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PNB Sharpens Its Contemporary Edge

It’s always a joy to see ballet dancers who can cross the bridge to contemporary work, and this year’s installment of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Director’s Choice showcases some of the company’s finest contemporary performers. It helps, no doubt, that the program featured only a few of its many dancers—a break for the eye in between February’s Sleeping Beauty and next month’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director’s Choice opened Friday, March 14, at McCaw Hall, and the evening featured Susan Stroman’s jazzy TAKE FIVE…More or Less; Susan Marshall’s now-classic aerial duet Kiss; Jonathan Porretta’s jaw-dropping performance of Molissa Fenley’s State of Darkness; and the world premiere of Alejandro Cerrudo’s Memory Glow.

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From left, Chelsea Adomaitis, Lesley Rausch, and Lindsi Dec perform in Susan Stroman’s TAKE FIVE…More or Less
Photo © Angela Sterling

Stroman’s TAKE FIVE, naturally, featured the music of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, and it provided a bright, cheery opener. Danced by six women in sherbet-hued dresses and five men in classic black shirts and pants, the choreography capitalized on percussive rhythms with precise foot and hand gestures. The precision, paired with smart repetition, also helped highlight the music’s uncommon time signatures, including the 5/4 that drives the famous song, “Take Five,” in the work’s final section. The dancers performed with balletic jazziness, and their clean delivery gave the piece a hint of depth beyond its lighthearted surface. They also let snippets of character shine: Kaori Nakamura couldn’t find a partner; all the boys got distracted by a playfully seductive Lesley Rausch; Sarah Ricard Orza floated dreamily above a line of sleeping couples who supported her from below. The whole piece had a “Broadway ballet” feel, complete with smoke and a few flashing lights, which is not surprising given Stroman’s history. Live music bolstered the success of the piece, too—a reminder that jazz, like ballet’s classical scores, is important to hear live.

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Carla Körbes and James Moore perform in Susan Marshall’s Kiss
Photo © Angela Sterling

Carla Körbes and James Moore took to the air in Marshall’s 1987 aerial duet, Kiss. With the two performers suspended from harnesses center stage, the piece began and ended in a swirling embrace. Arvo Pärt’s swelling yet sparse “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” provides the perfect musical pairing for the choreography. In turn, the choreography expresses the off-balance feelings of love much more literally than is usually feasible. Körbes and Moore were rarely, if ever, standing vertical, and they supported each other as much as they let the harnesses hold them. But the piece was far from just sweetness and light, and a dark thread of grief wove through it. Often, one of the dancers would swing face down for a long period before being pulled briefly back to their feet by the other. A strong advantage of the big stage was to see the ground, or rather, the airspace, the dancers could cover with the choreography, but the audience’s distance from the performers masked the piece’s intimacy. Körbes and Moore made their passion and emotion resonate through the house, but the totality of the dance wanted something more up close and personal.

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Jonathan Porretta performs in Molissa Fenley’s State of Darkness
Photo © Angela Sterling

After intermission, Jonathan Porretta gave a truly unforgettable performance of Fenley’s State of Darkness. To be clear, State of Darkness is a solo to Rite of Spring, the 35-minute piece of Stravinsky that caused the riot back in 1913. Fenley notes in the program that when she first danced the work herself in 1988, doing the work as a solo was regarded as an “arrogant” move, and one that Nijinsky had originally envisioned himself (what a thought!). Taking on a large, historied score, is no easy task as a solo performer, but Fenley’s structure lays the ground for a surprisingly satisfying solo—although one that depends entirely on its performer for success. Porretta danced with godlike perfection, directing his powerful physique through the tight choreography for the full 35 minutes. While jumps and large movement came in and out of the piece, more of the dance didn’t travel far. As if for self-preservation, much of the choreography comprised smaller movements— textural body shudders, clean gesture, and sometimes just a vibrant stillness. Porretta’s strong presence kept these moments interesting, even when the score quiets two-thirds of the way through, exactly where the mind might start to wander. The sheer physical feat of the dance was impressive enough on its own: after more than a half hour of dancing, Porretta still landed on perfect balance, and the leaps near the end were driven by a visceral quality that somehow highlighted his poise. State of Darkness has an implicit narrative of endurance, and it’s a victory when he ends, standing on two feet as simply as he began.

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Andrew Bartee and Leah Merchant perform in Alejandro Cerrudo’s Memory Glow
Photo © Angela Sterling

Cerrudo’s world premiere of Memory Glow closed the show with an ensemble of ten sock-clad dancers doing intricately linked movements. While this is the Spanish-trained choreographer’s first work for PNB, Cerrudo has been making a name for himself—he is Resident Choreographer at Hubbard Street Dance—and he made Memory Glow with support from a Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance. While aesthetically, his work is of a piece with a lot of contemporary ballet choreography today (and the music that accompanies contemporary ballet choreography today), Cerrudo succeeded in making a work that felt whole. Well-titled, the sparsely instrumented musical selections and Randall G. Chiarelli’s lighting gave the piece an interiority that harkened back to the idea of Memory Glow. His movement was sometimes a confusion of bodies and sometimes a set of clear lines, giving a physical representation of what memory feels like. Cerrudo has an especially nice way with partnering choreography, using unexpected supports, transitions, and points of connections. Leah Merchant and Andrew Bartee navigated this movement style especially well; their duets provided the work’s standout moments. Largely because of its small, versatile cast, Memory Glow was particularly effective in showing PNB as a force in contemporary dance. The company is a fine repository for classical and neoclassical works, but this Director’s Choice program demonstrates that it can also keep modern and postmodern repertory alive—and even be an incubator for developing contemporary works.


2014’s Director’s Choice continues this weekend, March 20-23. For tickets and more information, visit PNB’s website.