Pacific Northwest Ballet: Repertory Program 6. Recorded April 2021 and streamed June 10-14, 2021
The “Five Minute Call” proceeds a bit differently for this final offering in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s unprecedented digital season. In the pre-curtain video montage created by principal dancer Dylan Wald, we see the dancers pulling off false eyelashes and packing up—including sealing an era-defining face mask back inside a Tupperware container—then walking out of the dressing room to their post-performance lives. Except suddenly the footage runs in reverse. The eyelashes and costumes go back on, the dancers are back on the stage. Here we are in the heightened “already-but-not-yet” experience of our moment: We feel we are already past the pandemic but not yet; this heroic PNB online season (six mainstage world premieres created in dancer “pods” under Covid restrictions) is ending, but not just yet. And it is good to linger in that “not yet” when the final program includes a stunner worth savoring: a new ballet by Christopher Wheeldon that I’d rank among his finest.
What you remember most vividly of “Curious Kingdom” will probably be the costumes by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme, the design duo that has so refreshed ballet aesthetics over the past decade, primarily in dances by Justin Peck. For “Curious Kingdom” Jung and Bartelme dress an ensemble of five in unisex silver bodysuits with low-cut backs, the fabric so shiny that every muscle twitch seems to roil like beads of mercury. As the ballet proceeds, they add accessories and overlays. Wald and Elle Macy dance a duet of unexpected symmetries, he with a red-orange glove on his right, she with a glove on her left. Jerome Tisserand appears in a translucent brown pantsuit reminiscent of the avant-garde get-up Lew Christensen wore for 1938’s “Filling Station.” Leta Biasucci floats back onstage in a gossamer grey skirt and red-orange pill hat. But the add-ons don’t conform strictly to gender norms. In the ballet’s second-half, Wald and Macy dance with matching huge red-orange bows (flamboyantly feminine) pinned behind their necks. And Lucien Postlewaite crowns the ballet in a dress Harry Styles would surely approve.
The costumes seem to fulfill what Jung and Bartelme have researched in recent years: How to bring back a Ballets Russes-inspired creative process intent on total effect. But when calculating credit for that total effect we should not give short shrift to Wheeldon’s choreography. The costumes support the world the dance and music have created. Or rather, two worlds.
The first half of “Curious Kingdom” is set to the piano music of Erik Satie. This is a more intimate, less futurist take on Satie than we’ve seen in Frederick Ashton’s “Monotones.” A glassy rectangle laid upon the stage reflects Reed Nakayama’s excellent lighting like a pond reflecting the moon. The solos have a soft-stepping quality—Tisserand’s variation full of chaine turns done with bent knees is especially beautiful—yet the gestures are clear-cut and wonderfully cryptic, like a private dream conversation. The second half of the ballet is all set to songs by the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, proceeding from Wald and Macy delivering spectacular lifts in “La Vie en Rose,” through increasingly brassy numbers. The shiny rectangle now reflects a string of cabaret lights, and the stage is a nightclub. The final number is a bold “My Way” kind of statement, Postlewaite defiantly regal.
Are these two worlds two sides of French existence? Or just human existence, the contemplative and the performative sides within all of us, juxtaposed? The weirdness of the split gives you something to chew on post-curtain, while the nuanced echoes of Wheeldon’s choreography hold it all together.
Edwaard Liang could have used a dose of such weirdness for his world premiere on this program, “The Veil Between Worlds.” Set to Oliver Davis’s minimalism-lite composition of the same name, “Veil” is very pretty, but not as layered and inventive as similar Liang works like “The Infinite Ocean.”
Still, “The Veil Between Worlds” is packed with terrific dancing, particularly from Angelica Generosa (those turns! That confidence!), Wald, an ever-buoyant Biasucci, and Postlewaite, who approaches his partners with Fred Astaire-levels of anticipation and gallantry. (Who wouldn’t want to dance off with him?)
Postlewaite, who joined PNB 18 years ago with a stint in the middle at Les Ballets des Monte-Carlo, emerges as a radiant center of this whole program. He is bold and unabashed in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “PacoPepePluto,” too, performing only in a dance belt, with sculptural exactitude. The joke of this dimly-lit dance, set to kitschy Dean Martin tunes like “That’s Amore,” remains obscure to me, but James Yoichi Moore and Christopher D’Ariano, still in the corps, are impressive in it.
The happy news, as the dancers pack up their dressing rooms and walk away from this digital season, is that PNB will return to McCall Hall this fall. And, the company has all announced they will simultaneously stream their 2021-22 season digitally, as much as possible while honoring union contracts. So, it is good to still be here, in the in-between. Where we’ve really always been.
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