In the opening seconds of Crystal Pite's Emergence, a dancer lies on the floor, twitching and arching her shoulder blades in the throes of some struggle. Is she hatching? Or dying? Her male partner hovers over her delicate body, eventually helping her up and guiding her toward a brightly lit tube cut into the upstage wall, just big enough for two bodies to squeeze through. They disappear into nothingness—out of the hatchery and into the hive? Out of the hive and into the void?—their sinews and arms shuddering.
That is one of the few moments in Emergence, the final piece in Pacific Northwest Ballet's current program, that highlights individuals. As the pair fades into the blackness, 19 female dancers swarm the stage with bourrées—miniscule steps on pointe that make it look as though they are hovering. The collective tapping of their hard pointe shoes creates an eerie buzzing sound, like a hive of bees. Some of the dancers are faceless in black hoods, the women costumed in black leotards with winglike ruffles hanging from their backsides, and the men in tight black pants, topless except for lines of paint, like the veins of wings, on their arms and shoulders.
Pite, who is based in Vancouver and whose work has been seen at On the Boards, says the piece was inspired by Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by popular-science author Steven Johnson. The choreography is based in classical ballet, but with lots of dramatic arms that sometimes flail upward and sometimes curl into claws, as one might make when imitating a dying cockroach. The cast is huge, with as many as 38 dancers on the stage at any given time, but they perform different steps in small clusters, heightening the hive imagery as groups complete their tasks to the same rhythm of Owen Belton's score, an ethereal electronic composition of clicking percussion and slow, sweeping melodies. The finale is gigantic, all 38 dancers reaching their arms up and out together while whispering the counts of the music in a group hiss—they are a swarm, a family, an illustration of every society in the animal kingdom.
The previous three pieces of the evening's program—two of them PNB audience favorites—are by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian, the artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater. Set to Mozart, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze bring out the passion and chutzpah in their dancers while playing with themes of gender, reverence, and rule breaking, sometimes to the point of slapstick. Petite Mort begins with six shirtless men in high-waisted underpants holding fencing foils. They manipulate the foils around their bodies before collapsing on the floor facedown, backs arched in exaggerated subservience. They run upstage, grab a huge dark drape, then run downstage and back up again, sweeping the enormous cloth like a cape to reveal the crouched bodies of six female dancers. What follows is a delicate ballet with occasionally surprising, very un-balletic movements. Men grab their partners by the waist while the women flail their legs around, knees bent like captured frogs. In the middle of graceful pas de deux, partners take turns swinging each other between their legs, bearing the other's weight in a break from the typical man-supports-woman role.
Sechs Tänze is a parody of classical culture: Shirtless male dancers cower under powdered wigs, and women are bound in corsets and long white skirts—basically, 18th-century underwear. Framed period-style dresses roll around the stage in both pieces and are alternately used as costumes, props, dance partners, or standing homage to unnecessary, outdated opulence.
After the high jinks of the first two pieces, Kylian's Forgotten Land brings a precipitous drop in energy, despite the dramatic backdrop painting of a stormy horizon over a muted landscape. Set to Benjamin Britten's ominous Sinfonia da Requiem, six couples begin with their backs to the audience, stepping slowly upstage, toward what seems like their inevitable demise in the looming ocean. Occasionally, one of them looks back toward the audience, fighting the flow of the group's movement, and they begin a long series of sweeping pas de deux. Their skirts and blouses billow through the air, but these baroque and virtuosic gestures are not as thrilling as Kylian's wittier Amadeus-on-acid pieces. Still, Pite's swallowing up of individuality within her frantic and repetitive study of group uniformity is the most thrilling of all.