Pacific Northwest ballet kicked off its fall season with Tricolore, a tripartite ballet featuring two pieces from Benjamin Millepied and one from George Balanchine. You might know Millepied for being Natalie Portman's husband. But you also might know him for choreographing the dance scenes in Black Swan, or for his tenure as artistic director of The Paris Opera Ballet, a company that's 115 years older than the United States. As for Balanchine, you know him for being Balanchine.
The evening begins with Millepied's 3 Movements, which premiered at PNB back in 2008. Composer Steve Reich's excited strings make a nervous wreck of the air. Dancers materialize in sleek, greyscale business casual dress. Bars of black and white in the background complete the (forgive me) Kafkaesque, office-as-prison tableau. These are busy worker bees. The dancers pair up and split with speed, as if each were only one more gray flower in a weird gray field, a resource from which to extract nectar before buzzing right along.
The corporate-looking costumes drape the swift and highly technical movements in irony, reflecting the sad-funny truth of unrealistic expectations in the 21st century workplace. We're all supposed to produce mind-blowing, totally original work with the efficiency of a factory line. That "ask" wears a body out, but we're also expected to project healthfulness and mindfulness. The dancers reinforce that tension (and at the same time show off their versatility) with robotic cha-chas, jokey can-cans, and in the sheer number of perfectly executed but quickly abandoned group formations. I was out of breath watching it, but it looked like just another day at the office for the dancers.
Millepied's Appassionata is the R/romantic center of this trio, and the one with the most narrative pleasures. Beethoven's sonata (from which the ballet derives its name) drives the stories of six characters.
The dancers wear bold colors in their youthful courting stage. In the production I saw, Leah Merchant and Jerome Tisserand wore red, Elle Macy and William Lin-Yee wore blue, and Elizabeth Murphy and Karel Cruz wore purple. In the second movement, Murphy and Cruz paired up in white for a breathless, honeymoon pas de deux. By the end, each pair had traded their colors for black, white, or gray, and the women had let down their hair, indicating that they'd entered the "long hair don't care" DGAF period of their lives.
Costume designer Alessandro Satori's color palette storytelling here challenges notions of belonging. Are the dancers who wear red destined to be together? Or are the red dancers supposed to court the blue dancers? And where do the purple dancers fit into the mix?
These differences seem to have little to do with the characters' internal emotions. They bond and separate without any apparent reference to their assigned color. This disconnect between color and character relationships—external markers of identity vs. internal feelings—reminds us just how constructed our social categories are, and just how quickly we can be lured into trying to generalize others based on the categories we've constructed for them.
As the blue dancer, Macy displayed fluid, effortless strength. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if she had melted into a puddle of mercury and ran offstage to chase down Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rest of the Connor family.
But Murphy turned in my favorite performance of the night. During the pas de deux, Murphy plays the crazy-in-love-right-now partner to Cruz, who does his best to hold her by the edges. She's energetic, she's flushed, she's so overcome by love she seems to need to fly away from him or somehow get closer to him. She doesn't know which, so she does both.
As she was expressing this internal conflict she began to breathe heavily, and a few people around me moaned a little in disappointment, as if she'd committed some kind of ballet faux pas by breathing audibly during a performance.
I thought the heavy breathing was intentional, a move designed to highlight the passion of the scene, but I guess she was just trying to catch her breath because she had been killing it for the past five minutes. If there is some popular notion in the world of ballet that dancers should be seen but not heard, it's a dumb one. Hearing a dancer's breath reminds me that a human being is doing a hard and complex thing in front of me. And in this case, Murphy's loud breathing could be justified on thematic grounds. So, to the moaners: I moan back at you.
Then the ballet part of the ballet happened.
George Balanchine's Symphony In C was almost comically regal after the modern + Romantic combo of the first two pieces. Women in cake-topper tutus; dudes in Prince Charming purple velvet. A solid, blinding blue backdrop carried the minimalist theme through, though, as did Victoria Simon's faithful staging of Balanchine's nearly obscene symmetry. Georges Bizet's sprightly Symphony No.1 recalled the busyness of Reich's piece in the first ballet, but its tension was less "I'm having an existential crisis god help me" and more "I've lost my keys in this romantic comedy!" So the ballet fit, but it stood out at the same time.
Anyway, the dance looks all royal and pretty, but you can just tell it's essentially a ballerina torture chamber. Carrie Imler, supported by Steven Loch, performed a slow-mo promenade, en pointe, that lasted a full 45 seconds. But, emotionally, it looked like she was doomed to spin around like that for the rest of her life. Practically the entire company was all onstage at one point, showing off their leaps and turns. It was an overwhelming kaleidoscopic spectacle. I kinda wished I was high.