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One Thousand Pieces

Reading up on the backstory of how Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces” finally made it to the stage at Pacific Northwest Ballet, one is struck by the epic commitment the company lavished upon an epically scaled dance.

“One Thousand Pieces” is 70 minutes long, composed in three parts and 35 sections. Prior to the performance at PNB, it had been performed only one time, at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2012. In order to perform the mélange of Philip Glass compositions live, PNB’s orchestra invested two years of chasing down copyright permissions and locating rare scores. Finally, there’s the epically disrupted timeline of the work’s rehearsal journey in Seattle. Originally slated for a 2020 company premiere, “One Thousand Pieces” was the last work PNB ran in dress rehearsal before Covid-19 shut down theaters. The company then danced one section of it for a digital stream release in 2021. But only this March, a year after Cerrudo wound down his stint as PNB’s resident choreographer, was the work finally danced in full.

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet: “One Thousand Pieces” by Alejandro Cerrudo and “Bacchus” by Matthew Neenan

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live on March 15, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

Dylan Wald and Elizabeth Murphy in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

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As captured for PNB’s ongoing digital offerings (thank you, PNB, for continuing to film these for your far-flung fans!) “One Thousand Pieces” is so visually stunning that one can imagine the performance in person stirring overwhelming awe, much like the enormous stained glass windows by Marc Chagall that inspired it. In the most extraordinary section, dancers emerge from a cascade of mist, materializing like angels from the spray, then sliding across the stage, flinging diamond-like drops of water from their drenched bodies. In another section (after an intermission for mopping), floating panels lower so that the dancers can set them spinning, then rise to twirl hypnotically above. 

There is incredible stagecraft in all this by scenic and costume designer Thomas Mika and lighting designer Michael Korsch. There is so much skill and brilliance, too, in Cerrudo’s spine-rippling choreography with its fluid partnering, its many tender duets (the most heartbreaking passages are for Dylan Wald and Elizabeth Murphy), its cleverly subtle canons, its artfully staggered entrances and exits, and its passages of sharp unison work. And so I feel a bit rude admitting that after an hour and ten minutes of one beautiful section after another, I was left with a few questions. 

Yuki Takahashi and Luther DeMyer in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

First off, in order to enact the monumental quality of a non-temporal, two-dimensional work of art (those Chagall stained glass windows) does a dance need to be, well, so damn long? Which leads to a question that tells my age. This child of the ‘70s and ‘80s grew up on an earlier monumental work set to assorted tracks of Philip Glass music: Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” I finished “One Thousands Pieces” wondering how Tharp made her work so continually exhilarating, so unflagging in its escalation of formal excitements—and feeling less thrilled by Cerrudo’s Glass opus in comparison. 

To be fair, in responding to the two-dimensional effect of Chagall’s art, Cerrudo seems to want to build a less escalating form than Tharp’s. “One Thousand Pieces” feels like a work to get lost in rather than a roller coaster to ride, a dance to wander through the way you might stand in one gallery, and then another.

My favorite “rooms” were any of the ensemble sections featuring Christopher D’Ariano, moving with liquid dignity. Angelica Generosa had a darkly memorable duet with Jonathan Bautista, jumping off his back as though dropping from the second story of a building, moving her mouth in slow motion anger. I could have done without the section of Miles Pertl suspended on invisible wires, telling a story of two lovers struggling to profess their infinite affection (did Pertl represent Chagall himself)? Nonetheless, Pertl’s vocal delivery could have passed muster with the finest theater companies. 

Elizabeth Murphy and James Kirby Rogers in Matthew Neenan's “Bacchus.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

For this program, Peter Boal coupled “One Thousand Pieces” with a ballet that feels epic yet packs its punch quickly: “Bacchus” by BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan. The music for this 2019 PNB commission is by Oliver Davis, combining bright piano and lyrical violin. The cleverly deconstructed costumes by Mark Zappone are deep purple, the better to evoke the titular God of wine and abundance. The long shirts and skirts float and trail, except for when it comes to lead couple James Kirby Rogers (shirtless) and Elizabeth Murphy (bare legged). 

The swift partnering on pointe integrates perfectly with playful sashays, flexed feet extensions, and a motif of wringing hands. Just when you think the choreography is settling into the playbook of a more conventional ballet, Neenan keeps the whole ensemble moving robustly through a long silence for a segue between musical movements. Leta Biasucci and Lucien Postelwaite’s passages near the beginning of the ballet were fleeting, but unforgettable thanks to the spontaneity and joy passing between them. It was all one hell of a curtain warmer, delivered by 13 dancers who kept the temperature rising.

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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