Monday, November 8, 2021

Ballet and Beyond

PNB company members in Alonzo King's The Personal Element, photo @ Angela Sterling

Maybe it’s just me, but even after almost two years of social distancing, and the gradual reopening of live performance venues, it feels like we’re all just starting to re-adjust to life among our fellow humans.

That’s one reason why Pacific Northwest Ballet’s second program of this artistic season really resonated with me.

Beyond Ballet is a medley of work by three choreographers, each with a distinctive movement vocabulary and sensibility. Despite the stylistic differences, each work centers on interpersonal relationships, something we’ve struggled to maintain through Zoom happy hours and Facetime conversations. As I watched the performances, I appreciated the aesthetics of each work, and the dancers' commitment to them, but found myself most drawn to the myriad ways they depicted love, grief, joy and the ways we are connected to one another.

Before I talk more about the dances themselves, I just have to say that, to me, Beyond Ballet is a misnomer. Each work on this program is a ballet, right down to the pointe shoes. What they don’t do is mimic the 19th century classics. Instead, they’re emblematic of ballet's metamorphoses. If Beyond Ballet represents the art form's future, hey, I’m all in!

The program opened with Ulysses Dove’s 1993 Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, which has been in PNB’s repertoire for 15 years. This elegy to the people who lost their lives during the HIV/AIDS epidemic is as resonant now as when it was created.

Soloist James Kirby Roger, left, with Corps de Ballet member Christopher D'Ariano in 
Ulysses Dove's Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. photo @ Angela Sterling

Dancing features six performers, three women and three men clad in white unitards and shoes. On opening night, the entire cast was stellar: Cecilia Iliesiu, Amanda Morgan, Lesley Rausch, Christopher D’Ariano, James Kirby Rogers and Dylan Wald. 

Veteran Rausch demonstrated both her command of technique and her artistic mastery, imbuing the movement with fierce, but tender, emotion. But Iliesiu, Morgan and D’Ariano, as well as PNB newcomer Rogers, also danced with an almost heartbreaking clarity. Watching Morgan extend her long, long leg into the air was nothing short of hypnotic.

This ballet is a tribute to lives lost too soon, but it’s also very much about the grief of those left to mourn them; it was an apt programming choice during this current pandemic.

Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations offered up a very different reflection on pandemic loss, this time through its structure.

PNB Principal Dancer Elizabeth Murphy in Jessica Lang's Ghost Variations
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lang created the ballet for PNB in 2020, when COVID protocols meant that only four dancers at a time could be in the studio together, and only those co-habitating could actually touch one another. 

Lang worked with two pods—eight dancers altogether—to create a dreamy, almost stately, modern version of a classical ballet, complete with long tulle skirts and waltzing couples. The twist: the couple very often consisted of one dancer onstage and a shadow dancer behind a large white screen. For instance, Postlewaite performed a duet with D’Ariano; later in the ballet, Kyle Davis danced with four of his own shadows.

Ultimately, newly promoted Principal Dancer Elle Macy and her partner, fellow principal Dylan Wald, appeared in front of the screen. As I watched them twirling together across the stage, in contrast with the shadow duets that came before, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the pandemic really limited our physical contact with people outside our immediate households. We’ve all been waltzing with Zoom shadows, haven’t we?

PNB originally presented this work a year ago as part of its digital season, but Lang told me then that she always envisioned it to be performed for a live audience and indeed, I enjoyed it much more as a stage, rather than screen, presentation.

The program ended with PNB’s first---and I hope not last---presentation of work by San Francisco-based Alonzo King.

According to very brief program notes, The Personal Element is meant to showcase the interplay between Jason Moran’s piano score and the virtuosity of the dancers. For me, it did that and much more.

The eight dancers--Lesley Rausch, Elle Macy, Amanda Morgan, Cecilia Iliesiu, Miles Pertl (newly promoted to Soloist), Lucien Postlewaite, Dylan Wald and James Kirby Rogers—are virtuosic indeed, but to me, this 20-minute ballet was more than a showcase. I found it to be a mesmerizing tapestry of people coming together, dancing alone, merging into a community.

When the curtain went up, the entire octet was standing still under bright lights. Then Iliesiu rose to a teetering point, windmilling her arms as if she needed them to keep her balance. As if, indeed. Morgan and Postlewaite emerged in a duet, Morgan lifting a long leg, toe pointed elegantly. With a quick flick, she flexed her foot, only to return to her pointed extension. That move, repeated, was like an exclamation mark: see what I can do balanced on one leg?

Amanda Morgan, left with Lucien Postlewaite in Alonzo King's The Personal Element
photo @ Angela Sterling

When Pertl escorted Rausch onto the stage, she had one leg bent up behind her, and she clutched her foot, the way a runner stretches out a tight quadricep muscle. As Pertl propelled her diagonally downstage, Rausch repeatedly extended the other leg in front, like a slow-motion prancing pony.

Throughout this ballet, the dancers came forward in dazzling duets or solos, then rejoined the group in a line reminiscent of the imagery you might see on a Grecian urn or a painting by Matisse, their legs and arms intertwined. They stood still, but it wasn’t static. To me, it was as if their moving bodies had been captured in a still photograph. Days later, I can still see that image in my mind’s eye, although I’ve got Angela Sterling’s fabulous photo to refresh my memory.

Mixed rep programs like Beyond Ballet are always a crap shoot. I’m usually satisfied if I like two of three works on the bill. Beyond Ballet, to stretch my gambling metaphors, was like pulling the slot machine arm and getting three cherries lined up; PNB hit the jackpot and so did the audiences.

It may take me a while to readjust to a life lived in public, but I’m so glad that life will be graced by artists like these. And seriously PNB, if this is where ballet is heading, I'm with you for the ride.


  1. I brought friends along and they asked about the "Beyond Ballet", and I told them "it should be called "pretty much ballet", really, let's just call it awesome and interesting ballet" so LOL your comments.