In with the new

PNB concentrates on the late 20th century.

It's not a pretty analogy, but in several ways the world of dance is like a vampire—its participants are constantly searching for new blood. We're always looking for new dancers and new dances for them to perform. Part of this comes from the realities of the work. A dancer's career is usually physically demanding and often financially disappointing, which can lead to attrition. It is the most ephemeral of art forms, here now and gone in a minute, leaving behind the kinesthetic response of the viewer and a few comments from the critics. Companies come and go, along with the dances created for them. Historical repertory, a library of works that span the development of the art form, is a difficult thing to maintain, hence the search for the new.

Pacific Northwest Ballet

Opera House, April 22

In its April repertory performances, like the majority of its 1998-99 season, Pacific Northwest Ballet programmed a group of works younger than most of the people in the audience. Although Firebird was originally choreographed in 1910, the PNB version by co-director Kent Stowell premiered in 1989, making George Balanchine's Who Cares from 1970 the oldest work on the bill. With the exception of Balanchine works from the 1930s and '40s like Serenade and The Four Temperaments, presented in earlier programs, all the ballets this season come from the 1980s and '90s.

On its own, this is not a troubling fact. Many companies exist solely to do new work, often by a single choreographer, but that doesn't really describe the stated mission of PNB. As a repertory company it's tried not to be associated with any one style or choreographer, although co-director Francia Russell's skills as a stager of Balanchine ballets has certainly given it a strong neoclassical orientation. And though a list of the works it's presented in its 26 years includes a share from the romantic and classical periods of the 19th century, the majority of the ballets it has performed were made especially for the company. I'm always glad when choreographers are working, but I wish it didn't have to be at the expense of older dances.

In his Firebird, Stowell has kept the gist of the Russian folktale, with its magical bird caught by a young prince, and the evil sorcerer who has imprisoned a beautiful princess. But in trying to cast more attention on the growing relationship of the prince and princess he has downplayed the power of the Firebird, so that when the prince calls on her to battle the sorcerer we're not quite sure why she wins. Traditionally the role of the Firebird has been technically difficult, and in his version Stowell has upped the ante, creating dense step sequences, but they often seem more busy than potent. In her debut in the role, Kaori Nakamura negotiates the challenge easily—she might have seemed even more powerful if there had been more stillness in the role.

Artifact II by William Forsythe has a good dose of the magic that seems to have fallen away from Firebird. A woman in a mottled gray unitard leads the corps in a series of mysterious semaphores while two couples test the limits of their speed and flexibility. Forsythe has been called a postmodern ballet-maker, as he deconstructs and reassembles the standard shapes and phrases in non-standard fashion. Artifact II is full of movement isolations without the jazz interpretation that so often goes along with that structure. Legs wheel or arms flail independent of the rest of the body, occasionally resolving in a balanced shape but more often propelling the dancer into a new and strange sequence. Adding to the sense of disorientation the curtain would lower from time to time, seemingly in the middle of a section, to come up on a new phrase already in progress. At the company premiere last year this seemed to rattle the audience, who didn't know if it was a deliberate choice or a stagehand's mistake, but now it just serves to focus the attention, like the children's riposte, "Made you look!"

PNB announced its 1999-2000 season this month, with several productions from its anniversary season including Val Caniparoli's Lambarena and Rudy Van Dantzig's Ginastera, a set of Balanchine works, and a variety of other ballets made for it. But along with company premieres by contemporary choreographers Forsythe, Eliot Feld, and Donald Byrd are a revival of a suite from Marius Petipa's 19th-century Paquita and a new staging of Eugene Loring's Americana work Billy the Kid.

 
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