Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal takes a risk with an "All Premiere" program (Nov. 2-3 and 8-10) featuring a world premiere by Mark Morris, plus new works by PNB dancers Andrew Bartee, Kiyon Gaines and Margaret Mullin.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “All Premiere,” which debuts on Friday, will offer not one, not two, not three, but four brand-new works. The idea was artistic director Peter Boal’s. And the dances are a newly commissioned work by Mark Morris — the renowned Seattle native’s first for PNB in 30 years — plus pieces by three budding choreographers from the PNB ranks: Andrew Bartee, Kiyon Gaines and Margaret Mullin.
The seemingly mild-mannered Boal turns mischievous as he acknowledges how unusual this showcase is.
“You know, it’s obviously — ” he lowers his voice a bit ” — crazy to program four world premieres in one night. I mean, there’s a total rolling of the dice here.”
As “crazy” as “All Premiere” is, Boal intends to send a signal with it that PNB’s 40th anniversary isn’t just about “revisiting past successes.”
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With disarming candor, he adds, “I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. … It could be a bad call on the director’s part.”
That seems unlikely. Visits to rehearsals suggest it will be a highly varied evening, with Gaines’ high-energy movement fugues in contrast with Bartee’s twining, rubbery dance steps and Mullin’s devoted look back to the graceful balletic style of Antony Tudor.
Morris, while here, operated in secrecy as he set his new work on PNB dancers — but the knockout showing by Mark Morris Dance Group at On the Boards last month augurs good things.
Below are some snapshots of the four pieces in “All Premiere.”
“Kammermusik No. 3”
Morris’ first commission for PNB is, of course, the biggest news of “All Premiere” — and it’s been a long time in coming.
The 56-year-old Seattle native, interviewed in August, was forthright about his history with PNB. An early work of his, “Brummagem,” was performed in PNB’s 1978 “Summer Inventions” workshop, but he soured on the company after PNB reneged on a promise to provide live music for the piece.
PNB founding director Kent Stowell later asked him to create work for the company, but Morris turned him down. He’s been publicly frank on the reasons why; he didn’t like the “tone” of the company under Stowell’s direction, and had no taste for Stowell’s own work.
“It’s not an accident I wasn’t here for 30-something years,” he says. “It was a decision.”
The minute Boal arrived at PNB in 2005, things changed.
One of the first things Boal did was look at PNB’s repertory to see which choreographers were underrepresented.
“Mark was probably the first one that came to mind,” Boal says, “not only because, yes, he’s from Seattle. But it’s so much bigger than that for me. It’s about Mark being one of the greats working today. … So of course I called him and said, ‘Will you make a piece for PNB?’ “
Boal now laughs at his own naiveté, saying the response he got was something like, “Son, it’s not that easy.”
Morris pointed out that he was “very popular and very expensive.” That made scheduling and financing a Morris premiere tricky.
“So I had my marching orders,” Boal says. “More importantly, he felt that it was right for the company to have some familiarity with his work and to dance other works before having a commission from him.”
PNB performances of Morris’ “Pacific” and “A Garden,” originally created for San Francisco Ballet, soon followed.
Music is the starting point for Morris’ dances, and German composer Paul Hindemith’s 1925 cello concerto, Kammermusik No. 3, is no exception. The piece gives Morris a chance to work with his old Franklin High School classmate Page Smith, principal cellist of PNB’s orchestra.
Morris’ choice of score was made with Balanchine’s dance “Kammermusik No. 2” (set to a Hindemith piece of the same vintage) in mind. Both are early Hindemith and, as Morris notes, “The early stuff swings in its way. It’s fabulous and fun … his kind of uptight, Teutonic version of jazz.”
The rehearsals for “Kammermusik No. 3” have been closed, he says, “because I don’t want anybody to watch. It’s not interactive.” Morris has even papered over all the windows that look down into PNB’s studios.
“Mark has a way,” Boal laughs, adding, “Greatness is greatness, and if you have to wait for it, it’s fine.”
“arms that work”
Bartee, in PNB’s corps de ballet, is only 22. But in Seattle’s contemporary dance scene, he’s already made quite a splash with Whim W’Him (helmed by former PNB principal Olivier Wevers) and, this past summer, with rising local choreographer Kate Wallich at Velocity Dance Center.
Boal quips fondly, “Andrew has trouble walking down the hall without choreographing.”
Bartee’s new work takes its title from the movement of the dance itself, in which the dancers “use their arms to help them move, because there’s a lot of weight changing and quick direction changes.” But the title also was prompted by an exchange between Bartee and former PNB dancer Anton Pankevich. Bartee was uncomfortable about a sleeveless costume, complaining: “I don’t like my arms — I can’t wear this.”
Pankevich’s response: “If you don’t like your arms, then work on them.”
“I kind of took it more profoundly than I should have,” Bartee says sheepishly. The dance’s theme: “If you don’t like something about your situation, then change it.”
At age 30, PNB soloist Gaines has more of a track record than Bartee and Mullin, with two pieces already in PNB’s mainstage repertory.
Choreography for Gaines started with high jinks during rehearsals where he’d ask his fellow dancers, “Oh, can you just do something? This will look good. That will look good.”
When his friends challenged him to make a ballet, his first response was, “Oh, no, I’m not a choreographer. … I just like to play.”
They insisted, and in 2005 he came up with a piece called “Blitz Fantasy.”
“I kind of fell in love with the process,” he recalls. So much so that he’s never stopped doing it.
“Sum Stravinsky,” Gaines’ “All Premiere” piece, is set to Stravinsky’s Concerto in E Flat (better known as “Dumbarton Oaks”) and in rehearsal it’s promising to be an angular, fast-paced, tightly patterned concoction of dance movement.
“That’s my favorite style,” Gaines says. “Very musical. Full of energy. Makes you feel happy.”
In rehearsal, Gaines is a dynamo, demonstrating steps and thinking on the fly. His tempo-setting finger snap makes it sound as though he’s had castanets surgically implanted at the base of his thumb — and amplified.
“I want to make the stage feel alive,” he says. “It’s definitely an energy I’m trying to evoke.”
“Lost in Light”
Corps de ballet dancer Margaret Mullin, 23, is quite specific on the stylistic inspiration behind her “All Premiere” piece. It pays homage to British choreographer Antony Tudor, whose works were introduced to her during her training at Arizona’s Ballet Tucson.
“There’s something about doing a Tudor ballet that made me feel more graceful than I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” she says. “He’s a very emotional choreographer without always needing to employ a narrative. I’m really trying to bring his choreographic language back through my own work.”
“Lost in Light” also has more personal roots. “I created this piece in honor of someone — a family friend — who passed away last year, who was very dear to me.” The title, she adds, is “pretty literal. In reflecting on the loss of a loved one, it’s a moment to be lost in the light that they created in their lives.”
While it’s “terrifying” to be on the same bill as Mark Morris, she’s delighted to be dancing in his work.
So … what’s the piece like?
Mullin won’t be caught: “With us he’s been very straightforward. But I’ve been noticing everything has been kind of secretive. … So I don’t know what I’m at liberty to say — much as I would love to tell you.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com