Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet brings its luster to the Berkshires


BECKET >> In its triple bill at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this week the mighty Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet pulls off the most elegant of hat tricks. The three ballets, all made specifically for the company — Jessica Lang's world premiere "Her Door to the Sky"; Kiyon Gaines' 2012 "Sum Stravinsky"; and Benjamin Millepied's 2008 "3 Movements" — are rooted in classical ballet, but each draws upon that vocabulary from a slightly different perspective.

Of the three choreographers, one is a woman — Lang — and one is an African American — Gaines, a former dancer with the company. Kudos to artistic director Peter Boal; there is more work to do in terms of increasing the diversity of the company's dancers, but this lineup of dancemakers is encouraging, precisely because it isn't just a nice idea on paper. None of the dances reinvents the wheel, but they don't need to: it's a pleasure to be reminded of the ways in which ballet and ballet dancers can be both beautiful and powerful.

On Wednesday night the company glowed with its full, formidable luster, the performers expansive, their clean technique articulate yet relaxed.

Millepied's "3 Movements," like Steve Reich's "Three Movements for Orchestra" to which it is set, drives forward with heady propulsion. Brad Fields' stark lighting, Isabella Boylston's stylish but solemnly hued costumes, and the dancers' often brooding expressions coyly belie the dance's big-hearted generosity.

Millepied builds his structure with a sneaky deftness: in the first section, pedestrian skips and insouciant walks mingle with big developpés for the women and antsy petit allégro for the men, while the male/female partnering is peppered with soft, high lifts with the women's legs tucked up or split in giant leaps. The main duet, performed Wednesday with succulent maturity by Batkhurel Bold and Lesley Rausch, is rife with both the playfulness and competition of a tango. Bold turns Rausch this way, then that way, then this way again, as if deciding which side of her he prefers. She pushes him away, or yanks at his tie, walking a blurred line between boredom and desire. When the ensemble returns, Millepied continues building; only briefly does he resort to what has the feel of conventional filler but it all moves along cheerfully. The stage is bustling, but never busy, and the dancers, working hard, pack the 15-minute piece with the rolling thunder of their full-throated dancing.

Gaines' "Sum Stravinsky" is, from the get-go, all sun all the time, the curtain opening on a perfect blue-sky background (lit by Randall G. Chiarelli) as the infectiously vivacious Leta Biasucci flies in and sails into a gorgeous, spot-on multiple pirouette. Gaines' program note states the dance's unequivocal homage to George Balanchine; Pauline Smith's attractive costumes are dyed in a subtle rainbow of "Balanchine blue." Like "3 Movements," "Sum" — choreographed to Stravinsky's chipper "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto — bubbles constantly with engaging movement and overlapping groupings. Gaines' pacing, however, is erratic — a lovely and romantic, but occasionally aimless, pas de deux that fills the middle section is followed by a sometimes manic final section.

Many times Gaines gives us a nibble of a new thought before moving on too quickly to another one: I love the way the women begin that final section, jumping voraciously into piqués, and the way the men kick at the end of their renversé sautés — it's as if they're all biting the movement, hungry for more. Likewise "Sum" ends without fully sating, though its big, confident physicality is often deeply satisfying.

As with a lot of Lang's work, the overall "world" of "Her Door to the Sky" is evoked as much by the lighting, costumes, and decor as it is by the choreography. Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe's "Patio Door" series of paintings, a simple backdrop — designed by Lang herself — also serves as a prop, the large central window allowing dancers to perch while the smaller, low-to-the-floor windows act as cartoon cels, revealing whole pictures or purposely cheeky partial ones.

Nicole Pearce's lighting is simply glorious, a shifting palette that, like the graduated pastels in Bradon McDonald's costumes, evokes the sun-bleached light of the American Southwest.

"Door" has strong potential, much of it already realized. But a lot is suggested in a brief amount of time — it's choreographed to Benjamin Britten's 20-minute "Simple Symphony" — without sufficient development. The sisterhood of playfully galloping women; the mournful group of men who lovingly cradle and ferry a woman — there is much that is evocative, but more drama is presented than explained, while the movement falls back on too many motifs. (And a few times the usually modulated Lang overstates, such as in that men's section, when they burst open their fifth position arms "with feeling")

This is much more than a sketch, though. I hope Lang will continue to mix and play with the many beautiful colors on "Door's" palette.


Who: Pacific Northwest Ballet

What: "3 Movements" by Benjamin Millepied; "Sum Stravinsky" by Kiyon Gaines; "Her Door to the Sky" by Jessica Lang (world premiere)

Where: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket

When: Through Sunday. Evening — Tonight at 8 (followed by festival finale party). Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2

Tickets: unavailable — updates by phone at 413-243-0745


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