PNB’s New Works programs, under Peter Boal, don’t always create storms of applause–though this one did on Saturday night–but they represent the company’s most direct attempts to help audiences encounter ballet as a living art form: taking risks, exploring alternative paths, giving new choreographers a chance at the spotlight. This time around, New Works (through March 24 at McCaw Hall) presents Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Victor Quijada, and David Dawson–though the specter of William Forsythe is also present.
For one, you can see some of Forsythe’s influence on Dawson, and for two, the people back of me were discussing how they almost dropped their ballet subscription on account of “One Flat Thing, Reproduced,” which is a story they’ve been telling since 2008. Think of it: four years later, and they can still discuss the work in detail. It’s almost as if it had some kind of lasting impact on them, rather than simply being pretty, or likeable.
I don’t often quibble with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s capo di tutti ballerine, Peter Boal, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that David Dawson‘s “A Million Kisses to my Skin” makes a better closer than curtain-raiser. Dawson’s work is getting glitter-bombed with critical superlatives (“loose-limbed, breezy joy,” Moira McDonald, Seattle Times; “tip-toe, twirling chaînés, pirouettes and piqués galore,” Crosscut’s Alice Kaderlan) and deservedly so, but it’s a difficult act to follow.
For this review, I get to arrange the works, so let’s begin with the world premiere of Quijada’s “Mating Theory,” with music by Jasper Gahunia. While I don’t think this work is that successful, ultimately, you can see flashes of what may come. What I remember are striking tableaux: the way, for instance, it opens with two dancers silhouetted against a wash of orange backdrop, but also side-lit (by Yan Lee Chan) so that they gain the contrasty dimensionality of a comic book. They reach out to bridge a distance, but miss. It’s repeated again, later on, the missing, grabbing an outstretched foot–it’s not enough to hold onto. But there are also male and female ensembles who face off in anticipation of…well, not much, actually. The body language–feral, upper-body retreats and snakings forward, martial artsy presentation–suggests more than it delivers. A man dances with the women, a woman with the men. The PNB dancers are game (especially the women), but maybe they, too, are struggling with what it all, meandering, means because they never seem to fully inhabit the movements so that they cohere.
Ochoa’s Cylindrical Shadows, in an expanded form from its Whim W’Him days, rewards repeated viewing. It’s subversively, not aggressively, innovative in how it tackles mortality and the sometimes sudden vanishings of life. People, after all, don’t want to deal with death unless they have to, let alone face the thought of how randomly the string can be cut. Ochoa has found what I always feel is a sharply poignant illustration of contemplative solitude–a dancer sitting on the hip of another, stretched out on his side–but there’s an almost Freudian wealth of symbolism in her piece as well. Arms go limp, then swing, like perhaps a pendulum’s hands. An ensemble loses a member; is that dancer sleeping or dead? Stiff arms and legs form a kind of fence that a dancer pokes his head through. And then there’s that lyrical duet (Postlewaite, Nakamura), to remind you that it’s not just men who are willing to venture to the underworld out of love. When you see Postlewaite dip to catch up Nakamura, it’s as if she’s silk in the breeze, draping him; you don’t soon forget that image.
Finally, then, we come to “A Million Kisses,” and a bravura, how-long-can-this-go-on display of technique. Dawson’s work is overwhelming in that sense–it’s poetic compression applied to movement vocabulary, and played at 45 rpm. The dancers seem to flicker in your eyes during the allegro sections. Lucien Postlewaite and Jonathan Porretta bound like stags, but in the middle, slower section, Seth Orza extracts poetry from a lowered sweep of arm, as if he’d turned the air to honey and simply relaxed. “Arms and legs are hyper-extended by both men and women, and asymmetry, off-center turns, broken lines, swoops, dips, and swirls are passed on from dancer to dancer as though they are sharing the sheer joy of movement,” explain the program notes, and this, I think, also explains something of the exhilaration of the work for ballet fans, this exuberant coloring outside the lines that means nothing quite happens when and where you, from habit, expect it: Lifts are over-rotated, so the women are frozen in plunges, not in flight. Instead of being assisted in slides, they’re almost tossed like a shovelful of ballerina into free-fall, and what happens next feels anyone’s guess. I’m not the only one to have been open-mouthed at Maria Chapman’s exhibition of how this is really done.