REVIEW | PNB’s ‘American Stories’ captures the magic of the decades

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “American Stories” is a celebration of some very American forms of dance from three iconic choreographers who have called the United States home. This sort of ballet is right up the company’s alley—Twyla Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station” was even created for the company—and the company did not disappoint on opening night last Friday.

Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” felt like the very essence of a 1940s musical, from the Leonard Bernstein music to the Broadway-influenced footwork, which includes kicks that practically collide with the dancer’s face, a la the Jets in “West Side Story.” Even the 1940s bar and city backdrop designed by Oliver Smith, mixing faux and actual three-dimensionality, screamed Broadway musical. And, in fact, Robbins’ 1944 ballet inspired the Broadway musical and then the film “On the Town.”

With their roughhousing camaraderie, Seth Orza, Jonathan Porretta and James Moore captured the exuberance and playful braggadocio of young World War II sailors on shore leave looking for girls and excitement. In their 1940s dresses by costume designer Kermit Love, the women were the men’s equals, from Noelani Pantastico’s constant tease with every knowing look and hip sway to Leslie Rausch’s refined elegance and Elle Macy’s provocativeness.

As the sailors vie for the women’s attention, they dance solos designed to dazzle. Porretta’s was possibly the most showstopping—and unnerving—with leaps that landed straight into full splits.

In “Square Dance,” the evolution of dance is intriguingly highlighted through George Balanchine’s beguiling blend of 17th-century court dances with ballet and square dancing, set to the baroque music of Vivaldi and Corelli. It’s fascinating because you can see in places where a courtly dance step from the 1600s evolved into a ballet dip with gracefully extended arms or a square dancer locking elbows with a partner. Corelli’s music, from 1700, had a surprisingly square dance sensibility in places.

Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths embodied the dynamism of this piece, from some lovely curved lifts in the adagio to their lighthearted joyfulness and brisk decisiveness as the pace picked up.

The company’s corps de ballet would have made Balanchine proud. To my eye, they were in spectacular sync, maintaining perfect precision even during some seemingly impossible allegro steps that interspersed small jumps.

Measured by applause, the biggest hit with the audience was Twyla Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station,” which had its world premiere at Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2013. Tharp’s work is set in a 1940s New Orleans train station, designed by Santo Loquasto, to the music of Allen Touissant. Jazz intersects with R&B in the New Orleans great’s music, played here with smoky panache by Allan Dameron joined by bassist Todd Larsen and drummer Gunnar Folsom.

The piece’s moving duets between James Moore, who wants to teach his son before the three golden Fates claim him, and Price Suddarth, as the son keen to learn, were intimate conversations of mercurial jazz-inspired steps through which the pair strove to bond. Two competitive couples—Noelani Pantastico and William Lin-Yee with Laura Tisserand and Jonathan Porretta—and the ensemble underscore the vicissitudes of relationships and the struggle to connect.

Under the shared conducting of Allan Dameron and Emil de Cou, the company orchestra provided finely nuanced support for the dancers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “American Stories” performs at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., through Sunday, June 12. Prices: $30-$187, some under-age-25 discounts. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit or call (206) 441-2424.

MAGGIE LARRICK is a freelance writer that lives in the Seattle area, and is former editor of the Queen Anne & Magnolia News.