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Arts: From Screen to Stage at Pacific Northwest Ballet

As part of its 50th anniversary, Pacific Northwest Ballet presents work from its pandemic choreographers, including two world premieres

By Rachel Gallaher March 31, 2023

Wonderland is part of PNB’s 50th anniverary celebration. Elizabeth Murray was principal dancer in its 2020 debut
Wonderland is part of PNB’s 50th anniverary celebration. Elizabeth Murray was principal dancer in its 2020 debut
Photography by Lindsay Thomas

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Three years ago — like much of the world — Pacific Northwest Ballet was forced to shut its doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Company members, choreographers, and musicians hunkered down in their homes, hoping for a short quarantine that would allow them to get back into the studio quickly.

As we now know, that was not the case, and as the months of closures and social distancing dragged on, those in the performing arts sector — who depend on in-person shows for their livelihoods — started using digital platforms and outdoor presentations as a way to continue showcasing their work.

This month, as part of its 50th anniversary season, Pacific Northwest Ballet looks back at this unusual period in its history as it steps forward into the next 50 years. Opening on March 17, Boundless is a three-work repertory that will bring some of the company’s pandemic-era collaborators to the stage.

The chosen choreographers — who have all worked with PNB in the past — are big names in the contemporary dance world. Penny Saunders, a freelance choreographer and former dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, will restage her 2020 piece Wonderland, which had its world premiere via a digital release through PNB. This will be her fourth ballet here. Alejandro Cerrudo — the Madrid-born artistic director of North Carolina’s Charlotte Ballet — and New York’s Jessica Lang, who has created more than 100 dance works in the past 20 years, will present new work.

“The company is made up of a diverse group of dancers who are capable of so many different vocabularies,” Lang says. “They are proficient in the classical world and (choreographer George) Balanchine, and then they can take off their pointe shoes and dance into the ground with gravity, and I find that to be very unique when looking at an entire group of dancers.”

Lang’s new piece will be danced to Stabat Mater — a 1736 piece by Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi based on a 13th-century Latin hymn that portrays Mary’s suffering as she watches her son, Jesus Christ, during his crucifixion. Much like her pandemic work, Ghost Variations, the ballet is deeply rooted in emotion, with 10 dancers working through six movements, each coinciding with a section in the poem.

Despite the biblical theme, Lang says that her creation is “more universal. It’s not meant to be hyperreligious. I have reverence for it as a beautiful idea about the relationship between mothers and children, loss and love, and the idea of human connection.”

Post-pandemic, the idea of human connection is more poignant than ever. When Penny Saunders debuted Wonderland in November 2020, Covid restrictions were still in place, preventing audiences from gathering in McCaw Hall. With that space at her disposal, she created a technically fluid, expressive contemporary ballet in which dancers take advantage of the empty theatre — some performed in the aisles, others in the box seats. At one point, a pair pops up from the orchestra pit to engage in a duet featuring staccato arm sequences.

“Wonderland pays homage to the marvel and magic of live theater,” Saunders writes in her program notes. “(It’s) a love letter to the immense power and delight one finds within those walls — and the shared experience so many of us are profoundly missing at the moment.”

And while some were able to dig in and double down on their artistic form during the shutdown, others, including Cerrudo, struggled to create. “Every artist dealt with (the lockdown) differently,” he says. “I did a small work for a video, and I worked with PNB on a piece called Future Memory that I think is beautiful, but other than that, I struggled. I was really not inspired to make work.”

“‘Wonderland’ pays homage to the marvel and magic of live theater. A love letter to the immense power and delight one finds within those walls.” — PENNY SAUNDERS

Cerrudo recalls traveling to Seattle to work with dancers for Future Memory. “The first week, restrictions were still in place,” he says. “I had to choreograph from the balcony, and the dancers were downstairs with masks. In the studio, there was tape separating us. All of the couples dancing together also lived together.”

Now that all restrictions are lifted, Cerrudo is back in the studio working with PNB in preparation for his new work. When we spoke in In December, he was still at the beginning stages of choreographing and had not chosen the music, title, or number of dancers.

PNB residence choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, left, is presenting new work for the company’s 50th anniversary.

Photography by Lindsay Thomas

For him, spending time in person with the artists would provide the most inspiration. Having worked with the company over many years, Cerrudo notes that he has built a solid working relationship with the dancers that even a global pandemic couldn’t impact.

“Every time I work with them, I feel that relationship becoming stronger,” he says. “I was just there for eight days, and the atmosphere in the studio was exceptional. It was fantastic how organic the process felt. Because I’ve been working with them for so many years, I didn’t have to start from zero and that allows me to take more chances and go deeper with the work.”

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