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PNB’s ‘Brief Fling’ Is a Stirring Departure From the Structures of Classical Ballet

The three-piece rep seamlessly joins contemporary voices from some of the dance world’s most influential choreographers.

November 7, 2016

The show opens with the titular piece: Twyla Tharp’s boisterous and energetic Brief Fling. Spirited drums kick things off as dancers in bright tartan costumes execute Tharp’s aggressive reinterpretation of classical ballet ― this time with a distinct Scottish influence.

Throughout the work, a group of green plaid-garbed dancers continuously joins the fray on stage, juxtaposing the lead couple and the corps with bold, jazzy choreography: a representation of the contemporary risks Tharp enjoys taking. The meeting of classical and modern worlds creates humorous transitions and obvious distinctions between each group. Leta Biasucci is a force to be reckoned with, taking on vigorous solos and, with her group of men clad in green kilts, continually accomplishing breathtaking lifts that have her somersaulting mid-air or being carried off-stage in the splits.

As it evolves, the classical influences give way to more provocative choreography and combative, electrically accented orchestration. Even the more traditional dancers of the piece are not immune to the change, forgoing perfect placement for hip rolls and body isolations. It is a rhythmic, energizing work, one that feels like a merry romp through the Scottish Highlands, driven first and foremost by the music. 

Created by Michel Colombier with influences from Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens and Handel in the Strand, dancers usually perform to the recording of this rousing composition. The talented PNB orchestra has now become the first to play the Brief Fling score live.

“There’s just nothing like it,” principal dancer Lesley Rausch says in an after-show Q&A. “The power and crispness of those drums starting the piece … it’s just so much more inspiring.”

The music continues to inspire through the second performance of the night, Jiří Kylián’s Forgotten Land. Kylián, like Tharp, is rooted in both classical ballet and modern dance, and his piece takes us on a much more somber journey. Dancers begin by moving towards the back of the stage, the sound of wind rushing over them, never getting anywhere but constantly reaching for the dark, desolate backdrop and the huge, waving piece of metal that accentuates it. 

The haunting and resonant Sinfonia da Requiem by Benjamin Britten (conducted here by Alastair Willis), accompanied by the endless circling, twisting motifs of Kylián’s choreography, evoke a profound sense of loss — the stages of which are represented by the six couples in the cast. Through their grounded, never-ending progressions, we feel their pain and heartbreak, their anger and rebellion, and finally their acceptance.

“You can’t help but be moved by that music,” Rausch says. “The music is so intense, and actually at times if you let it really carry you away you end up expending a little too much energy.”

It is easy to see why. The poignancy of the music and the movement are overwhelming. It is the type of piece that creates such a deep connection to its audience that, even after its conclusion, viewers remain silent for a moment — still holding the breath they’ve been too enraptured to release.

The show leans back to classical ballet in the final act, as it would not be a PNB performance without a bit of Balanchine. His interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, however, is unlike the Balanchine people are used to. 

Stravinsky Violin Concerto certainly has his signatures — quick, technical footwork and superb musicality — but here the full-casted opening toccata and closing capriccio bookend two arias which feature much more abstract explorations of the traditional pas de deux. Principal dancers Lesley Rausch and Noelani Pantastico are powerhouses, and together with their partners (Jerome Tisserand and Seth Orza), they fill the stage with their effortless translation of some of Balanchine’s most challenging choreography. Complemented by a corps that can’t help but show how much fun they’re having, this piece is sure to make the audience’s list of favorite Balanchine works.

As the name suggests, Brief Fling is onstage only through Sunday, November 13. On opening night, dancers donated their evening’s salary to PNB’s Second Stage program, which provides career transition support to dancers in the company. For more information about Brief Fling or Second Stage, visit Pacific Northwest Ballet’s website.


Morgan McMurray

Morgan McMurray is a writer and editor based in Seattle. A 2013 graduate of Iowa State University, she has a Bachelor of Arts in English, Journalism, and International Studies.

Read more of her work on her personal blog and at Law Street Media.

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