I came to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Beyond Ballet with a bit of skepticism, or maybe insecurity. My experiences of ballet—dance class at age five, occasional viewings of the Nutcracker—were few and far between, and I was supposed to go “beyond”? But I set my fears aside, put on a dress I hadn’t worn since March 2020, and made it to my seat in the very last row of McCaw Hall.
I found myself behind a trio of honest-to-God ballet students, apprentices at PNB, who chatted away about someone’s partnering and someone else’s port de bras, leaving me somewhat in awe. Before the show, three dancers took the stage to be promoted—promotion, I realized, is a big deal in ballet. After the applause from the audience faded, they ducked behind the curtain, where a muffled cheer went up backstage from their fellow dancers. It was a refreshing reminder that for all ballet’s mystique, it’s also a career, and the dancers are out there working hard and celebrating their co-workers. Then the curtain rose, and the mystique was back.
Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven began in silence. A spotlight lit the center stage, and six dancers hurried in unison to surround it, the tap-tap-tap of pointe shoes audible from my perch in the nosebleed seats. This piece is by Ulysses Dove, a groundbreaking choreographer whose work addressed the struggles of Black and LGBTQ communities during the eighties and nineties. Dancing, created in 1993, takes on the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, which Dove would lose his own life to in 1996. It’s a ballet about loss.
The silence gives way to a spare score by Arvo Pärt, composed mostly of droning strings; long sections are set to nothing but the regular ring of a gong. Most of the dancing is in pairs, with one of two male dancers. Atypical, but fitting for the piece’s subject matter. The dancers don’t float; none of it appears effortless. The overall effect is eerie. The figures—clad in all white—are occasionally just a glow in near darkness.
The piece finished its climax, the orchestra began its decrescendo, the dancers prepared to ascend to Heaven—and someone’s phone rang, loudly, as the curtain dropped. It’s a reminder of the realities of live theater (and to please turn off your ringer), and one of few things that marred the otherwise gripping performance. The other is the costumes: all the dancers wore pure white unitards, with the men sporting a very low scoop neck. “Inexplicable pec cleavage,” I wrote in my notes. “Lululemon sale rack vibes.” Ballet, I quickly learned, loves a bare chest.
The next dance has quite a backstory. Ghost Variations was written for piano by Romantic composer Robert Schumann, his last piece before being committed to an insane asylum. The ballet of the same name is set to his score as well as pieces by Clara Schumann, his wife and collaborator. The dancing was choreographed by Jessica Lang and made its premiere in a virtual performance in 2020. This was its first live showing.
Ghost Variations features dancers clad in black, occasionally appearing as shadows through the backlight curtain upstage. The piece plays with space and dimension, with dancers looming as shadows behind a backlit screen, mimicking their movements, then breaking away. It’s like catching sight of a ghost out of the corner of your eye. It’s the most traditionally pretty piece of Beyond Ballet, full of melodic dancing and gorgeous, floaty tulle skirts on the female dancers (the men wore unbuttoned jackets, once again exposing bare torsos).
It’s lovely to see Clara Schumann in the proverbial spotlight, as she’s chronically overshadowed by her husband and relegated to “female composers” programs. The final pas de deux of the ballet—featuring freshly promoted Elle Macy—could have been depicting a husband and a wife, and as the curtain fell and they sank slowly to the floor, I thought about the Schumanns’ love and loss.
At this point, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, and the third piece did not help. The Personal Element, choreographed by Alonzo King, featured a stage full of eight dancers in white (more white!) twisting and turning and constantly on the move. It was too much to fully take in—my ballet brain was at capacity. Clad in simple costumes, the octet paired off for dances that suggested relationships—some gentle, some full of tension. A larger story is suggested by the title of The Personal Element, but watching the ballet feels like understanding only a small piece of it. I found it intriguing.
The curtain fell on The Personal Element as one dancer remained in motion, kicking and jumping as he vanished from sight like he didn’t want the show to end. Nor did I. After endless sets of bows (ballet loves a bow almost as much as a bare chest), I got up and stretched my legs. The ballet students decided to pop backstage “just to say hi” to their friends in the performance. That’s a level of cool I’ll never reach, but as I shuffled out of McCaw Hall, I vowed to go back soon. It took one show to send me from ballet imbecile to ballet appreciator—that’s the power of Beyond Ballet, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Beyond Ballet played November 18 - 22 2021. For more information see here.
Lead photo by Angela Sterling
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