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Seasons' Canon

I woke this morning realizing I had dreamt extensively about Crystal Pite’s “The Seasons’ Canon,” and I’d wager that anyone who saw the work on the second repertory program of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 50th anniversary season in Seattle is still dreaming about it, too. Even viewed on screen as a digital stream, which I settled for as a distant admirer of the company (thank you, PNB, for extending your pandemic video options!), this 54-dancer spectacle leaves lingering questions. Whether those questions lead to the kind of contemplation we seek from art or send us spinning in surface ruminations is another matter. This Pite acquisition, PNB’s third, is undoubtedly an achievement and a popular hit for the company. It shared a program with a strange mess of a world premiere by Dwight Rhoden, and a gem by Balanchine that provided a welcome reprieve of unadulterated high-integrity music. (More on music in a bit.)

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet Repertory Program Two: “The Seasons’ Canon” / “Catching Feelings” / “Duo Concertant”

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live on November 4, 2022

Words

Rachel Howard

Lesley Rausch and Lucien Postlewaite in “Duo Concertant” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Angela Stirling

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What makes “The Seasons’ Canon” fascinating? It hits the sweet spot between beauty and menace, and it hits it again and again. Yes, that aurora borealis of dancing light above the stage as the first notes stir is wondrous (scenic design and lighting by Jay Gower Taylor and Tom Visser). That penumbra is also orange-brown, equally suggestive of pollution as it is of heavenly miracles. And this spring awakening may sound like Vivaldi’s twittering birds, but it looks more like writhing maggots as the huddling dancers awaken, their pulsing upper bodies bare (or, for the women, disguised in flesh-toned body suits.) These creatures hunch, they punch anxiously, they scuttle, they twitch like bugs. Baggy grey-green pants designed by Nancy Bryant suggest a state of rot. And the way the ensemble moves as one organism is amazing—but also horrifying. The stripe of iridescent blue down the dancers’ throats is a brilliant touch. Lest these dancers appear too human, the crest of blue skin makes them alien. Toggling between our identification and sense of otherness induces a low hum of horror.

Amanda Morgan (center) with dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Crystal Pite's “The Seasons Canon.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

The choreography, created for Paris Opera Ballet in 2016 and commissioned by Benjamin Millepied shortly before his abrupt resignation as artistic director, is uneven. In the best part of “Summer,” danced with conviction by newly promoted soloist Amanda Morgan, three vectors of creatures attach to a lead woman, who then searches among them and pulls one into an embrace, only to be overcome by the group and overtaken by a silent scream. The nature—intelligence of the mass both supports individual life and subsumes it—that’s a riveting insight worth thinking on when the dancing ends. But elsewhere the partnering for three featured couples feels less idea-driven, and an all-male section of vigorous leaps and kicks is fairly conventional. The high point of the dance, a series of chain reactions in “Winter” that bring to mind crystal formations, returns us to conceptually fresher territory.

Is this a critic’s snobbery being over-discerning? I was only able to find four English-language reviews of “The Seasons’ Canon” from its Paris Opera Ballet premiere, which speaks to the dearth of our outlets for serious discussion of dance at the moment. Interestingly, none of them had much to say about the music, Max Richter’s “recomposing” of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” I’ll confess it was a stumbling block for me, for reasons I can’t adequately articulate. Why not use the original Vivaldi? (Well, because it’s been used to death.) Could this “recomposition” be a little less syrupy? (But the PNB Orchestra under conductor Emil de Cou does play it beautifully.) Why am I happy to accept Bach reframed by Eva Crossman Hecht in “Artifact Suite”—by Pite’s past mentor William Forsythe—but not the repurposing of Vivaldi here?

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Crystal Pite's “The Seasons’ Canon.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

While those questions remain partially unanswered, I’ll further admit it was the music the ejected me from Dwight Rhoden’s new “Catching Feelings,” his first commission for PNB, to various Bach selections as re-treated by Peter Greyson and Johan Ullén, two collaborators with no biographies in the program. The resulting soundtrack loads the Bach with movie-score bombast. The aesthetic playbook is familiar from recent Rhoden works at San Francisco Ballet: a large ensemble often running in and out from the black hole of the back wall; glam costumes by Christine Darch (here, high-waisted lamé bottoms and bandeau tops for the women, and tops cut just above the nipple line for the men); a series of frenetic duets and moments of unison poses with fast arms that feel influenced by voguing and waacking.

That combination of elements made for some tremendous dancer opportunities in Rhoden’s works at San Francisco Ballet; in this PNB recording of November 4th’s opening night, though, the performers look under-rehearsed and under-confident. Synchronicity was but a distant dream. Moments of just-Bach and isolated pas de deux came off best. Elle Macy and James Kirby Rogers found maximal sharpness as one of four featured couples; Cecilia Iliesiu and Luther Demyer also had moments of command. Jonathan Batista best embodied the fierce Rhoden style but his solo passed too quickly.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Dwight Rhoden's “Catching Feelings.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

What a relief in the center of this program to hear pianist Christina Siemens and violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim deliver Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertant,” clean and pure. How appropriate it felt that in this 1972 Balanchine creation for the Stravinsky Festival, the two dancers simply stand and listen to the whole first movement. Lesley Rausch and Lucien Postlewaite were all one could ask for in this staging by artistic director Peter Boal himself, with coaching from Kay Mazzo—gracious, playful, friendly, irrepressibly rhythmic. Passion came at the end, with Rausch’s hand in spotlight, and Postlewaite touching it to his face, sinking reverently into blackness all around.

Of course it was Stravinsky who originated that old quote about lesser artists borrowing and great artists stealing. I’m not enough of a music scholar to explain how Stravinsky, in “Duo Concertant,” steals 18th century ideas of violin repertoire to make something wholly his. I have no technical exegesis to stand on when I say the music inspires in me emotion, but not a suspicion of emotional manipulation. Still, I’ll risk sounding curmudgeonly and ask that today’s choreographers reach to composers more inclined to stealing and less to borrowing.

In the Pite work, corps member Clara Ruf Maldonado was also exceptional as the opening and closing solo figure who traverses the thick atmosphere with a vulnerable air of seeking. Kyle Davis had a fabulous firecracker moment in the “Summer” section. And just prior to “Duo Concertant,” Boal announced six promotions, including Leah Terada and Christopher D’Ariano to soloist—both also standouts on this program.

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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