Some days, when I find myself spiraling down Twitter’s sewer drain of dystopian disinformation, I contemplate tweeting a stupid joke that goes like this: “I Used to Review Ballet and Now I Tend Chickens: My Pandemic Memoir.”
I don’t mean to complain. I’m aware that many residents of the U.S. West Coast living through this year of coronavirus, climate crisis, and democracy in peril are suffering far more acutely, and I try to keep that front of mind day by day. So when an email arrived asking if I’d like to review Pacific Northwest Ballet’s online season, I felt an odd hesitation. It took a moment to remember a life when I critiqued arabesque lines rather than supervising my child’s distance learning, to recall the existence in which I planned trips to San Francisco’s opera house rather than pinched pennies to hold our family life together through job losses, or marched in racial justice rallies. I felt a little guilty and unworthy to press “play” on the dancing, but I did. And then these bright, kind dancers’ faces in Dylan Wald’s “Five Minute Call” introduction began describing the surrealness of returning to a stage that must be sprayed with disinfectant, and their joy in giving a bit of beauty to the audience, their determination to seize every good moment for its own sake. A strange sensation came over me, and the sweetness of Faure’s strains beneath it all overwhelmed. What I mean to confess is that for the first time since Covid life began on the West Coast, dear reader, I cried.
That feeling of catharsis and relief persisted through the entire 90 minutes of this smartly curated and exquisitely danced season opener, the first of six programs (plus “Nutcracker”) that PNB will offer online through June. While many companies are still relying on archival performances or commissioning short dance films—and while San Francisco Ballet is putting everything into planning a “Leap of Faith” season they hope to perform in-person early next year—PNB has managed a digital presentation that salvages some of the live excitement. All the performances were shot in the last three months, with strict mask protocols backstage, and only cohabitating dancers touching. PNB’s musicians, reduced in number (most of the orchestra’s part is reduced for piano), play masked in the pit. So there’s the joy of live music, and the delight of seeing dancer debuts—somehow, there’s suspense and a sense of spontaneous exchange.
We might call this first program “Bits of Jewels, a Smattering of Swan Lake, and Many Naked Backs.” Three of the contemporary pieces featured bare upper torsos presented to the audience in rippling articulation. The most thought-provoking of these was Marco Goecke’s “Mopey,” from 2004. James Yoichi Moore apparently did not originate the role, but he inhabits it as if he did, with fascinating emotional ambiguity. He is bouncing on his butt, making crazy waggle-finger gestures, but this is no cartoon comedy; and yet, though he may flail about like Petrushka on a string, this isn’t quite dark tragedy, either. Who is this man in slouchy sweatpants and what does he need? Moore brought great mystery to the dancing, as well as precision of gesture that amounts to something like Butoh mastery in this marathon moving from the briskness of C. P. E. Bach through long silence, to the avant-garde punk-pop disorientation of music by The Cramps. Beautiful trapezius muscles in more elegant arrangements also featured in Eva Stone’s “Foil,” in which Amanda Morgan, Cecilia Iliesiu, and Juliet Prine were gothic in large-bustled lower halves, and Jessica Lang’s “The Calling,” which featured Dylan Wald’s upper musculature twisting in Apollonian perfection above an enormous white skirt.
But the most astonishing offering of the night, to me, jettisoned almost all visual artifice. Corps member Christopher D’Ariano danced the PNB premiere of “One Body,” by the late New York City Ballet star Albert Evans. Set to John Kennedy’s “Prayer for the Great Family,” which combines nature sounds and an otherworldly contralto voice calling out gratitude to the elements of the earth, this is spare choreography calling for unceasing purity of line and birdlike softness. The steps are simple but their connection must sing. D’Ariano was so gentle and fluid as to become creaturely. He is a very special dancer.
I am new to watching PNB—I primarily watch San Francisco Ballet and have seen PNB only twice over the last 20 years—and so it is a special joy to discover the company’s movement values. This program featured an impressive number of men who seem to carry forward artistic director Peter Boal’s prime performance qualities: understated elegance and clean technique. Jerome Tisserand, Paris Opera Ballet School trained, especially exemplified this, launching particularly lovely beaten assemblés, and never touching down his heels on the jetés in the round during the men’s variation from “Diamonds.” But Lucien Postlewaite, trained at PNB’s own school, brought similar qualities to the opening “brown boy” solo of Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” the suppleness of his legs drawing more attention than his arms.
Kyle Davis is this kind of dancer, too, stop-on-a-dime exacting, rather than the kind of messier bravado we’ve come to associate with the man’s role in “Rubies,” but he was wonderfully jazzy, and pleasingly upstaged by corps member Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, dancing as though she’s performed this role all her life. Rarely has that bounce against the man’s hips in plié second en pointe been executed so lewdly. (I’m sure Balanchine would have approved.) More technically impressive was the way she made even those long taffy-pull partnering slides that can feel like filler into drama with her constant teasing play against Stravinsky’s music.
In “Swan Lake,” too, a rising debut took the spotlight. Compact, athletic soloist Angelica Generosa made a deviously in-control Black Swan to remember, working a fierce spot to throw a double in on every fourth fouetté. Steven Loch was her Siegfried, up to the task, and I will try to notice him more in the future. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Murphy dispatched Odette’s variation with textbook clarity that seemed cast in the Makarova mold.
Two other company women I look forward to understanding better in the future are soloist Elle Macy and veteran principal Lesley Rausch. An excerpt from Robyn Mineko Williams’ “The Trees the Trees” clothing Macy in socks and a modest 50s-style dress didn’t leave much individual impression, as she clung to Wald through what appeared to be domestic ups and downs. Rausch’s turn in “Diamonds” was memorable mostly for the luxurious slow fall of her leg as her head melted into backbend. In the meantime, one could understand in an instant how Leta Biasucci has rocketed to become the company’s populist attraction. Making her debut in the Violette Verdy solo from “Emeralds,” she radiated generosity and playfulness, her every move a gesture of reverie. And what a climax she made of bending back into that crossed-shoulder épaulement as the melody hit its highest note. A study in musical charisma.
PNB’s second rep program, streaming November 12, will bring world premieres by Jessica Lang and Penny Saunders, as the company says “conceived, rehearsed, and produced” during the pandemic. Something to look forward to in a dark winter. In the meantime, PNB, thanks for the cry.