Plotting New Paths: Four Contemporary Works
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Rep 4, Plot Points, highlights a new generation of dance. It performs through Sunday, alongside the PNB School’s production of Beauty and the Beast. A recorded version of Plot Points is available to stream through April 4.
Intermission lobby chatter can be so very entertaining:
What just happened?
I love the weird stuff!
All the chocolate in the world couldn’t make me feel as happy as that dance just did.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s fourth rep of the season rattled some classical ballet fans with its lack of sparkly tutus or traditional storylines. Named for internationally beloved Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s dark and complex work, Plot Point, the rep contains four dances from Pite, Robyn Mineko Williams, Justin Peck, and David Parsons. While the program includes some ballet, it is less about fairy tales and more about crossing a threshold into a new era of dance performance. It is a necessary and beautiful transition. And if it’s not your thing, Swan Lake is on stage next month.
The world premiere of Chicago-based choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams’ work, Before I Was, opens Rep 4 with a dimly lit duet between principal dancers Christopher D’Ariano and Leah Terada (Friday night) and James Moore and Elizabeth Murphy (Saturday). The couple dances barefoot under the stark white frame of a suburban home, watched at times by a young boy and girl dressed as their childhood doppelgangers. On stage, composer/vocalist duo FKA OHMME (Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham) harmonize haunting lyrics about the joys and sorrows of growing up.
As described in the program notes, Before I Was is driven by Mineko Williams’ philosophical exploration of connections between adult and childhood identities. Her choreography is thoughtful and slow but not boring and makes exceptional use of dancers’ unique technical and artistic talents. Dancing atop and around a plain wooden chair set centerstage, Leah Terada’s limbs stretch to the max, holding up the immense emotional weight of Mineko’s thesis yet gently flowing with the skilled physical control of a superb ballerina.
Caught, by legendary choreographer David Parsons, is a staple of modern dance that audiences tend to either love or hate. Lit by a strobe controlled by the solo dancer, most of the movements appear to occur mid-air. It’s very cool to watch if you like strobe lights and very painful if you don’t.
But Caught isn’t just about spectacle. Although it premiered in 1982, the piece highlights an increasing cultural shift on the PNB stage: gender fluidity. While not a totally new phenomenon, dances where casting is based on artistry instead of gender identity are becoming more common in PNB productions. Caught is performed in Rep 4 by principal dancer Elle Macy, corps de ballet member Kuu Sakuragi, and new apprentice Melisa Guilliams. Guilliams’ physical strength and visible passion brought a new dimension to this older work that can sometimes feel inaccessible to audiences who aren’t yet comfortable with contemporary dance.
But what exactly makes dance accessible? Can we understand and appreciate dance without the presence of a storyline? Crystal Pite’s Plot Point offers the audience the opportunity to question how we respond emotionally to art through a series of clever but intentionally disconnected narratives.
Set to the score of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Pite’s piece has the feel of a film noir and the look of an artist’s storyboard. Half of the dancers are dressed as stereotypical 1930s gangsters and suburban housewives, while the other half — the shadows — are costumed head to toe in white cloth, with trench coats and aprons to match their human counterparts. Pite’s choreography alternates between low, balletic swoops and crisp, caricatured pedestrian movements like running, mixing cake batter, or fighting a group of thugs to the last breath.
Through each of these little narratives, the lack of a definitive storyline didn’t stop the audience from responding vocally as though they were watching a thriller in a movie theater. The genius choreography and staging in Plot Point tricks the dance audience brain into emotional responses usually reserved for story ballets. In this way, Plot Point is a story ballet, a story about human interaction between the dancers and the audience. It is pure genius from one of the most intelligent, insightful choreographers of the 21st century.
The final piece of the evening was the PNB premiere of The Times Are Racing, from New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck. Performed by 20 dancers in sneakers and high-fashion streetwear designed by Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony, The Times Are Racing occasionally loses momentum, pausing for what looks like a brief advertisement for Leon’s streetwear. Despite that distraction, the piece is high energy, and the dancers appear to really enjoy themselves. The chemistry between principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Elizabeth Murphy just keeps getting better every season. Corps de ballet member Christopher D’Ariano is fabulous, leaping around the stage in his too-brief solos with the joy and energy of an emerging artist who’s been cooped up too long. It’s nice to see him let loose.
Also at PNB …
The Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s production of Bruce Wells’ Beauty and the Beast began on Sunday, March 20 with a special sensory-friendly performance. It continues through next weekend with traditional presentations of the hour-long production, danced by students of the PNB School and narrated by Jasper McCann.
Plot Points runs through 3/27 at Pacific Northwest Ballet (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets ($43-$196) here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: Pay-what-you-choose tickets available for Thursday night’s performance; see info here. A streaming version (not including Caught) is available 3/31-4/4; see info here.
Beauty and the Beast runs through 3/27 at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Tickets ($34-$68) here.
Melody Datz Hansen is a freelance dance writer in Seattle. Her work is published in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, City Arts, and on her blog at melodydatz.com.