"Take Five," the Dave Brubeck Quartet's cool-jazz classic in 5/4 time, was made for dancing. Its swanky, sweeping notes practically demand dramatic movement, from the fast little beats accentuated by piano and percussion to the dreamy saxophone—all of it should inspire at least a little boogie or hip thrust from even the squarest among us. In TAKE FIVE... More or Less, Susan Stroman's choreography meets the tunes of Brubeck and Paul Desmond to frame some of Pacific Northwest Ballet's grooviest dancers in the opening number of this year's Director's Choice program.
TAKE FIVE—which was commissioned for PNB by artistic director Peter Boal and debuted in 2008—begins with "Yellow," soon-to-retire principal dancer Kaori Nakamura, dressed in a simple, solid-colored dress, tapping her foot to the soft cymbals rising up from the orchestra pit. She is joined by "Red," the super-tall, graceful, and newly promoted principal dancer Lindsi Dec, and they move quickly in a series of pique turns (moving on one foot with the other pointed at the standing knee). Four other women in various bright colors appear and exit, along with five men in solid black 1940s-ish shirts and trousers who leap onto the stage. Everyone is happy and everyone loves this piece—that much is obvious by the way it palpably elevates the mood in McCaw Hall. Dec and audience favorite Kiyon Gaines steal the show, Gaines tap-dancing with a huge grin, Dec's movements seductively mesmerizing whether she's kicking a perfect calf high over her head or plopped on her bum center stage, sculpted shoulders shimmying to the floor, eyes locked with a rapt audience.
Annual Director's Choice–type programs are common in larger dance companies, even when they depend on the kind of old-guard ballet fans who are more apt to sell out a classical story ballet than a mixed-bag program of innovative choreography. But PNB's Director's Choice gives us a glimpse into Boal's brain, showing us the kind of dance we might see more of if arts funding grew on trees.
In Susan Marshall's Kiss, Carla Körbes and James Moore take aerial dancing out of the varieté and burlesque clubs and into the ballet. Harnessed to the ceiling in the center of the stage, they perform a romantic, literal dance of love and heartache: embracing, kissing, pushing away from one another and then bowing, turning around, and coming back together in the unavoidable magnetism of sexual attraction. Watching professional ballet dancers in an aerial performance is special, the grace and effortless extension of perfect musculature made even more gravity-defying when it's suspended in the air. As accompanying music, Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten could have been a dangerous choice—its sweeping, repetitive motif and dramatically tolling bells bring Kiss right to the edge of cheesy, but the delicate simplicity of the long, reaching arm movements and folded-over torsos rescue it from that fate, communicating volumes about the pain associated with love and loss.
I admit I was a little worried about Molissa Fenley's State of Darkness. Ballets set to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" tend to be angular, mechanical, overly dramatic, and dorky (maybe that's why the 1913 premiere caused a riot?). But the endurance-testing solo by Jonathan Porretta continues to echo in my brain like a camera flash. Porretta's solo piece is long and grueling—by the end, you can see the sweat running thickly through his mop of dark hair—but never for one second does his concentration or physical commitment waver. Shirtless and clad in black tights, Porretta stands in a spotlight that shines from offstage like a far-off sunbeam. His movements are searching, his arms sometimes jerking as if trying to signal for help from above, sometimes sweeping reverentially and almost ceremonially—but always with strength, always bearing an animalistic streak. State of Darkness is raw soul-searching combined with ballet in a way that only the most mature artist can accomplish, and Porretta's amazingly strong, chiseled body shadowed under the dim lighting heightens the performance to a religious experience. If only church services featured half-naked men and Russian composers.
The world premiere of the evening, Spanish choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo's Memory Glow, exemplifies why this Chicago-based artist is a rising star in the dance world, but it is not the most memorable piece in Director's Choice. Perhaps that's because it came after Porretta's astounding performance, or perhaps because newer choreographers have the dreadful chore of learning their craft in the public eye, where we can detect the seeds of their genius but must wait until it matures into something really freaking cool. In this piece, Cerrudo's signature is the seesaw of emotional weight between male and female dancers, who escape one another's clutches by tilting their heads to one shoulder and then scooping upward, the body following in sneaky, circular movements and large pliés—a physical conversation backlit and heavily dramatized by low rows of bright white spotlights. It is lovely, but not comparable to the previous pieces, whose design and execution reveal a maturity and creativity so desperately needed in world-class classical ballet.
There are no sparkly tutus or damsels in distress in this evening of dance, no betrothals or battles or angry princesses, but the finely tuned program was greeted by deafening applause (and a standing ovation for Porretta's State of Darkness) that would seem to indicate an appetite for this kind of work throughout the season. We'll live through PNB's upcoming Swan Lake (which PNB audiences saw just last year) and Carmina Burana (the year before last), but we'll look forward to the next dose of something new.