Sometimes a season kicks off with something breezy and accessible, like Pacific Northwest Ballet did last year with Robbins Fest. Or it can kick off with “O Fortuna,” the opening movement in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, sung by a black-hooded choir underneath a massive floating installation reminiscent of some medieval savant’s chart of the known universe.
Kent Stowell’s balletic transformation of Orff’s masterpiece, paired with George Balanchine’s Agon, is a lot of text for one evening. At its worst, PNB’s season opener feels a bit bogged down by the weight of the respective works. But within both exist some truly spellbinding moments that define—and lift up—the whole performance.
In Agon, a flash point in Balanchine’s collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, classic collides with contemporary in something of a modern court dance. Stravinsky dares you to follow the melody through his twelve-tone method, resulting in a composition that sounds to the pedestrian ear a bit, well, drunk. The dancers, in turn, perform courtly steps clad in sparse black and white. They also tie each other in knots and pause to wiggle just so.
The revelry continues until principal dancers Lesley Rausch and Seth Orza dial up the tension with a stunning pas de deux that flaunts their finesse but is also just flat out sexy. The pair pose and position taut limbs into shapes of carnal intimacy, set to the pluck pluck pluck of strings that beg the instrument to snap at the neck. I could have watched it 100 times.
Technical impressiveness is also the motivating force behind Carmina Burana from Kent Stowell (father of Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell!)—a dense tapestry featuring the Pacific University Choral Union, a baritone, a tenor, and a soprano, and essentially the entirety of PNB. These parts come together to elaborate on ambition, love, vice, the kitchen sink.
Robes and other medieval garb abound, but half the dancers appear in skintight costumes that put every muscle on display without distraction. This is particularly effective in more focused pairings between the likes of Joshua Grant and Elle Macy and their imposing silhouettes. Effective still when everyone is on stage, as the juxtaposition between body in clothing and body unbridled launches themes of the Human Condition like cannon fire into the audience.
It’s a lot to digest, but so is a bacchanal feast. You don’t need to scarf it all down. Pick your morsels, get drunker, and think a lot about what it means to be alive and have a body. Welcome to a new season of ballet!
Carmina Burana and Agon
Sep 27–Oct 6, McCaw Hall, $30–$190