Whenever someone new to ballet asks what to see, I send them to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s springtime showcase “Director’s Choice.” If you can’t sit through “The Sleeping Beauty”‘s three intermissions (I did, happily) or have never let out a Super Bowl-sized “WOO!” watching a ballerina execute “Swan Lake”‘s 32 fouetté turns en pointe (I plead the fifth), Peter Boal’s often contemporary-leaning mid-season lineup is a helpful reminder that ballet need not be all cursed princesses and pancake tutus. And when one of the choreographers on the docket is Justin Peck, well, just go, don’t ask questions, you’re going to have a good time, thank me later!
Peck’s “In the Countenance of Kings” was by far the evening’s standout performance, and if you see one ballet a year, it should probably be this one. Something I love about Peck’s choreography is the way it utilizes the entire company. If some ballets are about showcasing a company’s best dancers trotting out their showiest repertoire, his feel refreshingly democratic — perhaps because he began choreographing while in the lowest rank of New York City Ballet.
So while it was a delight to see soloists Elle Macy and Margaret Mullin shine in central roles, the corps de ballet (here called “The School of Thought”) were also essential. Each performer in “In the Countenance of Kings” seems to have their moment in the spotlight before being folded back into a communal, constantly-moving morass; no one is wasted, and it’s all propelled forward not by dull homogeneity, but by Peck’s athletic, high-energy choreography. This is especially enjoyable to see on PNB dancers, who tend to go above ballet’s low, low bar for diversity when it comes to body type, routinely demonstrating that a corps de ballet is truly made uniform by impeccable technique, not a specific “look.”
And of course there’s the music: Sufjan Stevens, whose work was also used in Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit,” remains a surprisingly effective choice for ballet — the whimsy and pathos feel made for dance — and a perfect match for Peck’s charged-up, occasionally playful celebration of the communal. In an art form that often prizes the individual while relying on the labor of one group in particular (that’d be the corps de ballet), this is always a joy to see.
But Peck was hardly the only exciting young choreographer on the “Director’s Choice” bill. “Bacchus,” a world premiere from Matthew Neenan, up first, set the bar for an evening of solidly contemporary, technically precise, even fun ballet. Incorporating a pleasing score from Oliver Davis with bacchanal-appropriate plum-colored costuming, Neenan’s choreography maintains the architecture of classical ballet, but adds in spaciousness through elements like inventive same-sex partnering — Margaret Mullin and Elizabeth Murphy were an A+ team — and powerhouse moves, here delivered by the likes of Lucien Postlewaite, Dylan Wald, Leta Biasucci, and rising stars of the corps de ballet like Christopher D’Ariano. There was even a surprise last-minute appearance from principal dancer Seth Orza, who seemed summoned specifically to show off his jumping prowess and gallant partnering.
Another world premiere, Robyn Mineko Williams’ “The Trees The Trees,” felt like a midcentury modern one-act play, in the best way, with what felt like entire story arcs contained in the dancers’ smallest (and biggest) gestures — particularly those carried out by Noelani Pantastico, Christopher D’Ariano (at one point, he makes a move involving falling off a chair look utterly graceful and weirdly fun), and Elizabeth Murphy. The costuming here includes a pair of enviable maroon thigh-highs (where do I buy this), and the set looks like what might happen if Rachel Whiteread got really into IKEA furniture. Sold!
I was less convinced by this piece’s insistence that we also hear the poetry that inspired it. The title “The Trees The Trees” comes from Heather Christle’s poetry collection of the same name. It’s spare and often funny in a mordant sort of way. Though it contains lofty little digs at mortality and the passage of time, it also devotes a lot of verbiage to things like defrosting meat and eating soup. The former was made for ballet; the latter, not so much. Unfortunately, we get both in “The Trees The Trees,” and not even the delivery of art-pop singer and composer Alicia Walter can make me feel anything but distracted by hearing about a microwave when the choreography and emotional resonance here are rich enough on their own.
It’s been a difficult and strange year for the ballet world. From separate allegations, ranging from misconduct to abuse, at New York City Ballet that led to firings last fall and the abrupt retirement of artistic director Peter Martins a year ago (Peck was among the creative team that temporarily replaced Martins) to a longstanding lack of women artistic directors and choreographers in a field that relies on women’s labor, ballet faces a moment of reckoning, and must decide what its future will look like. The stakes have never been higher, and the change is long overdue. Making space for young choreographers, women choreographers, and choreographers ready to challenge the confines of this ancient art feels like a step in the right direction. I saw it onstage from this group of dance-makers, and I look forward to seeing it again.
“Director’s Choice,” through March 24; Pacific Northwest Ballet at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $37-$189, 206-441-2424, pnb.org