It's easy to tell when dancers love the work they're performing, and you can see the love in Ulysses Dove's Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, one of four pieces in Pacific Northwest Ballet's Modern Masterpieces.
Commissioned in 1993 to make a work for the Swedish National Ballet, Dove approached Heaven as a way to work through a year in which he lost a parent and 12 of his closest friends, many to the AIDS epidemic. This batch of personal loss would leave most of us drooling on the kitchen floor, but Dove wove his grief into a piece so tight with emotional intensity that most of McCaw Hall's somewhat stodgy Saturday-afternoon audience was left holding its breath. The pas de deux between Andrew Bartee and Jerome Tisserand, Dove's reflection on the depth of love and loss between two friends, was the most powerful piece of dancing I've seen in years. An audible sigh issued from the audience as Bartee and Tisserand finished their pas, separated, briefly came back into body and eye contact, and slowly moved apart into the darkness.
It's not just the dancing that achieves this effect, but a multimedia punch to the gut: mournful tolling of bells in the music of Arvo Part, and lighting by PNB's Randall Chiarelli that falls over low-hung metal bars onto the dancers' stark white costumes, casting shadows under their eyes, their muscles, and their feet. It's creepy as hell—and combined with the seemingly effortless movements and powerfully expressive dancing of the six cast members, the total highlight of the evening.
Twyla Tharp's piece, In the Upper Room, is set to a minimalist composition by Philip Glass of the same name and performed on a stage thick with white smoke. Developed when Tharp joined Mikhail Baryshnikov as co–artistic director of American Ballet Theater in 1981, In the Upper Room is a blatant endorsement of mixing classical and modern dance, with cast members separated into "stompers" (in sneakers) and "ballet dancers" (in pointe shoes). I'd trade my firstborn to have been at early ABT rehearsals for this—Tharp foisting her looser anti-dance-establishment style onto the bodies of rigidly trained ballet dancers must have made some heads explode. Additionally, Glass's music is frantic and unpredictable, very different from most ballet scores. Some pull off the crossover while some look stiff and annoyed. (It's got to be a rough piece to learn, and it's long.)
Carrie Imler excels as an energetic "stomper," obviously having a blast as she dances with astounding and seemingly effortless accuracy through five of the nine sections, and Kaori Nakamura glides deftly through the more classical movements. Reliable, strong soloist Kiyon Gaines grins his way through the sweat, smoke, and sometimes schizoid score—he is a slightly stocky dancer, but extraordinarily light and graceful, and he moves between the "stomper"/"dancer" transitions with more grace than some of the classical-looking, lemon-sucking ballerinas.
PNB's Paul Gibson presents his fifth world premiere for the company with Mozart Pieces. Originally developed as an all-male piece for a school graduation concert, it was reworked for the company to include two female dancers, showing off PNB's signature strength: classical yet innovative technique, a wide repertoire of styles, and strong, beautiful bodies. It's especially engaging to watch works choreographed by someone who knows the dancers—the steps and moods just seem to fit. While Gibson's piece is nicely tailored for these dancers, they seem to lack the deep passion exemplified in the Dove and Tharp pieces. (Perhaps because Mozart Pieces doesn't take advantage of their full potential—it feels like something's missing.) Nevertheless, the way in which Gibson plays the music off his dancers—or maybe it's the other way around—is fetching, and the always-lovely Nakamura exemplifies the playfulness between the two, as if she's mingling at a classical-themed cocktail hour.
George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, set to Bach, is the oldest piece of the evening. Originally presented in Rio de Janeiro at a 1941 US State Department–funded tour of South America, Concerto is a well-chosen introduction to Balanchine, whose rigid classical style and preference for stick-thin ballerinas defined ballet for generations. Balanchine is stark, serious, and monochromatic, and although Concerto may seem run-of-the-mill to some, it is one of the most technically demanding pieces a dancer can perform. Belying the dancers' almost blank expressions (my sister calls it "stewardess face") are their heaving chests and sweaty backs.
As is common with Balanchine works, there is nothing to distract the eye from the dancers' technique. No smoke, no eye-catching set, no elaborate costuming—just bodies in thin white leotards. And if PNB has one thing down, it's exceptional physiques, of many shapes and sizes, matched by creativity. Many classically trained dancers in world-class companies have the technique to make a statement onstage, but the dancers of PNB have an extra bit of expressive edge. Maybe it's PNB's tendency to reach beyond the classical comfort zone, pushing dancers to break some rules. Or because PNB doesn't starve its dancers into Olive Oyl clones. For whatever reason, it has some of the finest, strongest bodies in classical ballet, and Modern Masterpieces is a fun way to see those bodies move in ways that most of us can only dream of.