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Heavenly Dancing

It’s rare to encounter an artistic director’s program note offering more than generic greetings, yet I always read Peter Boal’s opening thoughts before pressing “play” on a Pacific Northwest Ballet program. (Happily the company has continued to offer a digital season alongside its return to the live stage.) To introduce this second mixed-rep bill, Boal could have angled for “relevance” and stressed how Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” connects to our moment of grief in the wake of the pandemic. But Boal is more personal and specific and less crudely calculating than that. He writes instead of Dove having grieved 13 friends and family, including his father, before making “Heaven.” He speaks of the friends and colleagues lost, in the 1980s and ‘90s, to the AIDS epidemic. Boal recalls working in the studio with Dove on the last two ballets Dove made before dying of AIDS complications. He concludes that Dove “deserved to live past the age of 49.”

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet: “Beyond Ballet”

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live on November 5, 2021

Words

Rachel Howard

James Kirby Rogers and Christopher D'Ariano in Ulysses Dove's “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

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The exquisite dancing in this performance of “Heaven” reminds us that Dove’s ballets, too, deserve to live on. I found it eye-opening and heartening to see another Dove ballet on this program. (PNB also danced his well-known “Red Angels” last year.) Dove may not have lacked fame at the high point of his career with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and his ballets may have been widely danced just before and after his death in 1996, but where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, if you started watching dance after the turn of the millennium, it’s likely you’ve never seen a Dove ballet. If there’s a Dove work in the San Francisco Ballet repertory (I don’t think there is), it hasn’t been performed here in at least two decades.

Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald in Ulysses Dove's “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

“Heaven” is stunning and strangely comforting. It is stark but not cold. The movement is sharp and fast, as though the otherworldly beings delivering it are in a state of hyper-vigilance—and yet the movement is never busy or frenetic, and has a supreme (and demanding) balletic clarity. A deep second plié with feet en pointe or forced arch creates the primary image between formidably exposed and challenging pirouette passages. The music is Arvo Part’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” with its passages of death-toll chimes juxtaposed against strings playing highly repetitive descending notes in a minor key. The dancers wear white unitards and the action unfolds in a series of simple spotlights. (The scenic and costume design is by Jorge Gallardo, and the lighting by Bjorn Nilsson.)

“Heaven” premiered at the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1993 and has been danced by PNB since 2006; the staging by Eva Säfström, Dove’s choreographic assistant at the Royal Swedish, brings out this cast’s best. Lesley Rausch is a special treasure, perfection of line married to human emotional presence. Dylan Wald, a young recent promotion to principal, showed Apollonian authority. Most moving of all were Christopher D’Ariano and James Kirby Rogers, a new hire from Kansas City Ballet. They danced with such unified breath that when they scattered to far-flung separate spotlights you felt the loss of their intimate connection as nearly unbearable. And yet the full community gathers again in a circle for the ballet’s end. Both pain and community endure.

Elizabeth Murphy in Jessica Lang's “Ghost Variations.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

Created in four-person “pods” and premiered on camera during the pandemic, Jessica Lang’s “Ghost Variations” also deals with loss and longing but with some elegant, softening distance. The variations of the title are the last works Schumann wrote before entering a mental hospital, and in the final pas de deux danced by Wald and Elle Macy (ironically, danced not to one of the Ghost Variations, but to an earlier Schumann lieder arranged for piano by his wife Clara) we perhaps see an abstraction of Clara and Robert Schumann’s relationship.

She seems motherly towards him, sacrificing, while he seems outwardly oriented, reaching. The build-up to this duet isn’t literal or narrative; the other six dancers flow and float through beautifully textured choreography and interact with shadows, perhaps suggesting the ghosts of past composers Schumann imagined visited him. Someone unfamiliar with Clara and Robert Schumann would not glean anything of their story from the work, but that is neither negative nor positive. To my mind the major asset of this ballet is its combination of Romanticism (with both a lower and capital “r”) to a tasteful modernism in both the costumes by Jillian Lewis (tulle below, asymmetrical designs above), and in the inventively sculptural movement vocabulary.

Amanda Morgan and Lucien Postlewaite in Alonzo King's “The Personal Element.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

Here in the Bay Area where I enjoy PNB from afar, we are fortunate to see a regular diet of ballets by Alonzo King: His tirelessly touring company, LINES, is based downtown. Even with that knowledge base of great King ballets to draw from, I’d rate 2019’s “The Personal Element,” here in its PNB company premiere, among his very best. The piano score is by MacArthur award-winning, jazz-influenced composer Jason Moran, and it is entrancing: shimmering runs of fast notes interspersed with gentler, calmer passages, while high, dissonant notes seem to stab in moments of struggle. (Pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer gave it an overtone of majesty.) The stage is white and the lighting warm; the dancers’ various white costume, also white, are simple.

King’s ballets often feature a tall, commanding woman who seems to function as the community’s high priestess; at PNB, this was the muscular Cecilia Illesiu. She seemed made for a King ballet, standing on her right leg en pointe for an eon in the opening, wheeling and reeling to keep her balance, powerful and vulnerable at once. You can tell that “The Personal Element” was created on an original cast combining LINES dancers and members of New York City Ballet, because there are passages of more conventional turning combinations you almost never see on his own company, here dispatched with academic perfection by Lucien Postlewaite.

Of course, it’s the risk of human awkwardness, of integrating that risk and awkwardness into something larger than oneself, that makes a King work. Rausch and Miles Pertl channeled this searingly in their pas de deux, Pertl in an extreme reach to grasp Rausch by one shoulder as she rotated in a gorgeous promenade, Rausch pushing him away and then clinging, as couples in a King ballet so often do. If the dancers in Dove’s ballet were dancing on heaven’s front porch, these superhumans seemed to be groping their way through a paradise of interdependency. It was heaven to watch.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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