There's a sequence toward the beginning of George Balanchine's 1946 work, The Four Temperaments, that encapsulates much of what makes him one of the most important choreographers of the 20th century. It's a series of supported pirouettes, on one level no different than the thousands of turns salted throughout the history of ballet. In all of these, a woman stands on pointe in front of her partner while he helps her turn, rather like pushing someone on a swing. The length of her body, poised on the tip of her toe, and the "look, no hands" convention of the turning, as we pretend not to see her partner give her a shove, is supposed to make us feel that her spinning is magical and effortless. In The Four Temperaments, Balanchine is having none of it. His ballerina bends her standing leg, cantilevering the other one forward and out of plumb as well. When her partner turns her, stopping her deliberately after each rotation, this zigzag shape seems to wobble in space, like a satellite coming out of orbit, and our world feels off-kilter and woozy.
Balanchine takes a convention and shows us a different perspective of it, and he did this throughout his career. Occasionally the variations were quite subtle, but just as often they were dynamic and compelling, transforming amplitude, attack, and musicality, and the critical mass of these changes remade the art form. Neoclassical ballet is the result of this experimentation and is a dialect spoken particularly well at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Its current program of Balanchine works, in honor of his centennial, covers a wide variety of styles from the dramatic storytelling of The Prodigal Son to the plotless Symphony in C's sparkling, tutu-clad world; but at both extremes, as well as in The Four Temperaments, his particular genius for physical and musical invention is everywhere. The connection between the gymnastics-influenced theatricality of Prodigal and the more stripped-down mechanics of The Four Temperaments is easy to see, but it peeks out, too, in Symphony in C, in the length of the dancers' stride and the way they shift their weight. And although Balanchine's esteem for his classical heritage permeates Symphony in C, especially in the tender references to Swan Lake that occur throughout the second movement, there are echoes of it in the stark geometries of The Four Temperaments and in the unconventional yet blazing virtuosity of the title role of Prodigal.
PNB's company rises to the level of the choreography. Both Jonathan Porretta and Lucien Postlewaite made auspicious debuts in the title role of Prodigal. Porretta burst onto the stage with the explosive energy that seems to be his trademark—it reappears in his performance in Symphony in C and even as the Melancholic in The Four Temperaments. Postlewaite's Prodigal is a golden boy, a California surfer sliding easily into technical challenges, but this initial poise makes his fall just that much more vivid. As the Siren, both Patricia Barker and Ariana Lallone made good use of their height and long lines to dominate their victims. Barker's dancing is often regal, and that keeps the role clear of silent-film cliché—her Siren is deadly as well as enticing. Lallone is sinuous, each gesture deliberately placed as she draws her victim into line. At the point she has him totally enmeshed, her stillness is terrifying and her power absolute. (She also has moments of stillness as Choleric in The Four Temperaments, but they are full of tension, moments where the roiling anger of the role is suspended before plunging forward again.
Dance is most clearly preserved in the living bodies of dancers, not in books or on films or videotapes. Even before Balanchine's death in 1983, there was apprehension about preserving his works. Twenty-one years later, some critics swear that they are still performed as he would have liked; others find fault on a regular basis, saying that the New York City Ballet, the logical caretaker of his legacy, has not lived up to its responsibility, and look to other artistic directors and companies to preserve the work. PNB co-director Francia Russell is one often looked to in this regard. Both she and co-director Kent Stowell danced with the New York City Ballet, but it is Russell who has had the main responsibility of protecting Balanchine's legacy here, bringing not just his choreography but also his philosophy of dance into the studio every day.
Now that she and husband Stowell are retiring from the PNB leadership, continuing the tradition will fall most likely to Peter Boal, an acclaimed dancer with the New York City Ballet. Boal admits that his connection with the Balanchine heritage has been through the work, not the man. As time passes, and the generation that had firsthand connections moves on, Boal's experience will be the more common one. Just as we know Bach and Shakespeare better through their art than through their biographies, with time Balanchine's legacy will need to be constantly rediscovered inside his ballets.
All Balanchine program, 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 11–Sat., Nov. 13, and 1 p.m. Sun., Nov. 14. McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., 206-292-ARTS. $20–$137.