I did not know how Pacific Northwest Ballet could improve on its production of The Seasons' Canon, the ballet that took my head off when it premiered in Seattle a couple years ago, but improve it they did. 

Last time, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal & Co. paired choreographer Crystal Pite's masterful, hyperkinetic meditation on nature with some very good but more or less disconnected ballets. This time, the program felt so cohesive it amounted to a religious experience—one that, incidentally, might best be experienced from the cheap seats. 

PNB dancers wipe their brows as they sweat in the sweet fields of the lawd. Angela Sterling

The evening began with living legend Twyla Tharp's Sweet Fields, a sort of balletic interpretation of Shaker worship ceremonies that combined the group's early and reformed dancing styles. Dressed in white linens as clean and crisp as the famously chaste Protestant sect, men and women and nonbinary dancers hopped around stage, moving as rigidly and joyfully as the hymns sung by the pitch-perfect Tudor Choir. When viewed from above, their runs occasionally formed circles and rows, recalling the shapes of agriculture and reinforcing the godly orderliness of it all.

If you looked and listened closely, the complexity of this apparently simple piece shines through. Like protestantism in general, death haunted every step and every note of this ballet. The hymns spoke of that "sweet field" in the sky that we'll inherit so long as we toil daily in the fields here on earth. In case the lyrics were too subtle, in one section of the piece five men carried a body above their heads like pallbearers. As they crossed the stage, one of the pallbearers switched places with the body in a pretty wild feat of coordination and strength. Don't ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, and we shall answer that toll gleefully, this piece says. 

The dudes coordinating a deadlift. Angela Sterling

I think these kind of haunted Puritan jigs look great when the likes of zoe | juniper mix them with metal and psychedelics, and I also think they look great when the likes of Twyla Tharp mixes them with the rigor of classical movement, but your mileage may vary. Regardless of whether the aesthetics and tone do it for you, the piece serves a higher purpose in the program. Sweet Fields kicks off the evening's conversation about the tension between the collective and the individual, the skull beneath the smile, gender norms, and worship. 

In The Calling, choreographer Jessica Lang picked up on many of those themes while yet again flexing her facility with textiles. On opening night, Archangel Dylan Wald played the brief ballet's sole part. As the cleanest alto I've heard in a while sang out a 12-13th-century hymn to Mary called "O Maria, Stella Maris," Wald stood onstage in a long skirt that flared out in a big circle all around him and slowly adopted various Vitruvian Man poses. He moved gracefully, displaying unmatched strength and poise, but he couldn't escape all that fabric. 

The piece makes a simple point elegantly: Your calling defines and confines you, your purpose is your prison, and your particular struggle to answer your particular calling will be the hardest and most beautiful thing you do. Wald's performance was certainly the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen a man do, at least. I mean, look at this: 

Though I loved Wald in the role, I'd love to see how / whether the piece changes based on the dancer that dons the big skirt. What luck then that PNB tapped Lang to serve as its resident choreographer for the 2024/2025 season. 

After that quiet, singular, gorgeous performance, the stage exploded with activity from the Pite's Seasons' Canon, which follows a dance-organism living and dying through the four seasons while PNB's orchestra plays Max Richter's remix of, appropriately enough, Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.

As I wrote in so many words a couple years ago, anyone with a central nervous system will find this ballet irresistible to watch. You have no more power over your enjoyment of this ballet than you have over your enjoyment of starling murmurations, or of mayflies spawning en masse, or of a school of silver fish catching the light as they all turn at once. Again, just look: 

Nailing that level of coordination, though, is difficult. But my from vantage, PNB's dancers executed the task to a T, showing how tightly they've grown together as an ensemble. The focus on the individual in The Calling, however, kinda primed me to see the trees for the forest, and it's worth pointing out a few of them. 

In one of the ballet's most thrilling moments, the summer section hits hard with a trio of Street Fighter-like duets featuring a dream blunt rotation of principal dancers Angelica Generosa and James Yoichi Moore, Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and James Kirby Rogers, and Leah Terada and Lucien Postlewaite. (Terada isn't a principal yet, but she moved like one when she danced with Postlewaite, and she brought out the beast in him, a dancer who so often plays the prince.) 

You ever catch anyone with just your thighs? Angela Sterling

Soloist Amanda Morgan, too, stood out among the undulating crowd, once with a brief dance of pain and sacrifice, and again later on in an impressive set of movements that made her look like a water strider skimming the surface of a stream. Fellow soloist Clara Ruf Maldonado also dazzled with her swift, insectile ambulations, holding down both the spring and winter sections. 

The only problem with Seasons' Canon is that the whole thing goes by so quickly that you feel like you need to watch it two or three more times to really catch everything. Lucky for us all, PNB will run several more shows this Thursday through Sunday, and Thursday is pay-what-you-can day. Take advantage of it.