Ballet review

Some years ago, I got a view of ballet that I’d never had before. I was observing a rehearsal of a Jerome Robbins work in a Pacific Northwest Ballet studio, sitting quietly on a stacking chair in a corner. As luck would have it, a key moment in the pas de deux happened to take place right in that downstage corner, and two tall, beautiful dancers rushed toward me, as the pianist played Chopin, and performed a gracefully swooping overhead lift, just a few feet from my chair. I think my mouth might have hung open; it was the bigness of the moment that thrilled me. As audience members, we’re accustomed to seeing dancers from a distance, performing in a lovely box far away. To see them so close — to be sharing a space with them — felt like a magical moment of human connection, as if a painting came down from the wall.

I thought of that moment while watching PNB’s first digital rep of its all-online pandemic season. The program consists of excerpts from nine ballets, all but one of them familiar (Albert Evans’ lyrical “One Body” makes its PNB premiere here, danced with flowing lightness by Christopher D’Ariano), most of them solos or pas de deux. All are newly performed and recorded, under elaborate social distancing protocols. The selected works run the gamut from traditional classicism (Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake”) to neoclassicism (George Balanchine’s “Jewels”) to contemporary dance (Marco Goecke’s “Mopey”), providing a vivid demonstration of the breadth of a 21st-century ballet company.

And watching it online is, like that memory from the studio, both bigger and smaller at once. It’s smaller, because it has to be: Even on the biggest of screens, a prerecorded performance doesn’t breathe in the same way that live performance does; we can’t thrill in the moment because we’re not part of the moment. But in the absence of live performance, there’s a shiny silver lining: In this digital presentation, we’re all sitting on chairs on the McCaw Hall stage, seeing a ballet up close in a way that even the best seats can’t offer.  

This means that we can see not only Lucien Postlewaite’s effortless technique in Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” but the subtle emotional content of the performance; he performs with a sense of delicate wonder, like re-creating a treasured memory. It means we can marvel in the expressive backs of Amanda Morgan, Cecilia Iliesiu and Juliet Prine, in an excerpt from Eva Stone’s “F O I L” performed entirely turned away from the audience. It means we can see the details of both Angelica Generosa’s intricate tiara, in the “Black Swan” pas de deux, and of her whirling legs in the famous fouetté turns (executed with triumphant precision). We can see, up close, the wonder that is Lesley Rausch’s long, eloquent feet in the “Diamonds” scherzo, and experience exhaustion along with James Moore in the punishing “Mopey” solo. (You almost want to sit back in your chair at home, to avoid being drenched in sweat.)

These are the first performances from PNB since March, when the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shuttered the 2019/20 season, and it’s a short program (just 73 minutes) crammed with content. Perhaps a little too crammed; I might have liked longer excerpts from fewer dances. And those accustomed to hearing PNB’s grand full orchestra may miss that sound in the classical works — particularly in “Swan Lake,” the musician roster feels all too obviously cut to the bone. (Budgetary concerns, for sure. But sometimes, less is just less.)

But I found myself loving the intimacy of these dances (and ignoring the oddness of the recorded applause track). It’s a treat to see the couples gazing at each other in the pas de deux: Kyle Davis and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan shooting each other little glances throughout “Rubies” (I don’t think I would have noticed this on a regular viewing); Elle Macy and Dylan Wald dancing in Robyn Mineko Williams’ “The Trees The Trees” as if they truly were alone together. And the solos suit this kind of presentation. There’s a gorgeous moment in Jessica Lang’s “The Calling,” in which Wald picks up the vast skirt in which he’s encircled and extends a swathed leg in arabesque, and somehow it felt even more poignant watching at home; something beautiful, no longer lost.

Nothing compares to live performance, the memory of which now seems like a happy dream. But in these dark days, our hometown ballet company is dancing again, and that’s cause for celebration. Rep 1 ends with a too-brief excerpt from Ulysses Dove’s electric “Red Angels,” with William Lin-Yee, Postlewaite, Iliesiu and Morgan showing off a fierce array of razor-sharp, socially distant arabesques and pirouettes and deep plies in second position; when it’s over, you just want to watch it again. And guess what — you can. These days, let’s treasure small — and large — pleasures.

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Rep 1, streaming Oct. 15-19, Pacific Northwest Ballet, pnb.org. Digital access is $29, or $39 with bonus interview material. Digital season subscription (six reps, not including “The Nutcracker”) is $190. Information: pnb.org or 206-441-2424.