Pacific Northwest Ballet has undergone a lot of changes since I last saw the company. There have been marriages and births and several notable retirements, especially that of acknowledged star, Carla Körbes. I wondered how the company would look and how it would respond to the challenges of the post-Körbes era. Have no fear, dance fans. It turns out that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose at PNB. If there’s no surefire, bankable star without Körbes then there is more time to reflect on some of the company's other wonderful dancers. What remains the same is that these dancers move with wondrous clarity and indefatigable energy.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Crystal Pite's <i>Emergence</i> © Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet in Crystal Pite's Emergence
© Angela Sterling

Opening with David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin, I had the exhilarating experience of feeling that I was simultaneously at a concert and a ballet performance. This happens considerably less often than you would think. The music is typically secondary to the dancing because very few companies can afford to maintain a truly great orchestra. Pianist Allan Dameron led Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra in a lively, nuanced performance of Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D minor that far exceeded expectations. Dawson’s choreography is challenging and fun to watch. He has dancers frequently going in two directions at once by coming down in plié and pushing backward while reaching forward with the arms. The effect is to stretch out the limbs and create a long, extended look. PNB’s dancers tend to do this naturally so the whole ballet played to their technical strengths. Batkhurel Bold made a strong impression here. At first glance he looks more like an action hero than a ballet dancer. He’s powerfully built, almost burly, but in motion he is full of a taut grace that came across as surprisingly suave. Angelica Generosa, a last minute replacement for Elle Macy, has to be considered one of the prime beneficiaries of the changes at PNB. Not gifted with high extension or beautifully arched feet, Generosa is more of a compact, explosive dancer. She makes the most of her ability by moving with lively passion and sharing her buoyant joy. She really stuck her balances and was an audience favorite.

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, set to the final movement of Schubert’s 9th Symphony, is William Forsythe at his most classical. For this piece he pared down the choreography to fairly small steps subject to constant and rapid changes of direction set on five dancers. It never stopped moving and was endlessly inventive within that tight framework. Forsythe kept changing the pairings and trios with quicksilver brightness. I don’t often comment on dance costumes but Stephen Galloway’s designs lent an irreverent and festive air. The men were in 20’s style bathing costumes while the women wore spunky green deco-style disc shaped tutus. Generosa again was radiant alongside Margaret Mullin and Elizabeth Murphy.

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Joshua Grant and principal dancer Rachel Foster in <i>Emergence</i> © Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Joshua Grant and principal dancer Rachel Foster in Emergence
© Angela Sterling
The closing ballet was Crystal Pite’s Emergence. This was a challenging work and I didn’t love it. Pite’s ballet is about the emergence of a swarm. After an intense opening pas de deux, the men came swarming out of the mouth of the hive which was set in the rear center of the stage. Their heads were covered with a black mesh which turned them into something between reptiles and bugs and that was my problem with it. I have extremely limited ability to tolerate anything bug-like. There was one sequence with three women dancing to an extended chittering bug soundscape that had me nearly ready to flee the theater in dread, no exaggeration. Central to this ballet is the theme of emergence. Much of the accompanying music has no meter so the dancers took turns counting out loud to signal the next sequence. Thus the patterns emerge from within the ranks of the company and are dictated by choices they make about when to initiate something new. There were moments of great power in this piece, most particularly when the whole company was on stage. At times the dancers did the same movements but slightly out of synchronization giving the effect of a seething mass. It was as though a pattern of movement was working its way through the swarm much as one sees with insects. I appreciate and respect how much thought and care went into this piece but I did not love it. 

Pacific Northwest Ballet is looking great. A lot of older dancers have moved on to the next phase of their lives and left room for the next generation to step up and make their own mark on the company. PNB has an indelible signature style and is able to withstand substantial change thanks to Peter Boal’s leadership. The dancers he has chosen are filling the gaps and maintaining high standards. The orchestra continues to excel under Emil de Cou and is one of the best in the nation.