Posted on December 1, 2020
Following hot on the heels of an excellent virtual gala to launch its 2020-2021 season, the opening programme from Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) in November gave further evidence of a company emerging from the shadows of the coronavirus in great shape. Two world premieres book-ended the programme, beginning with Penny Saunders’ Wonderland and concluding with Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations. They could not have been more different in origin and style.
Saunders is a choreographer (resident at Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan) working from a classical base with an expansive and contemporary edge, which she honed during her time at Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance. Her Wonderland is an episodic work for eight dancers made specifically for film and utilising many areas of Seattle’s McCaw Hall, including most of the auditorium: her early sequence, in which two dancers perform as if they were puppets appearing over the edge of the orchestra pit, was especially original, prefacing further frequent flashes of choreography that emphasised her highly individual style.
Ghost Variations was conceived by Lang as a stage work for a live audience, adapted through the requirements of social distancing to this filmed interpretation. The ballet was inspired by Robert Schumann’s piano music, composed in the period leading to his committal to an asylum, when he believed that music was being brought to him by spirits (although much of it was his own work remembered from previous years), but it also includes a piece completed by his wife, Clara, after his death. Lang’s ballet concerns their loving, but ultimately tortured, relationship with the final duet between Elle Macy and Dylan Wald ending with the powerful image of Robert being carried offstage, folded lifelessly over the back of his wife. In addition to Macy and Wald, three other dancers – Angelica Generosa, Elizabeth Murphy and Lucien Postlewaite – featured in both Wonderland and Ghost Variations. Generosa and Wald were promoted to the rank of principal dancer shortly after the online performance was relayed.
Photographs: 1-2 Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations. 3 Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lucien Postlewaite in Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations.
The shorter intermediate pieces were an extract from Twyla Tharp’s Waterbaby Bagatelles, and a complete revival of Arms by Susan Marshall. Tharp’s inventive piece was made on Boston Ballet in 1994 and has been performed in Seattle since 2006; this excerpt featured a succession of showy male solos in which Kyle Davis was especially noteworthy. In Marshall’s “armography” duet, the dancers barely move from a standing position. They wear black trousers and white vests against a black background so that for the most part only their upper bodies are visible. Created in 1984, it was first performed in New York when this style of modern dance was fashionable. A complex nightmare of counts in the manner of Trisha Brown’s Accumulation series, it was danced here by Miles Pertl and Leah Terada (although it was intended to be performed by any combination of genders).
The programme was accompanied by some fascinating extras, including a highly stylised film by Saunders for the Seattle Dance Collective entitled Alice (clearly a companion to Wonderland) starring PNB’s charismatic principal, Noelani Pantastico, performing inside a tiny white studio situated in a garden; a same-sex, studio-based performance of Arms by Jim Kent and Peter Boal (PNB’s artistic director) and another onstage performance by Sarah Pasch and Ezra Thompson. Also included was an absorbing, albeit one-sided, Zoom conversation between Boal and Tharp in which the latter took over the role of both interviewer and interviewee, leaving Boal as a largely polite and acquiescent observer.
Main photograph: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Elizabeth Murphy in Penny Saunders’ Wonderland. All photographs: Lindsay Thomas.