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Pacific Northwest Ballet @ The Joyce Theater

Published on
October 14

The Joyce Theater is conspicuous in the dim street. The marquee with a boldly lit JOYCE harks to old New York, back when electricity was new and the city lights were an attraction unto themselves that made nightlife possible. In our collective unconscious, these lights come with the glamorous promise of luxurious entertainment. I certainly felt that tug toward the light as I walked to my goal and couldn’t help but insert myself into all those Hollywood narratives of exciting nights on the town when Art Deco architecture like that of the Joyce was the height of fashion.

Once inside, I sat on the left balcony. A Columbia professor and her husband sat next to me and became my discussion partners during the show. They told me they were regulars at the Joyce because of its intimacy: “Dancers feel real. You can touch them.” I had never considered loyalty to a venue. This reminded me that established performing arts venues have their own character and perform a curatorial function that depends on how that character can enrich a creative vision. An audience can, in essence, reliably choose a certain kind of experience by choosing the venue.

The Pacific Northwest Ballet show began with Tide Harmonic, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon with music by Joby Talbot. Both the dance and the music were reminiscent of an underwater world. The movements were fluid, some arm gestures called swimming to mind, and group and pair formations mimicked sea creatures. However, it was not all an underwater wonderland; while xylophone and bells certainly had their moments, the score also used drums and strings to tense effects. In these cases, the dance would use repetition and disunion to reflect conflict even assuming an aggressive ritualistic mood like, for example, when four women danced in a circle around one man as if trapping him.

This piece was representational, but not narrative. The husband told me during the intermission afterward that it bored him because “Abstraction without evocation is forgettable.” He wanted a narrative to keep him involved. I disagreed. One of dance’s strengths as a medium is that it can manage to describe ineffable wholes by creating instances that let us glimpse an aspect of that whole. It can be representational much like a landscape painting but the difference is that each glimpse is also connected to a human emotion because the use of bodies connects the metaphor to human relationships. A memorable moment in the choreography that exemplifies this: a man walks hunched over at ninety degrees and a woman rests her back on his back and follows his steps on pointe slowly across the stage. The formation, geometrically interesting in its own right, reminds me of something like a sea snail but it also made me intuitively understand an aspect of dependence, of the strenuous effort required for the pair to stay together, because both walking with a heavy weight on your back and walking on pointe while leaning back are challenging.

The next piece was Memory Glow, choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo with music from six different composers among which were Alexander Desplat and David Lang. The piece had a vulnerable, gentle quality to it that was enhanced by the austere, nostalgic music. The costumes were in shades of grey, with women wearing the kind of shorts often worn around the house and men wearing sweat pants like the ones worn as pajamas. Occasionally, a male dancer would stand behind a female dancer and all four hands would hover over her eyes, her stomach, her shoulders, her heart in frenzied movement and this acted as a motif to perhaps represent the man’s protective role limiting the woman. The male dancers and the female dancers never lost contact with one another for most of the dance, even when a female dancer did an arabesque on her own, the male dancer would still hold on to her feet. The piece was deliberately and openly about romantic relationships and included moves like trust falls and dragging, with a strong emphasis on male/female pairs.

A particularly moving section of this piece was the levitation of a female dancer by all the male dancers consecutively. It began with her collapsing into fetal position in the arms of a male dancer, and then she was passed along to another dancer. Eventually she opened her limbs and embodied freedom but the male dancers barely let her touch the floor before the next one came running to carry her off to a different part of the stage. The husband said this female dancer was his favorite because her expressions were “beyond technique;” she transcended the dance. I felt the same way about another female dancer in the poignant closing moment of the piece. It was another instance of the motif I previously described only this time the expression on the female dancer was pained and eventually she lowered her head into her hands in an unequivocal gesture of despair. At this moment, the male dancer stopped hovering his hands over her eyes and turned to walk slowly in the opposite direction while she flapped her arms like wings and stayed in place looking forward, still fluttering her legs on pointe as the curtain closed. The professor mentioned this moment as her favorite. We both agreed it was one of those special moments in performance when the empathy of immersion transforms the pretend to the real and we feel a catharsis of our own emotions.

The final piece was Debonair, choreographed by Justin Peck with music by George Antheil. It was jovial and flashy. The dance was the most traditional form of ballet out of the three pieces that night. The music had an air of mid 20th century ballroom music. The costumes for the male dancers resembled suits and the costumes for the female dancers were plaited, metallic silver knee-length dresses that flowed hypnotically. The costumes complemented the abundance of twirls and leaps, and established the dance’s strong sense of levity. The moves, though still strictly ballet, were reminiscent of waltz and tango. This was most noticeable when a male and female pair would join one of their hands while the other hand was on the waist or shoulder of the partner, which is a typical position for many pair dances. This piece was wonderful eye candy and a happy note on which to end the performance.

I loved the beauty of this performance, the intimacy of The Joyce Theater, the glamour of Chelsea at night, and the freedom of being off campus. If you are looking for a similarly enriching night, I recommend the performances coming up at the Joyce like Lar Lubovitch and Noche Flamenca y Antigona.