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ONE THOUSAND PIECES, RESURRECTED

In the minutes counting down to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s One Thousand Pieces, I feel an amplified layer of anticipation for the opening of this show. Almost exactly four years ago, on the morning of dress rehearsal of the epic 70-minute, 24-dancer work, complete with mirrors and water on the stage, COVID lockdown mandated that the company cease operations. Artistic Director, Peter Boal, successfully pleaded for eight more hours for the chance to film the work which debuted in the digital season that followed. 

Principal dancers Elizabeth Murphy and James Kirby Rogers in Matthew Neenan’s Bacchus. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Now I am sitting in an audience among thousands of unmasked people, coming full circle from COVID restriction. It is so true that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Due to the forced separation of audience and performers, we have the rare opportunity to rediscover roles we took for granted. As a performing artist, I know that performing in front of a live audience is like plugging into an electric circuit. I think post-COVID audiences are beginning to realize that they are not just there to clap at the end—that mingling in the lobby is building community and that we are in dialogue with the performers when we witness the work onstage. Art is created and performed in a dynamic social context and even though I have seen both Bacchus and the digital version of Pieces, I know that simply the shifting sand of life outside the theater and within the company will present very different experiences for the audience and performers tonight than in the past. 

To that end, I’m curious about the artistic choice for pairing Bacchus, the embodiment of the Roman god of wine, merriment, and abundance, with Alejandro Cerrudo’s monumental reflection on Marc Chagall’s America Windows. As the curtain rises for Bacchus, choreographed by Matthew Neenan, I find it difficult not to just anticipate the spectacle Pieces promises. But I am quickly swept away by the effervescence of Neenan’s playful choreography that effortlessly blends contemporary and classic techniques in a Bacchus-like abandonment of rules. As the dancers romp through charmingly asymmetric groups swirling like wine, they seem intoxicated by each other’s company, drunk on life. Fizzing like champagne, the jumps are like sparks, and I delight in the unusual cat-like-twisting-mid-air movements the men make. Periodically, the dancers touch their heads as if to bring themselves back to reality or maybe better judgment.  

Bacchus is a visual feast with grape-hued costumes of unbuttoned shirts and half kilts cavorting against backdrops of ochre and amethyst. Equal to the richness of this color palette, is how I see the individuality of each dancer shining through. I feel this is an evolution of the company in recent years away from cookie-cutter unison and uniformity. I found myself particularly enthralled with the groundedness and connection of a trio: one en pointe and two in slippers. The person en pointe was Ashton Edwards, a nonbinary dancer. Edwards moved to Seattle four years ago and discussed their desire to train on pointe and found that PNB was open to the idea; a pathbreaking move at a time when other ballet companies were offering traditionally binary training for female and male dancers. The fact that PNB supports their dancers in fully expressing themselves points to the progress the company has made since pre-pandemic. 

Corps de ballet dancer Rosalyn Hutsell (center) with company dancers in Alejandro Cerrudo’s One Thousand Pieces. Photo © Angela Sterling.

One Thousand Pieces also plays with stereotypical expectations of a ballet. When the curtain rises, a man in a suit (Myles Pertl) rises with it for several feet before dropping onto the stage. The introduction of this character is an intriguing enigma, a stranger in a strange land of sorts. He disappears and I wonder how he connects to what is happening on the stage which is lined wing to wing with sliding panels through which dancers emerge. There is an element of illusion and the emotional connotations of people appearing and disappearing. A reflection, from where I’m not sure, shimmers on the theater ceiling.

Dancers ebb and flow through these shifting portals often sliding across the stage in their nearly invisible socks, foreshadowing the sliding in water that is to come. They glide to switch partners seamlessly at the wings. All the shifting and sliding reminds me of the risk and vulnerability in maneuvering through life’s constantly changing landscape on the edge of control. I appreciate moments in the choreography that allow the audience to identify with the human condition. The dancers open their mouths wide at one point as if they are eating up all that life has to offer. Truly impactful is when a single dancer stands motionless at the front of the stage for almost an uncomfortable amount of time. As I witness her, I realize a line of dancers is slowly emerging from the darkness to join her. This simple coming together as humans is immensely powerful. 

Corps de ballet dancers Yuki Takahashi and Luther DeMyer in Alejandro Cerrudo’s One Thousand Pieces. Photo © Angela Sterling.

In another moment, the 24 dancers stand shoulder to shoulder across the front of the stage before breaking into movement. It is like watching a thousand shards of glass assemble and reassemble themselves in mesmerizing patterns. I begin to think that the dancers are the vectors of light as I watch them moving through a kaleidoscopic mix of angular movements—pike and V-leg lifts over shoulders—and undulations that arrest when the dancers touch and connect with delicate strength. A signature partnering movement is touching head-to-head and gently pushing the partner down, sinking into lunges.

The Philip Glass music (featuring the powerful Christina Siemens on piano) washes over me like a transformative sound bath, ushering in the water section. Three clouds of mist, backlit by blue light, shower the stage, depositing water that the dancers ripple and roll seamlessly through like otters. Water droplets dripping off pointed toes and flung arms continue arcs and lines in ways we don’t usually see. The women now wear black leotards with bare legs and seeing their muscles from quads to calves to arches to toes carries my eyes on an energetic journey. Couples clasping hands appear and disappear through the mist as if trying to hold the prismatic ephemerality of life that distills down to love. Knowing how easy it is to slip and fall on wet marley, the quiet control the dancers exude is awe inspiring. 

Many of the qualities of water—transparency, reflecting, refracting—are echoed in another section where large mirrors and windows lower to the stage and dancers spin them. As the mirrors rise back above the dancers, reflections bounce and wink around the theater. The rarely-used high space above the stage is also animated when Pertl is lowered and suspended by cable, Peter-Pan like, as he recites a love poem excerpted from Einstein on the Beach

“How much do you love me, John?” she asked.
He answered, “How much do I love you? Count the stars in the sky
Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon
Number the grains of sand on the seashore… Everything must have an ending except my love for you.”

True to the poem, the onstage performance ends, but the ruminations and conversations for the audience are just beginning. I will gladly pick up my teaspoon and savor with Bacchus-like abandon the volumes One Thousand Pieces has given me to ponder.  

PNB presents One Thousand Pieces on a double-bill with Matthew Neenan’s Bacchus, onstage at Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall March 15 – 24, 2024 (and streaming, by subscription only, March 28 – April 1.) For tickets and information, contact the PNB Box Office, 206.441.2424 or PNB.org.