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Stabat Mater

It’s a bit shocking to see un-ironically religious art onstage in our age, and all the more so as Lent turns a corner toward Holy Week. The world premiere of Jessica Lang’s “Let Me Mingle Tears with Thee” at Pacific Northwest Ballet was not timed to the church calendar, though. Lang has been working with Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater,” from 1736, for at least a decade, with ever deepening responsiveness. Her latest visual manifestation of this score for harpsichord, strings, and two voices capped a winner of a mixed bill that also unveiled a world premiere by Alejandro Cerrudo, in a performance digitally streamed for remote admirers of the Seattle company.

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Boundless”: works by Jessica Lang, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Penny Saunders

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live on March 17, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in the world premiere of Jessica Lang’s “Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

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Perhaps the first important thing to say is that Pergolesi’s music, composed weeks before his death at age 26, could not feel more sacred, though it was commissioned for use in a monastery rather than in public church services. Lang’s first foray with this score was in 2013 for New York’s Glimmerglass Festival of opera, when she created simpler movement to be performed by the two singers and an ensemble of students; she then crafted a new version in 2017 on her own (since disbanded) Jessica Lang Dance.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in the world premiere of Jessica Lang’s “Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

In this newest iteration, she has made full use of PNB’s balletic virtuosity with a cast of 10. Working with lighting designer Carolyn Wong, she has also replaced the tree branches of the cross from earlier productions with stark black voids in the backdrop, a column that is later joined by a horizontal bar; as in earlier productions, the cross is sideways, casting a vertical shadow that the dancers kneel next to. Also as in earlier versions, the dancers use a long sheath of fabric, wrapping it around the head and creating painterly, tableaux effects that evoke the 15th century paintings of Fra Angelico. What most lingers in mind from “Let Me Mingle Tears with Thee,” though—and it comes from the music—are the sudden shifts from sorrow to brightness.

The twelve sections, each working with a different stanza of the 13th century Latin text describing Mary weeping for her son, move surprisingly from solemnity (“Oh how the blessed mother grieved for her son, afflicted”) to joy. Just how the text “She lamented and trembled, seeing her son’s pains” inspires such bounce from Elizabeth Murphy, who springs off her toe-tips as her partner drags her across the stage—this still eludes my understanding. But the buoyancy is in the music (great credit due to singers Christina Siemens and Sarra Sharif Doyle, performing from the pit), and the intermingled grief and gratitude of Christian thought is nothing if not complicated.

For a secularly contemplating audience, the contrasts might bring to mind Mark Morris’ “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” as will Jillian Lewis’ multi-hued costumes, brighter in the last six of the twelve movements. Morris-like, too, are the many instances of interlinked hands and the community ethos—there is no single Mary figure in this dance, as different performers drape themselves in the fabric and in loss. Unlike in Morris’s work, though, there are no jokes, no winks, and no camp.

Indeed, although the second half of “Let Me Mingle Tears with Thee” emphasizes a community sharing both pain and catharsis (several final sections with group claps are positively rousing), the work still feels sincerely religious, making a case that Jesus’s suffering has transformative significance for all. This struck me most in the role danced by Angelica Generosa, whose costume features a darker toned cross on the abdomen. Generosa was a standout for her earnest exuberance, eyes wide and gestures ecstatic. (Miles Pertl was another standout for his human relatability in choreography that is refined and exacting.) Was Generosa something like the Holy Spirit? Whatever the intended schematics, Lang’s continued study of this “Stabat Mater” is bold, and to see PNB’s audience welcome it is strangely refreshing. Could devotional art have a place in a secular world? Could today’s audiences embrace a genuinely devotional work by, say, a Muslim, or a Hindu?

Christopher D’Ariano and Leah Terada in the world premiere of Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Black on Black on Black.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

What a strangely fitting contrast that Alejandro Cerrudo’s premiere anchored the program with a religion-rejecting reckoning with death. Now in his third and final year as Choreographer in Residence at PNB, Cerrudo also recently became artistic director of Charlotte Ballet, and according to PNB artistic director Peter Boal, Cerrudo’s new “Black on Black on Black” was made in just 15 rehearsal days. (“If this work were a painting, it would still be wet,” writes Boal). Evidently Cerrudo’s extensive experience pairing weighted, spine-undulating movement with dramatic stage effects at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, where he began his choreography career, served him well under pressure.

“Black on Black on Black” alludes to somber realities in its musical choices but feels . . . fun? The title aptly describes black costumes against a black backdrop, with black curtains regularly rising and descending to create a film-cut effect. A robust large ensemble opening to the percussive recorded music of electronica project Hidden Orchestra (no less enjoyable for needing more rehearsal) gives way to Ukrainian composer Natalia Tsupryk’s “Mariupol,” named after the besieged Ukraine city and released last year. A series of duets (and one quartet) cut short by sudden curtains is somber, but the women wear designer Karen Young’s filmy sherbet-hued dresses. As the small groupings and solos continue, bright satiny backdrops unfurl.

In the final section, Taylor Kirk, vocalist for Canadian pop group Timber Timbre, sings dark lyrics in a Tom Waits rasp: Death, she must have been your will, and later, Here is a church and here is a steeple/ Open the doors there are the people/And all their little hearts at ease/For another week's disease. Against this backdrop, Christopher D’Ariano and Leah Terada reprise their original duet, but now the same steps (which include some truly lovely partnering) are playful and innocent. Are they released from all the darkness? Here the levels of irony are thick and celebration prevails. Is it fitting for a piece gesturing to death in war-torn Ukraine to feel this light? I suppose that will depend on the viewer. The dancing in all the duets was fabulous, including Generosa with James Kirby Rogers and Murphy with Luther DeMeyer.

Genevieve Waldorf and soloist Christopher D’Ariano in Penny Saunders’ “Wonderland.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

The stage premiere of Saunders’ “Wonderland,” released digitally during the pandemic, opening the program with whimsy. Melanie Burgess’s white-armed (and gloved) costumes with black pants make the dancers appear to hover. There’s a kid-friendly opening with Elle Macy as a mad conductor in the pit, directing disembodied hands, a yearning duet for Lucien Postlewaite and Mark Cuddihee danced from side balconies, and a pensive solo for Murphy, in bare feet, to one of Erik Satie’s haunting Gnossiennes. “Wonderland” tapers off with a final duet for Elle Macy and Dylan Wald set to an eerie lullaby-like rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” Anti-climatic, but deliberately so, on a program with so much to think about.

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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