‘Empire Noir’ Triumphs

Karel Cruz and Lesley Rausch in "Empire Noir." Photo by Angela Sterling

This year’s Director’s Choice lineup, handpicked by Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal and running now at McCaw Hall, is a fairly predictable bunch. Works by choreographers David Dawson, William Forsythe and Jessica Lang (at least there’s a woman!) showcase the PNB company’s range in three thematically different pieces, with one knockout work that begs to be seen again and again.

The brilliant, 24-minute Empire Noir is one of the best performances of the season. Created by British choreographer David Dawson (Dawson Arts), Empire Noir opens with the curtain slowly lifting to reveal 10 dancers in a row, their backs to the audience, all in fifth position—a singular moment of pause before the bombastic notes of a bass drum launch the piece into motion. The dancers turn and begin to march downstage, and from there the piece rushes forward with a combination of high-wattage energy and complicated choreography that plays with notions of time, collectivism and dark emotion. The dimly lit stage features a striking architectural set piece (scenic design by John Otto) that serves as an entrance and exit point, its anvil-shaped cutout rising high above the dancers—a menacing presence that lords over the stage, casting an oppressive shadow.

Empire Noir doesn’t follow a narrative, but the repetition of circular motions (from small waves of the wrist to dancers forming a circle) coupled with loud ticking and clock chimes in the score suggest the idea of time while staying restrained enough to not thematically choke the piece.

The men are brisk and athletic; like loose electric wires they explode from jumps and easily maneuver the women through lifts and pas de deux. Principal Noelani Pantastico shines with her mesmerizing bourée turns and breathtaking balances. This was a standout performance for her, edging her toward Carla Körbes territory, and the je ne sais quoi of those dancers who have an almost indefinable magical presence on stage.

The second work, William Forsythe’s New Suite, is the most classically “balletic” of the three, and the least engaging—though perhaps it just seems staid in comparison to the jacked-up energy and fast pace of the previous piece. Comprising eight duets set to music from Handel, Berio and Bach, New Suite showcases a series of paces and rhythms from a sweet adagio to several spirited allegros. Soloist Leah Merchant and Corps member Steven Loch engage in a short, intimate duet, beautiful for its mix of playfulness and abstraction. The way their arms snake against one another and curve to form circular links is tender, and her extension in a high arabesque en pointe is noteworthy.

Closing out the show, Jessica Lang’s (founder and artistic director of Jessica Lang Dance) Her Door to the Sky is a hit of warmth that captures the earthy tones of a Southwest desert landscape. Inspired by painter Georgia O’Keefe (specifically her “patio door” series), it celebrates female strength and resilience, set against a white rectangular backdrop that resembles an adobe house (scenic design is also by Lang). A large square cut in the middle suggests a door, and at various intervals dancers peek through, roll past and reach out through a row of smaller squares near the floor on each side, activating the set and providing hits of play and whimsy.

This work was choreographed specifically for PNB at last year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance festival, and it shows off the company’s wide-ranging abilities, especially the seamless transitions between lifts, standing work and the floor. Long ombre dresses (costume design by Bradon McDonald) swirl and flourish with every kick and leap, bringing to mind Martha Graham’s groundbreaking Appalachian Spring. Although it starts out a bit slow, the movement builds in energy and complexity, finishing out the night’s repertory almost as strong as it started.

Director’s Choice runs through March 26.