Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 50th anniversary season kicked off last Friday with a celebration of the company’s artistic roots and a stunning new work that points the way to PNB’s next half century.
An enthusiastic crowd of more than 1,500 (about half of McCaw Hall’s capacity but exceeding PNB’s expectations) was on hand opening night for a program bookended by two ballets that exemplified PNB’s artistic foundations. (The program runs through Oct. 2.) Legendary choreographer George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” kicked off the evening; PNB founding Artistic Director Kent Stowell’s epic 1993 creation “Carmina Burana,” set to Carl Orff’s popular cantata, ended the night with a crowd-pleasing exclamation mark.
“Allegro Brillante,” a 13-minute jewel set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, showcased the technical precision and sparkling stage presence of its lead dancers, Angelica Generosa and newly promoted principal dancer Jonathan Batista, as well as the talents of PNB pianist Christina Siemens.
Stowell’s “Carmina Burana” boasted a live (masked) choir, three soloists, the stellar PNB orchestra, plus the combined energies of more than three dozen PNB company members and Professional Division students.
Both ballets demonstrated PNB’s breadth and versatility, but the program’s emotional heart was in the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s eloquent “Wartime Elegy,” dedicated to the people of Ukraine.
Ratmansky, artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre in New York, is considered one of the world’s most important living choreographers. He was born in Russia but raised in Ukraine, his father’s homeland; his parents now live in Kyiv. When Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, Ratmansky was staging a ballet in Moscow, where he once headed the acclaimed Bolshoi Ballet. He left Russia immediately, vowing not to return as long as President Vladimir Putin remained in power.
“Wartime Elegy” is Ratmansky’s first new ballet since that war began. Although the choreographer is a vocal opponent of Putin’s invasion, this work is not overtly political. Instead, the tender dance, performed to both Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s haunting music for piano and strings, and sprightly traditional folk music, is a love letter to the Ukrainian people — a tribute to the joy they find in their distinct culture, to their resilient strength and to their hope for a peaceful future.
“Wartime Elegy” features eight dancers; on opening night the cast included two other newly promoted principals: Cecilia Iliesiu and James Kirby Rogers. The ensemble literally leaned on one another repeatedly, whether they were helping one another up from the floor or kicking up their heels, hands clasped overhead, in Ratmansky’s interpretation of a traditional folk dance. Each individual had a chance to shine, but this ballet is about the group, an ode to collective interdependence.
The mesmerizing and heartfelt depiction of the people behind the daily headlines was elevated by Wendell K. Harrington’s scenic design, featuring artwork by Matvei Vaisberg and Maria Prymachenko, enhanced by Reed Nakayama’s evocative lighting.
“Wartime Elegy” came straight from Ratmansky’s heart, touching everyone in McCaw Hall. When the choreographer took his bow, he unfurled a Ukrainian flag and held it aloft. The audience leapt to its feet, cheering, sometimes through tears. “Wartime Elegy” is a personal response to a particular moment in time, but Ratmansky has created a work of art that speaks to the universal human spirit and the quest to pursue life, liberty and our own happiness.