“Director’s Choice” Isn’t Real Ballet

And for the most part, that’s a good thing.

There's an old joke that all choreographers make a "chair dance" at some point in their career, and Vespers is Ulysses Dove's version. He reflects on his grandmother and her churchgoing life—the chairs are the pew for the worshippers or the bench in the choir loft. It's a straight-ahead modern work created for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company that requires the power and flow that real modern training gives. In its best moments you can see the influence of Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham—the punch of the torso, the drive into the floor when dancers charge across the space. The iconic shapes have that same pedigree, especially in a repeating phrase where they arch backward, leading with the pelvis rather than the head. It's an elegant shape, but a total reversal of a balletic example.Some of the audience members at Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Director's Choice" were mumbling during the intermissions, "This isn't really ballet," and they're right. But the real question is, "Are these good dances?" and the answer is mostly yes. The women in the PNB cast do an admirable job with the challenge of Vespers, but I also wondered what the work would look like with a group that had been born to the style.Paul Gibson was a dancer with the company before he became a ballet master, and in Sense of Doubt, which the company premiered last season, he gives his former colleagues material that makes them look good. It opens with people running away, checking over their shoulders for unseen pursuers, and the rest of the ballet continues in this ominous tone, as people "hide" behind their hands and tryst in the near dark. His use of pointe work is more sophisticated than many male choreographers are often able to produce. He links steps and sequences, rather than just inserting a position or a single step in isolation. In this, and in previous ballets, he's working out his own ideas about partnering and phrasing, and making some good dance in the meantime.Edwaard Liang is a rising choreographer as well, a friend of artistic director Peter Boal from their time together at New York City Ballet, and his Für Alina is a lovely duet that implies a relationship without many "acting" moments. Liang has created a highly eccentric gestural vocabulary, almost more important than any steps the dancers take with their lower bodies. They reach and twist and carve the air as they attempt to connect with each other, nuzzling heads against hands like puppies. The piano score by Arvo Pärt is very sparse—short phrases linked together by silences—and the dancing creates a rhythmic bridge during those quiet moments.The big challenge of the program, for those who want ballet to look balletic, is William Forsythe's One Flat Thing, reproduced. The "one flat thing" is a table, and it has been reproduced 15 times, so there are 16 altogether, forming a matrix that the cast must dance over, under, and around. They work with the virtuosity and flexibility that their ballet training gives them, and the tables become gymnastic equipment, like a pommel horse or parallel bars, dividing most of the dancers in half, top and bottom. They push and shove, jockey for position and shadow-box, scramble underneath and pop up somewhere else. Forsythe is a fiendish pattern maker, incorporating all kinds of reversals, repetitions, and variations and other postmodern tricks. You could go cross-eyed trying to find them all, but then, with a grunt for a cue, the dancers drag all the tables back upstage and we're done.skurtz@seattleweekly.com

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