From Digital to Here-and-Now, ‘Boundless’ Stages Dance for the New World
Out of the pandemic leap three new works — one created for the digital realm and two world premieres — in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s latest triple-bill, Boundless. It runs through March 26 (and streaming through April 3).
Mixed reps are just that: smorgasbords of dance works performed by one company on one night. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Boundless includes three pieces from the company’s vast contemporary repertoire: Penny Saunders’ Wonderland, originally choreographed for film in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic; world premiere Black on Black on Black (originally titled New Cerrudo), from resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo; and world premiere Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee, by choreographer Jessica Lang.
Saunders’ emotional homage to live theatre opens the evening with a brilliant display of Broadway-like showmanship and bright lights. Premiering onstage this past weekend, Wonderland was initially filmed for digital release during the early pandemic lockdown. Both film and live versions include dancers performing solo in audience boxes high above the stage, springing up from the orchestra pit, and strolling up the aisles of seats. Viewing Wonderland online in 2020 was cathartic for dance lovers and introduced many to the art of dance film, a medium that became familiar to thousands as the pandemic stretched across months and years and kept theatres shuttered.
Friday night brought a new wave of comfort to audience members. As principal dancer Elle Macy rose out of the orchestra pit with her back to the audience, conductor’s baton raised in her delicate, bird-thin hand, a thick and silent cloud of expectation fell across the theatre. Macy turned her head slowly to smile slyly at the audience before snapping back around and air-tapping her baton to the beat of Michael Wall’s aptly-named “Conductor’s tap.” Super bright spotlights flashed into the audience before a line of disembodied hands and feet began to emerge from under the closed red curtain on McCaw Hall’s gigantic stage, and Wonderland sucked us in under its cathartic spell.
Dance works like Wonderland, with its many moving parts and vignettes, are always in danger of feeling disjointed. But Saunders is a choreographic genius, casting dancers in parts that bring out their best qualities and never extending a section too far that it loses the audience’s attention.
Principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy uses every part of her body to work with the music, even curling her toes into a point at the end of a musical phrase to punctuate a pose on the floor. Elle Macy and real-life partner Dylan Wald perform soul-wrenching duets, their upper bodies wrapping around each other and breaking off in what now feels like an illustration of the intricacies of maintaining relationships during that long period of house-bound isolation. Maybe I’m projecting, but isn’t that what dance does for us sometimes — makes us think deeper about our own experiences and how maybe we weren’t really alone during that dark time?
The concept of universality in grief and healing is at the forefront of Jessica Lang’s Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee. Choreographed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s twelve-part choral work Stabat Mater, Lang’s lyrical ballet tells the story of Mary’s grief at the death of her son, followed by a prayer for universal redemption.
However closely that theme of grief and redemption aligns with other faiths and philosophies, the Christian iconography in Let Me Mingle Tears With Thee takes over. In the first section, bearded soloist Miles Pertl lunges across the stage carrying a horizontal Elizabeth Murphy on his back, Murphy’s arms extended to her sides so her body resembled a station of the cross. A large, sideways cross constructed out of black scrims and lighting provides a stunning backdrop for the ballet but distracts the eyes away from the dancers. Thankfully, the cast’s keen artistic abilities save the work from being too preachy.
Principal dancer Angelica Generosa translates maternal grief into movement with sharp movements of her arms and torso, matching the mournful notes of soprano Christina Siemens’ vocals. Likewise, principal dancer James Yoichi Moore’s solos are supernatural exercises in strength, his muscular, grief-stricken body falling to the floor and then popping up, leaping and turning like a silent gust of wind.
That tireless strength is evident in Alejandro Cerrudo’s brand-new work, Black on Black on Black, the middle piece of the mixed rep. The work was made in just 15 days, and Artistic Director Peter Boal described it thusly: “If this work were a painting it would still be wet.”
Cerrudo’s work is a series of very short vignettes separated by lowering and raising a vast number of backdrops. Stage lights illuminate different groups of dancers as the lights are diffused by the large pieces of cloth, creating a shuttering aperture effect. The lighting design by Michael Korsch, scenic design by Cerrudo, and costume design by Karen Young match the music and choreography in rare, perfect synchronicity. In corps de ballet dancer Noah Martzall’s too-short solo, energetic leaps and expressive arms showcased a young dancer on the rise.
In contrast to Saunders’ work that made the transition from film to stage, Cerrudo’s work looks more like something made for an Instagram reel. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Dance looks different now. During the pandemic, art was made for digital viewing. Choreographers could mix scenery, dancers, and angles not previously available in the space of a live theatre. This is part of the natural progression of art, and sometimes it’s really hard to get used to.
Boundless runs through 3/26 at Pacific Northwest Ballet (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets ($44-$202) here. Digital version also available for viewing 3/30-4/3; see info 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 (3/23); see info here.
Run time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with 2 intermissions.
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.