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Worlds to Come

The final program of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 50th anniversary season had a “cheering for the home team” flavor, and there was a lot to rally high spirits if you knew this team well. I’m neither an insider nor an outsider to PNB, having gotten to know the company through regular viewing over the last three years, but only via digital streaming, which PNB began after Covid and, miraculously, continues to offer for select programs. As an in-betweener, then, I was torn between a loyalist’s appreciation for PNB’s dancers and a more detached sensation of wanting more from the choreography on this slate of two world premieres and one 2022 season encore.

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet, “Worlds to Come,” works by Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Kiyon Ross

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live June 2, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

Lesley Rausch and James Kirby Rogers in the world premiere of Kiyon Ross’s “ . . . throes of increasing wonder.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

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The greatest cheers—both in McCaw Hall and at home where I cheered at my screen—went to Ashton Edwards, a non-binary dancer who uses they/them pronouns and was raised as male in Flint, Michigan, longing to dance as the swan rather than the prince. Edwards trained at PNB’s school and joined the company with a promise from artistic director Peter Boal that they could dance both male and female roles. Well, now Edwards has a bespoke role that draws on traditionally male and female qualities alike. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa made Edwards the star of her new “Khepri,” and they were resplendent in it.  

Edwards is open about their gender—they have spoken with the media about breaking barriers as a non-binary dancer, including in a New York Times profile—but has also expressed the hope that one day people will focus on their dancing, not their identity. That moment is here and well-earned. Edwards was crisp, confident, and commanding paired with Lucien Postlewaite, another compact, nimbly proportioned powerhouse. The two fit together beautifully and both shone, although Edwards got to have most of the fun, getting swung around by the foot and held aloft in majestic lifts, then touching ground to spring into bright jumps full of head-kicking backbends. Edwards’ turnout is consistent and superb, the footwork (they learned pointe late for a dancer) now polished. All this marks the finishing touches on a stage presence that is regal yet sweet.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Khepri.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

“Khepri” made a fun vehicle for this celebratory arrival, but choreographically it feels more like a super-high-level recital showcase than a repertory mainstay. The prolific Ochoa knows how to package spectacle around a visual conceit, and here she chose the scarab beetle and its mythological role as an Egyptian deity. The costumes by Mark Zappone hearken slightly to Jerome Robbins’ bug-ballet “The Cage,” with black squiggles down the back, while adding a carapace-like chest-piece of golden ruffles and gold headbands that impart a tinge of late 1980’s flash. 

Ochoa’s musical selections begin with a driving score for strings by Georg Pelecis that incorporates a curious Americana/folk dance element in the melodies (violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim was superb), then veer into darker selections by Karl Jenkins. One of these, the Largo from Jenkins’s “Palladio” concerto, I have also seen treated by Helgi Tomasson, in choreography much more responsive to the music’s poignantly shifting moods. In Ochoa’s ballet, a duet for James Kirby Rogers and Elizabeth Murphy (both exquisite) is full of inventive partnering—Kirby nuzzling Murphy’s waist seamlessly becomes a shoulder lift—but seems to treat the structure of the music as so much sonic wallpaper. Kuu Sakuragi blasted through in a solo role looking appropriately beetle-like in his crouching style, and the ensemble of 12 had some effective moments in a line-up of silhouettes. But if I had to choose an adjective for the whole ballet, that would be it: “effective,” as in knowingly crafted but unsubtle.

Yuki Takahashi in Kiyon Ross’s “ . . . throes of increasing wonder.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

The other world premiere on this program also came with a home-grown backstory. Kiyon Ross, whose “. . . throes of increasing wonder” closed the night, is a former PNB dancer and now its associate artistic director. Unfortunately I don’t know his larger choreography career, which seems to be in the “emerging” category, so I can’t say whether this new work marks an advancement in it. The style is your standard post-Balanchine neoclassicism, outfitted here in a shiny, almost plastic looking fabric (costumes by Pauline Smith), but with traditional skirts and a tiara for every woman (or gender non-binary person) on stage: a democratic royalty, or a royal democracy, take your pick.

The words “Open me” appear above two glowing blue doors as Christina Spinei’s commissioned scores launches into the pulsing, looping style she calls “minimal-ish.” (Sounds like an accurate descriptor to me.) No further words materialized in the scenery, though, as we launched into another showcase-like ballet for a cast of 24. When the music sounded more urgent, it didn’t always feel organic for the dancers to be so smiling, but who can begrudge them the enjoyment of each having a spotlight moment in phrases that emphasized a floor-sweeping gallop? Angelica Generosa and Jonathan Batista remain in memory for dancing big, clean, and with unforced ebullience. Lesley Rausch had the slow fourth movement with Rogers, and her musicality—those teasing pauses in retire that rode the music like a feather in the wind—was in a class all its own.

Leta Biasucci and Jonathan Batista in Edwaard Liang’s “The Veil Between Worlds.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

This was Rausch’s final program with PNB after a 22-year career spent entirely at the company. In another pairing with Rogers (someone pay this pristine classicist overtime), Rausch also stood at the heart of Edwaard Liang’s “The Veil Between Worlds,” a pandemic ballet-for-camera creation receiving its stage premiere. It’s an unabashedly beautiful ballet, with its images of angelic women born aloft with great billows of silky fabric. It’s also nicely textured choreographically, with quirky slicing arms above classical legs, and a pleasurable syncopation of phrasing. 

But like Ross’s ballet, Liang’s uses a commissioned score. And like Spinei’s music, Oliver Davis’s composition style could be described as “minimal-ish.” Which means that sonically, all three ballets on this program were pretty damn similar. That’s a common problem in contemporary ballet, so it doesn’t feel very “home team spirit” to complain about it. Instead, three cheers for the triumphant artistry of Ashton Edwards and Lesley Rausch.  

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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