PNB’s ‘Contemporary 4’ is Bullish on Ballet’s Future (Review)

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Karel Cruz and Carla Körbes in Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, presented as part of CONTEMPORARY 4, March 18 – 27, 2011. (Photo © Angela Sterling)

Contemporary 4, at Pacific Northwest Ballet through March 27, concludes with the PNB premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH. The phrase, “From Russia, with love,” takes on a new context here.

If you follow dance, you’ve heard about Ratmansky, the former Bolshoi dancer who “grew up” to become the former Bolshoi artistic director, now with American Ballet Theater. Concerto DSCH, though, he created for New York City Ballet, where, the New York Times will tell you, it was a “smash hit.”

It went over big in Seattle on opening night, bookended on this program with Mark Morris’s Pacific, which is the opener. From an early age, Ratmansky told PNB director Peter Boal–who was doing a more-than-credible Dick Cavett impression during a pre-run interview with Ratmansky earlier in the week–he was in love with Shostakovich. When you see Concerto DSCH (the “DSCH” is a musical motif), the depth of that affinity is apparent from the first seconds. You will be enraptured.

It feels right to pair Ratmansky with Morris because although you would not mistake one for the other (unless you freeze-framed on one slumped-over pose that appears in both works), their dances share a remarkable, rigorous charm. If Concerto DSCH is described as one of Ratmansky’s “abstract” works, you should know that it’s not Mercer Cunningham abstraction. It reminds me more of what Brian Wilson was trying to accomplish with Pet Sounds‘ emotional tone poems–a distillation of feeling. Ratmansky is aided in this by the wonderful performance coming from the pit, led by Allan Dameron and featuring Duane Hulbert on piano.

It opens with dancers stepping out of a ring of other dancers, as if a rebirth is taking place, and except for the sorrowful, more contemplative second movement (in which a group casts out a member, recalling Shostakovich’s ins and outs with Party society), the stage is filled with vibrant motion, with dancers actually dancing–some hopping–as if from the sheer joy of it (Carrie Imler was all wide smiles and stepping). If it’s equally a joy to watch, it’s not because it’s easy. Ratmansky shuttles the dancers all over the stage in rings within rings, or diagonal flights, and gives Batkurel Bold and Seth Orza a series of entrechats, spins, and leaps with weight shifts that evolve in mid-air so that they land on a different foot than you expected, facing a different direction. Karel Cruz and Carla Körbes are a playful, winsome couple who meet and test each other out with a flirtatious shyness that contrasts with the work’s overall neo-Realist, boldly-we-face-the-future aesthetic (Holly Hynes’s beautiful costumes). That’s the more serious question repeated at the heart of the work, as a dancer is pushed to the floor, who the “we” is and isn’t, and how to repair the circle.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Ariana Lallone and Lucien Postlewaite in Mark Morris’s Pacific (Photo © Angela Sterling)

I’m just going to say it, if you like your male dancers bare-chested and ripped, the first half of the program is unmissable. Perhaps because it was opening night, the work began a little stiffly, but why quibble about that when you get to see Ariana Lallone and Lucien Postlewaite in that duet pictured above, and Olivier Wevers partnered with Carla Körbes.

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson and Margaret Mullin in Marco Goecke’s Place a Chill, presented as part of CONTEMPORARY 4, March 18 – 27, 2011. (Photo © Angela Sterling)

The dancers are in flowing shades of blue, green, and a reddish-orange (Martin Pakledinaz’ designs) and while you’re used to that on women, the way it recasts and opens up the men’s movement is striking. The fluidity of below-the-waist movement is countered by gestural series in the arms and hands, which, people will tell you, evokes the “Kathak style of southern India.” I’ve never managed to make narrative sense of this work, but I’ve never felt that I needed to, it’s so purely evocative, and of a piece with Lou Harrison’s music. If you surrender to it, you’ll find yourself transported by the smallest thing–a just-missed chance for hands to meet one moment that finds its resolution in hands clasped a little later.

Place a Chill is a world premiere from choreographer Marco Goecke, and it’s one of the more startling, sui generis works I’ve seen, beginning with the Mark Zappone costumes that have bunches of flowers protruding from the dancers’ shins. To Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 (there’s a story to that cello music, performed by Page Smith), the dancers scuttle about the stage by petit pas, like sea creatures moving with the tides.

Their arms are in constant, hyperfast movement that appears more digital than analog, as if the dancers’ hands were simply appearing in different positions, rather than moving there. It actually becomes taxing to watch, because of the speed and extraordinary precision of the movement.

The movements, although alien at first glance (to ballet, in any event), have a definite connection to the music. It’s just that instead of dancing out the plangent melody of the cello, the dancers are vibrating to microtones and the frictions of the bow on strings, or even bending each other into imitations of the celloist’s contortions around the instrument. It may be a dark, eerie underworld, seemingly far from the cool serenity of the music, but it shows you artistry’s daimonic face, where the music arises from.

PNB soloist Chalnessa Eames and corps de ballet dancer Josh Spell in Paul Gibson’s The Piano Dance (Photo © Angela Sterling)

The Piano Dance, from Paul Gibson, in this company, felt like an entr’acte that was a little too long. Put another way, it was the maraschino cherry of the evening–some people really go for maschino cherries, but I can usually just handle the one. That’s not to fault the pianist (Christina Siemens), who had the following on her plate:

Frederic Chopin (Prelude, Op. 28, No. 4, 1835-1839), John Cage (Opening Dance for Sue Laub, c. 1940), Gyorgy Ligeti (II, III, IV, VI, and X from Musica Ricercata, 1951–1953), Bela Bartok (“Chromatic Invention” and “Ostinato” from Mikrokosmos, Sz. 107, BB 105, 1931-1939), and Alberto Ginastera (Suite de Danzas Criollas, Op. 15. No. 1, 1946)

There were moments of invention–Lesley Rausch attaching herself to Seth Orza’s midsection (Orza was dancing for Jeffrey Stanton) like an urchin, then slowly opening her arms and legs like pincers–but more frequently what I saw were ballet études, pretty enough, but sometimes sentimentally flip. The dances themselves were outshone by Mark Zappone’s lurid red costumes and the use of red backdrops of shifting height (lighting was by Lisa J. Pinkham). I could tell that a portion of audience was sighing comfortably and thinking, Ah, this is ballet, but then they had yet to see Concerto DSCH.

6 thoughts on “PNB’s ‘Contemporary 4’ is Bullish on Ballet’s Future (Review)

  1. Unmissable? More like unwatchable. This review doesn’t come close to doing justice to the waste of brilliant dancers, stage, and audience as this performance does. Pacific and Place a Chill are boring, sleepy, and ineffectively weird. We are dazzled by the amazing physics of these male dancers, but simply slipping them into ballet skirts doesn’t suddenly make them “edgy”. What’s wrong with tight, challenging routines that one could watch and admire over and over again? But Place a Chill was flat out dumb. At intermittent times standing in a Sumo wrestling stance, no music, and whipping hands frantically around their head was painful to watch. And the dropping of 100 chairs in the middle of the stage in the middle of the performance was laughable – punctuated by the fact that the audience in fact laughed at it.

    The 3rd piece, The Piano Dance, opened to a brilliant and vibrant silhouette of bright red. Fun at times, lovely and REAL dancing then took place. Maraschino perhaps, but much more enjoyable than the monkey brain stew of the first pieces.

    The final piece was much more of a true challenge of the dancers skill set. I guess in the end when I go to a PNB performance I expect PNB dancing. Ummm…let’s see….OH! That’s right it stands for Pacific Northwest BALLET!!!

    1. First, thanks for the comment, it’s nice to hear from others who saw the show. Secondly, I have to say that the full quote is: “if you like your male dancers bare-chested and ripped, the first half of the program is unmissable.”

      It does sound like we are on different pages regarding what’s to be welcomed on a ballet stage. I would just point out that your negative experience doesn’t exclude alternate possibilities–as I hoped to make clear with my discussion of “Piano Dance.” It didn’t do much for me, in this context, but I could tell others responded to it. As for your more general complaint about what is/isn’t ballet, the program is called “Contemporary 4”–I think it does a fine job of presenting various contemporary branchings from the ballet tree.

      I’m going to disagree with the essence of your statement that “Place a Chill” is “flat out dumb,” though. Whatever else it is, it isn’t a stupidly conceived work. People often laugh at things they don’t get, or are surprised by, so I wouldn’t offer tittering as a critical appraisal. People regularly laugh at Siegfried’s “Das ist kein Mann!” but I don’t think Wagner’s reputation suffers from it.

      1. My biggest complaint is not that people venture into uncharted territory and push the boundaries of what is considered traditional. I get that it was intended to be “contemporary” which means all bets are off and people are free to offer their own interpretation of what “dance” may be.

        What, in my opinion, is disappointing is that you have this amazing corps of dancers that have spent years training and honing their craft. A craft that they have amazing skill to perform at the highest level. Why not present material that pushes them within the sphere in which they are so well trained and so talented? This may be a poor analogy, but this would equate taking Lebron James and putting him on ice skates to play hockey. Just because he is an amazing athlete doesn’t make it a compelling or interesting idea or result.

        Modern has it’s place. And I don’t not like it. Frankly the second piece was just horribly boring on every level, wasn’t interesting or innovative on any level, being “different” doesn’t make it compelling. I felt like this was a piece to be “weird” simply for the sake of being weird.

        My other problem is – I guess – is that if you know anything about the dance world is that these professionals, that have spent a life time honing their craft – are completely at the whim of the choreographer to the extent that they can’t turn this crap down without further repercussions.

        I think if you could get the honest truth out of each one of them, the vast majority are rolling their eyes and thinking “how the hell did I get roped in to this?”

        Ultimately I completely respect that we can have a difference of opinion. I appreciate these amazing artists and performers and watch most anything they do. But PNB has such a natural, supportive, BIG audience in the world of ballet. I just feel they have an obligation to do what they do best. Something like this feels like they are thumbing their nose at that. Far too many excellent, talented choreographers who honor tradition would relish the idea of setting something brilliant under the same conditions with that kind of talent at their disposal.

        1. Well, I appreciate *your* passion for ballet, and thanks for the response. It’s always good to hear from someone who’s invested, as you clearly are. On the plus side, we both seemed to like Alexei Ratmansky’s work, and PNB has him returning with his “Don Quixote” next season. So something to look forward to.

        2. A Sad Fan says: “Frankly the second piece was just horribly boring on every level, wasn’t interesting or innovative on any level, being “different” doesn’t make it compelling.” How then do we explain that I, a 45 year fan of ballet (and not particularly a fan of modern dance), found it a fascinating piece? Am I making it up?

          Furthermore, his/her statements implying that the dancers hated doing it, only demonstrates they he/she has not talked to any of the dancers in the piece (as I have). And even more so, if one does talk to the actual dancers, they will tell you how difficult it was to do, and certainly would not agree that it was far below their skill level.

          Why is it that so many folks equate what they don’t like is a bad piece? Heaven forbid it THEY that missed the point!

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