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To open the 2019-2020 season, Pacific Northwest Ballet presented a double bill featuring Agon and Carmina Burana. Both ballets are well-known powerhouses in very different ways. One a spare neoclassical Balanchine ballet, another the highly theatrical Carmina Burana—full costumes, sets, on-stage choir, and all. Going into the show, I worried the juxtaposition might feel unbalanced. The pure abstract ballet of Agon and the existential drama of Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana could also have spelled a humorless (and possibly pretentious) evening. Happily for audiences, the pieces proved a nice counterpart to either other. Rather than feeling unbalanced, they gave us a taste of the spectrum of ballet’s delights—from sleek technique to intense emotion. And both pieces contained enough levity on their own to avoid taking themselves too seriously. Overall, the program was delightful. 

PNB company members in Agon . Photo © Angela Sterling.

Agon, a collaboration between choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, is remarkable for expanding the boundaries of music for ballet when it premiered in 1957. Balanchine’s complex yet geometrical choreography, set to Stravinsky’s difficult twelve-tone score, explores the mathematics of musicality with the human body—an instrument both precise and unpredictably organic.

The men in Agon really shone in this performance, particularly Christopher D’Ariano and Dylan Wald. Bouncy and strong, the two mirrored each other beautifully in the “Bransle Simple” of the second pas de trois. Benjamin Griffiths, partnering the light-footed Elle Macy and Margaret Mullin in the first pas de trois, guided them skillfully through balancing, rotating human knots. Lesley Rausch, fluttery and vigorous, danced beautifully with Seth Orza. 

Seth Orza and Lesley Rausch in Agon. Photo © Angela Sterling.

The intricate Stravinsky score, which features instruments like mandolin and castanets in addition to strings, brass, and harp, accompanied the dancers as they bent their limbs into complicated geometries that were mathematical, yet skewed. The dancers’ mood changed as fluidly as the music did—from whimsical to dignified. As someone who doesn’t always enjoy Balanchine’s plotless neoclassicism, I was pleasantly surprised. Agon felt shorter than its 25 minutes, its tangles uniquely absorbing.

After the intermission was extended a few minutes for “technical difficulties,” the audience was ready for Carmina Burana. I, for one, was happy to allow the crew extra time to ensure the safety of the singers and dancers poised beneath a 2,500 pound gold wheel, stretching from just above the dancers’ heads to the ceiling of the stage. The choir, hooded and floating above the stage in a box, looked down upon the dancers as they opened with “O Fortuna.” This heavily ominous opening and closing sequence of the score is by far the most famous, and expectations were high. It took a minute for the orchestra and choir to synchronize their timing—probably a function of the choir being so much farther backstage than the orchestra pit. But the whole piece is very grand, and once the dancers began propelling themselves across the stage, all the pieces fit together smoothly. 

Angelica Generosa and Dylan Wald in Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana. Photo © Angela Sterling.

The first section, “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi,” was ritualistic and sensual, bathed in a red/gold light that highlighted the athleticism of the dancers and made them look collectively ominous. The last section, of the same title as the first, brought the entire cast on stage in an imposing forest of limbs. But the middle three acts were so much lighter—even cheery. The second act, “Primo Vere,” erupted with joyous provincial group dances. Sunny cancans induced chuckles from the audience. “In Taberna,” the third act, had frenetic tavern men pursuing a scarlet woman—played engagingly and assertively by Noelani Pantastico. Sometimes the debauchery was a comedy of despair, sometimes simply a comedy. An upper crust emerged in the fourth act, “Cour D’Amour,” where the mood was more somber, the costumes fancier (there are even tiaras), and stately dances were overlooked by stiff angels that descended on top of the set. This aristocracy portion was the only bit that dragged. 

Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand in Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana. Photo © Angela Sterling.

An interesting bit of creative staging had the solo singers on stage with the dancers, rather than elevated with the choir. Costumed and fully present, they functioned a bit like narrators we could see and hear, but not understand (the text of Carmina Burana is mostly in Latin). The baritone soloist, Keith Harris, was an especially amusing treat to watch, playfully interpreting the music and jumping in on the action. 

In each of the five sections, “naked” dancers clad in glittery nude unitards entered to twine among the spirited crowd. It’s a ghostly intermingling of worlds—the naked and the clothed each unaware of the other. This undercurrent of what could be un-fallen man, inner souls, or the dead, spun layers into the narrative. There were moments of propulsive transcendence in the midst of community and celebration. The piece asks questions about class, and about who is saved and condemned—and by whom. The scale of the work captures an existential wonder, and wonders what makes the great wheel of fortune turn.

One answer, if this evening was any indication, is art. The whirling social strata of Carmina Burana were insensate to the action of the naked shades around them, the revolutions of the wheel. But they took their places in their world and embodied them with surprising joy in dance. And Agon felt like art for art’s sake. Dance set to a boundary-pushing score, which became a boundary-pushing ballet that is still engaging today. This program could have been stuffy. But something about both pieces—and maybe about both pieces on the program together—made me like the world a little more. The high-spirited, whooping audience didn’t hurt. These pieces found pleasure in the existential, instead of bleakness. And, in these times, I’m grateful.

Carmina Burana / Agon, performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet, appears September 27 – October 6, 2019 at McCaw Hall. More info HERE.