Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Rep 2 featured works celebrating four female choreographers – Penny Saunders, Twyla Tharp, Susan Marshall and Jessica Lang – whose distinctive styles are all the more arresting when experienced side-by-side. The show began exhibiting an element of performance not usually publicly revealed, which is transforming from “regular people” into characters of dance (applying makeup, styling hair, putting on costumes, snacking, warming up, etc), highlighting the human side of dancers we are not privy to when seeing them as intangibly flawless beings onstage. It was given the title Five Minute Call, making it into a piece, letting the audience in on a backstage phrase signaling the start of the adrenaline flow.

Lucien Postlewaite in Ghost Variations
© Lindsay Thomas

First was the world premiere of Penny Saunders’ Wonderland, with original music and adaptations by Michael Wall, and additional music by a coalescence of Jean-Philippe Goude, Hugues Le Bars, Erik Satie and Camille Saint-Saëns. The inclusion of the white noise rustle and orchestra warming up beforehand triggered a pang of nostalgia for the familiar sounds of in-person performance. A hip-hop beat drop introduced dancers breaking into sharp, isolated movements resembling a Michael Jackson-like influence. Separated from one another, they impacted each others’ energies from a distance. 

Throughout Wonderland, the choreography played with the theater’s architecture; dancers were everywhere from the stage to the pit to a box of seats beneath the ceiling, making the most of confinement and moving within the space’s features. Saunders' choreography enforced limitations, seeing how far dancers could go within them, and creating their own. Another dancer played with the spotlight like a balancing act with an invisible force, where the choreography was weighted, gravity-oriented; light on feet yet heavy as a whole. The solo piano enhanced the solitude, and the body was its echo, filling the pauses as it rang. There was as much choreography of the camera, spotlights and such fixed aspects of performance as there was with bodies: the camera faced down on three dancers from above who moved as if nailed to the floor, creating an enrapturing kaleidoscopic visual effect. The traditional tuning of the orchestra sounded, again alluding to the nostalgia of what we would usually experience in live performance.

Elizabeth Murphy in Wonderland
© Lindsay Thomas

Another two dancers, though limited to their upper bodies by sitting, had the most magnetic dynamic. Gravitating towards each other to nearly kiss, they instead gave us a counter-intuitively even more intimate outcome, freezing in the moment just before. There was a string of vulnerable gestures, including an arm around the shoulder, a hand on the knee, collapsing into the other’s lap, a single breath they took together, and a memorable embrace with one dancer’s arms pulled back, and the other’s reaching towards them. There was also choreography of spotlights, moving around dancers instead of following them, and dancers controlling the lights. 

Next was an excerpt from Twyla Tharp’s Waterbaby Bagatelles, with music by Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain. As the title suggests, the sonic and choreographic fabric were like droplets. The music expanded into percussive beats reminiscent of the first hip-hop segment of Saunders’ work, propelling the dancers in a nonstop flow of motion. Susan Marshall’s Arms came next, with music by Luis Resto. Silhouettes were a running theme in this program, as this piece also featured them. Marshall put a microscope over the subtleties of touch – another common thread – mostly using upper body, and expanding/ascending with the electronic score. We once again witnessed potent magnetism between two dancers, entangling and disentangling, catching each other when they surrendered to gravity. The loudness of their movements amidst a minimal soundscape was extremely effective; the active motion filled the silence, and made it deafening.

Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in Ghost Variations
© Lindsay Thomas

The final piece was the world premiere of Ghost Variations, choreographed by Jessica Lang with music by Robert and Clara Schumann. The Romantic-period soundscape presented a new shade of romance. Silhouettes were a key part of this choreographic ethos as well, with dancers framed as shadows behind a screen. These costumes complemented the choreography best, as the Giselle-like tutus created a stunning effect in the silhouettes and legwork reminiscent of that in Balanchine’s Serenade. The interactions between the silhouette and onstage dancers were brilliantly choreographed; you thought they were shadows before departing into their own path. The piano’s guidance reminded me of traveling across the floor in a ballet class, but the dancers break free of that regime, paths crossing and diverging. The dancers embodied not only the piano, but the muscles in the fingers playing it; more than following the sound, they were also the sighs, inflections, sustenances, releases, cadential resolve and deception. The ending pas de deux was hypnotic; the reaches, lifts and legwork brought out the most microscopic sonic moments. If these Schumann pieces were directly translated into movement, this choreography would be it. 

This performance was reviewed from the PNB video stream.