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PNB’s Director’s Choice:  “Let’s Give’em Something to Think About”?
By Rosie Gaynor
Posted March 18, 2008


    1986…2000…2006…2007—These are the dates of the premieres of the pieces that make up PNB’s current rep. (Modern!) Add them all up? 7,999—pretty much the number of questions I had while watching the performance. I’ve never been to an evening of ballet that made me think so hard.  

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in the PNB premiere of William Forsythe's One Flat Thing, reproduced. (In blue shirts:  Olivier Wevers and Lucien Postlewaite. Photo © Angela Sterling.)

    Question #1:  Is that good?   

    Question #2-10:  Why do you go to the ballet? For beauty? For a reminder of what the human spirit is capable of? For the thrill of rhythm and music made visible? To be reborn in the forge of so many art forms burning together? To feel? To feel alive? To think? Sure. Why not?  

    #11:  Is this Director’s Choice rep part of PNB’s way of challenging its audience—of making us think?  

    #12-13:  Isn’t that just a little patronizing? (And if we’re meant to think, when do we get to see The Green Table?) 

    #14-18:  Or are we just incredibly lucky? Here’s the thing:  I went to San Francisco Ballet a month or so ago, particularly excited as Mark Morris has been quoted as saying they are the best company in North America. They are excellent, excellent dancers, yes. Wow! But the evening was a little dull. (Diamonds, The Filling Station (very cute), and a Helgi Tomasson piece that was uninspired—on first viewing, at any rate.) In all my years of going to PNB shows, I’ve never been offered a dull evening. What can account for this? Is it the programming? Is it our dancers’ personalities? Is it a question of liking the art we know?  Thank goodness our programming is not just about what pleases, what sells, what fills seats. It’s not dull.

    #19:  How long—how many viewings does it take before something totally unfamiliar becomes beautiful to you?  

    #20-22:  Two for me in the case of William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced. This is the craziest piece in the Director’s Choice show. Twenty tables fill the stage, leaving only about a (dancer’s) hip-width between them. Fourteen dancers run, play, fight, swoosh, and thwack…around, on top, and below these “flat things.” Are they hurting themselves? Is it dangerous? Please say James Moore’s mother is not in the audience watching him slide across the tops of these tables. How on earth can they throw each others’ body parts around so fast and not drop anybody?  

    #23-27:  Is One Flat Thing, reproduced just a gimmick piece? Does it get boring after the first five minutes? (Yes, the first time. No, the second time. Why? First floor seats vs. balcony view? Or is it a question of learning to make patterns out of seeming chaos?)

     #28-30:  Is the piece really inspired by Shackelton’s adventures in the Antarctic? Or, rather, by PacMan? (Bright colors in a maze…a voice yelling “Reset!”) Or, maybe, Fame  

    #31-32:  Would I want every rep to be like this? No. Do I like it? Yes; I’ll come back and see it a third time. Here’s a little mathematical equation:  different dancers + different night = different ballet. 

    #33:  How on earth is a standard 600-word review supposed to describe a program like this? My mind is still working away on a long list of questions, but, for the record, here are a few statements about the other pieces in this rep: 

Gorgeous form and attention to detail in Paul Gibson's Sense of Doubt (Carrie Imler and Casey Herd. Photo © Angela Sterling.)

    Sense of Doubt —part ballet noir—is the most lyrical, classical piece of the evening. It also has the hippest, most beautiful costumes (by Mark Zappone). The dancers’ attention to detail is crucial. They show choreographer Paul Gibson as a master of groupings; the kaleidoscopic play from quartet to octet to solo (etc.) recalls the Baroque and leads to some thrilling moments. I missed my favorite moment from the 2007 performance, however:  in the pas de deux, the second time the woman lays back across the man, she doesn’t stop there but completes the circle of movement, ending up on the other side of him. Last year it was a cathartic moment, the woman giving herself fully and inevitably to the movement…and, maybe, to the man?  This year it was more acrobatic. Again with the questions:  Why? Is it due only to casting? Or is it partly the coaching? Or the pacing of the orchestra?    

    Edwaard Liang’s Für Alina is as dark as Sense of Doubt, but has a much different energy. It’s an intimate, dreamy pas de deux (Arvo Pärt music, lights-out marking several vignettes), and it’s sad, with some extraordinarily beautiful lifts and lovely still moments. One of my favorite moments:  Rachel Foster hanging onto Jeffrey Stanton in the kind of simple embrace you might see on any street, only here you see vulnerability and emotion in the lovers’ togetherness; here you see beauty. 

One of many beautiful lifts in Edwaard Liang's Für Alina (Batkhurel Bold and Miranda Weese. Photo © Angela Sterling.)

    Ulysses Dove’s Vespers too, has moments of stillness—some peaceful, some anguished, most involving a rigid New England posture and a careful placement of beautiful hands on still knees. But the sometimes-seething quiet is interrupted by series after series of explosive movements. I have a preference for African dance, and so was annoyed when modern dance movements and strange play with the prop chairs broke up the energy and beautiful line of the African steps in this piece. If you like modern dance, though, you’ll love this work.  

    As I left McCall Hall, the questions kept welling up. I shared a few of them with an affable-looking man seated at the back of the first floor, packing up some equipment. “What are you doing?” It turns out he is Toby Basiliko. “I come with the hall,” he said  modestly. In actuality, this PNB sound technician and his laptop were orchestra and conductor for One Flat Thing, reproduced. Very cool. The music, by Thom Willems, is made up of 24 sounds—recorded pieces, if I understood correctly. The only one I could distinguish was (possibly) a train screeching slowly through a tunnel. Willems and his purported sense of humor visited Seattle for a week, teaching Basiliko the music. Some parts are scored, some are a little more flexible, and others are open for improvisation.  

    That’s it. As with most reviews, the most important part has been left out. But then, I guess, that’s why you go to the performance. That, and, now we know, to think. There are only three shows left:  March 20, 21, and 22. Tickets are available at or at the PNB box office (206-441-2424). 

    Note: After this, it’s back to lighter fare. PNB’s next rep is pretty and pink:  A Midsummer’s Night Dream opens April 3. Check out PNB’s 2-for-$25 tickets on April 4 (for folks 25 and under) and the $5 Friday on March 28. 


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