NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
It takes only two oscillating notes to establish a world. The coyote howl that Ennio Morricone wrote for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly immediately conjures an idea of the American West: desert, tumbleweeds, gunslingers.
To hear those notes and see ballet pointe shoes thrown down like gauntlets is a joke. This is how Pacific Northwest Ballets latest digital program begins, with the Morricone theme playing over a montage of dancers rehearsing in masks, warming up, preparing for a show. The sequence is tongue-in-cheek but also establishes something serious: This excellent company is still at work, making and performing new dances.
The program, available through Monday on the companys website, includes two premieres. The first, Donald Byrds And the sky is not cloudy all day, is the source of the Old West theme. Byrd has made a cowboy ballet, in the tradition of Billy the Kid and Rodeo. The music is not by Morricone; it is selections from Johns Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams, and Home on the Range (from which the dance takes its title). But the idea is clear. Men in cowboy hats, jeans and boots strike gunslinger poses and dance in front of a Western landscape.
Its not much of an idea, and its disappointing from Byrd, who can usually be counted on for a strong point of view, especially on matters of history and race. In a program note, he describes the work as a dream ballet, a nostalgic vision from his imagination when he was a boy playing cowboys and Indians and nobody wanted to be the Indians. The note is aware of what the myth leaves out and occludes (displacement, genocide). The ballet isnt.
It does have a dreaminess, although this registers mainly as sluggishness and sloppiness, compounded by the way that boots blunt ballet footwork. Two final solos bring more focus: one pushing against narrow notions of masculinity with rolling hips, shoulders and wrists; the other pressing the analogy between the spread thighs of a horseman and ballet turnout. Yet the formal pressure isnt enough to justify the cloudless make believe.
Theres an odd absence as well in Future Memory by the companys resident choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo. Is there any anger in your work? a voice asks at the start. Of course there is, another voice answers, but doesnt specify further. Neither does the choreography.
What we get instead is never-ending undulation, a numbing beauty set to a playlist of music that might be labeled Sounds for a Relaxing Bath. The Möbius-strip partnering is plenty ingenious, showing off the dancers strength, flexibility and fluidity. But like Byrds note about what his ballet leaves out, the question about anger appears to acknowledge an awareness of something missing. Both choreographers seem to want to provide comfort food but struggle to make the choreography its own defense.
Despite these shortcomings, the program feels full, even generous, graced by Pacific Northwests top-of-the-line musicians and stuffed with bonus features. And it ends with a work that does justify itself, moment to moment: Alexei Ratmanskys Pictures at an Exhibition. A 2017 recording of a dress rehearsal doesnt draw out all the particularity the moods, colors, characters that Ratmansky finds in the Mussorgsky score. But the performance has more than enough of all that to serve as a vision of the recent past thats inspiring in the still-precarious present.
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