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Pacific Northwest Ballet in Crystal Pite's Emergence-Photo by Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Crystal Pite’s Emergence
Photo by Angela Sterling

For anyone inclined to question the fact that dancers are athletes as well as artists, an evening with the Pacific Northwest Ballet should be required viewing. The Seattle-based company paid a visit to New York City Center from February 24 through 27, bringing with it two programs — the first, all-Balanchine; the second showcasing the works of three active choreographers — and a bracing flood of vivacious dancing.

I opted for Friday night’s contemporary bill, and was rewarded with an array of splendid performances from every echelon of the company. On the whole, the dancers displayed a well-balanced combination of bold, progressive energy and clean, classical polish. Equally impressive was the palpable sense of camaraderie emanating from the stage. These are artists who seem to enjoy their work, and to enjoy working together.

David Dawson's A Million Kisses to My Skin-Photo by Angela Sterling

Lesley Rausch and Batkhurel Bold in David Dawson’s
A Million Kisses to My Skin
Photo by Angela Sterling

First on the docket was David Dawson’s whirlwind A Million Kisses to My Skin, the unrelenting turbulence of which occasionally left me, along with the performers, gasping for breath. Dawson wisely did not attempt to decorate every note of Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor with a step (surely an impossible enterprise). Nonetheless, the often fevered switching of angles and circuitous port de bras had, ironically enough, more of a dizzying effect than any portion of the next piece on the program, William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. At times, I wished for a bit more quiet, a slight extension of the brief pauses within the flurried phrases so that Dawson’s glorious use of line could be fully savored. But as the choreographer’s intent was to convey the sheer euphoria that dancing at this level can produce, such a tempering of tone might have undermined his mission.

With three alternates standing in for two sidelined women, the cast of 10 remained remarkably cohesive, executing sweeping lifts and rapid synchronized turns with buoyant flair. The towering Miles Pertl, all exquisite extension and well-timed hair flips, was a wonder to watch, and his fellow corps member Angelica Generosa practically demanded a promotion with her assertive, indefatigable dancing.

William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude-Photo by Angela Sterling

Jonathan Porretta in William Forsythe’s
The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude
Photo by Angela Sterling

Presented on the heels of Dawson’s Kisses, Forsythe’s Thrill felt relatively calm, in spite of its intricate and lively design. While Kisses exudes a zealous, restless vigor, Thrill maintains a pronounced stateliness throughout, even as the choreography escalates in complexity and speed. The extraordinary rapport between Forsythe’s ear and eye is ever evident in his work, and his rendering of the vibrant finale to Schubert’s last concerto is entirely delicious.

Soloist Benjamin Griffiths and principal Jonathan Poretta approached the bravura movement of Thrill with complete poise, punctuating brilliant leaps and crisp footwork with kinetic pauses that prompted the silent question, “And then…?” I can only assume that Generosa took a power nap during the 15-minute intermission following Dawson’s marathon, for she delivered an equally animated performance in Forsythe’s robust composition. And both principal Elizabeth Murphy and soloist Margaret Mullin shimmered with pristine technique and winsome composure, drawing out the subtle coyness embedded in the choreography with as much facility as a 19th-century aristocrat dropping her fan at the feet of an eligible duke.

William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude-Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Margaret Mullin and Elizabeth Murphy in
The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude
Photo by Lindsay Thomas

The evening ended with Crystal Pite’s Emergence, a complete departure from the neoclassical stylings of the two pieces preceding it. Though its female cast members wear pointe shoes and classical positions are sprinkled throughout, it undeniably crosses the line into the realm of contemporary dance. It begins with a captivating duet and builds to an ensemble of nearly forty men and women, all moving with angular precision and impressively counting aloud to Owen Belton’s rhythmic but ostensibly unmetered score. (I generally struggle to connect with music that might be deemed an informal soundscape, but I rather took to Belton’s electroacoustic opus, which complements the tribal, otherworldly ambiance of Pite’s work perfectly.)

Even had I not read the backstory — that Pite was keen on exploring the hierarchical makeup of a ballet company and how it might correspond to structures and systems found within the natural world — I would have found this intense, eerie composition compelling. The piece never seemed to fully “arrive” as it led me to believe it might, but it was a fascinating watch — and the ideal finish to a highly satisfying program.

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Written by Leah Gerstenlauer

Leah began her dance training at the age of four in her hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, with her wonderful older brother (who is, incontestably, the best in the business of brothering) by her side. She continued her studies in Michigan and California — earning her B.A. in English at Chapman University along the way — before landing in New York City, where she currently freelances as a dancer and writer. She reads voraciously, drops into art museums regularly, and enjoys the fact that after nearly a decade stuck behind a steering wheel, her daily commute now requires only a good pair of sneakers and a MetroCard.