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Sticks and Stones

For remote fans of Pacific Northwest Ballet, the curiosity increases as the calendar days tick further beyond the pandemic: How is the company still offering digital recordings of so much of its programming? And how much longer can the company keep offering these? The dread of losing digital access is felt especially after PNB’s latest streaming wonder, a tribute to the theatrical brilliance of Nederlands Dans Theater, danced with such mirth and fluency that you might suspect the performance had been filmed in Amsterdam rather than in Seattle’s McCaw Hall.


Pacific Northwest Ballet, Repertory Program One, “Petite Mort” 


Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live on September 22, 2023


Rachel Howard

Dammiel Cruz-Garrido and Clara Ruf Maldonado in Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

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Perhaps the ease and exuberance on display has to do with the fact that none of these works are new to PNB or its audiences. PNB has danced Jyri Kylian’s “Petite Mort” since 2009, just four years after Peter Boal became artistic director; they first offered Kylian’s “Sechs Tanze” in 2010, and Alexander Ekman’s “Cacti” in 2018. Of course, “Petite Mort” is not just well known, but a touchstone influence in the wider dance world, too—over the years, more than one choreographer has professed to me re-watching this 1991 creation for the Salzburg Festival on VHS until the tape nearly broke (it was recorded in 1996); American Ballet Theatre is also dancing “Petite Mort” again this month.

It was refreshing, then, to watch PNB’s rendition alongside a certain younger associate (ahem, my own child). “The dancers are making so many clear, sharp shapes with their bodies, but there’s this overall rushing flow,” the teenager said as we marveled at the series of duets on screen. “And that’s perfect for the music”—slow movements from two different Mozart piano concerti—“because the piano is crisp and clear, but the orchestra part is flowing.” Better observed than this critic could have mustered. Cecilia Iliesiu and James Kirby Rogers especially embodied the hypnotizing combination of crystalline geometry and morphing propulsion, and drew extra applause for this at curtain.

Angelica Generosa and Lucien Postlewaite in Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

Notably, my companion viewer and I didn’t talk about the dance’s subject matter—subtext would definitely be too weak a word—which “Petite Mort” proclaims winkingly in its title, in its nearly naked costumes, and in its opening of six men wielding their phalluses . . . err, I mean their long pointing fencing foils. How does this male vision of sexual relations from three decades ago strike a younger, highly LGBTQ+ aware viewer, I found myself wondering, while appreciating that Boal had cast a gender non-binary dancer, Ashton Edwards, in one of the traditionally female roles, and she was killing it.

The female-presenting dancers are not passive partners in “Petite Mort,” and that is surely part of why it continues to appeal, along with the camp element of the fencing equipment and the enormous Baroque dresses that appear near the end, worn by dancers who creep in on tiptoe—until the dresses slide away and we realize we were fooled, the dancers were only standing behind these props like paper dolls whose outfits can be instantly pulled off. As programmed by Boal, this comedic prop creates a bridge backwards in time, into “Sechs Tanze,” which Kylian choreographed five years before “Petite Mort,” in 1986. Kylian’s own program note from earlier performances is quite serious, even chastising: The six “nonsensical” acts he created to Mozart’s German dances, he says, “are dwarfed in the face of the ever present troubled world, which most of us for some unspecified reason carry in our souls.” The lighthearted music “shouldn’t only be regarded as a burlesque,” Kylian’s note continues. “Its humor ought to serve as a vehicle to point towards our relative values.”

Ryan Cardea and Luca Anaya in Jiri Kylian’s “Sechs Tänze.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

The framing was certainly relevant as my daughter and I watched “Sechs Tanze” on Saturday, October 8th, images of horrors in Israel and Palestine funneling into my New York Times feed. While the beautiful bodies cavorted on screen, dressed now in corseted undergarments and powdered wigs, a conflict so historically complex and charged as to render honest discussion among ordinary Americans nearly impossible catapulted to terrifying new extremes.

I watched the women on stage get chased, harassed, groped, and choked around the necks by their own dresses. I noted it was always the men doing the harassing. I laughed a great deal at the inventiveness of the buffoonery, while noting that the balletic style of “Sechs Tanze” is overall much more conventional than Kylian’s later work; there’s plenty of straight sauté arabesque-pas de chat-type passages between the grapplings. There’s plenty of camp, too, particularly when a man behind one of those huge baroque dresses is left in just a fig leaf, his hip thrusts knocking out the carousers. 

Did Kylian invent the norm of the abusive male, the assaulted female? No. Did the dance play differently in the wake of #MeToo? Inconclusive. Again here, the delight of the inventiveness tended to kill stirrings of internal objections; my daughter and I were laughing. Were we relating the humor of this dance to the atrocity unfolding in the Middle East? We were not, even though sadness and concern thrummed beneath the rest of my day. Perhaps the failure to activate the directives in Kylian’s program note lies in me. The viewers in McCall Hall, too, seemed to be laughing without a darker undertone. But then, they were watching “Sechs Tanze” more than two weeks earlier, the night this program opened. The extra applause went to Leta Biasucci at curtain, and she deserved it, so bright and spontaneous, blessed with a face capable of Lucille Ball reactions.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in “Cacti” by Alexander Ekman. Photograph by Angela Sterling

Boal was wise to choose one post-Kylian work to propel us into the NDT-influenced near present, and to choose Ekman’s “Cacti.” For a good chunk, “Cacti” seems to be all play with theatrical devices, as Ekman skewers one contemporary stage cliche after another—topless-appearing costumes for both men and women, check; strobe lights, check; moving big white squares a la Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, Reproduced,” check. But after the long section of dancers on separate wooden platforms, along comes the dance-y good stuff: a duet between the excellent Christian Poppe and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, with the couple’s inner thoughts—whether they should break up—heard in voiceover, replete with a falling dead cat.

The music for “Cacti” is by Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, arranged with creepy  funhouse-like interludes by Andy Stein, and delivered onstage by the string quartet of Alexander Grimes, Michael Jinsoo Lim, Jennifer Caine Provine, and Page Smith as they weave through the action. The satirically pretentious text by Spenser Theberge tells us that the titular cacti held by the dancers holds the subtext for the dancers on pedestals. (“There was rejoicing, yes, and youthful exuberance—a duality of freedom and imprisonment. But will they ever know the realities of rough, ever-breathing soil?”) 

To be honest, I don’t know that I’ve ever been brainy enough to qualify as the kind of critic being skewered here, and I’m left with a strange kind of envy. As for Ekman’s methods of criticizing the criticism, I can’t help thinking of Marco Goecke rubbing dog shit on the face of his reviewer after an NDT premiere last year. Thick irony is certainly the more elegant tactic, and I’ll take it any day.

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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