The only question about Pacific Northwest Ballet‘s Modern Masterpieces program (at McCaw Hall through March 24) is at which point your soul may incandesce. My instinct is that this is likely to occur in the second half, during Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven or Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, with its spectacular use of the “fog of minimalism.”
But don’t rule out the understated Concerto Barocco, set by Balanchine to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043, and staged here by Francia Russell. It sets a high bar, opening the evening, for the marriage of dance and music, with the two lead ballerinas corresponding to the double violins. On opening night, that was a light-footed Carla Körbes and more earthbound Carrie Imler, weaving in space the way the violins (played by Michael Jinsoo Lim, Brittany Boulding) do in your ear, with an ensemble of eight in shifting arrangements behind them. Repeatedly, two of the dancers form an archway with their arms, while the others passed through. It’s a brilliant evocation of Bach’s cathedrals of sound, rising up from conductor Allen Dameron’s baton then disappearing, but in Balanchine’s work, they are like that church you make with your hands, which you can open to see all the people.
Footwork comes to the fore in Mozart Pieces by Paul Gibson, set to excerpts from Mozart symphonies and minuets; it’s a world premiere, which makes it modern, if a bit early to be deemed a masterpiece, but it’s a constantly diverting piece, with seven roles for men of the nine total. Opening night, tall, slender Lindsi Dec paired with tall, slender Karel Cruz for an elegant pas de deux, but it’s in the architecture of the ensembles that Gibson demonstrates the most inventiveness, violating expectations of symmetry with spiky, attitudinal concoctions that seem right for Mozart. Mark Zappone’s costumes, if you squint, suggest tails or trains, but I’m not sure the cutaway tutu is a hit.
Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven (subtitled Odes to Love and Loss) is a startling union of choreographic vision with a composer’s work; it is difficult to hear Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, afterward, and not think of what Dove has done. Staged by Eva Säfström, with Randal G. Chiarelli recreating Björn Nilsson’s stark shafts of light, Front Porch presents three couples, though there is some mixing and matching and solo work.
Bells keep mournful time (Stilian Kirov conducting) as a series of tableaux appear and are cut short. Where Balanchine saw an arch in arms, Dove saw a tomb’s vault in a wide, Grahamesque plié, the dancers on and off pointe with a wrenching, snapped-to precision. (Dove said the year before he created the piece, he’d lost 13 people, including his father.)
Every dancer’s performance here seemed charged — Maria Chapman, Andrew Bartee, Rachel Foster, Seth Orza, Lesley Rausch, and Jerome Tisserand, all in northernly severe costumes from Jorge Gallardo. Foster soars in the “love” section; Bartee and Tisserand are achingly tender in “friendship.” For the final releasing, it feels as if the air pressure has changed in the hall.
Dove’s work may sound like a difficult piece to follow, and it is, but Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room does, and earned roars from audience on Friday. It’s in danger of being remembered as the smoke-filled ballet, given the amount of artificial fog pumped into McCaw Hall, but it’s nonetheless clear that Tharp and Philip Glass sparked something in each other. It begins, jarringly enough, given the spiritual upwelling in Dove’s work, with the dancers in almost comic black-and-white outfits (Norma Kamali’s designs).
The dancers aren’t doing that much, other than keeping up with Glass’s score as it chugs along — the mode is perhaps more contemporary dance, but done on that unforgiving rhythmic train that is minimalism. Some of the PNB troupe seem more at home with Tharp’s looser, jazzy idiom than others. Kiyon Gaines, for instance, can demonstrate exactly how you jog backwards and make it into dance, springing back off the ball of his foot.
In the fog of this abstract carnival, micro-collisions grow, as the dancers’ split-second timing is troubled enough that they can’t quite tell how fast and far away the others are. All except for the indomitable Kaori Nakamura, who can be whisked up overhead and then deposited back on the ground, her foot touching down without question, as if that’s exactly where the stage needed to be.
Flashes of red appear — provocatively, there are red unitards that, under a skirt, look a bit like lingerie — until, for instance, the whole red unitard appears. Groups of dancers vanish into the fog upstage, then reappear out of it. Over the course of nine sections, your mind wanders and returns, but eventually Glass’s propulsive score gathers itself up for a final push, as do the dancers, all slick with sweat and by now heedless of the danger they’re in of a 13-dancer pile-up. They’re dancing the hell out of this, out of themselves, out of you, the audience. It’s all they need to know how to do.