Pacific Northwest Ballet’s audience clearly loves modern works that delve deeply into the natural world. On opening night last Saturday, Nov. 9, Crystal Pite’s stunningly dramatic “Emergence” brought the audience roaring to its approving feet, just as Christopher Wheeldon’s “Tide Harmonic,” a breathtaking evocation of the ocean’s watery environs, did in May.
“Emergence”is one of four contemporary works in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s latest program, “Kylian+Pite.” The program’s two renowned choreographers, Jiri Kylian and Pite, have both served on the staff of the Netherlands Dance Theater. Pite was at Pacific Northwest Ballet for several weeks to rework “Emergence”for its first Pacific Northwest Ballet outing.
The inspiration for Pite’s piece came from Steven Johnson’s book “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software”and the ways in which Pite views a ballet company as emulating the social structure and interaction of a beehive. Jay Gower Taylor’s insect-nest set and Linda Chow’s costumes that suggest insect carapaces echo Pite’s exploration of social organization and interaction.
Pite has 39 dancers moving in perfect rhythmic synchronicity to Owen Belton’s ominous computer-processed score, peppered with the scarily militant sounds of marching and droning bees. The dancers’ movements and the choreography are fascinatingly insect-like, with twitching shoulders, praying mantis arms and the unstoppable single-mindedness of the hive mind. En pointe has never been so terrifying as Pite’s line of black-masked female dancers marching in unison across the stage, almost effortlessly repelling attacking males.
Almost as audience-grabbing is Kylian’s sometimes-ominously dramatic and sometimes-humorously sword-wielding “Petite Mort,” a French euphemism for “orgasm.” Six dancers of each sex, six fencing foils and six intricate, wheeled, baroque black gowns intertwine in this abstract and sensual look at the battle of the sexes. The dancers duel to the slow movements from two popular Mozart piano concertos: “A (KV 488)” and “C (KV 467).”
In keeping with the sexual theme, the men are bare-chested, and the dancers are clad in flesh-colored costumes. Enormous swathes of fabric suggest bed sheets and are pulled over the dancers to cover a scene change.
The dress frames and swords also appear in “Sechs Tänze (Six Dances),” Kylian’s companion piece to “Petite Mort,”where they are used to hilarious effect in acrobatic hijinks. Dancers in 18th-century, courtly chalk-white makeup and powered wigs seem to be dancing in feverishly comedic overcompensation, perhaps to drown out the beating drums of their impending doom in the French Revolution.
The perpetual arms-akimbo motion to the strains of Mozart’s “Six German Dances (KV 571)” even had dancers managing to hop in a lying position on the floor, a bit like Mexican jumping beans.
Adding to the comedy, unlike the usual dancer exits, in “Sechs Tänze,” a dancer might be dragged or yanked offstage or some equally clever and funny departure.
By comparison, Kylian’s “Forgotten Land” felt blandly dramatic and lacking in personality. Set to Benjamin Britten’s “Symphonia da Requiem” with an Edvard Munch painting as a backdrop, the piece is lovely but not at all compelling.
The company’s orchestra, conducted by Emil de Cou and Allan Dameron, ably accompanied the three Kylian works.
PNB’s “Kylian+Pite” plays at McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.) through Sunday, Nov. 17. For information or tickets, visit www.pnb.org or call (206) 441-2424.
MAGGIE LARRICK is a former editor of the Queen Anne & Magnolia News. To comment on this review, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.