Killer history lesson

An American tale retold.

OUR VIEW OF ART changes over time. Something may be wildly creative when it first premieres, only to seem dated or simple later on. If we hold on to it long enough, though, the work has the chance to eventually transform into something historic. In music or theater, this process can be applied to something that was created 300 years ago. In dance, 30 is considered old, so Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938), which had its local premiere last week with Pacific Northwest Ballet, is certainly a candidate for classic status.

Pacific Northwest Ballet

Seattle Center Opera House ends April 22

Billy the Kid comes from a period in our dance history when choreographers were encouraged to make ballet more “American,” to de-emphasize its European roots. Often this was done simply by grafting an American story onto a standard balletic framework, as in works like Lou Christensen’s Filling Station (set in a gas station) or Balanchine’s Alma Mater (set on a college campus). But rather than tinkering with the status quo, Loring sets out to “Americanize” ballet—to change its shape and structure, its very guts. Borrowing from every available source—including folk and modern dance, theater, and film—he alters the vocabulary, the style, and the stage conventions of traditional ballet. Today these innovations are hardly unique, but in their time they were compelling.

A CONTEMPORARY production like PNB’s can’t recreate the context of the 1930s, but it can be faithful to the spirit of the time and the work itself. On opening night there were some glitches and wobbles, but the core was intact. The ballet’s first sequence is a processional that moves across the front of the stage; with this Loring sought to symbolize the opening of the West. As the dancers work in canon to each other, they move in and out of synchrony with Aaron Copland’s glorious score, their movements taken from pioneer activities like riding and plowing. These motifs are repeated and expanded upon throughout the piece, making up the common language of this community.

The pioneer women have a specific walk, stance, and way of “talking” to each other based on a kind of methodical plodding that’s different from the cowboy’s rhythmic hopping (this stands for riding) or the dance-hall girls’ swinging hips.

Seth Belliston and Oleg Gorboulev are both cast as Billy, whom we see transformed from an orphan into a reckless killer. Belliston, who usually projects a sunny equanimity, works hard to darken his image for this part. He is meticulous about choreographic details, particularly in Billy’s signature phrase, undulating like a snake while pacing a square. With more time he should be able to relax a bit and drop his weight into the floor rather than hitting it. Gorboulev hadn’t quite mastered the sequential spine last Friday night, but he gave Billy a viciousness that transcended the period; he could have been a contract killer for the mob.

The world of dance is different than when Loring made Billy the Kid, but we are mirrored in his 1938 work: On Friday evening, a Russian-trained dancer performed a role based on an American folk hero, in a dance genre that originated in Italy by way of France, speaking Spanish with an Uzbek accent. What could be more American than that?