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Love and Loss

The moment arrived two-thirds into the program, near the peak of Donald Byrd’s “Love and Loss.” For more than an hour, the beautiful bodies on screen had been doing eloquent things, to curiously numbing effect. Then Dylan Wald stepped on stage, his body precise and deliberate, his face both dignified and vulnerable. Cecilia Iliesiu stood behind him in the shadows, her toes nibbling the floor in a bourrée, her face shining with angelic concern. Even captured on camera, their dancing so united movement and music that the only response was to cry.

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Love and Loss,” with works by Donald Byrd, Alexei Ratmansky, and Dani Rowe

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live on November 4, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

Kuu Sakuragi and Clara Ruf Maldonado in Donald Byrd’s “Love and Loss.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

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That moment made the long slog through Pacific Northwest Ballet’s second repertory program of the season worth it. That PNB still offers such digital programming to far-flung fans after the cessation of the pandemic is a continuing surprise, and a gift not to be taken lightly. Still, this was not a program that played well on camera (and one wonders how it felt in person at McCaw Hall). On paper, it promised artistic daring, discovery, and pathos: a world premiere by a still-green choreographer, Dani Rowe; an encore performance of a highly personal and timely work by a world-renowned choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky; and a large ensemble finale by a masterful choreographer who deserves to be better known, Donald Byrd. But for artistic director Peter Boal to bundle all that under a theme of mourning was risky, indeed. It is a bit of a miracle when an artist manages to bring the audience inside painful feelings. In the absence of that miracle the potential for disconnect is high.

Rowe is a former Nederlands Dans Theater and Australian Ballet dancer, recently named the new artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre. She made a stunning, sensual duet early in her choreographic career: “For Pixie,” set to Nina Simone’s powerful recording of “Wild Is the Wind.” Her large ensemble romp for San Francisco Ballet this past February, “Madcap,” was impressively odd and inventive, creating a world in which a sad clown suffers existential crisis. Unfortunately, it has two weaknesses: It’s about 30 percent too long, and it’s choreographed to merely serviceable commissioned music. 

James Kirby Rogers and Elizabeth Murphy in the world premiere of Dani Rowe’s “The Window.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

Rowe’s premiere at PNB, “The Window,” is hampered by the same pitfalls. The new score is by Shannon Rugani, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer-turned-composer. One hopes Rugani will continue her musical development, but “The Window” does not yet announce an accomplished voice. Predictable piano triads loop above chords of orchestral sadness that function like sonic wallpaper. PNB has one of the finest pit ensembles in the world under music director Emil de Cou; I doubt this score ranks among their favorite assignments.

Former NDT dancer Garen Scribner, who also assisted Rowe on “Madcap,” served as dramaturg in adapting a true story first told on a podcast by American filmmaker Diane Weipert. Projections announce “chapter one,” progressing to “chapter five,” but plot-driven the ballet is not. A lone woman, Melisa Guilliams, stands with her hands pressed to the invisible glass implied by Reed Nakayama’s lighting scheme, watching a couple (Elizabeth Murphy and James Kirby Rogers) in their moments of intimacy. The most interesting moments come as the man is ailing, and the woman holds first his head, then the air where his head had been, rocking it like a baby. But Rugani’s score does not allow for complex enough musicality to support the concept, and whatever charge was conveyed by Weipert’s original narration does not translate to the choreography elsewhere. Guillams does give a strong performance, working with little more than stabbing the floor with her feet en pointe.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Wartime Elegy.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

In contrast, as with all his work, Ratmansky’s “Wartime Elegy” has choreographic richness and sophistication to spare. But in this work the intense feelings, though never devolving to melodrama, remain inaccessible to this viewer. As Ratmansky’s biographer Marina Harss has written incisively in her review of “Wartime Elegy’s” 2022 premiere, this is Ratmansky stretching into uncomfortable new terrain, addressing the pain of war in Ukraine—his homeland—as that war shows no end in sight. There are mournful sections dressed in black, to Ukrainian composer Valetin Silvestrov’s “Four Postludes for Piano and String Orchestra.” There are joyful sections dressed in colorful national costumes, to Ukrainian folk songs. There are projections of sketches by contemporary Ukrainian painter Matvei Vaisberg and eye-popping backdrops bearing folk art by mid-century Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko. What’s missing is the sharp psychological insight that pervades and organizes other Ratmansky works.

Donald Byrd, who shares his name with the legendary jazz trumpeter, and who relocated from New York to Seattle in just over two decades ago, choreographed the program closer, “Love and Loss,” for PNB in 2019. It is odd and transcendent. The score, by Israeli composer Emmanuel Witzthum, hangs in the air like a tulle fog of shifting dissonances, electrified by a light, syncopated percussive drive. The movement phrases are ever eye-catching, geometric V arms giving way to increasing balleticism as the dance builds. 

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Donald Byrd’s “Love and Loss.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

The structure of the work begs for repeat viewings: In overlapping episodes, a lone man takes the stage and is then joined by a female or non-binary dancer who partners and circles him, either hardly seeming to see him or, in the case of Iliesiu, gazing with intense love. Atop these primary duets, though, solos and ancillary duets slide like layers in a collage, until the work peaks in a stunning image: the men with arms linked in a V-formation, legs raised in arabesque. 

Leta Biasucci and Lucien Postlewaite set the tone, dancing with such clarity that the blackness of the stage picture seemed chiseled around them. Dancing with Kuu Sakuragi, just-promoted soloist Clara Ruf Maldonado was elegant, cold, and entrancing, waving a hand above his head and seeming to control him like a puppet.  

Grief in all its subtle permutations seems to be held in this emotionally prismatic ballet. But perhaps its most brilliant element is the costuming by Doris Black, who dresses the men in grey slacks and collared shirts, as conventional as office wear comes. As they seem to flock for the finish, the dancers appear simultaneously human and creaturely. In this way Byrd’s ballet makes us see the truth of human nature—that it is, also, animal nature—anew.

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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