“A Million Kisses to My Skin” opened the evening with a dazzling cascade of technique and breathless stamina. The piece felt very Balanchine, from the en pointe moves to the classical music by Bach, his “Concerto No. 1 in D Minor” executed with exquisite delicacy by conductor and pianist Allan Dameron. Yet David Dawson’s choreography carried the dancers beyond ballet’s classicism to something more unconfined and fresh with his hyper-extended asymmetry and movement that seemed to flow fluidly from one dancer into the next.
Dawson created “A Millions Kisses to My Skin” in 2000 to express the moments of unabridged rapture dancers sometimes experience in performance. While the break-neck pace highlighted the athleticism and skill of the nine dancers in the piece, the joyfulness we should have seen in the dancers was often buried in the blur of motion. Still, it was crowd-pleasing display of bravura.
Perhaps the most striking piece on opening night was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s moving, no-frills duet about a couple’s last moments before their relationship fails. First performed in 2002 by the Dutch National Ballet, the seven-minute “Before After” is packed with demanding drags, lifts, swings and swivels that again fall outside ballet’s traditions.
In the piece’s PNB premiere, Angelica Generosa and Raphaël Bouchard met the challenge Ochoa created with seemingly effortless fluidity and rigor. You could see the dissolve of the relationship as the dancers pulled each other closer and then pushed away, eyes often disconnected. In contrast to Ochoa’s view of her piece as ending in a new beginning, the resolution struck me as painfully poignant — and beautifully truthful.
Nacho Duato’s “Rassemblement” was a gripping and impassioned appeal for human rights. The impetus for the work and its musical backdrop is stirring music by Haitian artist Toto Bissainthe, based on Haitian slave songs. In tattered clothing, eight dancers endure torture and resist oppression. Duarte’s steps — sideways, flat-footed runs with arms angled sharply overhead like wings, struggling to walk on knees, fists to foreheads and fast, rubbing gestures — were brimming with intimated feeling as performed with fire and force by the company’s dancers.
Choreographed to George Antheil’s “Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1,” Justin Peck’s “Debonair” reflects the music’s vibrance and breeziness, as well as its flavor of the American West. There’s even a section in this upbeat, new work about relationships in which the choreography suggests square dancing. The Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Emil de Cou, matched the mood with élan and later served up a delectable version of the “Orchestral Prelude” from Edvard Grieg’s “Holbert Suite, Op. 40” as a bonus.
Clothed in Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s glistening dresses or black pants and tops, six couples swirl nonchalantly around the stage. The centerpiece of “Debonair” is a lengthy pas de deux danced on opening night by Carla Körbes and Jerome Tisserand. It was pure pleasure watching Körbes and Tisserand portray the emotional intricacies and playfulness of a couple meeting and getting to know one another. Körbes, who plans to retire from the company in June, has a delicate strength and graceful poise that will be missed.
PNB’s “Director’s Choice” performs at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.), through Sunday, Nov. 16. For ticket information, visit www.pnb.org.