It's not really fair to label Christopher Wheeldon the savior of classical ballet—a combination of artist and EMT—but he seems to wear the badge lightly enough, and the 2001 Polyphonia, entering the Pacific Northwest Ballet repertory, is certainly a powerful argument for the title. In this dance for four couples, Wheeldon takes a knotty collection of piano works by György Ligeti and makes them seem not just danceable but tender and exhilarating. There are quotations from some of the Balanchine repertory that he danced with New York City Ballet, especially Agon (another work set to music by a supposedly difficult composer, Igor Stravinsky). But here they are combined and augmented with a sense of whimsy and anatomical non sequitur, so that twitchy flexed legs take the place of sleekly stretched ones, waving in the air like insect antennae. Wheeldon takes us on a sophisticated tour of the possibilities created by eight bodies, his movement choices a happy combination of freshness and inevitability.
Wheeldon, Duato & Balanchine Pacific Northwest Ballet at McCaw Hall, 301 Mercer St., Seattle Center, 441-2424, www.pnb.org. $18–$145. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., March 22–Sat., March 24; 2 p.m. Sat., March 24–Sun., March 25.
On opening night of PNB's current mixed repertory program, "Wheeldon, Duato & Balanchine," Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold led an evenly matched cast with zest and clarity, highlighting the transitions between standard dance vocabulary and more idiosyncratic material. In the Saturday matinee, Maria Chapman and Stanko Milov took a more deliberate approach, pointing out the beautiful and unusual moments like the best tour guides. Guest artist Miranda Weese, recently retired from NYCB, brought a sexy self-posession to her role, dancing with her partner but seeming to hold herself a bit withdrawn from him. Polyphonia deserves multiple viewings, and promises to repay each one with new insights into a rich piece of work.
Rassemblement, by Nacho Duato, is an example of a different direction for contemporary ballet companies. Influenced as much by modern dance as by classical vocabulary, this 1998 work combines rippling upper bodies with the space-filling amplitude of ballet legs. The sum of this equation can be striking, but occasionally the tension and strength of traditional modern dance gets replaced by hyperflexible virtuosity, making something that's more pretty than powerful. Set to a score by Toto Bissainthe, Rassemblement is supposed to evoke the voodoo cultures of Haiti, but without direct movement quotes; this is not anthropology, though that might have been a better choice. The sense that the cast is a group of abused minorities reads much more clearly than any reference to the pantheon of voodoo gods.
Despite that, the dancers tackled their roles with commitment and integrity, especially Ariana Lallone, who celebrated her 20th anniversary with PNB on opening night. Her long torso makes the sequential rippling even more pronounced than it is on the rest of the cast, and her skills at creating a character from movement added a great deal to her performances as a seeming matriarch. In another cast, Körbes takes on that same "mother" role—she seems very freshly coached, so that the individual actions that make up her longer movement phrases are packed with detail.
Lallone has another juicy role in the last ballet of the program, George Balanchine's La Sonnambula. Here she is listed as "The Coquette," the property of a wealthy baron but also the paramour of a young poet, whose death she triggers when she sees him fascinated by a beautiful sleepwalker. The story, as fanciful as many opera plots, is reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery, and the characters are as easily read. In 1946, when Balanchine made Sonnambula, he was working for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a company with a deserved reputation for dramatic ballets, and this little gem fit right in. The title role is something of a charming parlor trick, as the ballerina is supposed to dance with her eyes "closed," clutching a large candle all through the ballet. Sonnambula is one of the few Balanchine ballets that tells such a specific story—most of his work emphasizes the glories of abstract movement—and it comes from a period when the art form could have developed in any direction, creating a different network of branches on the dance family tree.