The Pacific Northwest Ballet's season opener brings together different styles of neoclassical ballet, with Christopher Wheeldon's Tide Harmonic, George Balanchine's The Prodigal Son and Jerome Robbins' The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody).

Joshua Grant and Maria Chapman in Christopher Wheeldon’s <i>Tide Harmonic</i> © Angela Sterling
Joshua Grant and Maria Chapman in Christopher Wheeldon’s Tide Harmonic
© Angela Sterling
The evening began with the program's most contemporary piece, Christopher Wheeldon's undulating Tide Harmonic, which premièred at PNB in 2013. Tide opened with dramatic silhouettes of four men and women illuminated by a dimly glowing blue backdrop. Like the title suggests, the choreography makes many allusions to water and its movement characteristics. Joby Talbot's richly-textured score conjures images from flowing rivers to thunderous ocean storms; the music alone fills one's imagination. Understated costumes (Holly Hynes) consisting of blue leotards, accented by a cross-shoulder sash and short chiffon piece at the hips for the women, were just right to not overwhelm the music or the choreography. 

The eight dancers wove through solos, pairings and groupings that matched the music's range of textures, and repeated movement phrases that echoed like reverberations in water. Dancers in the solo parts played with the sharp and delicate accents with ease, while the complex partnering work seemed to demand the dancers' full concentration (in a few moments, the choreography seemed just beyond their reach). Although physically impressive, a lengthy duet between newly minted soloist Josua Grant and Maria Chapman tangled through a puzzle of lifts and formations had opportunities to show more vulnerability and to evoke a more connected experience. At times, the music and choreography do teeter on too literal representations of water. The most interesting moments in the piece occurred in the dancers' command over water's imagined physical force, or in their submission to its weight and rhythm.    

George Balanchine's Prodigal Son premiered in 1929 in Paris and was the last ballet made for Diaghilev's infamous Ballets Russes. Balanchine created the piece when he was 25 years old.  Although it was influenced by Russian Constructivism and Expressionism of that time, visible in George Rouault's bold backdrops and costumes, the choreography still retains a narrative structure in the style of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, where Balanchine received his dance training. The significance in PNB's re-staging is its lineage to the ballet's origin — the company's artistic director, Peter Boal, danced the title role, having learned it from Jerome Robbins, who learned it directly from Balanchine. The result is an authentic production of that period's artistry, seen particularly in the dancers' characterization.

James Moore and Laura Tisserand in <i>Prodigal Son</i> © Angela Sterling
James Moore and Laura Tisserand in Prodigal Son
© Angela Sterling
James Moore captured the emotional intensity of his character as if it were his own experiences, and from that impetus, exploded into the very physical movements of his role. The steps themselves are not overtly complex, by today's neoclassical ballet styles; therefore, every gesture is significant to the narrative. Laura Tisserand also showed commendable restraint in her icy interpretation of the Siren, which solicited no sympathy from the audience. This magnified our compassion towards the Son and built up to the final scene where he, robbed and ruined, crawled heavily back to his father. 

Jerome Robbin's The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody), which premiered in 1956 at New York City Ballet is, by contrast to Prodigal Son, a very self-conscious, comedic look at ourselves — or Robbins' typical characters of American society. Its cast of personalities and their relationships with one another are those commonly seen in American theater and include the romantic and distracted femme, the nerd, the overbearing wife... Amidst these characters is the pianist, whose steadfast detachment from the onstage antics keeps him playing his set of Chopin excerpts. 

The company showed great capacity for the heightened theatricality in Robbins' characters. The choreographer is known for finding rhythm in pedestrian actions, and recreates this onstage by close attention to the timing of movement.

PNB pianist Allan Dameron and Elizabeth Murphy in Robbins’ The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody) © Angela Sterling
PNB pianist Allan Dameron and Elizabeth Murphy in Robbins’ The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody)
© Angela Sterling
The dancers held their own in each of the vignettes, from the entrance to the blundering waltz of six, the umbrella scene, the reoccurring allusions of posed dancers to mannequins, and the delightful, if slightly frivolous, butterfly scene at the end. The pianist nailed the punch-line — exasperated by the commotion, he swats a butterfly net through the cast onstage. 

This program offers the chance to appreciate the diversity of styles in the company's repertoire, and fuels anticipation for the season ahead.