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Pacific Northwest Ballet in “Waiting at the Station” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Angela Stirling

Long Wait for the Train

Pacific Northwest Ballet in New York City

Performance
Pacific Northwest Ballet, presented by the Joyce Theater
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, June 23, 2022
Words
Faye Arthurs

Pacific Northwest Ballet finally made good on its long-planned tour to New York City this week, exactly two years after its intended run. Covid was still, unfortunately, plaguing the troupe: many last-minute principal replacements were announced in both the dancing ranks and those of the PNB orchestra—who were also, impressively, along for the tour. Poor, lovely Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan danced in two pieces while taking a mask on and off depending on whether she was in proximity to other dancers’ faces. (What a lot to keep track of! Did she have a mask waiting in every wing?) Despite these pandemic remnants, the company looked good—and they brought the same kind of thought-provoking, hit-and-miss programming as in their last visit six years ago.

Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and James Kirby Rogers in “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

The program opened with “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven: Odes to Love and Loss,” by choreographer Ulysses Dove—who died of AIDS-related complications in 1996. I was excited to see this because Dove’s “Red Angels,” created for the New York City Ballet, was a favorite of mine, especially when I was a student. The first time I saw it I was blown away by its sexy vibe and its electric violin score; I didn’t know going to the ballet could feel like seeing a rock concert! I had never seen another Dove ballet until this Thursday, but it turns out that wasn’t exactly true. “Front Porch of Heaven” may as well have been titled “White Angels.” The steps, the lighting, the structure, and the costuming were nearly identical to the work I already knew. Anyone who’s danced “Red Angels” could literally slot into “Front Porch of Heaven” for long spells. Clearly, Dove loved a forced arch plié à la seconde, odd fouetté sequences interrupted by flat-footed swivels, sharp inhales of breath with arms at the ribs, frozen developpés à la seconde with arms interlocked overhead, bourrées in place moving through fourth position, rolling over one’s feet to one’s knees, fixed overhead spotlights, unitards in specific cuts, and catwalk solo parades. He wasn’t big on jumps. When Christopher D’Ariano leapt high once in his solo, it was such a surprise that it made me realize how earthbound Dove’s work is, despite all its spiritual, angelic overtones. 

Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan in “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” by Ulysses Dove. Photograph by Angela Sterling.

Though I like Dove’s style, such extreme overlap was disappointing to me. But it got me thinking about what exactly constitutes recycling versus plagiarism in art, an interesting subject. Balanchine borrowed from himself constantly. His many Black and White ballets share a look, a style, and lots of vocabulary. But when Balanchine copied longer phrases verbatim, like Dove, he did so in works that looked nothing alike. Take, for example, the “creeps,” which look arachnid and menacing in “The Four Temperaments,” yet dainty and lilting in “Divertimento No. 15.” Earlier this spring I wrote about the many steps that the Romantic “Divertimento from Le Baiser de la Fée” shares with the modernist “Symphony in Three Movements.” Balanchine camouflaged his self-plundering. Three Black and White ballets can be displayed on one program, as City Ballet does often, but I doubt one would put “Red Angels” and “Front Porch” on the same bill. The seams would show. Perhaps this was a phase of Dove’s, as “Front Porch” debuted in 1993 and “Red Angels” in 1994. I’d have to see more to know, but the blatant regurgitation I’ve seen so far doesn’t propel me to chase it down.

Dove’s copy-and-paste choreography made it hard for me to analyze “Front Porch” as a standalone ballet; it rather forced a comparison with “Red Angels.” So, which piece wore it better? All the sharp inhales and chest clutching fit better in the more spiritual “Front Porch” than in “Red Angels,” but the pronounced strutting and voguing in both pieces suited the electric violin score by Richard Einhorn of “Red Angels” far better than Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten”—a solemn and liturgical piece of music, with church bells tolling throughout. “Front Porch” won points for having an overtly homoerotic pas de deux, which was a highlight of the evening. It seemed appropriate to Dove’s life and message, and also to the Pride Month festivities happening just outside on the theater’s plaza. The dancing of the three men in the cast, Jonathan Batista, Christopher D’Ariano, and James Kirby Rogers, was especially strong. And the fact that Rogers looked so much like a young Peter Boal (PNB’s Artistic Director, and former NYCB principal on whom “Red Angels” was made) was magical.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Crystal Pite’s “Plot Point.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

The next piece on the program was Crystal Pite’s “Plot Point,” from 2010. PNB picked it up in 2017. I loved nearly everything about this piece without actually liking it very much—which was frustrating. I loved the music: Bernard Hermann’s score from the film Psycho, with additional soundtrack (noises of footsteps, a gun loading and cocking, rifling through papers in a briefcase, panting and groaning) by Owen Belton. Jay Gower Taylor designed the stunning, minimalist sets—including white outlines of lampposts, windows and doorframes, and a thicket of trees with a searchlight panning through them. I liked the costumes by Nancy Bryant which included silk slip dresses and suits for the human characters and white trench coats, tights, suits, and completely wrapped heads for the Replicas—almost like fencing headgear. I loved Pite’s fluid and cathartic human choreography hitting against the robotic, mannequin mimicry performed by the Replicas too. I loved the creepy crowd scenes, the running-in-place, the window-peering, and all the briefcase-switching. The spare suggestiveness of the sets—and the facelessness of the Replicas—reminded me of Magritte paintings. And the dancers did a wonderful job throughout. I even loved Pite’s motivation and explanations for the piece: she wanted to make a plotless detective noir that hinted at myriad whodunit scripts without actually committing to one—all to create tension and examine “our insatiable need for story.” Awesome, all around.

What went wrong? I’m not exactly sure, but I never got invested enough to sustain my admiration for all its elements. Maybe it would’ve been a slam dunk if it was shorter. As it was, scene after well-staged, confusing scene of whiteout Replicas interacting loosely with their real-life selves (there was a Mr. Jones and a Replica Mr. Jones, etc.) got boring. Pite needed to set some ground rules for the Replica/human interactions; she should have established a world with sound internal logic before she resisted completing—or even scrambling—its plotlines. Because if nothing means anything, the tension eventually slackens. Then you just focus on the craftsmanship. When a Replica shot his human counterpoint in the final chase in the woods, but wound up with a bloody hole in his own chest, my reaction was: what? So why then was the human running away from him so desperately? It was too bad; it could have been fantastic. Pite did not pull off her premise, but I thoroughly respected the attempt. For a winning example of the same basic pretext, read Italo Calvino’s novel “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.”

Noelani Pantastico and Pacific Northwest Ballet in Twyla Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

Happily, Twyla Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station”—created for PNB in 2013—closed the bill, and its first ninety seconds contained more free-flowing dancing than the first two pieces combined. The elaborate iron railyard set, by Santo Loquasto, impressively framed the large Koch Theater stage. Loquasto’s costumes were also great, especially those for the Three Fates, who wore gold lamé shoulder-padded blazers and sequined shower caps. To the breezy music of Alain Toussaint, the Fates chased after James Yoichi Moore, the Father, as he tried to connect with his Son Kuu Sakuragi before boarding his last proverbial train. The Father/Son duo was excellent, but the corps looked wonderful too and had some of the best choreography: rickety group adagios, saucy piddles, floppy crabwalks, and Swing Dance lifts. Elle Macy, in a flashy red dress, was a standout soloist.

Tharp staged the action well, including a neat Mardi Gras funeral procession with Moore charmingly rolling out of his tomb and shaking off his rigor mortis for one last dance. And it was poignant when, right before Moore passed, Tharp had the entire corps suspended in lifts around him, as if the characters from his life were floating by before his eyes in his final moments. It helped that Moore and Sakuragi were perfectly cast, and both resisted crossing the line of camp that often happens in Tharp’s works. Sakuragi had a youthful wiriness to him, while Moore, who has always danced with a relaxed confidence, was simply fabulous as the slouchy, soft-shoeing Father. His seniority in the company underlined the lived-in quality he brought to every aspect of the role, including his worn-in hat and suspendered pants. PNB’s tour was presented by the Joyce Theater at the Koch, and the first two pieces on the program made me wonder if they should have performed at the smaller downtown venue instead. Sadly, there were a lot of empty seats in the theater. But when Moore hitched a ride on a massive steam engine and tipped his hat in the final tableau, PNB proved it merited the big house showcase. I hope their train pulls into a NYC station again before too long.