The intensity is pleasant, a journey in feelings and sparkles and pastel colors. "F O I L" is all pretty. The music, mostly piano and airy strings, is a collection of pieces by important but lesser-known female classical composers. Lit by local lighting designer Amiya Brown, the immediate mood of "F O I L" is set by an array of sparkly ballroom chandeliers that lower and rise with each section of the ballet. A dancer announces the title of each section to the audience: "Now," "Be Still," "Hold," "Wait," and "Exhale." The titles are more than mere suggestions, and along with these prompts "F O I L" uses movement, music, light, and the power of the female body to create very specific moods.
The second--and best--section of the ballet, "Be Still," features Cecilia Iliesiu, Margaret Mullin, and Emma Love Suddarth in slow, darkly-lit movements performed entirely with their back to the audience. Costumed in wide hoop skirted tutus the dancers look topless from the audience. The section is sensual but not sexual, commanding but gentle. The dancers' rippling back muscles cast tiny shadows as they move their arms up and down conjuring a spell that leaves the whole of McCaw Hall in complete silence.
The second piece in the program, "Love and Loss," from local (but nationally renowned) choreographer Donald Byrd is a fun twist to Byrd's recent style. Local audiences are used to Byrd's creations for Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater, where he bases full-length contemporary ballets on themes of social justice. The complexity of Byrd's subject matter sometimes requires so much attention that the dancing is hard to focus on. In "Love and Loss," Byrd retains his signature communication of the complexities of the human condition but weaves it together with classical ballet steps and the individual artistries of PNB dancers. Byrd may be giving the audience another social commentary but this time he makes us figure it out on our own.
Composer Emmanuel Witzthm's music for "Love and Loss" is a long, dramatic, classical score punctuated by subtle, sometimes creepy, electronic pulses and beats. The large cast of "Love and Loss" feels heavy on the men, but this could be due to the distinct emotional energy devoted to the men's choreography. Each pas de deux involves a painful separation of the man from the woman, the most dramatic and beautiful in dancer Amanda Morgan's backwards bourrees as she tears herself away from partner Ryan Cardea. Costumed in close fitting pants and partially buttoned dress shirts, the male dancers are the epitome of strength and capability but exude such isolation and melancholy that I wonder if Byrd is alluding to that male vulnerability so rarely discussed in the arts. In classical ballet, men are the stalwart supporters of their female partners, performing impressive leaps and turns when alone onstage. Whatever his thesis in "Love and Loss"--if there is one--Byrd commands the emotions of his audience by bringing out the very best artistic and physical qualities in PNB dancers. The growing strength and artistry of corps de ballet dancer Cecelia Iliesiu and Madison Rayn Abeo are particularly special in this piece.
And then there's "Wash of Gray," the new work from company dancer Miles Pertl. Another love letter, "Wash of Gray" pays tribute to Seattleites and the stuff we love the most. It's sweet and lovely to watch but the narrative to "Wash of Gray" is so literal it frequently washes out the dancing. Each piece of "Wash of Gray" is its own entity: the constantly-changing backdrop art, the costumes made to reflect Seattle weather and landscape--it's all important but gets lost in the jumble.
The choreography has its bright moments. Principal dancer Liz Murphy's physical abilities and artistic grasp on ballet technique is more badass with each season. Her lines and arching back are tiny works of art in themselves. Her partner, new corps member Luther DeMeyer, dances with a lyricism and grace not usually seen in younger dancers. And the crowning moment in "Wash of Gray," dancer Sarah Pasch's short but gorgeous solo in her 28th week of pregnancy, narrated perhaps the most memorable theme in "Locally Sourced." Everything that is here, here now, has its own unique beauty that makes this place what it is: strong, wise, and moving forward with the times.