Next Step at Pacific Northwest Ballet is one of the only annual events in Seattle that I absolutely demand to see if I am in town. It’s a showcase of new choreography, created by six of PNB’s company dancers, performed for one night only by dancers from the professional division of PNB’s school.
People seem to think that makes it a sort of student show. Not even close. It’s consistently some of the most rigorous and interesting new dance I see each year.
The program frequently breaks down like this: one excellent, craftsman-like piece; one jaw-dropper; a couple fun ones that diversify the program; one that gets too much in its own head; and one in a more traditional ballet style. This was one of those years.
That’s the choreography (and the sequence for this year, as it happens). The dancers year-to-year are a bigger question mark. That is, though they are all excellently trained and career-ready, they are stepping into extremely demanding roles usually designated for serious pros who have had more years of training and experience with live performance.
There are inevitably moments when the younger dancers’ endurance falters, but this year’s crop was tough as nails. It was as exciting to imagine what lies ahead for them as it was to see them live in action.
Partita by Matthew Renko
Music: “Partita for Cello and Piano, Op 35” by Kenneth Leighton
This piece recalls Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, but in three pieces instead of four. It is not derivative, however. The temperaments are an inexhaustible concept and Matthew Renko adapts movement to the music thoughtfully. Partita is a psychological work, but it never comes untethered from the body.
Like Balanchine in his Temperaments, Renko begins on a Melancholy note, but instead of a slow pas de deux, Claire Barrington portrayed a solo, tormented figure on the darkened stage. The music (an elegy) and the slightly unhinged movement evoked The Brothers Quay (their demented, masterless puppets) but it was never so grotesque. Barrington’s personage was possessed of other voices, but the dancer herself remained in full control. The elegy ends with a light, plucking march in which Barrington aggressively mimed the sounds with her hands. There was a gallows humor to it, as Barrington seemed both agitated by and resigned to the noise in her head. She hears the music as we do, but we are left feeling that, in her world, she’s alone in hearing it.
This was followed by a fiery, athletic, Choleric scherzo in which Roland Spier led the charge, swerving among four female dancers. It hit hard and fast and the dancers were able to match the intensity of the music for as long as it lasted…which was not terribly long.
The final and lengthiest movement was what I would call phlegmatic and resembled Balanchine’s opener: a pas de deux in which the limbs of the duo often intertwined loosely. Musically, the themes introduced in the first movement were developed in various ways between the piano and cello, and Renko used each section to develop a balanced range of motions that used all corners of the stage. Toward the end, the blue background burned scarlet, bringing a burst of sanguine energy during an appassionato before cooling to blue again. Just as the music achieves a resolution in its thematic development, Renko returns his dancers to their starting positions, but in reverse, untwining them gradually.
Dancers Erika Crawford and Zion Rivera were well matched physically and both were strong. Rivera would appear in three other pieces and distinguished himself as one of the most versatile and capable male dancers on the stage.
Present Company by Miles Pertl (in collaboration with the dancers)
Music: “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson
This was the jaw-dropper of the night.
It was a daring choice to work from a quirky, monotonous, art-pop track like “O Superman.” I love this song. Its sinister yet poetic handling of themes of war, alienation, paranoia and loneliness are about as quintessentially modern as it gets, and its strangely prophetic line “Here come the planes…” made it an artistic anthem after the 9/11 strikes. Anderson’s performance of it in NYC after the attacks reintroduced the song to a new generation, twenty years later.
(I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it.)
That’s a lot of baggage to work with from just the song alone, but choreographer Miles Pertl complicated matters by bookending Present Company with a silent portion in which the dancers pantomimed movements of their own design, which were meant (as I was told) to reflect a time when they had to tell something important and difficult to their parents. The movements were cryptic (so there was no telling what that message was), but engaging.
In spite of all these risks, it all came together to produce the most singular, affecting piece of the night. It’s the one that I want to see over again. And again.
The spare set design included two narrow scrims draping to the floor at stage right and left, which were large enough to obscure two dancers behind them, allowing for them to disappear quickly (without running off stage) and bring attention to antic solos at the center. There was plenty of leaping, but a lot of the movement stayed rooted to the ground (or even pressed toward it) giving the piece weightiness but not inertia. It was at turns funny, sad and humane…a total knockout.
finding harmony by Sarah Pasch
Music: “Quintet in A Major for clarinet and strings, Allegro” by Wolfgang Mozart
This was a charmer that rather nudged at the strict gender roles in the ballet world. Such roles have a practical purpose (weight ratios and strength), but also reflect more complex sociological factors both on-stage and off-stage. (Fun fact for ballet newbies: In ballet’s incipience, only men were allowed to dance and female roles were expressed through masks.)
finding harmony opens with a trio of women in a sort of schoolgirl ensemble striking dramatic poses under a spotlight. In wanders a waifish young man, Isaac Bates, who shuffles the girls off so he can claim the stage for himself. The girls push back and a brief battle of the sexes ensues before Bates, outnumbered, stops vying for the stage, finally clues in and starts dancing with the trio rather than against them. The music kicks in, and the rest of the work is indeed more harmonious.
Bates was slightly off timing in some of his movements with the girls (who remained well in sync), but I presume it to be intentional. Bates was still playing something an outsider to their crew. When the ensemble broke into duets, it became clear that no one on the stage was slouching, least of all Bates.
A final touch ensured that the message was not misread to suggest that the girls were some monolithic, impersonal force. As the lights went down, Jimena Flores-Sanchez danced alone, confident before striking a final pose. The point was not lost on the audience: I heard agreeable laughter throughout the hall before the curtain started to fall and the applause began.
3 for Ed by Steven Loch
Music: Three songs by Ed Sheeran
There is often one number that draws on more contemporary, pop music at Next Step, but rarely is it so current as 3 for Ed by Steven Loch. I am always happy to see such work for three reasons: 1) The dancers love cutting loose and it is a blast to watch. 2) It gives the dancers and choreographers a chance to apply their talents outside of a traditional ballet format, which is important if they pursue a career in more contemporary dance. 3) It helps bridge a generational gap among audiences to see pop and ballet together.
This last point is not a matter of elevating pop (or making ballet more populist), but training the eye. Pop is more explicit in its narratives, and bridge works like this help attune fresh audiences to more abstract means of expression in ballet and modern dance.
Among the three pieces, the second, “Don’t,” was the most fun to watch. Kuu Sakuragi and Erika Crawford had great chemistry and the lyrics’ tale of lust and infidelity were expressed with wit and taste (punctuated by lots of more frank pelvic grinding). Sakuragi and Crawford were nimble both as dancers and actors and the crowd whooped it up a little in response. I don’t know if they could get away with it during a regular PNB program…so all the more reason to do it here.
Measure Twice, Cut Once by Ezra Thomson
Music: Excerpts from two works by Michael Nyman
The focus was on dramatic movement, ensemble formations (and recitations) and negative space in Ezra Thomson‘s Measure twice, Cut Once. Back in 2013, I appreciated the earnestness of his piece Ich Liebe Dich, which brought a joyful close to that year’s programming. His effort last year, There are no rules, ended up feeling incoherent and was unforgiving to the audience with its harsh lighting. It seemed the work of someone who was trying to create an avant-garde think piece, but didn’t have a terribly original thought to convey.
This year’s offering was Thomson’s sixth commissioned piece for Next Step, and though less harsh on the eyes, it came across as another attempt to be enigmatic, but ended up just feeling disconnected from itself and the audience, thanks to too much dead air and reliance on ineffectual props. At center was a lame bit with a marquee that a dancer was trying and failing to light with a cord when…surprise…it had an internal switch all along. I’m pretty sure that bit stopped getting laughs before vaudeville died. (It might still be funny under other circumstances…a piece in which it did not seem to exist just to call attention to how gravely serious the rest of it was by its forced, flaccid levity.)
Better luck next year.
Make It So by Kyle Davis
Music: “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Sergei Rachmaninoff
A beautiful song. Beautiful dance. Beautiful dancers. Picturesque costumes. Luminous stage design. What more could one want?
Kyle Davis‘ traditional Make It So was a perfect closer. It was the longest and most demanding piece of the night. As is usually the case with these programs (and especially in Davis’ works), it is where I saw the dancers start to buckle under the exhaustion. He never lets them off easy.
The dazzling white costumes designed by Elizabeth Murphy drew light gasps from the older audience members around me when the curtain went up and the first women on stage appeared with classic poise. And then the men came on in tights that were sheer across the back of the shoulders and so thin and tight that every muscle was revealed in high relief—idealized carrarra forms brought buoyantly to life.
There were so many moments and elements that exulted in a purified balletic form. A sequence when nine dancers moved in a tight 3×3 formation across the stage and back was absolutely dreamy. Gorgeous ensemble sequences filled the vertical space with floating forms while below a duet swept across the stage. The leads, Roland Spier, Bella Ureta and Madison Abeo were all simply stunning. Spier especially had his work cut out for him.
In closing, the only regret that I have is that this event is one-night-only. It’s a rare event to see six premieres in one night and for someone reviewing the shows, that can be overwhelming, as one doesn’t want to miss anything.
But simply as an audience member, there are some years I would gladly go back for an encore. This year, the first two pieces alone would have had me there a second night. If you haven’t attended before and you love dance (or want to love it more), set an alert to remind you to attend next spring. I can’t recommend it enough.