David Dawson’s Empire Noir boldly opened PNB’s 2016-17 Director’s Choice, the curtain rising on ten dancers in front of John Otto’s massive set piece: a giant curving sculpture in burnished gunmetal that swathed through almost the whole vertical space of the large proscenium at McCaw Hall. The program order for Director’s Choice seemed dictated by the massive scale of this set—the labor to place this Star Trek-like architecture must preclude Noir’s placement anywhere on the program. The scope of Noir felt akin to a J. J. Abrams saga, with Greg Haines’s sweeping orchestral composition and the brio of the opening night’s cast matching the set proportionately. A striking black and gray palette heightened the overall sense of drama, with Bert Dahlhuysen’s lighting sculpting the space into highlights and shadows.
With gusto and polished precision, ten dancers wove through and with each other, groups morphing into solos and pas de deux before flowing back to groups. Dawson’s contemporary vocabulary included the obligatory tropes of hypermobility and sensual angularity, but with an almost fussy attention to classical steps. Rather than becoming too busy, this use of classicism showcased a nuanced elegance as performed by this cast, the ornate sequences of limbs so clearly articulated. Notable moments included the partnering of Lindsi Dec and Joshua Grant, Benjamin Griffiths’ opening and closing solos, and Elle Macy’s coiled grace.
It’s not often that William Forsythe functions as filler, but his work New Suite became just that when sandwiched between its grander neighbors. Charming in its simplicity, this work is a series of pas de deux “saved” from retired works. Forsythe’s signature movement style felt softer in these older works, especially following Empire Noir. Each section was performed back-to-back by different couples. These pas felt fleeting: unexpected endings without resolution; relationships explored too briefly. Even so, New Suite was satisfying in its tidbits offered, especially Angelica Generosa in the third section and Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta in the final pas de deux. Generosa’s impishly brash lyricism was delightful, although she overshadowed her partner Price Suddarth. Imler’s grand presence as she swept across the stage was well balanced by Porretta, the Puck to her Titania.
Jessica Lang’s Her Door to the Sky premiered last fall at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, a joint commission by the Pillow and PNB. The ballet began without preamble, as if the curtain rose on a performance already underway. One of a three-part series inspired by the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Her Door specifically references the Patio Door series, especially evident in the set piece: an adobe-colored drop mid-stage functioning as a wall, with cut-out rectangles through which to view the lit cyc as a multi-colored panorama of sky. The set, as well as the other beautiful design elements (including Nicole Pearce’s lighting and Bradon McDonald’s costuming), carried enough weight to feel like actual characters, though the piece was non-narrative.
Dancers draped in earth tones accentuated with bright floral shades executed sweeping arcs of port de bras. Lang’s entire work was bedecked with rich èpaulement, often in contrast to the meticulous footwork both big and small. Deceptive simplicity, intricate patterns, and highly-developed group work are all hallmarks of Lang’s choreography, yet some moments seemed particularly crafted for PNB. Here, she deployed a softer classicism, speaking to her detailed and thoughtful choreographic eye. Perhaps this ability to understand a company’s style and skill set attests to why her work is commissioned and performed by numerous companies worldwide.
Another signature of Lang is her use of creative, architectural sets. While Empire Noir’s magnificent arch begged to be weight-bearing, Her Door’s rectangular “door” was just that, allowing for entrances and exits. The smaller openings in the drop became “windows” as the female ensemble rolled in upstage, peering into the space. The stage felt open and light, especially in comparison to the other works on the program. Even at 21 minutes in length, Her Door felt elegantly brief, leaving room to be viewed alongside its two sister works.
Epic expanses were an overarching theme for Director’s Choice: grand sets with smaller casts amplified scale. Even with the largest cast at sixteen dancers, New Suite featured only two at a time surrounded by the vastness of the stage. Against an imposing canvas of space, these dancers triumphed, ably articulating classical vocabulary within more contemporary movement frameworks. Artistic Director Peter Boal made smart choices for his company in the selections on display: accessible contemporary works that highlighted PNB’s current roster. While the entire company on opening night looked strong, corps member Elle Macy in particular danced her way to a sure bet as a rising star at PNB. Lithe and luminous in Empire Noir, she equally radiated as a strong, elegant presence in Her Door to the Sky. Director’s Choice is a win for PNB, the PNB orchestra, and audiences.
Tickets available here for Director’s Choice, continuing with performances March 23-26.