I must first write about the closing piece on the program, Crystal Pite’s Emergence, because it was one of the best ballets I’ve seen in a while and I am really excited about it. Emergence, Pite explains in some of the most thought-provoking and cogent program notes I’ve come across, is about the parallels between the complex hierarchies of the ballet world and species like bees and ants in the natural world. Pite cites semiotician Steven Johnson and biologist Thomas D. Seeley, but Emergence made me think most of the works of myrmecologist E.O. Wilson. Wilson is one of my favorite authors, and his application of ant behavior to the understanding of human civilization is fascinating. Pite seemed to me to be working some of his theories out onstage. Emergence was also evocative of Jerome Robbins’s The Cage, about a tribe of matriarchal insects who eat their mates after copulation. It is a tremendous work, and if you had told me that someone was making another bug ballet I would have said good luck; but Emergence was as compelling as The Cage without feeling at all derivative.
Emergence, which was choreographed for National Ballet of Canada in 2009 (PNB acquired it 2013), opens similarly to The Cage with a woman—a wonderful Rachel Foster—writhing spasmodically in a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage. She is attended by Joshua Grant, also excellent, who peels her off of the floor. The two perform a twitchy, eerie pas de deux before disappearing through a hole in the center of the backdrop. The scenery, by Jay Gower Taylor, resembled a hive or a nest, and the central hole from which dancers continually emerged or retreated was a long tube with honeycomb lights at its core.
A swarm of men in black pants with tattooed backs and black headdresses then floods the stage and commences pulsating, sharp movements to the distorted, mechanical score by Owen Belton. With their faces covered in black netting they indeed resembled bees, but the headgear also
The men ceded the stage to a group of women, who were also masked in apian-inspired netting. The ladies wore pointe shoes and black corsets (costumes by Linda Chow) and audibly counted out their uneven sequences over the noodle-y score. They buzzed—courtesy of the bourrée step—and flapped and swarmed. The tiny yet powerful Leta Biasucci stood out in this grouping. In another arresting moment, a line of men walked across the stage with military precision, pivoting to face front briefly and then continuing into the wings. After this motif repeated several times it was performed by a woman, the beautiful Leah Merchant, which was startling. She wore the men’s costume, flat shoes and all, but her long flowing hair and softer quality couldn’t mask her feminine otherness. She danced with the men and by herself for a while and it was mesmerizing. Like Rachel Foster, she did not make another entrance after her vignette.
Another highlight was when James Moore broke through a rigid line of the corseted women who were crossing the stage while engaged in a repetitive, floor-pawing, 11-count phrase. James parted them as if arcing a bow, or perhaps playing a schoolyard game of Red Rover. The women scattered and James danced a vivid solo. The ballet concluded with the entire cast (save Ms. Merchant and Ms. Foster) vocally counting out an aerobic group relevé sequence. Unmasked by this point, the large cast was visibly panting yet determined. It was an exhilarating work, and the whole audience stood to applaud the group's effort and Pite's ingenuity.
The first piece on the program, A Million Kisses To My Skin, was by David Dawson to music by Bach. It was perfectly pleasant but I felt it didn’t have much to say. I liked the middle adagio movement for three couples the best, and Angelica Generosa’s knockout solo in the third movement. Angelica, who was announced as a replacement in the ballet, danced as if the part had been made on her. Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, to Schubert, is a terribly difficult piece and the PNB dancers—particularly Benjamin Griffiths—danced it well. (Forsythe once said in an interview that a dancer in the San Francisco Ballet told him she would rather give birth again than dance the ballet one more time!)
When the piece premiered two decades ago it felt edgy and new, with its geometric green tutus by Stephen Galloway and its winking distortions of very technical classical ballet. So many people have imitated Forsythe at this point that it no longer has that wow factor, but it holds up as a solid piece nonetheless. It also proves that no one can do Forsythe as well as the man himself. His skill is evident in the little details, as when the dancers shift into unison in transition steps on the tail end of a musical phrase rather than starting over in a new sequence at the top of the next one.
I have always admired Forsythe’s work and intellect (The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude—what a title! It applies so perfectly to the execution of ballet, or the Schubert score). He has wandered far from the technical rigidity of Vertiginous Thrill in recent years. The last piece of his that I saw was Decreation at BAM some years ago, and it was more of a spoken-word and performance art endeavor. PNB handled the Pite innovations so well it would be interesting to see what Forsythe would make for them now. And Peter Boal, the artistic director, is clearly open to exploring new genres and giving his dancers meaty artistic challenges. I look forward to seeing what PNB will bring to the plate next.