PNB’s Rep 2 Highlighted by Lang’s Brilliant ‘Ghost Variations’ [REVIEW]

Elle Macy & Dylan Wald in Jessica Lang’s ‘Ghost Variations’. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

Pacific Northwest Ballet
Rep 2
Digital Stage Performance
November 12-16, 2020

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Rep 2 digital stage production began with a “Five Minute Call,” a short film by principal dancer Dylan Wald. The film was a candid, behind-the-scenes look at PNB company members and musicians preparing to perform Rep 2. Most entertaining were scenes of dancers goofing off in the dressing rooms and hallways of McCaw Hall at Seattle Center where the production was filmed live.

The wonderfully shot program then launched into its five dance works beginning with the world premiere of choreographer Penny Saunders’ “Wonderland” set to original music by longtime collaborator Michael Wall along with selections from Jean-Philippe Goude, Hugues Le Bars, Erik Satie, Camille Saint-Saëns and Stephen Foster.

“Wonderland” opened on dancer Elle Macy with her back to the camera and facing a closed stage curtain, baton in hand like an orchestra conductor ready to begin. She then waved her baton and fell out of sight into the orchestra pit as the stage curtain opened on dancers Genevieve Waldorf and Christopher D’Ariano engaging in a contemporary ballet sequence to Hugues Le Bars’ percussive tune “Derap”.

Given the program was for a virtual audience because of the global pandemic, the empty theater allowed Saunders to utilize several spaces in the facility beyond its stage for her dancers to perform in for social distancing purposes and for the cameras recording the program to be placed all over the theater space.  That freedom made possible principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite’s solo to Jean-Philippe Goude’s “Fermer Les Yeux Pour Voir” to be performed on a side balcony. There he bent and folded his body over the theater seats and reached out over the balcony’s safety rail into the open space beyond in a tender and lonely feeling performance. The camera shot then swung to fellow principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy beginning her solo dance to a slowed version of Erik Satie’s “Gnossionne No. 1”.

Performing in socks, leotard dress with mock turtleneck, and gloved hands, Murphy moved with delicacy and smoothness through Saunders’ choreography that swirled in circles around the stage like blowing leaves. She stepped side-to-side, crouched in a turn and ended the solo lying on the stage in a near fetal position.

Elizabeth Murphy in Penny Saunders’ in “Wonderland”. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.
Elle Macy & Dylan Wald in Penny Saunders’ in “Wonderland”. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

Then after a unison dance Elle Macy, Angelica Generosa and Waldorf performed lying face-up on the stage looking into an overhead camera, “Wonderland” climaxed with Macy and Wald in a tender pas de deux to the song “Beautiful Dreamer”. The dance lullaby ended with the two engaged in a kiss.

Quiet, contemplative, and nicely danced, Saunders’ “Wonderland” turned McCaw Hall into a dance wonderland; where the stage of imagination was not limited by proscenium and where beauty was boundless.

Rep 2 then continued with an excerpt from Twyla Tharp’s 1994 masterwork, “Waterbaby Bagatelles”. Danced to foot-tapping music by Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain, the group work began with a trio of women costumed in swim caps and suits wiggling about the stage and looking like synchronized swimmers in an old Esther Williams film.  The women were then greeted by a succession of men showing off their dance skills to impress them.  The excerpt provided a bit of dance fireworks that was then tempered by a filmed musical interlude that came next in which cellists from PNB’s Orchestra performed Astor Piazzolla’s “La Muerte Del Angel”.

The program’s diverse dance works continued with the PNB premiere of Susan Marshall’s “Arms” (1984), performed by Leah Terada and Miles Pertl. A direct reflection of the 5-minute duet’s title, “Arms” saw its two dancers, side-by-side, in white sleeveless tops running through a sequence of quiet but vigorous arm movements to music by American musician Luis Resto. Terada and Pertl bent around and pulled at each other in Marshall’s darting choreography that at times slowed to reveal a gentle caress of one dancer’s hand across the other’s cheek. “Arm’s” played out like a struggle of lovers structured a la Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, taking a single repeated dance phrase and building on it, not to a bold Bolero-like crescendo, but to a point where the mesmerizing movement slowly faded into lovely, motionless silence.

PNB’s stellar program closed with what may be choreographer Jessica Lang’s finest ballet to date. The world premiere of her “Ghost Variations” to music of the same name by Robert Schumann (along with some by Clara Schumann) was a masterful in all the ways a ballet might aspire to be. It had adroit technical dancing and heartfelt emotion that elevated it to high art and even higher beauty.

Lucien Postlewaite in Jessica Lang’s ‘Ghost Variations’. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

The ballet began with a solo by Postlewaite costumed in all black with an unbuttoned jacket that caught the air and swirled as he jumped and turned. He performed in front of a white curtain backdrop where the silhouetted images of other dancers grew and receded in size behind him. Then a trio of women entered en pointe and costumed in fluffy tulle skirts and began elegantly buoyant movement with their arms hovering at shoulder height or above as they soared about in runs on and off the stage and into delicious pirouettes and delicate jumps.

The silhouetted images of dancers then repeated like the haunting memories of someone or something missing in one’s life. More expert choreography and dancing followed with the ballet concluding in a pas de deux between Macy and Wald that had the feel of them channeling the grace and glory of ballet’s past memorable pas de deuxs. Full of warm embraces, leaps and waving arm movements, “Ghost Variations”, and PNB’s performance of it, was worthy of any stage in the world including its biggest, the Internet…bravo!

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.    

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