Winking at Ballet
PNB Discovers Contemporary Art
On the front porch of heaven, men can finally dance a complete duet. They wear white and lean on each other, alternating roles in partnership; they meld into a single being made of two sets of congruent parts aligned perfectly or stacked into one devotional totem. They hug and attack and lift each other, they jump as a form of insisting, and they slowly, slowly slide down to the ground they're about to leave forever into full open splits of acceptance (and pain). They are tired—they are dead—but they're getting in.
The late American choreographer Ulysses Dove set Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, the first ballet in Pacific Northwest Ballet's all-premiere program this month, to the melancholy chiming of bells by Arvo Pärt. At its center is an astonishing male pas de deux, performed gorgeously last week by the tightly wound Christophe Maraval and noble powerhouse Batkhurel Bold—I found myself leaning toward them in awe. Dove's minimally staged, wrenching portrait of men and women in white, longing for heaven while at the same time convincing themselves not to fear it, is the first piece on the bill, and it turns out to be the mighty core of a strong evening.
And a strong promise. In less than two complete seasons, new PNB artistic director Peter Boal, formerly of New York City Ballet and his own company, has turned many of the well-tuned classical dancers of PNB founders Kent Stowell and Francia Russell into genuine contemporary interpreters, not just of form but of emotional and performative range. So listen up, all of you who flock to On the Boards to see something new: As a friend quipped at intermission, PNB has discovered contemporary art. And the reign of Boal has just begun.
Before Boal, the company rarely (if ever) put on all-premiere repertory programs. New dance was always packaged with something older, something intended to reassure audiences: "This is still the ballet." It turns out nobody needed reassuring. In fact, now the audiences explode into applause after the premieres, like somebody who has waited a long time and suddenly understands why. Just as orchestras are beginning to be unable to get away with the notion that Stravinsky is new music, so his counterpart, Balanchine, is an archive, not a fresh font, and long gone are the days when ballet companies lived on Petipa and the dance-as-animated-pictures canon alone.
What a relief to see failure! And swagger! There is plenty of pairing with the floor in the only world premiere of the evening (the others are Seattle premieres), Victor Quijada's Suspension of Disbelief. The title refers, presumably, to the stripped-back, rehearsal-like set: The wings and the backdrops are removed one by one at the start of the piece and replaced at the end, and all of the dancing takes place on the naked stage, with dancers who aren't in a scene milling about in the back. There is also some of the chatting, shoulder chucking, and spontaneous busting out with moves of early dance videos.
Quijada's classical training is offset by his early and ongoing commitment to the loose, acrobatic bravado of hiphop and breakdance, and Suspension of Disbelief is shot through with aggression and abjection—in one memorable moment, each man rushes a limp woman to the back of the stage. But overall, the female dancers lack the energy and ease of the men, and it is difficult to say whether the choreography simply is more impressive on men or whether most of the women are out of their element.
Sandwiched between the two pieces is Valse Triste by Peter Martins, a somewhat stiff and dry bit during which, say, lifts from behind are entirely anticipated by the liftee, unlike the immediate, happening cause-and-effect of contemporary movement.
Twyla Tharp may have a lemon on Broadway with her reportedly feeble circus-based interpretation of the songs of Bob Dylan, but all of her intensity, athleticism, grace, and poppy jauntiness are on display in Waterbaby Bagatelles, notable for its over-the-top humor, with women in bathing caps beneath lines of neon that slide like waves. The best part, again, is the men, featured in a series of ass-shaking danceoffs in front of a gaggle of giggling women who are carried off in the end like dolls. Wink, wink to gender roles. Wink, wink to ballet.