“I am the kind of handbag nobody weeps into,” Alicia Walter, the jazzy vocalist, booms. “Except for when I went to the ten-year reunion.”
The quirky self-deprecation, disjointed and poetic storytelling, and live singing might paint the picture of a performance in an underground smoke-filled room where artists congregate to choke back whiskey and commiserate, but this odd, artsy, and mysterious showing took place at the grand McCaw Hall, under the artistic direction, collaboration, and fine dancing of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. The Trees The Trees, one of three pieces in PNB’s Director’s Choice, offered a refreshing, modern, and soulful shakeup to the classic beauty of PNB.
The Trees The Trees, choreographed by Robyn Mineko Williams, was set to poetry by Heather Christle that explores, according to the program notes, “scenes rooted in everyday and sprinkled with fantastical, heart-punching moments.” The five vignettes, each inspired by their own poem, displayed a smattering of realness and absurdity – like comparing yourself to a purse that nobody wants to cry into.
One vignette, titled These People Are Getting Together, there’s a bench and “the bench is vibrating,” Walters narrates. Playing with supposed movement in inanimate objects – the real and the absurd – the dancers slide across, around and on the bench.
This section featured a beautiful take on the cannon structure: stretched along the plain white bench, a dancer pedals their legs with pointed feet and flexed toes. They sit up, legs in a bench-assisted lunge, and reach their arm long, looking past their fingertips into the darkness. Another dancer approaches from behind, also reaching their arm, as if looking to hold hands. In a quick frenzy of motion, the new dancer replaces the position of the old, laying flat on the bench, peddling their legs, as the previous dancer bounds away. This exact cycle continues, running through 8 or 9 other dancers, speeding up as it proceeds.
Canons suggest a repetition and cycle that most find common in everyday life – a commute to the office or a weekly dinner with friends perhaps – a portrayal of the day-to-day. But the circularity of this cannon – the exiting dancer recycling and re-entering the queue – suggested a pattern that we know will never end, like the change of seasons or of growth and decay. The accelerating series communicated a truism about the nature of cycles, like as we age, time moves faster, or how in Seattle, before you know it, summer is gone.
The profundity of The Trees The Trees stood out in so many ways, guided by the raw monologues of Christle’s poetry. In the vignette entitled The Actual Future, Walter sings of her generation and the world Millenials face: “We have no jobs and we have no health insurance so also we can’t have any babies.” The dancers connect in a clump of limbs outstretched and moving as one.
They stoop down to lift one of their own, holding a calf, ankle, or thigh and lifting together. But the lifted dancer barely budges, simply bouncing up then back down. It’s so much effort for so little movement – the exact opposite of the normal illusion of dance, little effort and impressive movements – and that’s precisely why it’s so powerful. When all the people on stage focus on one thing and it doesn’t “succeed” in a typical sense, the audience is left feeling stuck, wanting more, and made uncomfortable – exactly the feelings Walters sings about in The Actual Future, and a potent metaphor for many young people in America today.
Sandwiched in between two classic and beautiful ballet pieces, The Trees The Trees stood out as an impassioned piece of dancing. It was also the only piece, not only of the night, but of PNB’s entire season, that was choreographed by a woman, in particular, a woman of color. The refreshing perspective presented shows how important it is for PNB, a powerful gatekeeper of prestige in the ballet community, to commission the work of artists who have historically been excluded from positions of choreographing, like women and people of color, and how doing so can broaden the perspectives of PNB’s more traditional audience.
Whether to admire incredible ballet dancers showing their modern skills, enjoy the work of an amazing choreographer, poet, and singer, or to have deep feels over the beauty and mundanity of life, check out The Trees The Trees (and absolutely read the full poems in the program) at PNB’s Director’s Choice.
PNB’s Director’s Choice premiered on March 15, 2019 at McCaw Hall, and will be performed through March 24, 2019. Also featured are Bacchus, choreographed by Matthew Neenan, and In the Countenance of Kings, choreographed by Justin Peck.