By R. M. Campbell
Not only is Peter Boal, in his few short years as artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, adding new works of George Balanchine to the company’s repertory, he has also been introducing pieces by Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon, Jerome Robbins, Jiri Kylian, Mark Morris and Alexei Ratmansky (next season). An impressive list by any measure. He has also been bringing in ballets of Ulysses Dove, an American choreographer, who died too early in 1996.
The first was “Red Angels,” five years ago, which Dove set on New York City Ballet in in 1994. Selected by Dove, Boal was in the original cast. Following quickly were “Vespers” and “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.” To celebrate the arrival of Dove’s “Serious Pleasures” at PNB”s doorstep Thursday night at McCaw Hall, Boal created a Dove evening: “Red Angels” and “Vespers,” along with “Pleasures.” Added to that was the revival of Victor Quijada’s “Suspension of Disbelief,” first seen here four years ago.
Boal likes programs devoted to a single choreographer. They can be dangerous, exposing the weaknesses of a single imagination. I did not find that so with Dove. I was as intrigued by the choreographer at the end of the performance than I was at the beginning. Each piece is different in form and style. All possess a connection between modern dance and ballet. Women are sometimes on point and sometimes not. The works radiate a contemporary temperament: intense, edgy, concentrated. Dove likes to build from a central concept that can seem narrow in focus. In fact, it is a point of department for Dove on which he can explore any number of ideas.
“Serious Pleasures” concluded the program. Danced by four couples and a man called the “Narrator,” the piece is all one has come to expect from Dove. It has been called “racy” by some, but Dove was suggesting something far more “serious.” The costumes and decor — a series of louvered doors, four stage right and five upstage — are black on black. The stage is black except for spotlights on various dancers usually alone or in pairs. The doors are constantly being opened and closed, often with a bang. The music by Roger Ruggieri is fast and tightly woven to suggest tension. The mise-en-scene is a stylized sex dungeon that could be found late at night in the gritty and industrial downtown of Dove’s New York. These places represented sex at its rawest level, more gay than straight. They were also parlors for SM exercises. Dove is far too elegant an artist to be vulgar or prurient, so there is nothing vulgar or prurient about “Serious Pleasures.” With a subtitle of “The merciless battle between spirit and flesh,” the work is a giant leap of the imagination, a formalized dance divided into five sections: “Prologue,” “First,” “Demons of Light,” “Angels of Darkness,” “Oasis” and finally “Freedom.” The individuality of those scenes or their progress toward a denouement are not readily discerned. Perhaps that comes only with repeated viewings. I did not see it on two. But I don’t think it makes a lot of difference initially because it has such a aura of unpredictability and vehemence. If one wants to talk about physical passion, “Serious Pleasures” has everything to do with sex, even in Dove’s stylized ways and little to do with romantic love except at the end. There is no moonlight here.
What is absolutely necessary to “Serious Pleasures” are the dancers. They must be bold and fearless, virtuosic, at one with Dove’s movement and ambience, able to sustain this hothouse atmosphere. It is a credit to PNB’s dancers that they could spend several weeks with that pinnacle of civilized life, aka “Sleeping Beauty” and then do this which has nothing to do with that kind of refinement and elegance. But they did, capturing the wildness of Dove’s ideas and movement. With them, the piece was fluid and organic, flowing readily from one idea to the next. They came to grips with Dove’s “devouring temperament.” We often see women in a bravura mode, although not so often in something so seemingly uninhibited in style. The bodies were as wild as the hair. They should be named: Lindsi Dec, Sara Orza (a last-minute substitute for Carla Korbes), Ariana Lallone and Lesley Rausch. However, It was the men who seemed so extraordinary because of their assignments, not only dramatically but technically — all those jumps and turns and leaps so fast and accurate: It is good to see what they can do beyond the trappings of ballet’s formality. They, too, should be noted: Lucien Postlewaite (Narrator), Karel Cruz, Jordan Pacitti, James Moore and Seth Orza.
Inspired by the memory of his grandmother and the small building where she and her friends met to worship, Dove’s “Vespers” is also striking for its intensity designed for an entirely different purpose. The six women are modest, of course, but quick and deliberate and effective. It is a fascinating piece, a tribute to the tenaciousness of Dove’s grandmother. All deserve praise particularly Kaori Nakamura and Carrie Imler. When “Red Angels” was premiered at PNB five years ago, it was a sensation. It still is. Dressed in scarlet leotards, the two pairs of men and women carry the same determination of the other Dove works. He is quoted in the program about the creation of the piece: “I wanted to deal with aspects of the Balanchine aesthetic I find appealing: the speed, legginess, the formality.” He does and it is electrifying because he has taken Balanchine into another realm, away from classicism into something sexier, looser and more vibrant. The quartet was first-class: Lallone and Olivier Wevers, Postlewaite and Rausch.
Victor Quijada is young man who grew up in the hip-hop culture of Los Angeles. Since he became a choreographer he has been trying to make a line from his roots to the world he now inhabits, the world of concert dance. Hip-hop is astonishing because of its tricks but in the end, tricks and virtuosity are never enough by themselves. In “Suspension of Disbelief,” commissioned by PNB and premiered four years ago, He has almost abandoned hip-hop as well as ballet. It is a kind of street dancing with few tricks and lot of intermingling of the dancers, almost pushing and shoving one another in a genteel kind of way. At its best, it is witty and poignant, at its worst, it is repetitive.
Dressed stylishly in street clothes by Mark Zappone, the dancers move with alacrity and sympathy for Quijada’s movement, loose spines and all. Two stood out: Jonathan Porretta and James Moore.
For the first time in PNB’s history there was no orchestra, with a black curtain pulled over the pit. It looked forlorn and, I hope, not a omen of the future. The explanation was simple enough. None of the Dove pieces require an orchestra, although “Red Angels” uses an electric violin, played with fury and impact by Mary Rowell. Originally Mitchell Akiyama’s score for “Suspension of Disbelief” was electronic and later orchestrated, which was heard at its Seattle premiere. With the Dove pieces not needing live musicians except one, the company decided to save a little money and return to the electronic score. The result — rather unexpected — was one of blandness and homogeneity and conservative. The other music, all taped, was radical by comparison. I’m glad to have spent this evening without the orchestra. It makes one appreciative the PNB Orchestra all the more.
On the cover of the program is a picture of Pacitti in a “Red Angels” costume. After more than a decade as a member of PNB in a huge variety of roles, Pacitti is leaving the company at the end of the current season to pursue the making of scents, a path he has been traveling with considerable attention and talent since 2007 when he launched his company Jordan Samuel Fragrances. He will be well-remembered and missed.