Pacific Northwest Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
October 8, 2014
“Tide Harmonic,” “Memory Glow,” “Debonair” (Peck world premiere ‘preview’)
-- by Jerry Hochman
Performances by major companies at the Joyce Theater are welcome, but problematic. Welcome, of course, because given touring costs, producing a program in New York that requires more space or staging accoutrements can be prohibitively expensive, and having an opportunity to see a prominent company is better than not seeing it at all. But because of stage space limitations, such performances are usually limited to ‘small’ pieces that can be squeezed onto the Joyce stage, rather than larger ‘ensemble’ ballets. Pacific Northwest Ballet, in a welcome return to New York, opened a seven performance run at the Joyce Theater last night with such a program, consisting of three dances. But even though smaller, the pieces are not insignificant, and getting close to dance and the dancers (to use Joyce Theater marketing phraseology) is a plus. Though many of PNB’s dancers who appeared with it when it was last seen in NY twenty months ago are not on this tour, other dancers, most of whom were not previously featured, illustrate the company’s depth.
The major event of the evening was the one that closed the program - the ‘preview’ world premiere of a new ballet, “Debonair,” by New York City Ballet soloist and Resident Choreographer Justin Peck. The ballet will be given its ‘official’ world premiere in Seattle on November 7, so theoretically Mr. Peck may yet make some changes. But from what I saw, none will be necessary. Seattle audiences are in for a treat.
One of the qualities that make “Debonair” so interesting to watch is that it’s exciting and different. The opening piece on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Tide Harmonic,” while brilliantly crafted and lovely to watch (and, since it was his first ballet for PNB, may have been enthusiastically received by PNB audiences), is more of what he does very well. No contemporary choreographer who comes to mind has Mr. Wheeldon’s facility with the timing, the ‘theme and variations’, of sequential movement. One dancer or pair executes a phrase, followed by another, and then another, and the sequence is then broken up in visually interesting ways. And then another image is sequentially repeated, but in a different way from the first. And this continues.
“Tide Harmonic” does the same, and even though it’s exhilarating to watch, it’s largely what we’ve seen before. The movement is propelled by repeated leg thrusts into the air and then into the floor, and by partnered aerial spins, and everything looks neatly presented. I concede that certain of Mr. Wheeldon’s repetitive images are idiosyncratic (perhaps they were intended to represent sea creatures?), but they look more weird than inventive. Structurally, Mr. Wheeldon alters the ‘standard’ cast, duet, cast, duet, cast format by varying the dancers involved in the ‘cast’ segments and allowing overlaps at various times. But this is what one would expect him to do, and aside from the central pas de deux, which was wonderfully (if somewhat stoically) danced by Elizabeth Murphy and Joshua Grant, it’s all standard Wheeldon stuff – which, granted, is at a higher level than much of what’s out there. Lindsi Dec, Margaret Mullin, Laura Tisserand, Jerome Tisserand, James Moore, and Batkhurel Bold completed the fine cast.
To be fair, “Tide Harmonic” may have been hampered in visual appearance by the small Joyce Theater space. It looked like it needed more breathing room. But although a larger stage may have made the piece look less cramped, it wouldn’t have changed the choreography. And the score, by Jody Talbot, who created the marvelous score to Mr. Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (recently presented in New York by the National Ballet of Canada), has none of the magic of that composition. It too, is the same old same old contemporary music that repeats phrases over and over with numbing repetitiveness, although the basic thrust of sections may vary somewhat from each other. The music is exactly as billed, starting like a musical tingling – like water dancing in the light before the tidal flow begins, and increasing in tempo as the tidal flow becomes more intense, but remaining repetitive like harmonic tidal waves. It even sounds like it’s being played underwater.
While Mr. Wheeldon’s piece appeared to be primarily propelled by lower body movement (the leg thrusts; the sweeping lower-limbed lifts), the second piece on the program, “Memory Glow” by Alejandro Cerrudo, appears to be dominated by upper body movement. Choreographed to an assortment of disparate works curated by the choreographer that, strung together, reasonably sound like a single composition, this contemporary ballet is interesting to watch if for no other reason than that it is relatively unusual-looking. And instead of the calculated freneticism of “Tide Harmonic, ”Memory Glow” is a more intensely inner-directed piece, exploring relationships rather than patterns and sequential timing.
The staging of “Memory Glow” is arresting, with a dark aura. Around a semi-circle of lit floor lanterns spanning the mid stage area, pairs of dancers, clad in grey, stand in relative darkness. Then one pair separates and moves downstage and explores their connection with no emotional gloss, primarily with staccato arm movements that frame their upper bodies. This couple eventually returns to the semi-circle. This pattern continues in various permutations throughout the piece – sometimes in pairs, sometimes solo or in same sex combinations, sometimes with more than one couple involved. And through it all, the staging is sufficiently varied to maintain interest – including having dancers materialize and disappear through ‘hidden’ openings in the dark back scrim. Mr. Cerrudo was born in Spain, and has had professional connections with, among other companies, Nederlands Dance Theater 2 and Hubbard Street Dance (and was its first Resident Choreographer). Although this work does not appear indebted to any one source, at times one can see a connection to later Jiri Kylian and Nacho Duato.
As “Tide Harmonic” relied on speed and precision, “Memory Glow” relies on emotion – internalized as that emotion may generally be expressed. But at times the dancing became somewhat more effusive, and the relationships between the dancers more complex. An example is the sequence performed by Angelica Generosa and James Moore and the corps of supporting men (Steven Loch, Matthew Renko, Price Suddarth, and Ezra Thomson), including neatly-executed transfers from man to man. Ms. Generosa is a particularly engaging dancer with a fine command of emotional nuance, and she almost singlehandedly added light to this dark ballet. The other two couples, Leah Merchant and Charles McCall, and Ms. Murphy and Raphael Bouchard, danced their roles superbly as well.
It’s difficult to find anything “Debonair” about Mr. Peck’s piece, other than the lyrical costumes on the women (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung). The title connotes a degree of sophistication, which, although the choreography is certainly sophisticated, is not the point of the ballet.
The piece is choreographed to “Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1,” a 1948 composition by George Antheil, a composer of whom I had no previous knowledge. Antheil’s score is bright and airy, with themes of the American West flowing through it. With the delicate power of violins, it felt to my ear like wind singing through mountains. At times, the music sounded somewhat remindful of Aaron Copland, though not as grand. This western flavor is reflected in Mr. Peck’s dance. Indeed, at times the ballet kindled memories of Mr. Wheeldon’s “Estancia,” which he choreographed for NYCB several years ago (and which itself bears a superficial resemblance to Agnes DeMille's "Rodeo"). The pieces aren’t at all alike – this is not the South American pampas; and "Debonair" is a much smaller, more focused dance. But its sense of airiness and freedom is similar. And recognizing this air of freshness and freedom, I also recognized what may be the meaning behind the ballet's title. Perhaps it’s a play on the word 'debonair'. I’m not a linguist, but ‘debonair’ likely derived as a contraction of ‘de bon (or bonne) aire’ – the beautiful air, the carefree spirit. In this sense, rather than one of sophistication, “Debonair” as a title fits the ballet perfectly.
Since it still has not ‘officially’ premiered, I’ll describe the ballet only superficially. It’s an abstract piece, although relationships are a core matter. The piece opens with six men spread across the stage as if awaiting an arrival. They’re soon joined by one woman, then more. In typical Peck style, the movement isn’t predictable. Just when you think he's about to repeat a phrase, he doesn’t; and he seems to pull patterns out of thin air. Although this is a relatively large cast (six pairs of dancers), and might benefit from a larger stage, that is not as much an issue here as it was in “Tide Harmonic.” And the lengthy central pas de deux, danced exquisitely by Carla Korbes (in what may be her final role in New York, since she recently announced what, for audiences, is her premature retirement) and Mr. Tisserand, is a portrayal of a multi-faceted relationship. It’s not passionate so much as emotionally complex and choreographically analytical.
But Ms. Korbes and Mr. Tisserand were not the only performances that lit up this ballet. Each of the dancers is given an opportunity to shine, to a greater or lesser degree. Ms. Mullin and Mr. Bouchard, Brittany Reid and Mr. Moore were the ‘second tier’ lead couples, and Jahna Frantziskonis Ms. Generosa, and Ms. Merchant, sometimes solo and sometimes partnered by Mr. Suddarth, Mr. Thomson, an Eric Hipolito, Jr., were particularly sparkly in less featured roles.
If the piece, as it now stands, can be criticized in any way, it’s that, compared to the Wheeldon piece that opened the program, it may look less polished. But to me this is part of the charm of Mr. Peck’s choreography in general and of "Debonair" in particular. It’s a little rough-looking, but it has a freshness to it – like fresh air.