A gorgeous chandelier descends upon the stage. One dancer, lit in spotlight, announces “Now” before fading into the darkness. The lights come up, the orchestra begins a lively string piece, and seven dancers embark on unison phrase work abundant with side développés, outstretched arms, and clean lines.The chandeliers, paired with the ankle length dresses and the elegant posture of the dancers, evokes the feeling of an extravagant ball.
Eva Stone’s F O I L is the first work in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Locally Sourced, a program highlighting three Seattle choreographers. F O I L contains some standout individual moments. In one section, three dancers wear shiny backless dresses with panniers dramatically extending the line of their skirts. The dancers face the back of the stage, their spines rippling melodically while their lower bodies remain statically poised. The costume accentuates this juxtaposition, hiding any reverberations in the hips or legs. In another impressive moment, Margaret Mullin performs a solo with varied rhythms that offer a welcome break in dynamics. She is highly invested in cultivating movement quality, milking one step, and then quickly abandoning it for a different texture.
These isolated moments are what works for F O I L. As a whole, F O I L could benefit from greater clarity of concept. Each section seems to introduce a new idea, and it is unclear how these ideas relate to each other. The extravagant chandeliers, while beautiful, pull focus away from the movement, making it more difficult to interpret the work as a viewer. I would have liked to see F O I L hone in on one of the concepts introduced, and really develop that idea singularly.
Donald Byrd’s Love and Loss begins ominously. Dancers step into square spotlights at the back of the stage, eerily entering through breaks in the curtain as though they’ve suddenly walked into a doorway from around the corner. They join in unison, lurking in the background. The first section of this piece is the most exciting. While some dancers walk in pedestrian-like patterns, others perform explosive movement in canon across different areas of the stage. Bursts of quick movement rapidly draw the eye from one side of the stage to another. Inside the chaos, one dancer slowly moves forward, almost imperceptibly at first. It is the kind of arrangement that makes you feel like you might miss something if you’re not alert at every second.
As Love and Loss progresses, the theme of ominous presence continues. Dancers lurk in the curtain breaks for whole sections, perhaps representing a reflection on what’s occurring on stage. Central to the piece is the movement element of bourrée – a fluttering traveling step en pointe. This step separates dancers from each other, gracefully leaving the stage in dreamy fleets. One of Love and Loss’s commendable attributes is this ability to take common choreographic steps, such as the bourrée, and ascribe a clear meaning to them. The audience immediately learns that this ballet step signifies relationships splitting up, and that clarity of context is helpful to the viewer. Byrd’s work is the most mature piece of the night, with a clear choreographic vision and movement that supports it.
Miles Pertl’s Wash of Gray is an ode to Seattlites. A video projects storybook-like sketches behind the stage. Each section is named after a distinct Seattle location, and the music reflects this—the Seattle Waterfront section features recordings from the Puget Sound Ferry, birds chirp during Olympic Mountains. Dancers are separated by gray or colorful costumes. The gray group seems to represent environmental elements, with emphasis individuals moving as a whole, while the colorful group took on movement more representative of people, with lots of partnering and cheerful dynamic. Besides the distinction between these two groups, it is not clear what the movement of each location-based section is meant to serve. The sections switch back and forth between the colorful and grey groups, but the narrative of the two groups or why they are switching isn’t apparent. My experience as a viewer is guided carefully by the scenic elements and music but confused by the actual choreography.
In general, this program had a great emphasis on production value and, with some exceptions, little emphasis on movement invention and choreographic innovation. The choreographers are working with some of the most technically gifted dancers in the country to develop new contemporary pieces, and yet there were rarely steps I hadn’t seen before or known steps rearranged in a new way. The capacity for what the dancers can offer is vast in comparison to what is performed, and in many cases, the scenic elements of the pieces outshine the dancing. I wonder if this has to do with the amount of time awarded to develop each piece. Perhaps choreographers needed more time in rehearsal to research new ideas, and in the absence of such, opted for known tools over potential risk. Whatever the reason, I would have liked to see the same amount of care and money put into the choreographic innovation as was dedicated to the set design.
Locally Sourced runs a second weekend, November 14-17. Visit PNB.org for tickets and information.