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PNB’s Emerging Contemporary Edge

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Emergence program (November 6-14 at McCaw Hall) brings together four wildly different works of contemporary ballet. On the one hand, the show is a PNB family affair: much-loved former soloist Kiyon Gaines returns as choreographer with Sum Stravinsky (2012), and corps de ballet member Price Suddarth premieres Signature, his first work for the company. On the other hand, the program reflects the current shifting state of ballet. Artistic Director Peter Boal cites ballet’s dearth of female choreographers, and this bill features both Jessica Lang’s The Calling and the return of Crystal Pite’s Emergence. He also notes that all four choreographers were born after 1970, giving this program a very “now” feel, even though no two pieces shared much in common. The diversity in movement created four distinct worlds, culminating in the dark, full company powerhouse that is Emergence.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Maria Chapman in Kiyon Gaines’ Sum Stravinsky.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

Sum Stravinsky brimmed with friendly atmosphere and tongue-in-cheek partnering. Gaines’ choreography belongs to a school of contemporary ballet that uses upright spines to emphasize long legs and feet and also maintains a frontal orientation to the audience. This presentational aspect, along with crystal clear lighting (Randall G. Chiarelli), allowed each member of the cast to be seen as an individual. While the quirkier moments of human interaction between the dancers sometimes broke the pure movement flow of the piece, Gaines’ musicality gave the quirks of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto room to breathe, adding unexpected touches to the movement—a little rond de jambe at the height of a lift, an abrupt partnered flip that morphs into a final tableau. The full cast gave a fine ensemble performance; Angelica Generosa blithely hit every balance; and the second movement duet between Maria Chapman and Karel Cruz could have been a “cut glass” addendum to Balanchine’s Jewels. Gaines acknowledges Balanchine as an inspiration, which shows in the choreography, as well as the costumes (Pauline Smith) and curtained backdrop that riff on “Balanchine blue.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Dylan Wald in Jessica Lang’s The Calling.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

Given his performance of Lang’s solo The Calling, you would never guess this is Dylan Wald’s first season in the corps de ballet (after an apprenticeship last year). He is young, but he is a mature enough dancer to handle the complexity of a simple premise and still let his youth shine through. Lang’s work has the kind of simplicity where ideas are distilled to their purest form, which is simple neither to create, nor to dance. Wald stood alone on stage wearing only a white skirt that pooled around him; he clasped his hands, reached far outside himself, or simply was still. Surrounded by Sarra Sharif’s pristine rendering of 12th century song, he moved in a reverie. Sometimes a sound roused him back to earth, and he considered what he heard before returning to himself. The Calling is a dance of hope and potential where we see the person behind the dancer, with a special layer of meaning for a performer so early in his career. Wald danced with gorgeous control, and I wonder how that control will evolve into greater freedom as he grows in his artistry.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Price Suddarth’s Signature.
Photo © Angela Sterling. 

Suddarth’s Signature set a dark tone, enhanced by Barret Anspach’s music, as well as Chiarelli’s dramatic lighting, which brought the lighting instruments onstage over the dancers’ heads. Suddarth shows promise as a choreographer interested in investigating ballet vocabulary, especially in the realm of partnering. Overall, Signature is a very physical piece whose choreography reached through the body and traveled the stage, but moments of stillness and smaller movements provided a welcome balance. Like in Gaines’ choreography, there are lots of windmilling arms and legs, but Suddarth’s approach, for this piece anyway, more explicitly explored the shifting relationships between dancers. The fifteen person cast felt connected as one organism. Each dancer got a featured moment, but these moments quickly folded back into the full group. Margaret Mullin was a standout; she tore through the choreography with an undeniable fierceness. If anything, so many “signature” moments made the work feel long, although the idea worked well thematically. Suddarth already creates interesting movement, and his sense for pacing will surely grow as he continues to choreograph.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Crystal Pite’s Emergence.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

Signature’s earnest intensity was a fitting prologue for the all-pervasive disquietude of Crystal Pite’s Emergence. Owen Belton’s eerie score contributes to the atmosphere, as do lights, set, and costume (Alan Brodie, Jay Grower Taylor, and Linda Chow, respectively). Since the work’s PNB premiere in 2013, Emergence has acquired a certain local aura, and Pite has gained (deservedly) a number of fans. Emergence digs into an insect world of swarming dancers, hive mentality, and power dynamics to make a psychologically compelling work. A chilling opening duet presaged the whole piece: Mullin lay crumpled on the floor underneath a spotlight as Joshua Grant stood domineeringly over her, half in darkness. Pite invents movement vocabulary that serves her thematic purpose: bourrées in balletic pointe shoes which make the women hover, wasp-like. Lowered heads and angular arms, when coupled with tight unison and large groups, divorce the dancers from their human forms. The dance turns them into something abstract from the natural world, creatures who exist as part of a mass. More than anything, Emergence is an ensemble piece with little hierarchy. The full company dances, no one is listed above another in the program, and costumes divide dancers into male and female groups rather than social hierarchy. Dancers have different roles to play, but none of those roles seek personal gain—just the continued cohesion of the hive.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists Joshua Grant and Margaret Mullin
in Crystal Pite’s Emergence.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

The whole night leads up to Pite’s Emergence, but each work has a distinct role in setting the tone. Sum Stravinsky is all airy joy, The Calling grows meditative, and Signature pushes the group’s physicality before Emergence brings the full company together to end on an intense high note. What a ride.


Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Emergence continues this weekend, November 12-15, at McCaw Hall. More information and tickets here.