The word on the (dance) street is right. The young British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is the closest to an heir to Balanchine who has come down the pike in the past fifty years. Not that his work is any clone of the great 20th century choreographer. It is all his own, but there is the same feel of both inspiration and inevitability to his creations, as though there was no other way for the dancers to move and yet no one else thought that way.
The four works Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting as its first production of the season–All Wheeldon (through October 2; tickets here) are very different from each other, but through them all runs a sense of humanity.
Friday night’s opening showed the company in fine form. The choreography is challenging, but it suits the dancers and they have risen to the occasion, some of them achieving growth this summer that has led them to new heights.
Carousel (A Dance) uses Richard Rodgers’ familiar music but in arrangement by William David Brohn. Wheeldon takes just a vignette from the show, the wooing of the girl at a fair, with the carnival feel given by the other dancers creating the sense of a Ferris wheel in the back. Carla Körbes gave a masterly portrayal of the shy young woman and her gradual winning over. Setha Orza as her suitor danced with moves clean, musical, and ardent, the best I’ve ever seen from him.
Wheeldon creates a situation where neither dancer can reach the other for all the people in between, and at one point the corps make an actual carousel with poles rising and falling as they go around, in which they mirror the circle of the carousel itself, wrists, feet, heads and all in circular movements.
Perhaps the most mesmerizing work of the program is the After the Rain pas de deux. The music, by Arvo Pärt, is in a slow three-time with violin and piano, gentle, spare, songful. The dance is the slow, flowing exploration of a relationship between two dancers, done with exquisite synchronization of seamless movement and requiring enormous—and invisible–control and strength. Karel Cruz and Maria Chapman were the dancers, and to watch them was an absorbing, moving experience. When they came out for their front-of-curtain bow, one could see the sweat shining on them both.
The abstract third work, Polyphonia, is perhaps the one which most displays the legacy of Balanchine. To excerpts of ten piano works by Gyorgy Ligeti, four couples dance side by side, then in smaller groups, often couples, a solo, or trios of one sex. At times the dancers move in canon, but always there is a flow to the work and fluidity to the movement.
The start is extraordinary. The four couples each dance disparately yet with a subtle canon within all four pairs, and sometimes they all magically come together to the same steps and then split apart again. The busy music gives no helping indication of place at all. Extremely difficult, it was ably played by company pianist Christina Siemens.
Wheeldon’s steps never shout out their difficulty or originality. It’s all much more subtle. You never see dancers positioning themselves for a turn or a balance, they just happen in the tide of the dance.
Wheeldon’s extremely funny spoof of backstage at rehearsal and performance, Variations Sérieuses, completes the evening, complete with temperamental ballerina (Laura Gilbreath), new young dancer, (Sarah Ricard Orza), ubiquitous stage crew with mops, stage manager, ballet master, conductor, pianist, corps and premier danseur (Seth Orza). Sarah Orza, who shone in Polyphonia, did as well here, while her husband continued his excellent work.
Music director Emil de Cou, who has been here on and off this past year, is now taking the full reins of the orchestra, and gave the dancers excellent support in both first and last works of the program.
At the start of the evening, artistic director Peter Boal dedicated the performance to the memory of Charles Bagley Wright, citing his tireless efforts on behalf of the fine arts in Seattle. He also announced the promotion of Lesley Rausch and Rachel Foster to principal dancer, presenting each with a bouquet of flowers.