I love it when my classical ballet experiences are mixed with a little drama.
When Pacific Northwest Ballet announced that their 2018 Director’s Choice program would include choreographer William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, I got super excited for two reasons: 1) I love this mysterious little ballet based on Robert Scott’s Antarctic expedition; and 2) during its 2008 PNB premiere, some audience members hated it so much that they walked out of theater before it was even over. I didn’t get my drama fix on the Friday March 16th opening of Director’s Choice, but I got my Forsythe fix and no one (at least from my vantage point) left in a huff.
Some of my ballet-loving friends really hate One Flat Thing. Over drinks a couple of weeks ago, one of them turned to me out of the blue and said “Can you believe PNB is doing One Flat Thing again?It’s fucking STUPID!” But it’s not! It’s brilliant and complicated and pairs really well with a fat glass of syrah.
One Flat Thing consists of twenty flat metal rectangular tables arranged in even rows across the stage. Dancers sit on the tables, bound off of them, dance around and under and through them, every once in a while rearranging the tables back into perfect order before resuming their quick, powerful steps--sometimes dancing, sometimes moving with the normal (albeit much more graceful) movements of a group of pedestrians at rush hour. The dancers are dressed in the street clothes of hip, young Europeans: bright blue velvet pants topped with hooded t-shirts, leggings under loose cotton tops, hair in ponytails. For those more accustomed to story ballets with tutu-clad princesses and adoring cavaliers, One Flat Thing is a shock to the senses. The score by Thom Willems is loud and electronic, the sounds as angled as the cold metal tables. The choreography is a beautiful pattern of slow leg extensions and quick jumps that seem as random as the use of the tables, until you consider the background of the piece and Forsythe’s other artistic endeavors.
Based on his study of Robert Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, Forsythe’s use of the tables and lighting reflect the cold hardness of survival. The choreography mimics the unique ways that humans interact when simultaneously pushing for success and trying not to die. To get even nerdier, Forsythe's use of patterns and focus on individual bodies frozen in moments of chaos can be compared to his solo artistic work, much of which uses light, stark black and white settings, and studies of simple human movement to highlight the complexity of human interaction with nature. There’s some great stuff on Forsythe’s webpage about this work.
The other pieces in the 2018 Director’s Choice were not as memorable. PNB soloist Leta Biasucci and principal Jerome Tisserand danced proficiently in company member Ezra Thomson’s premier The Perpetual State, but the piece was too crowded with dancers, plot lines, and themes to make sense as a singular ballet. This oft happens with new choreographers, even the smartest ones. It’s almost as if there are so many ideas swimming around in the choreographer’s head that they are thrown together in one ballet and the potential brilliance of each gets lost in a cacophony of over-ambition. Thomson has some great ideas though, and it will be interesting to see where they lead in the coming years.
Choreographer Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels was headed up by the reliably fiery PNB principal dancer Lesley Rausch, and Forythe’s other piece of the evening, Slingerland Duet, was perfectly executed by the astoundingly graceful and otherworldly legs of Laura Tisserand and Karel Cruz.