“This year wasn’t a given that we were going to be able to do anything,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Elle Macy at the beginning of the company’s June rep. “I’m just so full of gratitude that it wasn’t a lost moment.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Rep 6, its last full length production of its first full digital season, is anything but a lost moment. Featuring two world premieres by internationally-acclaimed choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Edwaard Liang, an audience favorite from PNB resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, and three short videos from local choreographers and filmmakers, Rep 6 is the company’s parting online gift to loyal audience members.
One of the perks of this digital season has been getting up close and personal with PNB dancers just before the dancing starts. First, principal dancers Laura (Gilbreath) Tisserand and Jerome Tisserand announce their departure from the company for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
Then, like each repertoire show throughout the digital season, Rep 6 opened with a short film directed by principal dancer Dylan Wald. 5 Minute Call featured company dancers in their dressing rooms, applying makeup and costumes and reflecting on the hardships and triumphs of the past year.
Each work of the digital season was rehearsed and filmed in pods. Dancers who were partnered in real life with other company dancers were able to perform together, but otherwise PNB dancers haven’t touched each other or even seen each other en masse since the pandemic began. In 5 Minute Call, principal dancer Leta Biasucci admits that she hadn’t even seen the entirety of Curious Kingdom, the Wheeldon premiere in which she is featured in the ensemble and two solos. This disconnect with colleagues and professional life is a hallmark of the COVID-19 era for so many of us, yet for PNB dancers it seems to be only a temporary setback. Onstage, the dancers appear as engaged and in tune with each other as they ever did, even smiling at each other with authentic joy throughout each of the three main pieces.
Curious Kingdom, the world premiere from Royal Ballet artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon, opens with five gently backlit dancers standing a few feet apart from each other on a shiny black square overlaying the stage. Alternating slow, graceful steps forward with jerky torso contractions timed perfectly with the staccato piano notes of Erik Satie’s Ogive No.4, the dancers move in unison but in their own spaces, disconnected even as they perform the same choreography. Whether intentional or not, this short section feels like an acknowledgement of the quiet isolation so many have experienced during the last year.
Curious Kingdom features solos from Leta Biasucci, Lucien Postlewaite, Jerome Tisserand, and two stunning duets from Elle Macy and Dylan Wald. Costumed in full-length shimmery unitards by designers Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme, each section is marked by a small addition of red evening-length gloves, swim caps, giant red tulle bows, and flowing see-through skirts. Biasucci’s solos are delicate and precise, Postlewaite and Tisserand’s duets playful and slightly flirtatious, but it is Macy and Wald’s duets that punctuate Wheeldon’s new work with lasting memories. Partners onstage and off, Macy and Wald share a unique, rhythmic chemistry that embodies Wheeldon’s challenging and intimate duet choreography. Unlike traditional story ballet duets where the male dancer serves to ferry the ballerina around the stage, Wheeldon’s partnering choreography rightfully respects the strength of both dancers and results in a continual flow of physical support between partners.
Next is the jaunty and barely-clothed Pacopepepluto, from resident PNB choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo and filmed in October 2020. Premiered by the Hubbard Street Dance Company in 2013, Pacopepepluto features James Yoichi Moore, Christopher D’Ariano, and Lucien Postlewaite in three solos to songs from Dean Martin and Joe Scalissi.
The dancers are costumed in nothing except small, flesh-colored dance belts and the soft lighting design by Matt Miller casts dark shadows on every ripple of the men’s sculpted musculature. Each dance is full of big turns and jumps, sending the dancers in sweeping pathways across the stage, sometimes with movements so large they carry the dancers into the wings for a few counts. It is immensely lyrical but with such musical precision and perfect technique that there is nothing cloying or predictable. Even Postlewaite’s stage-crossing leaps to “That’s Amore,” one hand raised to the heavens as Dean Martin croons, are without kitsch and purely celebratory. The whole ballet feels like a dream, my imagination leaping to a late night in Florence, DaVinci’s David come to life and dancing around the city, celebrating his timeless physical beauty and smiling knowingly at the world around him.
Rep 6 ends with BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang’s world premiere, The Veil Between Worlds. According to a recorded interview with PNB artistic director Peter Boal that was included with the Rep 6 digital ticket, Liang began making this piece in 2020 for a large cast of PNB dancers and envisioned incorporating large swaths of cloth to symbolize the movement of the ocean. When the process was abruptly halted at the rise of COVID-19, Liang had to shelve the ballet and later reimagine its design with a smaller cast of ten. As described to Boal, Liang used the veil to represent the walls between the physical and spiritual worlds, including the barriers we create in all areas of our own human existence. Instead of cornering the audience into following a specific story in The Veil Between Worlds, Liang explained, the veil and the ballet should serve to help us reawaken and re-identify our humanity at this crucial time in history.
Set to original music commissioned from British composer Oliver Davis, Liang’s work begins with principal dancer Laura Tisserand holding the giant red veil around her waist as she sits atop the shoulders of her husband, principal dancer Jerome Tisserand. The Tisserands, surrounded by a scattering of other dancers, glide across the stage as the curtain flows behind them and then flies away, sweeping some dancers offstage as it reveals the arrival of others. It is a grand and symbolic beginning to the piece for multiple reasons, including the upcoming departure of the Tisserand family for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.
Included with the online ticket for Rep 6 are two short dance films from Seattle choreographers Nia-Amina Minor and Vincent Michael Lopez. Featuring PNB dancers and filmed in the company’s studios, the films provide a valuable close-up of performances from corps members not seen much over the digital season.
Lopez’s film, Op.21, features a spectacular large, loom-like sculpture tied to posts throughout the studio. Seven dancers perform around the sculpture, moving under the cables to a haunting score by Johann Johannson and Yair Elezar Glotman.
Minor’s film, And yet here we are, is a fast-moving piece that I hope we’ll see on PNB stage in the future. Set to music from local jazz group Industrial Revelation, the film moves seven dancers through vastly different styles of music and moods: slow, ethereal dream-like melodies; twitchy falls and rolls to abstract violin notes; jaunty, Broadway-style unison dances; even long phrases performed in complete silence. Combined with the intricate melodies of Industrial Revelation’s self-described “garage jazz with a 1-2 punch,” Minor’s choreography highlights the dancers’ individual talents with great precision. PNB corps dancer Genevieve Waldorf’s performance is notable, her grasp on contemporary movement—controlled and familiar, yet still incorporating the long lines of a classically trained ballet dancer—is particularly fun to watch.
Like Waldorf’s snappy performance, PNB’s Rep 6 was full of fun tidbits and big moments. It is surprising that in a year of completely digital performance I found such big forward movement in my little computer screen. All of the dance performance I consumed was presented via video, and even as I tired of it, I noticed that choreographic and production styles changed in big ways because of this forced transition. For PNB, I see a company that has discovered and nurtured new talents in its dancers: Dylan Wald’s documentary abilities, Elle Macy’s artistic maturity and stunning leg lines, Amanda Morgan’s choreographic and production talents, the list goes on. The recently announced 2021/2022 season will return to in-person performances, but the digital subscription will be continued as well, hopefully expanding upon the possibilities PNB has discovered during this past season.