At last Saturday night's performance of Director's Choice at Pacific Northwest Ballet—Director's Choice being the annual chance for PNB director Peter Boal to trot out audience favorites and throw us a few curveball premieres—I sat next to a young girl and her mother. The girl was maybe 9 or 10. The mother was maybe... well, mother age. When the lights came up on the first piece, Petite Mort, six male figures slowly stepped backward from the inky upstage into the bright downstage, each balancing a fencing foil horizontally above his head, on the tip of his right index finger. It was a gorgeous image: the pale, slight curves of the men's backs and leg muscles; the glinting, razor lines of the foils above them.
"Wow," the little girl sighed.
The men slowly lowered their balanced foils to neck height, grabbed their handles, and pivoted swiftly, their foils cutting the air—and the theater's silence—with a sharp swoosh.
"WOW!" the little girl exclaimed.
That she was rhapsodizing about six men ostentatiously playing with their swords in a piece titled Petite Mort we'll leave for her mother to explain. Or not.
But Jiri Kylian's choreography is impressive, no matter how you slice it, and his gestural vocabulary leaps across a wide spectrum. He once said in an interview that "if you go back, it all comes down to Graham and Balanchine." You can see that idea in his work. He, like all truly innovative artists and scholars, studies the primary sources and then flies off in his own direction.
Kylian choreographs sharp, thrusting poses (back leg extended, front leg bent at the knee) that ease into soft curves (spines suddenly concave, arms extended and parabolic, like cranes midflight), and balletic partner-dances that break into weird angles. In one characteristic move, a man in Petite Mort elegantly lifts a woman from behind before her limbs suddenly splay—knees together, heels apart. Though Petite Mort has its moments of somber silence, the Mozart score keeps this meditation on tumultuous sexuality on the sunny side of the street.
And Kylian knows how to deploy a bit of circuslike showmanship: the men acrobatically balancing their foils on their fingertips, or rolling them on the ground in arcs to leap over. In the middle of Petite Mort, big ball gowns on rolling casters glide across the stage for a bit of slapstick: The dancers "wear" them by staying close behind them, or suddenly cast them off, the dresses going in one direction and the dancers in another. Unfortunately, some of the dancers in Petite Mort were wobbly and fumbly with their foils (a problematic distraction in a piece that leaps between elegance and awkwardness, and requires the dancers to land on the correct side of the line each time), particularly dancers Jonathan Porretta and Seth Orza in the opening foil-juggling sequence.
The second piece of the night, Kylian's Sechs Tänze (Six Dances), grabs the comic threads of Petite Mort and hauls ass across the stage. Men slap at their powdered wigs, leaving cirrus puffs of gymnast chalk hanging in the air. The foils and rolling ball gowns return more pointedly, with men in rolling-gown drag decapitating each other. Couples (same- and opposite-sex) flirt and reject, fight and frolic, and play full-body games of "knick-knack paddy-whack," but the comedy never upstages the exuberant inventiveness of the choreography—the bouncing between Balanchine and Graham, with the occasional exaggerated commedia dell'arte gesture for a punch line. If Jiri Kylian (a Czech who has been an artistic leader at Nederlands Dans Theater for decades) is anything like his choreography, you'd want him as a friend—intelligent but not pretentious, flirtatious but not frivolous, funny but not superficial. He knows an abyss yawns beneath us all. Perhaps Kylian stays light-footed so he doesn't fall in.
"Did you like it?" the mother asked after the first of the night's three acts (the one devoted to Kylian). "I loved it," the little girl said. You and me both, kid.
The rest of the program was less memorable: Act two was devoted to audience favorite Jardí Tancat by Valencia-born choreographer Nacho Duato with prerecorded music by Catalan folksinger (and cultural icon) Maria del Mar Bonet. Bold Catalan-Spanish caterwauling accompanied overwrought Iberian-modern choreography in stylized peasant clothes (long skirts, bold and simple color combinations) on a stage the color of yellow dirt with a few wooden poles around its border. Jardí Tancat seems to commemorate a drought, or some kind of rural blight, and might bring a tear to the eye of an old-school Catalan partisan (perhaps some ancient anarchist from the Spanish Civil War with a swooping white mustache, flowing bow tie, and afternoon brandy) or a Fremont hippie who has a subscription to the ballet and the latest world-music releases from Putumayo records. I did not register the little girl's reaction.
The final piece of Director's Choice looks great on paper: Jerome Robbins (the man who introduced pop to ballet and ballet to Broadway) playing with classics by Philip Glass ("Rubric," "Façades," and "Funeral," all from his more accessible period in the 1980s). The orchestra had a little trouble keeping up with the meticulously layered, magnificently energetic "Rubric" (so many short brass notes, stacked like individual grains to build a sand castle—it can't be an easy piece to conduct). And Robbins, God rest his Broadway-ballet soul, didn't quite capture the virtues of layered minimalism. The set works: a big grid, gray lines on a white wall. The costumes work: scores of dancers walking across the stage in bright, contrasting colors, like a De Stijl dream of Grand Central Terminal.
But then Robbins has to spoil the mood by falling back on his old habits: instructing his dancers to form West Side Story–type gangs and face off. Or he'll darken the room to deep blue and choreograph a seemingly endless line of dancers walking across the upstage edge with a hypnotic step somewhere between an undulation and a shuffle—a gorgeous display for Glass's "Façades" (a lulling piece with intertwining lines for two saxophones and a string orchestra). Perfect. Nothing more needed. But then Robbins can't help himself—he spotlights an unnecessary downstage pas de deux for a little razzle-dazzle. It's as if he liked the idea of choreographing to Philip Glass but couldn't let go of his old tricks.
Midway through "Façades," the little girl poked at her sleeping mother. I admire the little girl's devotion. But I had to side with Mom on that one.