From The Nutcracker to new works, if you’re thinking about dance in Seattle, you’re probably thinking about the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB). In their most recent online release, the PNB showcased several premieres—designed to be performed in a virtual world, as well as filmed in early February and March by dedicated PNB dancers—along with older pieces that had been recorded in years prior. As a lover of dance, I was quite excited to see how a professional company had been adapting to this new presentation style.
The show opened with a Western-inspired piece by Donald Byrd. The dancers explored this new frontier with a dance style to almost mimicked line dancing. Using sharp angles and movements one would be hard-pressed to deem classical, the dancers shadowed a style that the audience would typically associate with the Old West. Yet, the movements still held a rigidity typical of older ballets, a far cry from the unfettered appearance I associate with Western dances. This first piece was interesting to watch; the concept was fairly easy to grasp but felt too removed as an audience member. Without being able to feel the collective environment of a theatre, it almost felt too peculiar to grasp through a screen.
The second “designed-for-online” piece was Alejandro Cerrudo’s Future Memory, which featured four dancers in two pairs. Of the premiere pieces, I think this translated best to the online format. It truly took advantage of the camera angles and light by including camera movement and allowing dancers to move into and out of the light as a transition between segments of the dance. This made the piece more engaging from a filmmaker’s standard rather than from an on-stage perspective. The dance itself was beautifully choreographed, with each pair moving fluidly with their partner to showcase the dancers’ strength with an air of ease (of course, this effortlessness is not so easily accomplished and requires years of practice). The dancers appeared to be in constant motion, and each pair danced in tandem with their counterpart almost as if there was some form of unspoken communication between the music, their gestures, and each other. This was personally my favorite part of the show, engaging even through the screen, and with phenomenal choreography.
The show closed with Pictures at an Exhibition which was originally performed in 2017 in front of a live audience. (I assume this recording was for PNB’s archives and wasn’t a strategic move in case the world ever closed down and performances all became live-streams.) Pictures at an Exhibition showcased a modern ballet style and interacted with each other partially based around the background, the famous multi-circle painting by Wassily Kandinsky, mimicking the emotions of the painting between the dancers. As an onstage piece it was well executed and gorgeously performed. It involved a wide variety of duets, trios, solos, and ground dancing that never left the audience bored, and echoed the painting in its quest to never have complete symmetry despite its even number of dancers. However, watching a pre-recorded performance in this capacity also made me a bit melancholy, as I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to see this live.
I think it goes without saying that the most noticeable part of this show was that it was online and not on-stage. While I think it’s possible to provide good content online in the absence of live performance, I don’t think this show used the virtual world to its fullest extent. Filming videos on the PNB mainstage, while practical, didn't always lend itself to the online format. Camera angles and lighting helped a little, but now would be the time to explore filming in different locations and making the shows more interesting in that way.
Through all of my whining, it shouldn’t be forgotten that I, like many others, am not ungrateful for these online shows. While I think, in certain areas, nothing will beat a live performance, the reality of this situation isn’t lost on me. I am thankful that I can still experience art while staying home, and when that day finally comes when I can walk back into a theatre, I will be a hundred times more appreciative than I have ever been.