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March 2016

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Juilliard Dance

Published: March 4, 2016
Category: review

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Stunning Emergence

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK–Pacific Northwest Ballet’s most intriguing work on its “Contemporary Innovators” program at New York City Center was Crystal Pite’s Emergence. Made in 2009 for the National Ballet of Canada, wonderfully performed by 37 PNB dancers, and set to a dark, pulsing electronic score by Owen Belton, the ballet is a rarity. Seen Feb. 26, it emitted dank mystery, using concrete dance images to evoke a sense of lives moving en masse in  peril.



"A Million Kisses to My Skin"© Angela Sterling

“A Million Kisses to My Skin”© Angela Sterling


The other works on the program were less convincing. The best part of David Dawson’s A  Million Kisses to My Skin (2000), which opened the evening, was pianist Allan Dameron and the PNB Orchestra’s crisp performance of Bach’s D Minor concerto. In contrast to the overall sweep and élan of their reading, Dawson’s choreography failed to sustain interest, dwindling into a  series of repetitive, athletic off-kilter extensions of limbs. Despite the strong, impressive performance by the PNB dancers, the work’s choreography, like its title, felt  smothering.

William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude (1996) is a chamber ballet for two men and three female dancers—in lime-green potato chip-shaped tutus (designed by Stephen   Galloway)—that is set to the final movement of Shubert’s Symphony No. 9. Essayed by more ballet companies than this critic can count, the PNB oddly chose to perform it cute, with big smiles, and slower than usual tempos. PNB artistic director Peter Boal, who has elevated the dancing chops of this Seattle-based company during his decade-long tenure by choosing challenging works to perform, should ask Forsythe to sharpen up the PNB’s interpretation of the  piece.

Created for Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt, Vertiginous needs less West Coast laissez-faire and more central European bite.


Foster and Dawson in "Emergence." © Angela Sterling

Foster and Grant in “Emergence.” © Angela Sterling

Closing the program was Pite’s Emergence, the first large-scale work that the former Forsythe dancer made on a ballet company. In the program note, Pite explains, “My starting-off point for the creation of Emergence was the structure of the ballet company itself.” Looking for a parallel    in nature to the ballet company, added Pite, she thought about the beehive. Emergence begins with a birth that simulates a breaking out of a confined space. In the darkness, we see elbows and knees, fluttering and desperately stretching. Rachel Foster appears to crack open a shell composed of her own entangled limbs. Waiting above her is Joshua Grant, who doesn’t so  much partner with her as witness her emergence, and then take her into a starkly lit honeycomb tunnel (designed by Jay Gower Taylor) that opens at the back of the   stage.

A world of workers arrives on stage, divided by gender and paralleling an essential fact about ballet body types and functions: Today’s female ballet dancer is hyper lean so that she can be easily lifted by the muscular male. Pite stretches the physical contrast by having the women dance erect in a small-moving pack and by having the men crouch as a group and then speedily traverse to standing in sections rather than en masse. Bare-chested in black pants (costumes by Linda Chow), with a tattoo running down their spines and across their upper back and shoulders, the men squat and lunge as if ready to pounce. The women, however, are not their prey. Dressed in black bodices that give their torsos and pelvises the quality of a hard   shell, they are the opposing army that moves in a swarm. As they inch forward via the bourrée (the tiny gliding step on pointe), the lower halves of the bodies are transformed into rapid-fire pistons. Like fencers en garde, they are ready. A full-out gender war never ensues,  however. Instead, Pite creates a typical finale where everyone is on stage dancing their hearts   out.

The women of "Emergence" © Angela Sterling

The women of “Emergence” © Angela Sterling


The most mysterious part of the ballet occurs midway, when Leah Merchant enters, alone and costumed like the men. The obvious outlier, she soon joins forces with three male dancers. Though they lift her at times, Pite does not use classical ballet’s supported adagio (in which the goal is for the man to present the woman through a series of evolving poses). Instead, the quartet travels through an imaginary landscape of rocks and valleys, crawling over and briefly lifting each other. Are they breaking away from the hive? This question is never  resolved.

Perhaps the section is autobiographical: Foster looks a lot like Pite in her dancing days; Pite is a female choreographer working in a male-dominated world of ballet   choreographers. Emergence seems to be about the dark forces of mass think. It suggests that being tightly constricted by gender imprisons one into a pack, one with far less possibilities for expressive  freedom.

Published in MusicalAmerica.com



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