Sometimes, a work of art comes along at just the right moment. At Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Beyond Ballet” Friday night, that work was Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven,” a ballet as heartbreakingly beautiful as its name. It’s not a new work — Dove, an acclaimed choreographer who died of AIDS in 1996, created it in 1993 as a response to profound loss, and PNB has previously performed it — but it seems newly poignant at this time, when so many of us have faced grief and struggle. Six dancers, looking like ballet angels in white unitards, move in and out of white spotlights. Bells toll — a welcoming? a farewell? — and Arvo Pärt’s music, played by the PNB Orchestra, shimmers expectantly, as if a celestial curtain is about to lift.
A sense of loss and searching is everywhere in this work, particularly at the end of a pas de deux danced with quiet passion by Christopher D’Ariano and new PNB soloist James Kirby Rogers: The two men turn and begin to walk upstage together, but one steps ahead and fades away into the darkness, leaving the other alone. The movement is at times otherworldly, particularly in the women’s trembly bourrées (the noise seems to be all that’s keeping them on the ground), the deep pliés in second position with one foot up on pointe, the arms held like angel’s wings, a slow and beautifully controlled split.
“Heaven” ends with each dancer slowly and meditatively walking around their own spotlit circles, pondering and waiting. Watching it in live performance felt like a glorious dream, one that moved me deeply but left me with hope.
(In the spirit of that hope, let me share my wish that all audience members learn anew how to silence our cellphones, so we never again have another moment like the one on Friday night when the achingly silent final moments of “Heaven” were marred by a ringtone. As lovely as it is to have live performance back again, there are some things I didn’t miss.)
New to PNB in this rep was Alonzo King’s “The Personal Element,” a quiet work for eight dancers set to a piano score by Jason Moran. (Kudos to the evening’s solo pianists Josh Archibald-Seiffer and Christina Siemens, whose sensitive work filled the hall.) In it, King plays with the very idea of ballet: Cecilia Iliesiu intentionally teetered, showing beautiful control, while balancing on pointe; Amanda Morgan struck a perfect arabesque penché and then flexed her free foot, quirkily changing the shape of the pose. Slipping into different pairings, the dancers seemed to be tying elegant knots with their bodies. “The Personal Element” is the kind of ballet that would reward multiple watchings; its characters, like those in a Jerome Robbins ballet, seemed to have endless stories to tell.
Jessica Lang’s “Ghost Variations,” set to the piano music of Clara and Robert Schumann, was part of last year’s digital season; now it’s been restaged for an audience rather than a camera, and it makes the transition beautifully. It’s a too-brief little gem, with black-clad dancers whirling with each other and with shadows cast upstage, often quite wittily. (At one point, a dancer strikes a pose mirrored by her shadow — and then she moves on, but the shadow holds the pose.) Jillian Lewis’ costumes — voluminous black tutus on the women, flowing shirts on the men — elegantly punctuate the movement, and Elle Macy and Dylan Wald’s pas de deux makes a welcome moment of connection in this mostly distant ballet. (Macy is newly a principal this season — a well-deserved promotion.) Last year, they danced for a ghost audience; how lucky we are to be a real one again.