Choreographer George Balanchine once said that “Dance is music made visible.” In an effort to illustrate this sentiment, Pacific Northwest Ballet opened their season this Friday (September 25, 2015) with a triple bill entitled See The Music. The three featured works could hardly have been more diverse: Christopher Wheeldon’s pulsing Tide Harmonic, Balanchine’s Expressionist and historic Prodigal Son, and Jerome Robbins’ down-right hilarious The Concert.
Tide Harmonic both begins and finishes in striking silhouettes (lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli working his magic yet again,) but the music takes off right away, like a wave already crashing. Under-the-sea imagery abounds with sideswept off-kilter poses, swooping lifts, and spines that unfurl like rippling seaweed. The musical score by Joby Talbot is percussive and powerful, sometimes excessively so. At times you could almost see it overtaking the dancers, and they raced to catch up. The ballet is chic and contemporary and has the sleek marine-colored leotards to match, but it provides little emotional structure for the dancers to latch onto. They perform the physical feats with gusto and aplomb, but a greater connection to each other, or to the piece, is missing. A few brief exceptions were two different duets. In one, Maria Chapman and Joshua Grant (the newly-promoted soloist), provided a moment of calm with slinky lifts that hinted at connection, and in another William Lin-Yee and Benjamin Griffiths flitted brightly like a pair of silver fish cavorting across the stage.
Prodigal Son, with its Biblical narrative, provided almost the exact opposite of the abstract Tide Harmonic. Tide feels like a very now ballet, while Prodigal is a decidedly then ballet—it premiered in 1929. The final product of Balanchine’s work with Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, the piece unites the scenic paintings of Georges Rouault that plunge the audience into a peaceful seaside setting, a dramatic score by Sergei Prokofiev, and a libretto by Boris Kochno. The libretto tells the tale of an impetuous youth who leaves his family home only to be bewitched and robbed by an alluring Siren and her band of revelers. He returns home broken and in rags, where his father takes him in and forgives him. Balanchine uses a little bit of everything to relate the drama through movement: bold expressive gestures by the Prodigal, circus-like antics by the skull-capped revelers, and a decidedly sensual solo by the leggy Siren involving a blood-red cape she entwines around herself like a pet boa. James Moore made a fine Prodigal on opening night, blazing through the first scene like lightning—perfectly capturing the impatience and urgency of youth with each explosive jump. As the Siren, Laura Tisserand gave a commanding and haughty performance. Their duet is both erotic and awkward: Tisserand towers over Moore when en pointe and, like a snake-charmer, she entices him and won’t be refused. The piece tested their dramatic capacities, and both rose to challenge. Though it depicts a moral tale we can still relate to today, Prodigal feels like a piece of history. It seems to reveal more about the era and context in which it was made—ie. Balanchine’s early influences, and the integrated style of the Ballet Russes’ productions—than it does about our world today.
The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody) was the true crowd-pleaser of the evening. A spoof on a classical musical concert, the ballet caricatures the concert attendees and takes the audience on a witty romp through their fanciful follies. The cast includes a grumpy guy, a timid guy, some chatty ladies, a philandering cigar-smoking husband and his exasperated wife, and the ditzy girl with the flouncy hat that he goes after. Each character is instantly recognizable, everyone is “that guy” with something vividly particular about him or her. And of course there’s the pianist (Allan Dameron, PNB’s talented company pianist, in this case) who beautifully plays the Chopin selections the characters listen to so intently. Laughter abounds: a fluffy Lorax-like hat makes an appearance, as does an entire flock of butterflies, and a fine example of herd mentality that has everyone put up their umbrella even though it may or may not be raining. In another section, Robbins perfectly parodies a ballet and a ballerina that can’t quite fall in line. The musical timing of each joke is crucial, and the dancers displayed great sensitivity in carrying it off so well. Of the three pieces on the bill, The Concert lived up to Balanchine’s sentiment the most: Robbins’ spot-on comedic timing with the music shows these familiar Chopin pieces in a new light.
See the Music offered a little something for everyone, and in that way serves as an apt opener for PNB’s season. This season’s programming is diverse, designed to showcase the range not only of PNB’s dancers, but of their orchestra and production team as well. If this is any indication, there’s much to look forward to.
See the Music runs this weekend, October 1-4, at McCaw Hall. More information and tickets are available on their website.