PNB’s mixed bill opened this weekend

By R.M. Campbell

There is very little not to like or admire in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s mixed bill which opened this weekend at McCaw Hall. A good share of it was astonishing.

Two works entered PNB’s repertory and two were revivals. One of the most important aspects of Peter Boal’s regime as artistic director has been his introducing to the company and the region all kinds of new works from leading choreographers of the day. Two were brand-new on this bill: Marco Goecke’s “Place a Chill,” a world premiere, and Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH.” The latter was the more important because the choreographer is so much better-known, and “DSCH” is the first of his works to arrive in Seattle. The Russian choreographer’s “Don Quixote” will have its Seattle premiere next season. Ratmansky originally set his piece on New York City Ballet, where he was poised to become resident choreographer, succeeding Christopher Wheeldon, whose ballets PNB has danced. But Ratmansky decamped abruptly to American Ballet Theatre where he is now artist-in-residence.

Set to the Second Piano Concerto of Shostakovich — the first ballet to use this music — “DSCH” is ebullient and fast-moving in the outer movements and breathtakingly poignant in the slow movement. Just like the concerto. There is none of the composer’s bittersweet, dark and sarcastic sensibility. Ratmansky’s movement soars in those fast sections with Carrie Imler and Carla Korbes taking leading roles in splendid style. A trio of men is also given major assignments, which Batkhurel Bold, Karel Cruz and Seth Orza delivered with aplomb and great speed. Ratmansky weaves different groupings together as if they were counterpoint. The eye doesn’t always know where to go because everything is of interest. While Ratmansky captures the flavor of the music, he does not mimic it. He may amplify it, reduce it, amend it but he never loses touch with its basic impulse. Everywhere there is invention; indeed, it pours from the work. The slow movement is beautiful, tender and lyrical. So is the choreography in which there is a central couple danced by Carla Korbes and Karel Cruz. They are quite telling, filling the outlines of Ratmansky’s steps. The contrast between the couple and the rest of the dancers is striking and completely original. In fact, the whole work is lesson in originality.

“Concerto DSCH” is a major work which I hope will be revived next season.

Goecke made his Seattle debut with an idiosyncratic piece for solo dancer called “Mopey” a few years ago. I liked it, but I don’t think everyone did. “Chill” calls for 10 dancers of which two men, James Moore and Jonathan Porretta, were the most important. Moore was cast as the solo male in “Mopey,” which turned out to be a break-out role for him, and quite rightly so. “Chill” takes its dark temperament from the personal story of the celebrated cellist Jacqueline de Pre whose brilliant career was cut short by multiple sclerosis. She died in 1987. A play was written about her and so now there is a dance. The piece is set to Saint-Saens’ First Cello Concerto, which was her last recording. It was played with beauty of sound by the PNB Orchestra principal cellist Page Smith. This is another piece that deserves multiple viewings. One of its most curious and unexpected moments is when 60 chairs fall to stage floor suddenly. What a racket they make. Thank goodness only 60; I was told Goecke wanted 150. The point is inexplicable at first. They are supposed to represent the wheelchair in which du Pre ended her life. A stretch by any other means. The most irritating aspect of the piece is the lighting. It is nearly pitch black with shadows of light at the request of the choreographer. He envisioned pools of light for individual dancers but that was not something McCaw could provide. So the darkness remained, obscuring dancers and what they were doing. Apparently the company has been turning up the lights since the rehearsals. I hope it continues. Mark Zappone’s costumes are a smash and perfectly in tune with the piece.

Paul Gibson’s lovely “The Piano Dances,” premiered six years ago, returned. A former principal with the company and now ballet master, Gibson occasionally dips his hand into choreography. There is nothing remarkable about “PIano Dances” except that it is particularly reflective of the some half dozen, short piano pieces by the likes of Chopin, Ligeti, Cage, Bartok and Ginastera. Just as the music is quite different so is choreography, and how well it all holds together. The costumes, again by Zappone, are light and airy and suit the piece.

“Pacific” was the first ballet of Morris acquired by the company since he became famous. In the late 1970s he did a work for the ballet’s “Summer Invention” Series, but it came and went very quickly. Like Gibson’s “Piano Pieces,” this not a remarkable work, but its flows beautifully and is wonderfully lyrical, demonstrating one more time Morris’ range of invention and stylistic compass. Morris is a great fan of Lou Harrison, an integral part of the West Coast music, not only for the idiosyncratic qualities of his music that went against the grain of much of 20th-century music but for personal reasons. The music, excerpted from his Piano Trio, is one of his calmer and more sedate works. Morris’ work was a very nice way to begin a superb evening at PNB.

Two pianists should be noted: Christina Siemens was exemplary in “Piano Pieces” and Duane Hulbert, fluent and spirited in “Concerto DSCH.” Allan Dameron conducted.

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