Crystal Pite's enthralling Emergence features again this season at Pacific Northwest Ballet. On the back of this headliner, the company takes the opportunity to show pieces by in-house talent – Signature, a world première by PNB corps de ballet member Price Suddarth, and Sum Stravinsky, by Kiyon Gaines, former PNB soloist who just retired last season. In between, Jessica Lang's The Calling is a three-minute solo that seems to hold time still. 

Pacific Northwest Ballet in <i>Emergence</i> © Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet in Emergence
© Angela Sterling

Commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada in 2009, and winner of several Dora Mavor Moore awards, Emergence was Crystal Pite's first work on a large ballet company. The dynamics of a large group inspired Pite to investigate "the meaning of many", as she said in a previous interview when it was first staged for PNB in 2013. The concept of swarm intelligence in the societies of bees and ants is given human form in the ensemble of 38 dancers that also brought in five students of the PNB Professional Division. When the dancers move together in large groups, as the male dancers running in a circle, or when they are standing still and thrusting their arms through ritualistic movements, there is a sense of obedience to momentum. When the force of the individual meets that of the group, the resulting collisions create something intriguing. In one striking scene, a commanding line of marching female dancers sweeps across the stage like a tide. One by one, male dancers charging at them are helplessly thrown back by an invisible force. Suddenly, a male dancer plunges into the middle, warping their formation into a deep V, unfurling the ensemble into the next phrase.    

Subtler, but more definitive is Pite's approach to movement. She's undoubtedly influenced by renowned choreographer, William Forsythe - and is a former dancer of Ballet Frankfurt. She asks her dancers for a heightened awareness to others around them,and sets movements that show greater connectivity with one another, rather than only with the music. The effect is a very real reaction and response between the dancers, which they performed with remarkable immediacy and clarity. 

The impressive score, composed by Owen Belton, a frequent collaborator with Pite, is less a rhythmic backbone than atmospheric tones, layered with eerie scratches and ticks which amplified the textures in the dancers' movements. In one moment of silence, dancers bourré quietly en pointe – their softly fluttering legs hold us in suspense. Pite shows her clear understanding of the classical ballet vocabulary and a contemporary aesthetic, serving the expression well with both. Although, in some phrases that demanded a contemporary vigor, some dancers were a little light in step.

Maria Chapman in Kiyon Gaines' <i>Sum Stravinsky</i> © Angela Sterling
Maria Chapman in Kiyon Gaines' Sum Stravinsky
© Angela Sterling
The scenic and lighting design (Jay Gower Taylor and Alan Brodie, respectively) and costumes (Linda Chow) all worked to great theatrical effect. A tunnel opens from upstage, from where dancers emerge and depart as shadowy forms, back-lit by a large spotlight shining directly towards the audience. Female dancers in black bodices and masks evoked an ominous tone, while male dancers in rugged black pants and a sprawling tattoo across the back of their shoulders lent an urban aesthetic. 

For Signature, Suddarth was inspired by the intrinsic value of one's individuality. He has carefully observed each of the dancers' unique style while working alongside them in the studio, and he incorporates this perspective into his choreography. Thus, the piece gives the audience a candid feeling with each of the dancers. While his inspiration was individuality, the choreographic language showed a blend of influences from PNB's repertoire, that mixed swift footwork with sweeping arms, capped by a bent wrist. Signature is a very pleasant and harmonious composition of fifteen dancers, set to a beautiful score by Barret Anspach.

The Calling, by Jessica Lang, reminds us of the power of simple elegance. It premiered earlier this year with Carla Körbes for her farewell performance. Dylan Wald performed it in this program and imbues it with an exquisite male aesthetic that demonstrates the universality of this work. 

In Sum Stravinsky, set to the composer's Dumbarton Oaks, Kiyon Gaines suggests admiration for Balanchine. Light, flirty pieces emphasize musicality and humour, with creative accents.  Dancers express delight in the performance, and seem to take pause in certain movements to invite audience applause. Sum is curiously decorated with a drawn-out turquoise curtain as the backdrop, in front of which the dancers perform.

Emergence is certainly the draw in this program, but the other works are also worth admiring. 

****1