PNB Shows Its Contemporary Chops

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With Director’s Choice, Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal programmed a triple bill of works ranging from neoclassical to contemporary ballet. While these selections are not out of the ordinary for Washington State’s premiere classical ballet company, the calibre of dancing at this program exceeded expectation. Choreographers Justin Peck, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Paul Gibson know their craft; this was evident in the musicality, patterns, vocabulary, and story (this last especially lovely to see in thematic, non-narrative ballets) in each of their works. These pieces, alongside excellent lighting design (Brandon Stirling Baker, Michael Korsch, and Lisa Pinkham, respectively) and the rich sounds of the PNB orchestra, make for a show worth seeing.

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Angelica Generosa with company dancers in Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit, which PNB is presenting as part of DIRECTOR’S CHOICE, March 18 – 27, 2016. Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Angelica Generosa with company dancers in Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit
Photo by Angela Sterling

Peck’s The Year of the Rabbit (Selections from the Chinese Zodiac) arrived at PNB preceded by great fanfare in the ballet world. Peck, currently a soloist with and the resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet, created the seed for Rabbit at the New York Choreographic Institute in 2010, and developed the work into its final incarnation premiering in 2012. Coming from NYCB, Rabbit’s Balanchinean quotations are unsurprising, yet they show up merely as jumping off points rather than extraction. Peck’s architectural designs for the corps de ballet undulated with mechanical exactitude—an organic, relentless machine. While Angelica Generosa’s rabbit-fast footwork and petit allégro were nice, her stage personality in this piece felt oddly overdone for a dancer who often generates an unrehearsed, natural persona. In the long pas de deux toward the end, Noelani Pantastico and Benjamin Griffiths beautifully ebbed and flowed; though lovely in execution, when combined with the low lighting, the section had a general impression of being pretty without having any lasting substance. No matter how capably danced, Rabbit felt unfinished structurally; perhaps due to its placement as the show closer, it didn’t quite reach the same climatic heights as the program’s other works.

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Price Suddarth in Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump, which PNB is presenting as part of DIRECTOR’S CHOICE, March 18 – 27, 2016. Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Price Suddarth
in Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump
Photo by Angela Sterling

The most contemporary work of the evening, Little Mortal Jump, featured choreography by Cerrudo, yet another young darling of the dance world, albeit the more contemporary side. Cerrudo currently performs with and is the resident choreographer for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Jump is a series of vignettes utilizing clever stagecraft to shift the feeling of each section. Large black boxes hemmed in or unveiled the space, revealing and encapsulating dancers, and in one surprising moment, sticking a couple with velcro mid-jump. The title underscores Jump’s humor—playful, yet with dark undertones. The monochromatic palette and vintage-style costuming gave the work a neo-retro vibe, complementing the vaudevillian qualities (both “soft shoe” and Chaplinesque.) Cerrudo’s piece covered all the tropes of contemporary dance without ever feeling cliché—instead it felt fresh as if he was the inventor. The best danced section was with James Moore and Leah Merchant rippling their spines fluidly, subtly self-aware and gently comedic.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy with corps de ballet dancer Dylan Wald in Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump, which PNB is presenting as part of DIRECTOR’S CHOICE, March 18 – 27, 2016. Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy with corps de ballet dancer
Dylan Wald in Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump
Photo by Angela Sterling

The highlight of the entire evening began the program: Gibson’s 2002 ballet, Rush. Gibson is currently one of PNB’s ballet masters and a former dancer with the company. As someone who works with the company daily, Gibson has the upper hand in both casting and rehearsing his own work—and it shows. Never mind the clean corps work with precise formations and timing, the dancers seemed effortlessly at home within the choreography. A subtle indication of such meticulousness came as the dancers executed a grand jeté simultaneously: all hit identical heights of the jump at the exact same time, with mirror image splits—an understated, yet extremely difficult feat. This restaged ballet felt like it had been specifically choreographed for, (and then painstakingly rehearsed by,) the current company. Dancers Leta Biasucci and Generosa also shined, angelically and maturely, respectively.

Rush featured gendered virtuosity, as ballet does, but in an extremely balanced way that equalized the sexes. Especially visible in the pas de deux between Jerome Tisserand and Lesley Rausch, this equality was underscored through the replicated kneeling pose at the beginning and end of the pas, first him, then her. Tisserand and Rausch paired well in this meditative section—the carefully nuanced moments within their individual port de bras and combined interaction implied story, while allowing the audience to determine personal meaning. Tisserand also gleamed throughout group sections, especially in his suspended jumps.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists Benjamin Griffiths and Leta Biasucci with company dancers in Paul Gibson’s Rush, Photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists Benjamin Griffiths and Leta Biasucci
with company dancers in Paul Gibson’s Rush
Photo by Angela Sterling

PNB excelled in Director’s Choice both technically and artistically. Each sure-footed step exuded confidence and allowed dancers to revel with abandon onstage. Gone was the characteristic upper spine stiffness often seen in classical dancers performing contemporary works. Boal recently announced a neoclassical and contemporary-heavy lineup for the 2016-17 season. The most exciting part: these dancers seem ready.

Director’s Choice continues March 24-26 at 7:30 pm and March 27 at 1 pm.  Purchase tickets online here, by calling (206) 441-2424, or in person at the box office.

2 comments

  1. This review is right on the money. The Gibson piece deserves to be spotlighted for so many things it reaches for and hits, and the dancers in all three pieces just grow and grow and grow. Charlotte Hart writes brilliantly and clearly about what she sees and hears. Bravo.

  2. I love that SeattleDances utilizes so many different people to write on dance. It is wonderful. However, there is one drawback in my opinion. In my opinion, for the choreographers whose work is being written about there is no context for the writers’ point of view to be clearly understood. Because who they are, known through their writing, is largely unknown to us. We often do not understand their biases, preferences, aesthetic likes and dislikes because we do not encounter their points of view often enough – we cannot contextualize their opinions. An example: I read ALASTAIR MACAULAY, senior dance critic of the New York Times often, as I did with ANNA KISSELGOFF when she held that position. Over time I learned “where they stood” regarding certain aesthetics so when I read their opinions I knew how to “read” it. It didn’t matter if they liked or disliked something I did only that I understood where they were coming from and that is where the value was.
    I do not know if what I am writing makes sense or even if there is a compromise to your current practice and what I believe might be another approach – not better but different. Thank you…

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