REVIEW | PNB's 'Brief Fling' does great job of honoring global influences of ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Brief Fling” does a lovely job of honoring the global influences that enrich the art and soul of ballet. And for those who think they already know “Brief Fling” and “Forgotten Land” from the company’s performances of the two in 2013, the current production will be a revelation.

Choreographed by Twyla Tharp in 1990 for American Ballet Theater, “Brief Fling” is a swirl of Scottish clans differentiated by Isaac Mizrahi costumes in varying hues of plaid. The choreography is a mash-up of traditional and modern, just like its score — Michael Columbier’s often unsettling percussive contemporary music interwoven with upbeat pieces from Percy Grainger written in 1912 and 1918.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s decision to perform the ballet to live music for the first time ever was a brilliant one. Conductor Emil de Cou and the company’s orchestra did a stellar job with the challenging changes from one musical genre to another. And somehow it took the performance to a higher level, including a delightfully quirky, very Tharp segment with Leta Biasucci, Stephen Loch, Jonathan Porretta and Ezra Thomson.

When I last experienced Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián’s “Forgotten Land” at Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2013, it felt bland and without personality. Not so this time around. For me it was the most powerful piece of the evening.

Several of us discussing the performance found it hard to put our finger on exactly what made this production so potent. Perhaps it was an insider’s edge from Roslyn Anderson, who was in the original cast of “Forgotten Land” and did the staging for this performance with the help of Otto Neubert. Which might have been assisted by conductor Alastair Willis and the company orchestra’s spot-on Sturm und Drang delivery of Englishman Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem.” And of course there was the dancers’ riveting work.

Cold winds howl as the curtain rises at the top of “Forgotten Land” and six couples advance slowly toward a darkly stormy sea backdrop designed by John F. Macfarlane.  Together with icy white light suggestive of snow, designed by Joop Caboort and redesigned by Kees Tjebbes, the effect is of a bleak, frozen landscape where survival is dubious—enhanced by Britten’s haunting requiem.

In the first movement, the dancers barely make eye contact and sometimes push each other way, even when intertwined, as if struggling to survive, and the fight takes all they have. Dancers swoop and dip like exhausted sea birds, collapse and are lifted by other dancers, and arch backward as if dying while only their partners keep them upright. The piece evolves in the second movement into an amazing flurry of whirling leaps by Carrie Imler and Jonathan Porretta. Hope and peace imbue the third movement, headed up by the nuanced Seth Orza and Elizabeth Murphy, finally able to begin emotionally connecting.

George Balanchine’s inventive choreography for “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” is playfully exuberant in the first and final movements, with side-to-side jumps and other frisky moves. The two central duets explore more serious intimacy, sometimes gentle and sometimes strange, between a man and a woman. Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand were athletically angular with pulsating undulations. Noelani Pantastico’s vulnerable submissiveness and attempts at leaving concludes with Seth Orza placing his hand over her eyes and tilting her head back to control her—a disquieting image seemingly at odds with the rest of the piece. 

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Brief Fling” performs at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., through Sunday, Nov. 13. Prices: $30-$187, some under-age-25 discounts. Tickets/information:, 441-2424.

MAGGIE LARRICK is a freelance writer who lives in the greater Seattle area.