Pacific Northwest Ballet’s current program of three back-to-back Balanchine works is a reminder of how the best choreography can be extremely layered and complex and, at the same time, breathtakingly simple. Sets and costumes are irrelevant here. Plot, emotion, sentiment: all beside the point. Instead, we get pure neo-classical ballet in all its exhilarating variation and clarity. It’s a refreshing draft of clear, cool, gorgeous dance.
The three ballets, created by George Balanchine between 1934 and 1957, are examples of the choreographer’s best work. Each is experimenting with classical movement and its relationship to beauty, and each invents new uses for traditional ballet techniques. Although there are inspired solos and duets in each piece, the true focus is on groupings of dancers and the varying patterns of their interactions.
“Serenade” was the first ballet Balanchine created in the United States shortly after he was brought over from Russia by Lincoln Kirstein to create an American ballet company. Working with a group of dance students, Balanchine famously incorporated incidents from the rehearsal process into the choreography. A dancer’s late arrival or a raised hand to shade against the sunlight become indelible images of the ballet.
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On Friday night, Mara Vinson, Kylee Kitchens and Chalnessa Eames led dancers from PNB's company with grace and conviction, but “Serenade,” set to music by Tchaikovsky, is primarily an ensemble piece. Its impact comes from the way simple steps are laced together, dancers doing piercing pique turns in a circle, for example, or all angling their heads at one time. From the stunning opening when seventeen dancers stand perfectly still, each with one hand raised, to the ascension-like ending when a woman is carried out in a formal procession, the ballet has a quality of spiritual quiet. One of the loveliest moments is the simplest: the dancers simultaneously open their feet from parallel to the splayed first position of classical ballet.
Balanchine famously incorporated incidents from the rehearsal process into the choreography. A dancer’s late arrival or a raised hand to shade against the sunlight become indelible images of the ballet.
The 1957 “Square Dance,” staged for this performance by PNB artistic director Peter Boal and set to music by Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, mixes the energy of American folk dancing with baroque court steps. Jonathan Porretta, with his generous, open line, and Kaori Nakamura’s cheerful ascending jumps conveyed a sense of joyous freedom and energy. This is a teasing ballet to watch. On one level, it looks and sounds baroque, but it keeps bringing to mind American barn dancing. You catch the lightning quick references, the calf-high kicks, the movement of an elbow, but it’s deliciously subtle.
It is in the “Four Temperaments” that we see Balanchine really breaking down the classical steps into his own unique vocabulary. A dancer goes from flexed to point and back again as if just to show us the pleasure of how it feels. Throughout, the movement is angular and strong and still feels amazingly contemporary.
The ballet, set to a score by Paul Hindemith, is in the format of a theme with four variations, each named after a medieval humor (or temperament). Lucien Postlewaite caught the weight of Melancholic. Carrie Imler, dancing with Batkhurel Bold, was a transcendent Sanguinic. Karel Cruz was impressive in Phlegmatic, going from full extensions to a sudden yielding slump. Laura Gilbreath conveyed concentrated rage as Choleric.
Retired artistic director, Francia Russell who returned to PNB to stage “Serenade” and “Temperaments” has brought out every burnished detail of these still fresh and startling ballets.
PNB has long been regarded as one of the great Balanchine companies. If you can possibly get in to see this program, it may become clear what all the fuss is about.
All Balanchine at Pacific Northwest Ballet, 206.441.2424. Performances run through April 25.
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Images (from top): Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Serenade choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB soloist Lindsi Dec in The Four Temperaments choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photos by Angela Sterling.