‘Every work is successful first’

PNB premieres three works by top names in ballet

Every work in Pictures at an Exhibition, which opened June 2 at Pacific Northwest Ballet, is a successful first for the company. None of the ballets has been done here before, yet two of them received standing ovations on opening night.

The program opens with La Source, George Balanchine’s take on French classicism, which honors its style and ambience while giving the dancers contemporary individuality and demanding modern speed. Set to excerpts from Léo Delibes’ La Source and Le Pas des Fleurs, Balanchine’s ballet is innately romantic and joyful.

Carrie Imler and Jerome Tisserand as the principal couple, were a joy to watch, making the beautiful, circular dancing appear effortless and natural. The dancers in the corps de ballet were in stellar sync, apart from one minor bobble.

The most dramatic piece was Opus 19/The Dreamer, choreographed in 1979 by Jerome Robbins for Mikhail Baryshnikov to Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 19 violin concerto. Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s artistic director, was a perfect choice as the stager for the company’s version. He had previously danced the role of the Dreamer, including during his retirement performance at the New York City Ballet.

At the top of Opus 19/The Dreamer is the striking image of James Moore as a lone dancer in white, with a group of dancers in blues and purples indistinct in the shadows behind him. He moved with a lyrical angularity and moodiness in a dreamlike landscape masterfully created through lighting by Jennifer Tipton and recreated by Mark Stanley, together with Ben Benson’s costumes.

There is the loose suggestion of a storyline in which Moore daydreams of loving, losing and reuniting with his lover. The other dancers seem to be figments of Moore’s imagining or even elements of his unconscious.

Gradually, Noelani Pantastico separates from the others to dance with Moore as his lover—strong, a bit mysterious and very much her own woman. Still it is Moore, with his brooding reveries, who commanded the stage. The opening night performance, including that of violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim, deservedly brought the audience to its feet in passionate applause.

My favorite ballet of the evening was the inventive Pictures at an Exhibition, set by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky in 2014 to Modest Mussorgsky’s suite of the same name. Mussorgsky’s work was inspired by the death of his friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann, and has 16 sections representing a stroll among Hartmann’s paintings. Ratmansky returned to Mussorgsky’s original version for solo piano, played by Allan Dameron with dexterity and a theatrical energy that drove the ballet.

Ratmansky’s ballet for ten dancers has an improvisational quality and often-playful energy that swirls and pops in small explosions as randomly as champagne bubbles. Yet each of the 16 sections has its unique character.

Dance moves are frequently unexpected and unfamiliar. A dancer is carried offstage standing upright with her feet braced against the other dancer’s chest. There are odd jumps and strange upside down kicks. Still, there is a naturalness to it all, as one move morphs easily into another in a continuous flow. And there is a delicious anticipation to wondering what delightful choreography surprise might come next.

The ballet’s designs are inspired by Wassily Kandinsky’s Color Study. Squares with Concentric Circles from 1913, a fitting choice since Kandinsky saw music as color. Wendall K. Harrington’s projections deconstruct the painting’s bright, abstract geometric shapes and recombines different parts for each projection. Costumes by Adeline André parallel the Kandinsky artwork. 

With excellent reason, the company’s spirited performance of Ratmansky’s ballet garnered the second standing ovation of the evening.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” performs at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., through Sunday, June 11. Prices: $30-$187, some under-age-25 discounts. Tickets/information: www.pnb.org, 441-2424.

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the greater Seattle area.