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Sweet Fields

According to artistic director Peter Boal’s welcome letter for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s fifth season program, the most popular mixed rep slates at PNB feature works by Crystal Pite or Twyla Tharp. Well, this San Francisco-based fan sure appreciates their taste up there in Seattle. Boal must reckon himself in a happy place as AD when, to satisfy the local masses, he gets to pair a small, deceptively simple masterpiece by Tharp with a juicy mass spectacle by Pite. In between, Boal placed a short, imagistically powerful solo by the company’s new resident choreographer, Jessica Lang. Released as part of the company’s Covid-initiated digital offerings, it all played beautifully for the screen. Don’t blame a California-based ballet lover for wishing she could transplant the company 800 miles south.

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet: works by Twyla Tharp, Jessica Lang, and Crystal Pite

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle. Tharp and Lang works captured live on April 12, 2024; Pite work captured live on November 4, 2022

Words

Rachel Howard

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Twyla Tharp’s “Sweet Fields.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

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Tharp’s “Sweet Fields,” created in 1996, marries Jennifer Tipton’s stark, shadowed lighting with Norma Kamali’s gently floating white costumes—a perfect evocation of the ethos of the Shakers, whose 18th and 19th century hymns form the score. (As someone who once lived in Appalachia and sang from the Sacred Harp hymnal partially sampled here, I especially appreciated the stylistic commitment of Doug Fullington’s Tudor Choir; those bold harmonies have to be sung with a resilient, nasal power.)

Intellectually, the wonderment is in how Tharp can marry any movement vernacular to a ballet base: in this case, a rond de jambe leg sweeping out with a flexed foot organically becomes a Shaker congregant striding through spirited worship. Emotionally, it’s Tharp’s understanding of the Shaker ethos that touches the heart. Death is the ever-present equalizer: In the third hymn, the men hoist one of their brothers in corpse position above, but exactly who is in the position of the dead man keeps changing (sometimes spectacularly, as four dancers throw one plank-like body so that he spins laterally, like a helicopter blade overhead). Men and women mostly dance separate sections, and hardly touch (Shakers are celibate, of course), but the women have strength and parity—remember, this is a religion that believes the Second Coming of Christ occurred in a woman, their leader Mother Ann Lee, who thus united God’s male and female qualities.

It feels fitting to the ethos of equality that none of the dozen dancers in the cast were principals, and each glowed like children of God. Ashton Edwards led the skipping full ensemble section with an aura of joy. Juliet Prine brought an especially lyrical dignity to a soft, circling solo. “Death itself shall die,” the final hymn proclaimed, the bodies again hoisted into funeral horizontality. It’s an unsentimental conviction that becomes even more moving when you consider that one Shaker community does still exist, in Maine, with three members who hope for new converts.

Dylan Wald in Jessica Lang’s “The Calling.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

Also costumed in white, Jessica Lang’s “The Calling” followed like an elegant coda, with a surprising point of relevance: Lang danced in Tharp’s company and was one of the original performers in “Sweet Fields.” “The Calling,” created as part of a larger work for Ailey II in 2006, can be danced by any sex or gender, though Dylan Wald’s broadly muscled torso created such sculptural splendor that it was hard to imagine this danced by anyone else. To religious vocal music of the 12th and 13th century, he reached, he sank, he twisted, as a large skirt pooled and twisted around him. You don’t really need to know that, as the program note informs, “The Calling” was Lang’s creative response to finding a lost note from a dear choreographic mentor at a time when she felt lost, but the anecdote is a tantalizing biographical teaser for Lang’s newly launched three-year creative residency at PNB.

Amanda Morgan (center) with company in Crystal Pite's “The Seasons Canon.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

 In person at McCaw Hall, a fresh performance of Crystal Pite’s behemoth “Season’s Canon” commanded the final half-hour of the program. For the digital stream, PNB repurposed the performance captured in 2022. I was surprised that I enjoyed watching it so much again.

Two years ago, while appreciating how thoroughly Pite de-sentimentalized the awe of nature with her hordes of dancers bubbling like fungi and scrambling like bugs, I resisted the sheer spectacle of the package. This time, I just admired the stage craft of it all, with blockbuster effects—a 54-dancer line of hypnotically kaleidoscoping arms—but subtler ones, too.  

The casting made this filming deserve an encore, with Clara Ruf Maldonado as the searching heroine, Amanda Morgan the tender leader of several vectors of insects, and Kyle Davis the sudden firecracker pop of virtuosity bringing spark to a tense, dissonantly driving mob scene. Michael Jinsoo Lim was the violin soloist delivering minimalist composer Max Richter’s high-adrenaline “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” The applause for each ballet sounded robust—what an extended curtain call for the Tharp—leading me to feel that when it comes to audience proclivities, Seattle represents sweet fields indeed.

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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