When the final curtain fell on Plot Point, the usually rapturous applause felt tempered somewhat, the lobby a little quieter. And I get it. The capper of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Her Story is unlike anything I've seen on stage before. And with a plunging stab it finishes off a night of art far more challenging than you'd expect this close to Nutcracker season.
As a trio of performances, Her Story showcases work from three widely celebrated women choreographers: Jessica Lang, Twyla Tharp, and Crystal Pite. These works transform from daydream to fever dream as the night unfolds.
The daydream portion of the bill, Lang's Her Door to the Sky, washes over the audience with color just as it did at Director's Choice back in March. With gradients lifted from Georgia O'Keefe paintings, the hems of dancers' dresses swirl like ink on water to the thrum of orchestra strings, seeming to emit fragrant desert warmth.
From there, though, things get dark. Tharp's Afternoon Ball pulls the audience out of the daylight trance and into the sullen alleyways and abandoned homes we'd sooner look away from. Using chronic twitching and other drug addiction tropes, Tharp turns a bender into ballet. At first it felt too on-the-nose. The costuming in particular (torn leggings, sleeveless shirts, oversized flannel) reads a little high school drama club. But once the performance stops being so literal, focusing instead on isolation and juxtaposition between the aboveground and those dwelling below it, Afternoon Ball breaks hearts (and uses lighting in a way I can't stop thinking about).
Finally, the American premiere of Crystal Pite's Plot Point. The work comes billed as a sort of distillation of Hitchcock, but that doesn't go far enough to illustrate what Pite put on stage. Even the photos don't do it justice. There were moments during the performance when I simply couldn't believe my eyes.
Imagine storyboards from a Hitchcockian thriller come to life, everything draped in dramatic visual contrasts (including the dancers, thanks to the uncanny white-clad mirror characters). With a cinematographer's eye, Pite constructs some truly exquisite images: a flashlight cutting through forest, two figures standing over a body under slanted spotlight, one a ghostly double of the other, party-goers lit by birthday candles sneaking up to another guest—a moment so startling in its movement and lighting I gasped out loud.
And that wasn't even the jump scare, nor the pure Hitchcock fight/dance set to nothing but the metronome of a dripping faucet. The music—Bernard Hermann's iconic theme from Psycho and a soundtrack consisting mostly of footsteps and labored breathing—makes for an anxiety-inducing performance and caused the audience to laugh reflexively at certain points in order to break the tension.
Hats off to PNB for curating a night that celebrates women choreographers and highlights the wildly different ways the art form can fill a stage and pull an audience. When does a night of ballet start with playful desert warmth and end with murder in a moonlit forest? When does it keep you up at night?
Thru Nov 13, McCaw Hall, $30–$187