancers moodily posed. Though the setting suggested a gloomy, dramatic piece, the music and cheery, jaunty dancing that followed was much more Western Symphony. The first and third sections featured the full ensemble of twelve dancers in the skillful groupings and re-groupings that Peck is already known for. His use of ballet vocabulary was full of delight and whimsy, a joyful exposition of the strengths of the technique. The second section was a duet for Carla Körbes and Jerome Tisserand. Here, the choreography, strong as it was, almost didn’t matter. Their dancing was breathtaking, and Körbes’ dancing especially made the panegyrics regularly heaped upon her seem inadequate. She changed movement qualities with exquisite ease, gliding through the choreography like it was a constant fresh delight, yet as natural to her as breathing air.
Debonair reminded what a loss is will be when Körbes retires at the end of the season. However, the rest of the evening demonstrated that PNB is full of exciting, versatile dancers who repay every opportunity of being showcased. Director’s Choice is an engaging evening of dancing that promises many more in the years to come.