A dance performance is always, by definition, a fleeting thing; it’s a particular quicksilver combination of molecules that will never recur in quite the same way ever again. But Pacific Northwest Ballet’s performance of “Empire Noir” and “One Thousand Pieces” on a recent evening in McCaw Hall felt especially ephemeral: It was a dress rehearsal, in front of an invited audience of about 100 (spread out in the vast theater that can hold nearly 30 times that number), and unlike most dress rehearsals it wasn’t a beginning, but an ending.
In the enormity of how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting us, arts performances aren’t at the top of the list: some among us are ill and dying, some are losing their places of shelter and sustenance and income, some are struggling to balance work with home-from-school children. For those few hours at McCaw, though, it all came down to one beautiful thing lost.
After weeks of rehearsals, costume fittings, set construction and ticket-selling, the PNB repertory program scheduled to open March 13 — like most Seattle arts events, in compliance with the new state-ordered restrictions against large gatherings — was gone, with that last dress rehearsal serving as a wistful goodbye.
It’s a curious thing to watch a performance in a nearly empty theater; I’ve done it often with movies (a different experience, as a movie remains the same whenever it’s screened), but rarely with dance. There was no one in the seat in front of me, no one next to me, no one across the aisle — just performance, filling up the empty spaces. You don’t usually think of McCaw Hall as a room, but it is; this was like a large version of a living-room entertainment. Were those people onstage, dancing with the fierce passion that comes when you only get one shot at something, performing only for me? It was easy to think so.
As stages go dark all over the state, let’s pause for a moment to consider what we’re losing for a while — the dances that won’t be danced, the songs that won’t be sung, the plays that won’t be performed. Let’s, at first, think practically about what we can do to help those whose livelihoods are affected: We can, if we can afford to, donate any ticket purchases back to the organization; we can purchase subscriptions to upcoming seasons; we can donate money directly, to our favorite arts groups or to a general fund like the Seattle Artists Relief Fund Amid COVID-19, a rapidly growing GoFundMe started by Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo.
Some local organizations are planning to lift that darkness a bit. The Seattle Symphony will be digitally presenting both rebroadcasts and live streams throughout the month; PNB is providing ticket holders with a link to watch that very dress rehearsal that I saw. And those things will be beautiful, but they won’t be the same — there’s something about being in the room where it happens (to quote another transformational live-theater work), about breathing the same air as the performers, about realizing all your troubles and worries went away as you watched a dancer become a superhuman in the stage’s magic light.
I can’t review the dances I saw that Thursday night — part of accepting the invitation was agreeing not to do so, as it wasn’t an official performance — but someday I or another Times writer will, as PNB artistic director Peter Boal promises they will return to the repertory soon. But I can say it’s an evening that should have been seen by more than a hundred people, and that when the dancers gathered for a bow at the end of Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces” (a 2012 work making its PNB premiere), most smiled gamely but several wiped away tears. A ballet that (almost) nobody saw faded away, quietly and beautifully, as the curtain went down.
As we take care of each other in the coming days and weeks, I’ll be thinking about that performance, in that big near-empty room. In its strange, sad beauty, there was hope; the performance was fleeting, but the art remains.