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FORM AND EXHALTATION

A piece has got to be pretty popular for Pacific Northwest Ballet to bring it back the very next season. The buzz surrounding PNB’s latest Crystal Pite acquisition in 2022 certainly merited such a quick reprisal. The Season’s Canon is the main event here, but the two other pieces billed on the same program this past weekend put me in a certain frame of mind to see the lauded Pite work.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Twyla Tharp’s Sweet Fields™. Photo © Angela Sterling, 2024.

Twyla Tharp’s Sweet Fields opened the show, which is also a fairly new acquisition for PNB (from the 21/22 Season) though the piece was originally made in 1996. Featuring 18th and 19th century American hymns and simple white costumes, the piece instantly taps into that kind of idealistic folk Americana mythology that extols the virtues of simplicity, rural work, and unity. The program notes reference both Shaker and Quaker religious practices as inspiration. While the actual histories of these New World Christian utopias are complicated by colonialism, both these Christian lineages were relatively egalitarian and centered the communion with a higher power in the individual, rather than in a hierarchical structure. This reflects in Tharp’s choreography, where lines of dancers sweep the stage, weaving and working together to form ever-evolving geometrical patterns. The sense of community care and community work comes through when a group of five dancers in line lift a sixth above their heads, swinging and tossing the dancer who remains stiff as a board. In other moments the dancers slice their hands scythe-like through the air and beat their fists against their thighs as if engaged in abstracted physical task—perhaps grinding corn or washing clothes. The work aspect is buoyed by a sense of joyous exultation. They skip and stride, opening their chests skyward. In one stunning moment Ashton Edwards spins with astounding speed through a chorus of unison dancers, only to stop with perfect ease. To make this piece truly sing, however, requires a tight ensemble. Slight differences in timing and shape easily detract from the simplicity and clean formations, and this performance didn’t quite capture that indefinable sense of “dancing togetherness” that lives at heart of this work.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Crystal Pite’s The Seasons’ Canon. Photo © Angela Sterling, 2024.

The religious undertones in the first work framed Jessica Lang’s The Calling as a different kind of spiritual experience—one where we are called to dedicate our lives towards something greater than ourselves. It is apropos then, to see James Yoichi Moore as the soloist, who plans on retiring from PNB at the end of this season after 20 years with the company. With the lower body anchored in a giant white skirt that spreads across the floor, we are able to focus on the artistry of each gesture, and appreciate the maturity of Moore’s expressive capacity. The long reaches away from the stability of center, the certainty as each quick gesture arrives with clarity, the slow labored walk against the weight of the skirt. Each detail captures the private journey—a lifetime dedication to a singular purpose. After Moore’s final bow on the McCaw stage in June he will continue a life of dance through young children’s movement education.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Crystal Pite’s The Seasons’ Canon. Photo © Angela Sterling, 2024.

The spiritual journey of the evening takes a turn from the human and individual and towards the deeper mysteries of the universe. The epic scope of The Season’s Canon is possible because of the epic number of people on stage—54 dancers that layer over and over again in constantly shifting organic forms. A simple gesture—a head turn or an arm lift—becomes something entirely different at scale. A cascading wave. A force of nature. Unlike Sweet Fields, slight variations in shape and timing only enhance the dimensionality of the pattern. And unlike The Calling, we do not have time or the perceptive abilities to live in the details, we can only receive, and be carried away.

Pite’s choreography often makes use of the kinetic wave. A ripple that shifts tension and focus through the body from one origin to another, often ending with a crisp pause. From shoulder to shoulder to hand, from toe to spine to a snap of the head. A constant re-directing aliveness that could shift at any moment. In this work the same idea plays out on the ensemble, the titular canon isn’t a cut and dried two-counts-between-moves sort of structure. Each dancer moves independently and yet tied and responsive to the one preceding them. They are school of sardines, they are cells of the body, they are an avalanche. 54 pairs of legs running in cascading sweeps. Bodies become only patterns of light and shadow, generating that most gratifying kind of insignificance that we often feel in the presence of the great and natural world. That embodied glimpse into what it means to be a small part of something grander than we can conceive.

The Season Canon runs through Sunday April 21 at McCaw Hall. With this show, PNB announced that Lang will become the new Resident Choreographer, creating a new work for their 24/25 Season. Casing for The Calling rotates between Moore, Leah Terada, Zsilas Michael Hughes, and Dylan Wald. Go to PNB.org for tickets and casing information.