That is how I felt after every piece of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s aptly-named program, The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe. The brilliance of the dancers and the delightful intricacies of William Forsythe’s choreography deserve to be seen again and again.
The program featured two PNB premieres—The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and New Suite—and one longtime audience favorite—In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The three works showcased the range of Forsythe’s style, as well as the skill of the PNB dancers. Though Forsythe is American, he grew to choreographic fame in Europe, and this was the first time a company in the US had presented an entire evening of his work. Given his talent and ground-breaking influence, this was a momentous occasion indeed.
Vertiginous opened the evening, a dazzling rush of a piece for two men and three women to the last movement of Schubert’s 9th Symphony. In the pre-show lecture, Doug Fullington (PNB’s Education Programs Manager and Assistant to the Artistic Director) described it as “like packing 30 minutes of steps into 10.” Even more impressive than the speed at which the dancers moved was the detail and nuance in their dancing. Like a kaleidoscope, the work seamlessly morphed from solo to duet to ensemble in every possible combination. Though unquestioningly a modern work of ballet (it premiered in 1996), it was also the most traditional of the evening, displaying Forsythe’s love for and interest in the traditions and heritage of ballet. This especially came through in his use of épaulement (classical ballet’s contrapposto-like opposition and counterbalancing of head, torso, and legs). So many moments stood out that it seems unfair to list just a few, but a few included: échappés with more verve and amplitude than I have ever seen; Leta Biasucci’s fleet footwork that she made look like a delightful game; Carrie Imler starting a solo with huge powerful leaps and ending it with soft, languorous turns and balances. And most of all, watching all five dancers (including Margaret Mullin, Benjamin Griffiths, and Jonathan Porretta) revel in dancing this incredibly difficult, but also incredibly delicious movement.
New Suite is a compilation of duets from various ballets, that has been performed in a variety of incarnations. PNB’s incarnation has nine duets, most just a couple minutes long, each just perfectly too-short. The music ranges from the 18th century to the 20th; there are four duets to music by Handel, one by Bach, one by Gavin Bryars, and three by Luciano Berio. Amazingly, this was the first time New Suite had been performed to live music. Each duet was its own world, quickly sketching a theme, whether a romantic relationship, or friends at play, or explorers into mystery, or courtly counterpoint. In Berio 2, Chelsea Adomaitis and Steven Loch had an intensely intimate yet abstract exploration of interlocking circling gestures that provoked sighs of both contentment and longing from the audience when it ended. Though the duets in New Suite were not originally choreographed to go together, and each could stand on its own, they created a remarkably satisfying and surprisingly cohesive whole.
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is an audience favorite for good reason. Performed on a stage stripped of wings and backdrop, to a driving electronic score by Thom Willems, its high kicks, thrust hips, and displays of virtuosity go down very nicely. Dancers stand casually, walk in pedestrian fashion to get from one side of the stage to another (seemingly ignoring any dancing going on at the moment), observe each other with a combination of skepticism or competition, and then they suddenly morph into spotlight-stealing dance superbeings. Yet, often as not, when someone was dancing in the spotlight, someone else, or even a whole ensemble, was dancing away on the unlit sides of the stage, barely visible unless you looked for them. Classical formations were deployed unclassically—on an out-of-the-way part of the stage, or completely different ones at the same time. Such details take Middle from eye candy to a fascinating, multi-focal exploration of ballet and performativity.
Some modern ballets look like the choreographer finds the rules of ballet to be annoying restrictions to be thrown aside and broken at every opportunity. Part of what makes Forsythe’s choreography so important for ballet is that he regards these same rules as invitations for exploration and invention. Just as a good ragout is more delicious for all the time it has spent simmering, Forsythe uses the centuries of ballet heritage to create depth of flavor in his decidedly contemporary choreography.
Fittingly then, this evening was three years in the making. That’s how long ago Peter Boal began talking to Forsythe about putting together the program. The level of thought and planning was readily visible not only in what happened on stage, but also in the richness of activities surrounding the stage. For the public, there have been photos, videos, interviews, in-studio events, an on-stage lecture demonstration (even live-streamed online for anyone who couldn’t attend the event) and more. For the dancers, there has been not only the insight of several of Forsythe’s experienced and talented stagers, but two weeks in the studio with Forsythe himself. He is by all accounts a remarkably generous and delightful person to work with, and the PNB dancers were reported to be over the moon to be working with him. This all came on top of a repertory chosen to highlight the talents of the PNB dancers and give them the support of live music from the wonderful PNB Orchestra.
That PNB did not skate by on the wow factor of the first US all-Forsythe program alone, and instead dedicated the time and money to doing this right, is incredibly heartening. Not only did the company’s efforts result in a thrilling evening of dancing, they speak to an institutional ethos that promises many more such evenings.
Tickets and more information about PNB can be found on their website.