On November 7, Pacific Northwest Ballet opens its second show of the season with Director’s Choice, an evening-length collection of four choreographic works that may not sound familiar to many ballet fans: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Before After; David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin; Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement; and Justin Peck’s world premiere Debonair.
Season offerings for most world-class ballet companies like PNB are punctuated with the reliably popular programs such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Rite of Spring, but these old favorites were once new favorites, and before that they were daring new pieces of art. They became classics because company directors kept exposing their audiences to them.
When Peter Boal picks pieces for his mixed-rep programs, he does so with the audiences’ artistic education in mind. “I want you to define your own taste,” he says, not relying on the most bankable pieces of choreography but on those that will nurture the company’s and audience’s conceptions of dance as an evolving art form.
Boal doesn’t simply pluck trendy favorites from the wide range of available guest artists. It’s easy to showcase one or two works from hot new choreographers in order to meet the demands of an audience hip to the hottest national reviews, but this doesn’t provide them with a full understanding of what makes these choreographers so effective, their art so noteworthy. For this reason, Boal will pepper a few consecutive seasons with multiple works from a choreographer that demonstrate the full breadth of their style—and what the company dancers can do with that style with their own individual artistry and physical abilities.
Choreographer Nacho Duato’s choreography, says Boal, “has an organic flow” that Seattle audiences went nuts over in the 2012 production of Duato’s Jardi Tancat. Boal notes that his dancers must really push their artistic limits with Duato’s work. “They’re creatures of the air, and in Jardi Tancat they were barefoot, on the ground. They had to become creatures of the earth and the emotion that comes from that.” He raises his eyebrows and shakes his head. “I didn’t want [audiences] to just move on from that, I wanted them to explore what that felt like even more.”
The dancers have a strong desire to explore as well. David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin is a favorite among the company. “The dancers love Bach and Dawson’s classical technique, it pushes their speed. It’s like finishing a triathlon. They come off the stage, sweaty and breathless, like, ‘When can we do that again?’”
So Boal brought it back, and there’s nothing like watching dancers in a piece they deeply love to perform. “I listen to the masses,” says Boal. There are also some pieces that dancers don’t like doing. “It’s not very artistically challenging or rewarding to stand on the stage holding a spear in a classical story ballet, or to be the fifth swan in the corps de ballet and have to disappear into a group.”
Frequently passed over, that dynamic of the corps gets a nod from the young and in-demand choreographer Justin Peck in his world premiere, Debonair. It’s “a lighthearted ode to the corps de ballet,” says Boal, with “a gutsy duet in the middle.” Peck is extremely hot right now, a soloist and resident choreographer for New York City Ballet who recently premiered a work at Lincoln Center scored by singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens. A student of Boal’s at New York’s School of American Ballet, Peck has been on Boal’s radar for a long time and was eager to work with PNB despite, as Boal puts it, “The flood coming to grab [Peck].”
Up-and-coming choreographers often get caught in a tide of popularity at the height of their rise to fame, and it’s hard (and expensive) to nail them down for the periods necessary for the creation and staging of ballets. Mixed bills like Director’s Choice may be among the more expensive shows to produce, and not the most popularly attended, but when the curtain goes up on a ballet that Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers have such a die-hard passion to perform, the reward is unparalleled.
Talking about A Million Kisses to my Skin in a PNB promotional video for this season’s Director’s Choice, principal dancer Jonathan Porretta is full of enthusiasm. “To perform a new work is like fresh oxygen, it changes the way you think about even the simple things, it keeps ballet fresh for the audience as well.”
“It’s still very classically-oriented,” says soloist Lindsi Dec. “we’re in pointe shoes, we have beautiful lines but we have very extreme positions. We just have to go to the max as much as we can.”
Director's Choice runs November 7-16. More info here.
Dance photo by Angela Sterling.