PNB’s Director’s Choice Is a Menagerie of Contemporary Ballet

Review of Director's Choice at Pacific Northwest Ballet

Written by Isabell Petersen, during TeenTix’s Theater & Dance Press Corps Intensive.

Bacchus group PNB Dir Choice19 0110

On March 15th, Pacific Northwest Ballet presented Director’s Choice, a collection of three pieces ("Bacchus," "The Trees The Trees," and "In The Countenance of Kings," respectively), two of which ("Bacchus" and "The Trees The Trees") were world premieres.

The first piece of the evening was "Bacchus," set to music composed by Oliver Davis, and choreographed by Matthew Neenan. As a whole, "Bacchus" was quite enjoyable, from the costumes, to the score, to the dancers’ movements themselves. The stage was clean, and the only backdrop provided was the mezzanine. All of the dancers were draped in deep, rich purple hues, which evoked the color and smoothness of wine (costumes designed by Mark Zappone). The movement of the dancers was almost birdlike in the beginning vignette of the piece, with dancers pairing off to intertwine themselves with one another in a courtship dance. James Moore, whose costume was a slightly brighter purple than the others, and which had a cape-like attachment- remained onstage during the entire piece, and his character’s movements seemed to influence the others. During the second vignette, when Moore danced alone, his movements were large, sweeping, and reminded me of a storm or a tempest. A third intriguing choice was when, during the third vignette, the music stopped altogether, allowing the heavy breathing and squeaking of shoes to be heard as the dancers moved around the stage.

The program notes state “Matthew Neenan’s 'Bacchus' embodies the nature of the Roman god of wine, merriment, and abundance.” The piece did succeed in this regard. Each vignette seemed to encapsulate a different aspect of the god Bacchus. One, bathed in orange light, featured a male soloist as he lightly tapped pairs of dancers on their shoulders as another dancer joined their pair, representing fertility. Oliver Davis’ score was merry and rich throughout the piece, providing another allusion to the Roman god’s many qualities.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloists Ezra Thomson and Dylan Wald, and corps de ballet dancer Christopher D’Ariano, with guest vocalist Alicia Walter in Robyn Mineko Williams’ The Trees The Trees. PNB is performing The Trees The Trees as part of DIRECTOR’S CHOICE, March 15 – 24, 2019. Photo © Angela Sterling.

The second piece in the evening’s program was "The Trees The Trees," choreographed by Robyn Mineko Williams, and written by Heather Christie. Based off a book of poems by the same name, "The Trees The Trees" was an interesting piece. Onstage, there was a simplistic, pure-white, and ultra-modernistic rendering of a park bench, chair, and tree. Immediately upon the curtain’s rise, one was struck by an unexpected sound, a woman’s voice singing (Alicia Walter). She had a shock of white hair, which caused her silhouette to stand out among the dancers onstage. She was dressed in a floor-length peach pantsuit with a thick brown shawl--not typical of the ballet. Throughout the piece, she performed Heather Christie’s poems with a jazzy, belt-heavy enthusiasm, matched by an emotional score, melodically providing structure in a rather abstract piece.

However, the beautifully captivating vocals of Alicia Walter were not always easy to understand, and somewhat took away from the equally as beautiful choreography. Throughout the piece, I found myself trying so hard to pick out what word she was saying, that I missed out on an important part of choreography. On the whole, the poignant words of Heather Christie, the vocals of Alicia Walter, and the choreography of Robyn Mineko Williams came together to create a beautiful, thought-provoking commentary on life.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jerome Tisserand and soloist Elle Macy in Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings. PNB is performing In the Countenance of Kings as part of DIRECTOR’S CHOICE, March 15 – 24, 2019. Photo © Angela Sterling.

The last piece of Director’s Choice was "In The Countenance of Kings," choreographed by rising star Justin Peck, and written by Sufjan Stevens. Despite its Shakespearean-esque title, the piece was clearly aiming for a more modern feel. The piece started out relatively simply, with a small group of dancers huddled in center stage, bathed in a soft white light (lightning designed by Brandon Sterling Baker), and wearing white, blue, green, and red tank tops with black tights reminiscent of 80s workout videos (costumes by Ellen Warren). The music was soft, quiet, and mostly comprised of violins, xylophones, and piano. About halfway through, all except for two of the dancers exited, and the music suddenly shifted. The tempo picked up, cowbells and brassy trumpets erupted, and the previously still dancers shifted into a tango-like back and forth, before settling back into their no-less impressive classical routine. The lighting shifted from soft to a row of nearly blinding lights, reminiscent of the Edison light bulbs that used to line stages in the 1950s. Some of Peck’s choreography evoked mirrors, with dancers working in pairs to mirror one another, an effect which was quite marvelously pulled off.

In the program, choreographer Justin Peck states, “My intention is to make sure that the new work being created for the ballet world is relevant.” While the typical eclectic orchestrations of Stevens and pedestrian costuming certainly are a refreshing separation from traditional ballet, the piece still feels as though it is coated in the cobwebs of pieces past.

Lead photo credit: Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Matthew Neenan’s Bacchus. PNB is performing Bacchus as part of DIRECTOR’S CHOICE, March 15 – 24, 2019. Photo © Angela Sterling.

Isabell Petersen is an 11th grader at Issaquah High School.

This review was written as part of the Theater & Dance Press Corps Intensive.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about other Press Corps programs including the Teen Editorial Staff or the TeenTix Newsroom, see HERE.

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