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Of course, I’d like to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet in its hometown of Seattle—to become familiar with all 48 dancers and a rich repertory that’s founded on ballets by George Balanchine, but includes works by Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Susan Marshall, Christopher Wheeldon, and other contemporary choreographers. But ex–New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal, who took over PNB’s artistic directorship from Francia Russel and Kent Stowell in 2005, has developed some interesting programming strategies—one of which was to bring a select group of 16 dancers to Jacob’s Pillow to perform three works by Ulysses Dove on the modest-sized stage of the Ted Shawn Theater.
Dove, who died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 49, had an eclectic career. He danced in the companies of three choreographers with distinctly differing aesthetics: Anna Sokolow (briefly), Merce Cunningham, and Alvin Ailey (in 1979, Ailey commissioned the first piece he created). An itinerant dancemaker, Dove tailored pieces for groups as diverse as Dayton Contemporary Dance Theater, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, the Basel Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. The three pieces that PNB brought to the East Coast were choreographed for three different companies. Dove created Vespers in 1986 for DCDT, Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven in 1993 for the Royal Swedish Ballet, and Red Angels in 1994 for NYCB. Not only do they show the versatility of the PNB ensemble; they reveal how sensitive Dove was to whatever dancers and company aesthetic he had to deal with.
That said, the prevailing quality of his dances is their vehemence. The performers strike the movement as if some demanding god had given them one chance to do it and imbue it with everything they knew and felt. Often they sink into deep, wide-legged stances as if to brace themselves for something that never comes; when the women are on pointe, that position gives them the look of predatory insects. A string of bourrées makes their feet look like sewing-machine needles stitching at top speed. However, as I remember these works when they were new, Dove—while not big on transitions and ebb and flow—did often allow a big full-body move to melt slightly before the next one. I didn’t see the PNB dancers do this until Lesley Rausch came on in Red Angels. I was also taken aback by the emphasis on planted preparations for pirouettes (plus the extra crank of the arm that’s become an unfortunate trend), which robbed those turns of the Dovian fervor I remember.
Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven is subtitled Odes to Love and Loss and set, appropriately, to Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” (1977). Dove had already lost people he loved to AIDS. It’s a gentler, milder, graver work than the others on the program. The six dancers wear white unitards and meet in a circle around a central pool of light to enact a ritual of memory. In one of the two PNB casts, Stanko Milo is a kind of leader. The three women—Lindsi Dec, Laura Gilbreath, and Ariana Lallone—enter one by one to move with him, each greeting the next on her way out. He leads them in a chain. There’s a strong male duet for Batkhurei Bold and Karel Cruz and brief, simultaneous male-female duets. The sculptural look of these is enhanced by the fact that Dove has composed few steps that travel in space; the dancers run somewhere, and then stay in that spot, thrusting their limbs into fervent gestures. In the poignant ending, each enters in turn through an invisible opening in the curtain at the back and dances a brief solo before joining the others to walk around and around individual, empty circles of light.
The dancers are admirable—long-limbed, incisive, passionate—although in these Dove works, they often emphasize force with tension. And heaven knows Vespers entails enough force. In this, the choreographer built on his memories of his grandmother and the other women who met to worship together in a plain wooden building. It suited beautifully the predominantly black modern dancers of DCDT. Wisely, he avoided any tinge of gospel music. Mikel Rouse’s spare, rhythmically fascinating 1984 percussion piece “Quorum” drives the dance like a high-revving heart. Vespers is one of Dove’s most striking works. The six women who sit primly on wooden chairs and smooth the skirts of their black dresses demurely over their knees also throw themselves to the floor like stones, rush and thrash about, and stand on their chairs—reaching up as if they thought they could grasp the big toe of an angel. Their feet are bare, and they strike sway-backed positions that would get them kicked out of ballet class. Several times, Dove has them explode simultaneously into individual fervent statements, then slip back into docile unison. Sometimes one consoles or supports another. Rachel Foster is the impassioned soloist in the first section, and you’d never guess from the daredevil ardency they bring to Vespers that she, Carrie Imler, Kari Brunson, Maria Chapman, Kylee Kitchens, and Dec are fluent in Balanchine.
Confronted with four principal dancers in the New York City Ballet, Dove made Red Angels a tribute to the speed with which Balanchine-trained dancers can flash their legs around and manage complex rhythms. Boal danced in the premiere, and he has staged the ballet with that muscle-deep memory. Sensitive to NYCB style in works set to contemporary music, Dove allowed the dancers’ hips to jut out and ease classical decorum. In this work, his choreography, while astringent, is wittier, more sensual, and more expansive in terms of the space it covers than that of the other two pieces on the program. It’s also more complex.
The meat of Red Angels is two duets. The first, danced by Ariana Lallone and Olivier Wevers in the cast I saw, involves the man coolly manipulating his partner into a variety of positions that reveal tall, long-legged Lallone’s steely strength as well as her flexibility. In the second duet, Rausch and Lucien Postlethwaite spend more time apart than together, but they’re clearly in tune with each other. Richard Einhorn’s “Maxwell’s Demon” (1988-1990) is a perfect accompaniment to the ballet. Played onstage by Mary Rowell, the blazingly abrasive and propulsive electric violin makes you imagine that these angels are prone to having musical binges on their harps. At the end, the black curtain opens fully to reveal a red sky, and as the four dancers walk toward it, they stop to turn their heads and stare at us for a moment before they continue into darkness. A moment both luminous and heartstoppingly prophetic.
Red Angels is the most nuanced and sophisticated ballet of Dove’s that I’ve seen, both in terms of the movement and the dynamics. He harnessed his passion without taming it. Two years after the work’s premiere, he was dead. And we missed all that might have come after it in this millennium. It’s good that Boal chose to present a glimpse of Dove’s talent, and we can be grateful for the fine dancers’ commitment to it.