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Christopher D’Ariano and Leah Terada in an excerpt from Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

Singular and Strong

Pacific Northwest Ballet premieres “One Thousand Pieces” by Alejandro Cerrudo

Performance
Pacific Northwest Ballet: “Singularly Cerrudo”
Place
Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, captured from live performance on September 25, 2021
Words
Rachel Howard

“Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere March 13, 2020,” reads the program note for Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces,” and therein lies a pandemic tale. The company premiere of Cerrudo’s ballet was supposed to have taken place on that date last year. But on March 12, 2020, as news of the strange new virus spreading through Seattle filled airwaves and iPhones, artistic director Peter Boal and the PNB staff and board gathered to face what was coming. They filmed the dress rehearsal of “One Thousand Pieces.” And the next day, instead of opening night, the theater fell dark.

So it is fitting, 18 months later, that PNB gave its first live performances since the shutdown with excerpts from “One Thousand Pieces” as the centerpiece. Not that any past reality has been fully restored. PNB’s current season plays to a greatly reduced, vaccinated, masked and socially distanced live audience. But it now also streams to far-flung fans around the world (including this Californian), thanks to pandemic deals struck with the stageworkers and musicians’ unions.

Even on the screen, “One Thousand Pieces” made for a spectacular re-entry point. After side-by-side opening duets, the curtain rises upon a surreal vision: three vectors of mist swirling through Michael Korsch’s otherworldly lighting. As the dancers begin, we see that the stage is covered by a film of water. Droplets drip like diamonds from the tips of feet with every développé, and sparkle through the air with every turn. Watching the excellent Leah Terada’s shiny muscles morph, my skin prickled, and I wondered if the dancers were cold. The dance is powerful not just because it is visually stunning but because it is viscerally evocative—you can’t help but feel that wetness on your own skin.

Clearly, lighting, costuming, and stage effects are key in Cerrudo’s work—and this is not in itself a bad thing. But across a triple-bill it does lead to observations on his oeuvre. Cerrudo began as choreographer in residence at PNB in 2020 and will serve through 2022. Hailing from Spain, and very popular first as a dancer and then a choreographer for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, he uses very much the same movement vocabulary in all three works on this “Singularly Cerrudo” program, and in the two Cerrudo dances PNB released digitally during the pandemic. Thus the program title seems apt in an unintended way. This choreography is “singular” indeed—not only distinctive, but monolithic.

Fans of Nederlands Dans Theater (Cerrudo danced in their second company) will recognize the aesthetic: grounded, slinky, combining virtuosic spine-rolls and reaches with bursts of quirky half-gesture. Cerrudo loves turned-in deep lunges, and slides across the stage with star-shaped wide legs and arms. There’s a thing he does with one dancer butting her head, and the other dancer contracting as though absorbing the blow in his or her chest, even though the two did not touch. He also has a favorite lift that recurs in the works here, the woman clutching the man’s back as he leans forward, her legs extending in a seeming levitation high behind.

Not there is anything wrong, either (of course), with a uniform movement vocabulary across multiple works—just consider the extremely limited vocabulary used to extraordinary effect by, say, Paul Taylor. But let’s note, too, that in this triple Cerrudo bill there’s a sameness to the music, leaning towards Philip Glass (performed live by a tight ensemble for “One Thousand Pieces”), and in other selections spare piano and strings, a smattering of guitar, all late 20th century/21st century.

Dylan Wald and Elle Macy in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Little mortal jump.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

Call it, then, a clear sensibility. Even in 2012’s “Little mortal jump,” which draws on alternative pop by Andrew Ward and Beirut along with Tom Waits, there’s an underlying consistency to the sonic landscape that works in tandem with the stark black-and-white lighting of the floating-in-the-depths-of-space visual landscape.

The in-person audience seemed to remember “Little mortal jump” excitedly from its 2016 PNB premiere—cheers came right as the curtain lifted. Perhaps the live viewers were anticipating the dance’s escalating special effects. After a duet of antic domestic tumblings between Terada and James Yoichi Moore, the dance is built around the idea of hidden boxes. Sometimes the framing boxes containing the dance, hidden by the dark lighting, become suddenly visible and spin, opening a space between, into which the next dancers emerge. In the cleverest section, Leta Biasucci, a small but powerful dancer with a gift for subtle physical comedy, jumps into a box—and because she is wearing Velcro, she sticks to the backdrop, suspended.

I have read accounts of other viewers being unexpectedly moved to tears by “Little mortal jump.” Chalk it up to personal deficiency that nothing of the sort happened for me, though I did very much admire Branimira Ivanova’s elegant yet character-suggestive costumes, with suspenders for the men. And call it another personal failure, if you like, that Cerrudo’s art sits with me as clever, skillful, easy on the eye, but for some reason not thought-provoking. Art is personal and our reactions are idiosyncratic. I cannot tell you quite what, for me, is missing.

The program belonged to Elle Macy. She is a soloist who also stood out in Jessica Lang’s “Ghost Variations” in PNB’s all-digital pandemic season. Her shape is ideal for the slightly distorted, curved-spine, inhuman quality of Cerrudo’s movement: She is long limbed with broad shoulders and a long neck. More importantly, though, she dances the choreography as though it is not steps, but spontaneous inner compulsion. Her intensity of presence in it burns and never flickers. I imagine she will continue to be a key collaborator with Cerrudo as his tenure as resident choreographer continues through the coming year.