PNB’s Expanded Definition of “Classic” Delivers Swift Results

Agon makes the dancers look good, and the company smart.

Classical ballet usually calls to mind tutus and tiaras. But in PNB’s new program, “classic” expands to mean any perfect example of its kind, a stylistic benchmark.

George Balanchine’s Agon is 50 years old and arguably one of the best examples of his brainy, neoclassical style. With its witty interpretation of the Igor Stravinsky score and wealth of distinctive roles, it is a little black dress of a ballet, making the dancers look good and the company presenting it look smart. Most performers take a cool approach to Agon, matching its ’50s vibe with a sense of elegant detachment. In the central duet Friday night, Carla Körbes and Stanko Milov followed that tradition, playing out an icy battle of wills that resolved in mutual collapse.

The previous night, however, Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers had a much more playful interpretation, using the eccentric timing of the choreography as a kind of flirtation, stretching out the pauses and really pouncing on the movement. Their sophisticated phrasing and dead-on synchrony made the duet into a very sexy game. In other roles, Maria Chapman and Benjamin Griffiths were particularly fine, both of them really curving and bending with the asymmetry of the choreography. Griffiths’ solo in the first trio Thursday night was deft and fleet, swift without being rushed; on Friday night, Jonathan Poretta seemed to be dancing through thicker air, so that the same steps felt more dramatic.

The center of the evening is a pair of works that come originally from the modern dance world, and that depend on physical skills outside traditional ballet. Both Caught, a solo by David Parsons, and Susan Marshall’s duet, Kiss, are, on one level, about defying gravity, but rather than accomplishing this through sheer physical virtuosity, they both get assistance from stage technology to make their point. Harnessed to individual ropes, the duo in Kiss glide and hover just above the floor, clinging to each other as they swing like a pendulum or spin in lazy circles. Once they take their feet off the ground they are subject to Newton, as the forces of momentum and entropy play out.

Much of the dancing in Caught is invisible to the audience. The use of a strobe light creates a photographic effect, with the dancer’s image etched on our retinas in a series of spectacularly impossible positions: suspended in the splits, walking through the air, magically transported across the stage. It resembles the best of dance photography by capturing and highlighting a fleeting moment (and indeed, Parsons was a notable subject of Lois Greenfield’s camera). While a film projector takes a series of still images and tricks our eyes into seeing them move, the strobe light does the opposite, transforming movement into a collection of snapshots. When the piece premiered in the 1980s, audiences were captivated by the illusion, but current viewers seem to respond more to the trickery—its resemblance to Cirque du Soleil or to acrobatics. What began as otherworldly has now become more of a stunt—we are impressed but not necessarily enchanted.

The program’s closer, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, absolutely blew me away with its lightning speed and structural complexity. Tharp was one of the first modern choreographers to take full advantage of ballet’s physical virtuosity, and in Room she weds that to hyperflexible torsos, deceptively simple soft-shoe and vaudeville routines, and aerobic dance phrases. The dancers are ostensibly divided into two groups: the sneaker-shod “stompers” and the pointe-shoe-wearing “ballet people.” The two groups gradually intermingle and grow to resemble each other as they shed parts of their Norma Kamali costumes and their movement styles combine. Much of the work is performed at a breakneck speed, matching the valiant quality of Philip Glass’ score, so that the effect is like the Olympic motto: “Faster, farther, higher.”

In Agon, Mara Vinson’s lovely arabesque line kept popping into view as a textbook example of what the position should look like. In Room, she and Carrie Imler are a different kind of exemplar as they jog and tap. And Miranda Weese, who sparkled in tutu and tiara in PNB’s September program, shimmies her shoulders as she bourées across the stage, her bright red pointe shoes matching the flash of her red panties under her skirt.