PNB’s “SEE THE MUSIC” Starts the Season With Something for Everyone

Claire Biringer
Posted on October 01, 2015, 10:58 am
10 mins

Pacific Northwest Ballet opened their 2015-16 season on Friday, September 25 with SEE THE MUSIC, a trio of performances by three prominent choreographers, each with a particularly fascinating score and choreographic effect. The program’s title was an active challenge to the audience to experience ballet and music as a complete synthesis, whose sum effects could not be achieved by dance or music alone. In total, there was a perfect balance of narrative, abstraction and wit.  

The evening began with Christopher Wheeldon’s Tide Harmonic, commissioned by PNB and premiered in 2013. An epic “water symphony,” its abstract seascapes were tailored to Seattle’s connection with the ocean and Puget Sound. Conceptually, I was immediately reminded of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, the piece that landed a Grammy for Seattle Symphony earlier this year. Tide Harmonic is a love story to and from the sea: four couples, an unexpected narrative and poetic interpretation, all reflecting the ocean itself, its unpredictable, brute force and gorgeous placidity.

British composer Joby Talbot’s music is featured in Tide Harmonic, and his filmic background is highly evident throughout the ballet. The resulting orchestral score, epic and almost dramatically operatic at times, echoes the music of contemporary American composer John (no Luther) Adams in its minimalistic rhythmic pulsations, expansive instrumentation and moments of calm. The mix of still beauty and striking percussive rhythmic sections is one of Tide Harmonic‘s greatest strengths, and Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography synthesized perfectly with the energy and intent behind the music.

The piece began almost literally with a bang: the dancers’ jarring lines and angles mimicking the percussive force of the orchestra, conjuring images of thrashing waves on jagged rocks and the harsh angles of herons and seagulls’ wings. The four couples never once went on pointe, and the tense, pounding choreography spread an ominous aura throughout McCaw Hall. The enchanting middle section was curvaceous and innovative, with unexpected contortions; my date interpreted the dancers’ motions as slow-motion jellyfish, while I saw the graceful neck of a swan. A breathtaking pas de deux between Maria Chapman and newly-promoted Joshua Grant gave way to a furious finale. All tension and release, throughout Tide Harmonic the dancers explored an urgency that is rarely seen at PNB—an intentional lack of control and a more primal mode of kinetic communication than ballet generally allows. And although the dancers bravely infused their choreography with intention and emotion, the real stars of Tide Harmonic were the members of the orchestra, whose precision and energy in the pit went unmatched by any artists on the stage.    

Choreographic predictability returned with the second work of the night, Prodigal Son, with original 1929 Ballets Russes choreography by George Balanchine and a score by Sergei Prokofiev. Based on a loose story sketch by Ballets Russes collaborator Boris Kochno, the ballet follows a restless young man in his quest for adventure, thanklessly leaving his family only to fall in with the wrong crowd. Stripped and robbed after a night of drinking and debauchery, the young man bemoans his fate and resolves to find his way home. Some time later, exhausted and groveling, the prodigal son returns, only to find his father waiting with open arms. The original set and costume design (Georges Rouault) accompanied PNB’s production, adding their expressionism and primitivism, a remote village setting in broad brushstrokes and dark palettes. A rather typical Prokofiev score—complete with ominous intervals, octave doubling, interesting instrumentation choices—captured tender moments of humility and rhythmic barbarism. However, I felt that PNB’s orchestra was unable to complete the same level of expressivity as it did during Tide Harmonic, and I found myself pinpointing missed opportunities in their melodic phrasing.

PNB principal dancers James Moore and Laura Tisserand in "Prodigal Son." Photo by Angela Sterling.

PNB principal dancers James Moore and Laura Tisserand in “Prodigal Son.” Photo by Angela Sterling.

Despite the musical execution, Prodigal Son was perhaps the best example of synergetic relationship between the score and the choreography. The piece was executed with fabulously youthful energy and dramatic emotional expression, as dancer James Moore became the restless youth on stage. A corps of “drinking companions” (maybe more aptly described as “henchmen” or, more cynically, “robbers and simpletons from a few villages over”) stamped their way into a bar in the lengthy second scene, infusing the section with exquisite comedic timing, though perhaps not enough intention or narrative in their choreography to hold the audience’s attention. Enter the “Siren” Laura Tisserand, whose haughty yet playful seduction (complete with a tantalizing red velvet train) quickly snapped the attention back to the stage. One of the most striking moments of the work came from the synthesis of staging and light design (Peter Boal and Randall G. Chiarelli, respectively); as the Prodigal Son finds himself beaten and robbed, the henchmen push him up against a tall table propped up length-wise on the stage, a targeted stream of golden light highlighting his stripped and bound body in an image eerily reminiscent of the crucifixion. Struggling to walk or even stand, the Son crawls offstage, towards home. Upon finding himself there, his father (a stoic Otto Neubert) opens his arms, and the Prodigal Son folds himself into his heartwarming and humble embrace. An audible sigh—as the audience’s collective heart grew three sizes—closed the piece.

The third and final performance, The Concert (Or, the Perils of Everybody), was a mix of comedy and artistry, and also a heartening affirmation that our local ballet company refuses to take itself too seriously. With a patchwork score of Chopin piano works and Jerome Robbins’ 1956 choreography, The Concert creates an onstage piano recital (with a real grand piano, and a real pianist seated onstage providing the majority of the music) and gradually drifts inside the minds of the onstage “audience.” The dancers’ creation of distinct and charming concert-going characters throughout the piece: the ornery young ballerina who always does the wrong steps; the nagging wife and her wandering-eye husband (Kylee Kitchens and Seth Orza); a veritable Manic Pixie Dream Girl. They were as impressive individually as they were in an ensemble, which peaked in a group umbrella sequence set to the melancholy Prelude in E minor. Throughout the piece, ballerinas frozen like leotard-clad dolls to be moved and positioned by their male counterparts, but a free spirited ballerina (the aforementioned MPDG, danced beautifully by Sarah Ricard Orza) succumbs to the overwhelming power of the music, and the piece concludes with a hilariously childlike romp with everyone dressed as butterflies.

Ensemble of "The Concert" in PNB's SEE THE MUSIC. Photo by Angela Sterling.

Ensemble of “The Concert” in PNB’s SEE THE MUSIC. Photo by Angela Sterling.

Though The Concert could easily have gone kitschy, the comic timing, skillful execution of intentionally terrible dancing and its imaginative heart saved it from itself. The audience left McCaw Hall gleeful and anticipatory, buzzing with the knowledge that the rather unexpected programming of SEE THE MUSIC is just the beginning. PNB has an exciting season lined up, with several world premieres and a new-to-us Balanchine production of The Nutcracker; you can find a round-up of their upcoming season here, or check out their website for tickets.

For those who want the first taste of the variety show that is PNB’s 43rd season, SEE THE MUSIC runs through October 5. Though this is often said and rarely true, this performance really does have something for everyone.

Claire Biringer
Claire Biringer is a Seattle-based music lover, educator and writer. She holds an MA in Music History from University of Washington, where her primary research involved contemporary opera and its social implications. She enjoys using music and writing to build communities and broaden minds.