Pacific Northewest Ballet performs works by Wheeldon, Cerrudo, and Peck in New York.
There are forty-three dancers in Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. Unless I’ve miscounted, only nineteen appeared in the company’s season at the Joyce Theater, and the most people to appear in any of the three ballets shown was a dozen. Artistic director Peter Boal’s choice of works to bring to New York was not only prudent; given the Joyce’s relatively small stage; it was also smart. We got our first look at Christopher Wheeldon’s first ballet for the company, a work by Alejandro Cerrudo premiered by the company last spring, and one by Justin Peck, so new that it counted as a preview (meaning that the gifted young choreographer can, if he wishes, make changes in it before its November premiere in Seattle).
So, a spruce, youthful program in which music and dancing told all the stories that needed telling. And a group of polished, expressive performers to reveal them.
Wheeldon may have been motivated by the prospect of making a work in a Pacific Coast city to select Joby Talbot’s Tide Harmonic as the music for his eponymous ballet and persuade Talbot to make a new arrangement of it; turbulence and ringing tones yield to softer swirling ones, then storm on again (Talbot created the score for the Alice in Wonderland that Wheeldon choreographed for the National Ballet of Canada.)
The allusion to water doesn’t mean that the ballet is loaded with watery images. The exhilarating opening moments could, I suppose be linked to violently splashing waves, but that would be a stretch. Still, your eyes can scarcely take in the canonic splatter of arabesques when four women cut loose, and, with their male partners, join and separate from the fray. You also could think of moored boats rocking when each man embraces his woman with one arm, holds up one of her legs with his other hand, and rocks her gently side to side. Holly Hynes has dressed everyone in vivid blue and given each woman a somewhat distracting little swath of fabric that floats free.
The duet for the strong, incisively virtuosic Lindsi Dec and Jerome Tisserand is the most aggressive. Dec plays the queen bee (with perhaps a shade too many smoldering looks at the audience)—whipping her long legs around, pulling her helpful partner into position. Although each man and woman has a moment alone together—Elizabeth Murphy and Joshua Grant in a softer, sweeter duet, Margaret Mullin and Price Suddarth (or James Moore), or Laura Tisserand and Batkhurel Bold—they also spend time rushing around, eddying, ebbing away. Overlapping incidents also create a sense of changing currents within ongoing flow.
Wheeldon handles his material expertly—with an eye to variety in terms of texture and tempo, but also to thematic echoes. Unexpected images stick in the mind. Three of the women relinquish the stage to the fourth and her partner by first lingering near the edge of the area and then exiting slowly, heads bowed, their faces in their hands. Two of the men, arms around each other’s shoulders, bound around together. Pairs laboriously cross the stage, the men bent forward, beasts of burden, with the women lying arched back over their partners’ bodies, making their bourréeing pointe shoes whir like tiny motors while the men plod along.
The middle piece in the program, Cerrudo’s Memory Glow is the darkest one, set to a variety of excerpts from film scores. What look like smallish, bulbous tv sets sit in a semi-circle on the stage. Sometimes they glow with hard-to-see shapes, and a red that suggests the theater’s curtain (but clearly can’t be). The objects are pulled back to enlarge the space after a woman (Elizabeth Murphy) emerges from the darkness at the back of the stage, where barely visible men lurk. Randall G. Chiarelli’s lighting design heightens the mystery, as does the emergence of one man to place her hands just so and make her legs swing from one side to the other. This is a dance for three principal pairs: Leah Merchant and Charles McCall, Murphy and Raphaël Bouchard, and Angelica Generosa and James Moore, plus three additional men (Steven Loch, Matthew Renko or Eric Hipolito Jr., Ezra Thomson, and Suddarth). All are clad in shades of gray and black, with socks on their feet (costumes by Mark Zappone).
Although the three couples dance in unison at times, individuals often make their entrances from hidden openings in the black curtain at the back, or replace someone else in a relationship, which heightens the impression of remembering. The seven men of Memory Glow band together to turn what might have been a duet between Moore and Generosa into a scene that bears a peculiar and (for me) a disturbing resemblance to a veiled gang rape. Maybe the woman, who remains serene while being manipulated and lifted, is simply recalling the men in her life. In another moment, Merchant’s partner bends over, his butt toward the audience, so that all we see are his black legs, while she sits on his back and gazes around as if wondering where he is. She also makes an entrance pushing McCall before her; he walking backward, seems both to lure her and to be rebuffed by her.
Peck’s set his Debonair to music that you’d think an odd match with Reid Bartelme and Harriet Young’s costumes. George Antheil’s 1948 Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1 can —with its occasional hints at jazz rhythms and well-buried references to a cowboy song—stir memories of “American” music, such as Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet Rodeo (even though Serenade’s textures are denser). But the dozen dancers Peck has assembled are dressed for far grander party. The women wear shimmering, translucent dresses that swirl wonderfully with almost every step they take, and the vest for principal male dancer (Tisserand) has a gray velvet insert. At times the performers, instead of exiting, stand about observing their colleagues.
However, the opening “Allegro” and closing “Vivo,” with its ¾-time lilt, are full of exuberant bounding about, and Peck skillfully manages the interplay among two demi-soloist couples (Brittany Reid and Moore, Mullin and Bouchard) and three additional ones (Jahna Frantziskonis and Suddarth, Generosa and Thomson, Merchant and Hipolito), as well as moments when individuals shine. In one fine repeated moment, the dancers cluster centerstage; from this, the men, one by one, or more, pull their partners away by the hand. You really see an image of a structure coalescing and tumbling apart.
The intervening “Andante Molto” takes up approximately half of Antheil 15-plus-minute music. Appropriately, it features Carla Körbes, one of the company’s most mesmerizing principal dancers, who left New York City Ballet to join PNB in 2005 and will take early retirement in the upcoming season. The duet that Peck has created for her and Tisserand in Debonair is an ode to love and belonging. Körbes is marvelous at shaping a phrase—at keeping her body and limbs unfurling silkily, yet not yielding to mindless flow. Small, swift articulations and hesitations imply thoughts crossing her mind. Tisserand dances warmly with her, assisting but not dominating. In one playful moment, after he has briefly danced for her, she supports him in a step he wants to take.
The more I see of Peck’s work, the more it interests me. Right now, he’s on a roll. It may have ups and downs, but it’s still a roll.
I can’t speak highly enough of this company—how accomplished they are, how eagerly they embrace challenges, and how well they perform with one another. It is, I think, significant that twelve of the nineteen dancers who came to New York are members of the corps de ballet, and those among them who performed soloist or principal roles did so with spirit and aplomb.