As if shaking the dust off any stodgy notions of the form, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s season-opener goes full-on play-time. The triple-bill Petite Mort runs through 10/1 at McCaw Hall.
Two men stacked high in a single dress form. Dusty old wigs. Literal bubbles, primed for the popping. This is the playground for Jiří Kylián’s Sechs Tänze (Six Dances), the middle piece in PNB’s current triple-bill, and the most playful ballet I’ve ever seen.
As the massive curtain rises, disgust and bewilderment are plastered all over the faces of the dancers, especially an expressive Angelica Generosa in the lead, as they lay eyes on one another. The rest of the 20-minute work, served in a half-dozen slices, is a parade of goofiness in precision. Clumsy gestures, sloppy antics, and laughable bursts tell the movement story, but they’re so tight you know there’s more to the mayhem. The upstage carve-out offers a few comedic peeks. Dress forms and foils cycle by in the background like a macabre car wash. Fighting words are delivered (mostly) wordlessly through gesture. Sechs Tänze is light and unexpected, and if you’ve ever wanted to hear a PNB crowd laugh along in unison, this is your chance.
Later on the slate, Cacti is similarly playful, perhaps a bit more self-mocking in a navel-gazing sort of way. Cacti essentially makes fun of art by poking at its critiques.
But what does it mean?
That’s the question Alexander Ekman’s show-closer, Cacti, invites, but it won’t be answering it anytime soon. As an unseen narrator talks up the finer points of art with a faux authority — pedagogy, hegemony, and tautology didn’t make the cut in the stream of increasingly nonsensical lines, but they may as well have — you can picture the critic’s nose held high. By the end, the stuffy narration has been replaced by a different Voice of God, as awkward post-hoc narration, reminiscent of voice-overs in the early/mid-2000s show Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, steps in for the pas de deux.
And there’s plenty more fun to be had with the sounds and lights. A triumphant swirl emanates from the orchestra as the potted title plants show up — not to mention the string quartet that’s already been following the dancers around on stage, and jamming with gusto, throughout the 30-minute piece. All around, light features close in on the dancers, shrinking their field of play, sometimes quite dramatically. But my favorite lighting trick is the one meant to mess with you: much like David Parsons’ Caught (but without the intensity of the strobes), some flashing mild lights from the side interrupt your vision, playing tricks by shifting the dancers around without any visible movement.
Both Cacti and Petite Mort (the lead-off title work, also by Sechs Tänze‘s Kylián) build urgency with relentless strings and keys. Percussion and synchronicity get just as much emphasis as the steps at critical points, particularly in Cacti.
Throughout the night, powder dust bursts off the dancers, and their hair, up through the air, as if this slate is shaking the dust off of the ballet you know.
But what does it mean?
It means permission to laugh, loudly, in the ballet. It means there are 16 random-ass potted plants on stage. It means looking at some mega-ripped shirtless dudes playing with swords. It means a new understanding of what it means to Do the ballet.
Swan Lake this is not. (Don’t worry, that comes later, in February.)
No one said precision dancers can’t have fun. 🌵
Petite Mort runs through 10/1 at Pacific Northwest Ballet (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets 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 (9/28); see info here.
Run time: 1 hour 40 minutes, with intermission.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.