Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Ezra Thomson (center) with company dancers in Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2017–2018 season ruled. From the glamour and rapturous energy of season opener Jewels to the Cronenbergian weirdness of Emergence (a work PNB took to Paris over the summer), the year’s programming showed off the many ways ballet can woo, hypnotize, and challenge.

With a narrower focus, and a bit less joy, PNB opened its new season with Jerome Robbins Festival—seven works split into two programs from the famed choreographer and producer known for marquee productions like Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story.

I attended Program A of the fest, a mixed repertory of shorter works closing with a medley from Robbins’ Broadway production of West Side Story. (Program B contains just two longer pieces, including what many consider Robbins’ masterwork, Dances at a Gathering.)

Both programs kick off with Circus Polka, featuring PNB director Peter Boal dressed as a ringmaster and conducting three increasingly younger companies of little lady ballerinas. Oh, it’s adorable. Hearts will audibly melt. But when the curtain dropped, and the night began in earnest, the celebration of Robbins struggled to celebrate the company itself (aside from the well-deserved promotion of Leta Biasucci to principal dancer).

In the Night—a trio of pas de deux (a dance between two people) set to Chopin on a single piano—has each pair of dancers play out a moment in the lifecycle of romantic love. It’s about as straight forward as ballet gets, focused on the skill and chemistry between partners and the subtle differences between pairings. It was all the more noticeable, then, when two usually reliable principal dancers failed to connect. (Though who can fault a few cobwebs on the season’s debut performance?)

After Afternoon with a Faun, another pas de deux, set to Debussy with a Greek sculptor-level fixation on the human body, and then Other Dances, which opens with a waltz flanked by an on-stage grand piano, the night took on a stately air.

But boy was the West Side Story Suite an overcorrection. It features numbers from Leonard Bernstein’s hit musical and asks way too much from the dancers. They sing as best they can, they flail with Broadway pizazz, they act very hard. Back in 2016, Roméo et Juliette took a staged fight—the brawl leading to Tybalt’s death—and turned it into a mesmerizing slow-motion study of bodies and aggression. The central fight of West Side Story played out more high school musical, complete with a botched attempt at a cool knife flip.

PNB director Peter Boal calls Robbins “one of the most beguiling and successful choreographers of the 20th century”—a polarizing personality of major influence certainly worthy of the festival treatment. But this opening performance lacked PNB's usual strengths: a spellbinding dance between two laser-focused veterans, and a bring-down-the-house moment when the entire company takes the stage to offer up goosebumps en masse.

I can’t help but feel the absence of Karel Cruz, the principal dancer who retired at the end of last season with a beatific and emotionally overwhelming performance. (He danced a final pas de deux with his wife, Lindsi Dec. Afterward, their tiny son appeared on stage in a smart little vest wielding a bouquet of flowers.) With a towering physique, Cruz cut an immediately recognizable profile. He stole the stage as soon as he’d enter and then hand it right over to a partner. He’d become a platform, a medium for that partner.

We’ve yet to see who, if anyone, can fill Cruz’s shoes. With a company flush with talent from top to bottom, PNB will be more than fine without such a headliner. But on a night like this season’s opener, it helps to have an anchor.

Jerome Robbins Festival
Program A, Sept 22 & 29; Program B, Sept 22–29
McCaw Hall, $30–$187

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Jerome Robbins Festival

$30—$189 McCaw Hall

Pacific Northwest Ballet kicks off its new season with a festival dedicated to beloved American choreographer Jerome Robbins, a few weeks before the ...