Twyla in the Air

"The dancers have rarely looked better, with both technique and expressive quality uniformly high all evening at AIR Twyla’s opening."
“The dancers have rarely looked better, with both technique and expressive quality uniformly high all evening at AIR Twyla’s opening.” Photos via © Angela Sterling

It’s called AIR TWYLA because she’s been Artist-In-Residence at Pacific Northwest Ballet for the past year, but the title of this week’s opening ballet presentation of the season is appropriate as, in it, Twyla Tharp truly soars.

PNB dances three of her ballets in Air Twyla. One, Nine Sinatra Dances, is already in its repertoire; another, Brief Fling from 1990, is new to PNB; and finally, Waiting at the Station is a world premiere which Tharp choreographed here for PNB’s dancers.

Not only does Tharp soar; so does the company. The dancers have rarely looked better, with both technique and expressive quality uniformly high all evening at Thursday’s opening.

The three works are great choices, very different from each other, though each has Tharp’s signature dichotomies of sudden changes of pace, mood, style, and sudden changes back.

AirTwyla 0181Waiting at the Station is not quite a story, but more a man’s thoughts as he looks back on — his career? his life? — and looks forward to — handing it on to his son? his death? his retirement? The program notes don’t help much in clarifying, leaving it to only one cryptic sentence: “Being the story of a man’s last fare-thee-well.”

It’s set in an old station of rusty corrugated iron, with cables going to the roof and a station clock. It’s the 1930s or so, and misty there, but full of exuberant life as danced by the Father (James Moore), his son (Price Suddarth), a pair of young couples, and an ensemble and three Fates, who look like blowzy champagne-colored chrysanthemums with sparkly bathcaps on their heads. Carrie Imler and Kiyon Gaines shone as one couple, sexy and tantalizing on her part, eager on his; Laura Tisserand and Jonathan Porretta excellent as foils and rivals.

AirTwyla 0801All was knit together by R&B icon Allen Toussaint, who was there, playing his own music with the PNB orchestra under conductor Emil de Cou. And with set and costume designer Santo Loquasto, and lighting designer James F. Ingalls, everything meshes seamlessly with Tharp’s choreography to create scene, sound, and vision. There’s a surprise at the end. Go see this wonderful creation to find out what. Thursday’s audience surged to its feet and roared its approval at the finish.

Choreographically, the dancing in Station is perhaps easier than in Brief Fling. Here, with everyone in Isaac Mizrahi’s tartan and the music a mix of Percy Grainger and Michel Colombier, there are classical dance, modern moves, and incongruous comedic interludes that are fast and intricate and require exquisite control and balance. Kaori Nakamura floated in the most classical moves, her partner was guest artist Sascha Radetsky from American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet. The two were less synchronized than they could have been, particularly in contrast to the other two couples who were closely together throughout. A quartet of three men and a girl provided the humorous side, with corps dancer Leta Biasucci tossed around like an eel with extraordinary balance and recovery time, all done with grace.

BriefFling.Biasucci,Leta-Thomson,Ezra.0926.ASNine Sinatra Songs is familiar here, but this performance highlighted the contrasts in dancers’ moods in the different songs: the straightforward; the late-at-night slightly high abandon; the couple at odds — Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta made their feelings very clear; the liquid moves and great partnering of Karel Cruz, and the shocking aggression, almost to the point of abuse, from Seth Orza to partner Nakamura, almost unrecognizable in a black curly wig.

In all three works, different as they are, Tharp’s choreography seems designed to bring out moods and ideas, and yet often remain enigmatic. It suits PNB’s dancers, who seem open to trying out, absorbing, and developing further every move she creates.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting here and in Brief Fling, and Oscar de la Renta’s costumes for Songs, complete the who’s who roster of stellar artists whose work combined with Tharp’s to create a memorable whole.