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A Study in Density at PNB

 Pacific Northwest Ballet’s final rep of the season opened Friday, May 29, with a study in density and depth. Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (2008) and Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana (1993) couldn’t be more different on the surface. DSCH features a playful Shostakovich score and an abstract yet precise dance for five principles and seven supporting couples. Carmina features the full company, plus orchestra, chorus, and sets, in a work focusing on love, lust, and human toil—set to Carl Orff’s cantata of medieval secular songs. Taken together, the two works show two very different kinds of density: DSCH is dense with movement while Carmina is dense with thematic and artistic elements.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Jerome Tisserand and Carrie Imler
in Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

In DSCH, Ratmansky, former director of the Bolshoi and current artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, created a multifaceted contemporary ballet that reveals something new with each viewing. Classical vocabulary combined with totally unexpected movements—for example, a ridiculous flat-footed, straight-limbed jump in parallel, completely anti-ballet—but the choreography adopted the quirkiness with such sincerity that it was a delight rather than a chore to watch. Near the end was no flashy, ensemble unison; instead, the full group migrated from corner to corner like a school of fish. As part of the principal trio, Carrie Imler tossed off the finicky choreography, sailing off and on balance with a freedom that projected the joy in her movement. Seth Orza and Jerome Tisserand matched that offhand aplomb, competing with each other and with her; the three support and catch each other as if on a playground. (Also: hurrah for a bit of gender-neutral partnering in ballet!)

DSCH used the entire stage to tell many simultaneous stories. The choreography’s layers ensured there was always something interesting to watch, whether a complex battery of steps or the subtle interaction between two dancers watching a third. The second movement, hauntingly danced by Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz and three other couples, was especially full of ambiguous, sometimes perplexing gestures that turned the dancers into human characters for brief moments. This tension between pure movement and human drama hinted that the ballet was about more than just the movement—a bit like Balanchine’s Serenade (which will be presented at Sunday’s Season Encore Performance).

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

One thing is certain about former PNB artistic director Stowell’s production of Carmina: it fully embraces the spectacle called for by the music. And it’s nice to see composer Orff’s vision of a multi-artistic performance alive and well. 32 dancers share the stage with the soloists, the joint forces of the Tudor Choir and Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union sing from a loft above the dancers, the orchestra is in the pit, and Ming Cho Lee’s scenic design (including a giant, noteworthy wheel) frames the action from scene to scene. Carmina is and should be a crowd-pleaser that brings audiences in: the chorus alone is breathtaking, and the physical scale of the work as a whole is impressive. Nevertheless, the production premiered in 1993, and it may have reached the end of its freshness. What may have looked choreographically exciting and contemporary twenty years ago—a ballet dancer doing a somersault!—looks fairly normal now and loses the wow-factor the rest of the production assumes.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers (with The Tudor Choir and Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union)
in Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

The bright spot of the whole ballet was Maria Chapman and Karel Cruz, leading the Cour d’Amour section with a combination of courtly demeanor and tenderness that transcended the sometimes stilted choreography. Chapman, just back from her maternity leave, stood out: she brought life and spark to her solo, as if the choreographic logic contained something only she could fully understand and translate. Still, the dancers performed well as a whole, again showing PNB’s strength as a cohesive company. But while Stowell’s choreography accommodates the large cast well, the density of so much happening all the time—including, often, a mismatched musicality that overloads the music with too many steps—makes the work feel overbearing. The density is volume, and the volume becomes overwhelming—whether pleasantly or unpleasantly so is a matter of individual taste. But how does density relate to the depth of a work? Granted, how and where one finds depth and meaning in art varies enormously from person to person. Nevertheless, programming DSCH and Carmina together did not show Carmina off to its best advantage. Instead of creating a balanced program of minimalist and maximalist aesthetic, DSCH’s chiseled composition and freewheeling tone made Carmina’s drama and spectacle feel overblown.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lindsi Dec with company dancers in Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

This show also marks the final rep for two longtime company dancers: principal Carla Körbes and soloist Kiyon Gaines. Körbes’s performance in DSCH was, as always, a tribute to her all-encompassing artistry; on top of technique, she brings musical sensitivity and a human subtlety to every role, so natural in her movements it’s like she is merely carrying on a conversation. Gaines performed in both DSCH and Carmina, reminding us what we will miss about him. His performance always feels good-natured and brimming with energy, and he stood out in both works by molding that energy to the tone of each—playful yet sincere in DSCH and pulsing with drama in Carmina. PNB’s Season Encore Performance this Sunday, June 7, will be a fond (and, doubtless, emotional) farewell to these beloved dancers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Carmina Burana (with Concerto DSCH) continues through Sunday, June 7. Information and tickets available here. PNB’s Season Encore Performance also takes place Sunday, June 7, at 6:30—get your tickets here before it sells out.