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PNB Review: New Works for Me
By Rosie Gaynor
Posted November 20, 2008

     With New Works (November 6–16), Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal put together another exciting program for us. Well, for some of us: the audience thinned remarkably before (and during) the last piece. However, I’d guess that even the folks who left early enjoyed the first three pieces of the evening. 

Piece #1

Carla Körbes and Olivier Wevers dancing The Minuet in the PNB premiere of Mark Morris’s A Garden (photo © Angela Sterling)

     Mark Morris’s 2001 A Garden got the evening off to a charming start, with Richard Strauss’s arrangements of keyboard dances by François Couperin (1668–1733).  

     A Garden is a courtly ensemble ballet that speaks to the music and to the origins of ballet  with respectful modern comments. As you might expect from its ties to the Baroque, part of the pleasure derives from the patterns, which the PNB dancers articulated beautifully. (Joanna Berman—on whom the piece was set just a year before she retired from San Francisco Ballet—staged it for PNB. Lines looked Francia-Russell-straight, movement made sense, style was consistent.)  

     Stand-out performances included those by Kaori Nakamura with her exquisite phrasing in solos that seem strangely disconnected from the music; Benjamin Griffiths, who danced his lullaby-sweet solo as though it had been choreographed for him: neatly, gracefully, and with sincerity; Stacy Lowenberg, who captured the refined grace of the piece perfectly; and Jonathan Porretta, whose lighthearted and light-footed jumps and turns energized the piece.  

     Missed opportunity: The pas de deux “minuet.” I understand there is supposed to be a disconnect between the dancers here—one of those “the emotion comes from the movement, not from the dancer” ideas—but it reduces the movement somehow and strips away the dancers’ personalities.  

     Opportunity taken: On November 14, Kiyon Gaines and Carla Körbes slipped up: their few glances were enough to turn this dry pas de deux into an exquisite, poignant description of the complexities of love. The same on November 15, with Olivier Wevers and Körbes: beautiful!   

     Happy moments: The shadow-dancing of Porretta and Barry Kerollis and the my-arms-are-floppy pas de trois.  

     Unhappy moments: The orchestra mangled the stately, opening strains of the music some nights (but they nailed it on others, very properly setting the stage for the dance that was in store for us).  

     Unfortunate choice: The Oklahoma!-blue-sky backdrop really detracted from the piece on opening night. Thankfully, the big, white cloud seemed to change in intensity over the course of the run (or perhaps it varied according to seating/sightlines?). On some nights it was a lovely smudge or ever so slightly defined, a vast improvement over the huge Curly’s-about-to-enter-from-stage-left cumulus cloud.  

     Overall: What a lovely, elegant new piece to add to PNB’s repertoire! I’m looking forward to seeing it again and again. 


Lindsi Dec (who worked with the choreographer during the early stages of the choreography process) and Kari Brunson in the world premiere of Kiyon Gaines’ M-Pulse (photo © Angela Sterling)

     The next piece, M-Pulse, by PNB’s most ebullient dancer, Kiyon Gaines, had a lot more pizzazz. This work represents the newest of New, in the sense that the choreographer and the composer are both in the early stages of their professional careers. Seattle has seen several of Gaines’ pieces in the company’s annual Choreographers’ Showcase and spring festival, but this was his first work commissioned for the company’s main season. It was a worthwhile effort and I’m glad I was there to see it.  

     I imagine that Gaines’ kindergarten teacher never had to encourage him to use the whole paper and to try out new colors. M-Pulse used almost every part of the body possible and blended multiple dance styles. African dance played an exciting role, including contractions (which the women did on pointe) and some extremely effective arm movements.   

Choreographer Kiyon Gaines (photo © Angela Sterling)

     Gaines achieved his greatest success with his ensembles for men. (He did an all-male piece last spring for Choreographers’ Showcase that was dynamite. I would love to see it again.) With his men, Gaines creates the focus, sweep, and thrilling energy of some of the best works of ballet. This follows his own center of excellence as a dancer: he covers ground fast and appears happiest when he’s not touching it. His plucky fellow danseurs follow his lead. 

     Posing, flashing legs, arched backs, and magazine-ad stares characterized the women’s choreography for this piece. If the men were about moving across the stage, the women were about stabbing up onto pointe and crouching down into pounce-mode. Effective the first few times, it quickly began to pall. In the third movement, where the music progresses to huge, crossing-the-prairies phrases, Gaines still constrained his women to small spaces and staccato movements. That may be an interesting artistic statement, but it would have been more fun to see the women really cover ground.  

     At this stage, Gaines’ partner work seems to be less about relationship and movement and more about “what can I do for this requisite component that is creative and unusual?” It interrupts the momentum he achieves elsewhere. If he’s determined to achieve this kind of innovation, Gaines will need the company’s most-experienced, most-skilled, best-matched partners.  

     The PNB-commissioned music by young composer Cristina Spinei has many fine, effective moments. I love the beginning of first movement especially, which sounds like Latin locusts and typewriter keys having a great time on the dance floor. And I still find myself humming bits of the third movement. Taken as a whole, however, the composition rambles, leaving Gaines with the onerous task of trying to shore up the structure with dance.  

     Where the composer and choreographer do come together marvelously is in their interest in exploring rhythm. There’s lots of it, and the jazzy, percussive bits are extremely affecting. The first movement is especially strong. 

     I’m excited to see more of Gaines’ choreography (and to hear more of Spinei’s work as well). Some in the audience claimed M-Pulse as their favorite piece of the evening. Some even argued passionately in favor of the Ice Capades costumes. I loved the lighting—beautiful golden squares that Gaines used well.   

Peter Boal mentioned at the post-performance chat that Gaines’ goal had been to develop a new vocabulary and that Boal thought he had succeeded.  No small compliment, that. 


     The piece that—for me—elevated the evening from fun to soul-grasping was Benjamin Millepied’s 3 Movements. It’s non-stop, as you might expect from a work set to a Steve Reich score (his 1986 Three Movements for Orchestra. Played live. Thank you!). It is also tremendously exciting, which you might not expect. Millepied mines the score, bringing to light its fascinating change of rhythms and moods. 

     Lucien Postlewaite and James Moore started off this high-energy ballet with a dash across the stage. In unison at first, like the “phased” qualities of Reich’s music their movements fell out of sync with fascinating results. Fourteen other dancers joined them, creating what felt like an urban street during rush hour. (The stylin’ business-casual costumes and the gray and black strips of fabric in the background helped create this effect.)  

     The dancers play out various kinds of relationships with varying degrees of synchronicity during the first two movements. The groups merge and morph, and at one point early on, all the dancers find themselves on the same trajectory. It is one of the most thrilling moments: they cross from stage left to stage right, in lines of one-two-three-four-three-two-and-one. Some of the lines slip back and forth through the forward-propelled-mass, creating the ballet equivalent of a moray pattern.   

     In the third movement, when the music becomes big and heavy, the dancers move in unison and pattern takes over. Several times, the group splits and comes back together again, a little like one of those multi-axis trainers that astronauts use. The effect is wonderfully dizzying. 

     Millepied has such an interesting style.  A look at his early Chaconne videos at will give you an excellent idea of how he plays with air, weight, balance, tension, and relaxation. You see the same qualities in 3 Movements, only more aggressive and dark and mature. 

     Millepied does not take full advantage of the abilities of his women dancers in this piece. He does come up with some lovely Körbes-inspired movements, but… There are so many memorable moments for the men. The two-on-two petit allegro with William Lin-Yee, James Moore, Sokvannara Sar, and Jerôme Tisserand took my breath away. A later passage by that same group, joined by the rest of the men, carried me over the edge. Even Tisserand and Seth Orza running circles around the stage evoked interest and force. But for the women? Millepied definitely knows how to use them as partners, they have thrilling movement during the moray pattern section, and they carry their weight in the unison bits. They work hard in this piece. They have charming salsa movements…but nothing as deep, thrilling, and vibrant as what the men are given. I am interested to see how Millepied’s work for women changes over the coming years. 

     3 Movements will likely be performed in New York next season, since part of the funding for this commission came from the Joyce Theater’s 25th anniversary program: 25-for-25. This program granted $25,000 to 25 companies to produce new work. It stipulates a repeat performance at the Joyce Theater. (25-for-25 is funded in part by the Stephen and Cathy Weinroth Fund for New Work.)  


Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced (photo © Angela Sterling)

     The evening ended (for those of us who stuck it out) with William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced. PNB first danced this controversial piece last season. The “flat things” are 20 tables, which the dancers move on, under, and around during 16 minutes of Thom Willem’s industrial music. (In his pre-performance lecture, PNB’s Doug Fullington mentioned that the initial efforts of Ballet Frankfurt, the originators of this piece, took 30 minutes and that as the dancers became more comfortable and daring with the non-balletic movements, they cut the timing down to 16 minutes.)  

     I like this aggressive, multi-faceted piece more each time I see it. I’m in love with it by now and it has even begun to look like dance to me.  

     Rather than describe it here, I’ll point you to the excerpts video at  You’ll be able to see why people seeking graceful tutu-clad dancers ran for the door.  

     Peter Boal does not deliberately set out to choose pieces that could cause donors to change their wills and patrons to cancel their subscriptions. “It’s great to have works that everybody loves. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. He adds that he loves Swan Lake too, but notes: “It’s also good to have works that challenge an audience, that stretch their tastes, that test their definition of what ballet is. I like those works a lot.”  And there were converts in the audience; some of them spoke up in the post-performance lecture: “I hated this piece last season, but liked it tonight. It’s growing on me.” 

     I once asked Boal how he knows if a new work is any good. “I look for strong works that I feel are well structured,” he said. “I sometimes look for works that have their own voice, possibly making a statement. Also, works that you can sit through: I don’t want works that are annoying….” If that’s the criteria, then (with apologies to those who left the show early)  New Works definitely ranks as good. Or, as my friend said while we were leaving McCaw Hall: “A dream program!” 

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