“Secrets are dangerous things,” intoned Robert Redford, the quintessential good guy with a terrible secret, in his 2012 political thriller The Company You Keep. Music from this and other spine-tinglers, all in a moody, minimalist vein, form the score to Alejandro Cerrudo’s Memory Glow, the latest addition to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s formidable repertoire.

Leah Merchant and Andrew Bartee in Memory Glow © Angela Sterling
Leah Merchant and Andrew Bartee in Memory Glow
© Angela Sterling

Cerrudo, resident choreographer of the innovative Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, casts a spell with his swooping, gliding movement for an ensemble who keep reaching out to us as if trying to convey an urgent secret. The eerie lighting design by Randall G. Chiarelli, who flanked the stage with softly glowing industrial floodlights, the austere costuming by Mark Zappone in black and shades of steel grey, with socks that rendered every footfall noiseless, and the mesmeric sign language between the dancers reinforced the notion that they were on a high-stakes, clandestine mission. 

The tension lightens occasionally – notably when Leah Merchant and Charles McCall come on stage, feeling each other’s foreheads, as if checking for a fever, then proceed to pat each other down.

In the haunting conclusion, the ensemble melts away leaving the poetic interweaving of Elizabeth Murphy, Leah Merchant and Andrew Bartee. That trio quickly dissolves as Murphy departs, and, in the most intimate moment of the piece, Bartee wraps his arms tightly around Merchant's thigh and spins her slowly, before he too abandons her.

Matthew Renko performs Fenley's State of Darkness © Angela Sterling
Matthew Renko performs Fenley's State of Darkness
© Angela Sterling

Equally haunting was Molissa Fenley’s State of Darkness, a marathon solo to Stravinsky’s epic Rite of Spring, the orchestra led into battle by the authoritative Emil de Cou. The solo was originally performed by Fenley herself in 1988, and has since been performed by women and men, notably by Peter Boal, now PNB’s Artistic Director. Fenley recalls with a mixture of resignation and pride that her attempt to channel Stravinsky and Nijinsky was labeled by some critics as “unbelievably arrogant.”

The solo is an exorcism of sorts, with every soloist bringing their own unique power and frailty to the role. At Saturday’s matinee, the commanding Matthew Renko swept away our collective experiences of this iconic dance – like an airport baggage handler gone rogue – and let the music course through him in all its savagery.

After 39 minutes of plunging, kicking, shuddering, stabbing, fluttering, exploding into the air, slicing it with his powerful arms, and finding moments of absolute, breathtaking stillness amidst the cacophony, Renko steps into a pool of light in a tough-guy stance as the final shards of Stravinsky come crashing down. Fenley intended the finale to evoke a “modern woman [stepping] out into the light: intact, strong, and alive.” I was convinced, however, that the central figure had indeed perished in some stomach-churning ritual sacrifice, just as Stravinsky and Nijinsky had originally intended, and Renko the dancer was revealing himself in that final moment.

Lindsi Dec, William Lin-Yee, Kaori Nakamura & Brittany Reid in Stroman’s TAKE FIVE…More or Less © Angela Sterling
Lindsi Dec, William Lin-Yee, Kaori Nakamura & Brittany Reid in Stroman’s TAKE FIVE…More or Less
© Angela Sterling

Less provocative was Susan Stroman’s opener, TAKE FIVE, More or Less…, set to arrangements of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond for full orchestra. We’ll take more, lots more, especially when delivered by these hotshot jazz musicians and dancers (all except one of whom were making their debuts at Saturday’s matinee). The delightfully saucy Angelica Generosa had us in the palm of her hand from the moment the lights went up on her, seated in a side split, impatiently drumming her hands on the floor. The narrative conceit traces her attempts to attract the attention of the company’s men – an uphill battle when pitted against sirens like Elle Macy and Laura Tisserand. But when the curtain falls, Generosa is perched on the shoulders of a newfound admirer, triumphantly playing air drums to Desmond’s iconic Take Five. Stroman avoids the more egregious clichés of jazz ballet, delivering some hilariously witty sequences, including a supine, toe-tapping, high-kicking chorus line.

Carla Körbes and James Moore in Marshall's Kiss © Angela Sterling
Carla Körbes and James Moore in Marshall's Kiss
© Angela Sterling

Rounding out the program was Kiss, Susan Marshall’s aerial pas de deux set to Arvo Pärt’s mystical Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. It was probably considered audacious back in 1987 when Marshall created it on her own company; the piece looks somewhat less adventurous now, since the frontiers of dance have been pushed skyward more recently by the likes of Elizabeth Streb, Deborah Colker and Jo Kreiter. But you would have to have ice in your veins not to be profoundly moved by the doomed romance between Carla Körbes and James Moore, in jeans and T-shirts, dangling and twisting from ropes.

A gong in the pit chimes repeatedly, like a bell in a distant clocktower, as dawn breaks on the stage, evoking the bedroom scene in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo is finding it hard to steal away after his first – and only – night in bed with Juliet. Tormented, Moore reaches for Körbes’ knees; she enfolds him in her arms, then gently pushes him away. They repeatedly come together then swing apart, the ropes and harnesses conjuring up the senseless forces that control their tragic destiny. Stunned, the audience erupted in fierce applause.