Opening Nights: PNB's "All Wheeldon"

Spotlighting the choreographer's curiosity about dancing of all sorts.

Pacific Northwest Ballet has opened its season with a mixed bill that might not seem that mixed—four works, all by Christopher Wheeldon. In some single-choreographer programs, you get the feeling the artist has one point to make, and makes it over and over again, while other artists are all over the map, still searching for their personal style. Wheeldon is placed nicely in the middle, with a substantial technical background underpinning a wide-ranging curiosity about dancing of all sorts.

Carousel (A Dance) comes closest to conventional ballet, with a principal couple, demi-soloists, and ensemble. But his deft use of the story line from a Broadway musical makes this work more specific. Seth Orza's Billy combines brute strength and abrupt timing opposite the feckless Julie of Carla Körbes. Around them, the corps surges through cartwheels and tumbling that mimics carnival rides; their vigor saves it from gimmickry.

In contrast, Variations Sérieuses offers a highly detailed spoof of classical ballet style and modern backstage intrigue. We watch a miniature production of a faux-romantic-era ballet alongside a gum-snapping stage manager and gossiping chorines. To this mix, Wheeldon adds the 42nd Street plot device of injured diva making way for hopeful ingénue, which yields a plethora of comic roles. Laura Gilbreath and Carrie Imler are both excellent as the temperamental diva, and Ezra Thompson has a great double-take moment as the hapless chorus boy who doesn't catch the star in time.

Uniting these four works is Wheeldon's mastery of the classical vocabulary; even if they're not made exclusively of such vintage steps, they're rooted in the ballet lexicon. Thus, in the After the Rain duet, arguably the least "ballet"-like work here, classroom skills anchor the swaying elasticity. A textbook leg extension is canted to the side (as if the dancer is a statue about to topple), while gently floating hands soften a classical arm gesture. On opening weekend, both duet couples evoked a sense of calm after great trials.

In Polyphonia, Wheeldon takes license with György Ligeti's piano score, building and deconstructing basic movement phrases, distorting their shapes, and playing with their structures. Eight dancers become a multitude, employing a beautifully eccentric vocabulary. It's the easiest piece for the viewer to judge Wheeldon's skills, though it's the variety of this program that's most impressive.

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