Ballet is predicated on an illusion — one that PNB's 'Love & Ballet' breaks, providing a glimpse into what ballet's future might look like.
With its signature combination of absurd athleticism and a fairy-princess aesthetic, ballet is predicated on an illusion: It looks like everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. But dancers are athletes, and Pacific Northwest Ballet’s closing rep, “Love & Ballet,” pulls back the curtain on their efforts, in four innovative, relatively new works from choreographers Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millepied and Justin Peck.
It’s impossible to describe Wheeldon’s “Tide Harmonic” — composer Joby Talbot compares it to “a kind of water symphony” — without making it sound cheesy as hell. It is not. Dancers emulating aquatic life might be something you’d expect more from Burning Man enthusiasts than from PNB, but it was a jaunty delight to watch the opening night ensemble — Leta Biasucci, Elle Macy, Sarah Pasch, Sarah Ricard Orza, Price Suddarth, Miles Pertl, William Lin-Yee, and Joshua Grant — as they elegantly crabwalked across the stage, in a deep blue costuming and lighting scheme, to Talbot’s percussive, cataclysmic score.
Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” immediately following, was the pas de deux to end all pas de deux, a spare, emotive piece centered on two instruments — violin and piano — and two bodies — those of principal dancers Rachel Foster and James Moore. With simple costuming, no pointe shoes, and visible effort, this is a study in partnering, in every sense of the word. Watching “After the Rain,” if you’ve ever had feelings, is the ballet equivalent of listening to songs about heartbreak when you’re heartbroken: painful, perfect in its emotional symmetry, and oddly satisfying.
Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit” is brilliant in a completely different way, with playful, architectural choreography, turquoise bodysuits and pleated tutus, and a score by Sufjan Stevens that builds beautifully with the dancing and maintains all of the musician’s signature emotive whimsy without the need for lyrics. “Year of the Rabbit” features soloist Angelica Generosa, who was fantastic in a number of secondary roles in this season’s “Swan Lake” (Four Little Swans! look it up!) and brings a high energy level and honed technique to “Rabbit” that reminded me of now-retired principal Carrie Imler. Other standouts throughout the evening were the always-excellent Noelani Pantastico, and a welcome appearance from retiring principal Karel Cruz in Millipied’s “Apassionata” (which, while not as visually stunning as Peck and Wheeldon’s pieces, included some impressive partnering work and costumes that looked like couture PJs).
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From Wheeldon to Peck, the dancing in these ballets has one thing in common: It doesn’t look easy. It looks hard. Sit close enough to the front and you’ll see the sweat and hear the breathing. You’ll be able to chart the difficulty in a dancer’s demi-pointe. Given ballet’s association with things like cursed swan princesses and dancing dolls and synchronized, sentient holiday candy — and the industry’s recent reckoning following shake-ups like Peter Martins’ departure from NYCB following allegations of abuse — it was a savvy move on the part of PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal to stack the company’s final rep with innovative pieces that provide a glimpse into what ballet’s future might look like.
“Love & Ballet,” through June 10; Pacific Northwest Ballet at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $37-$187, 206-441-2424, pnb.org.