Hauntingly beautiful: Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Rep 2

October 12, 2020

David Mead

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Rep 2 programme showcases four works by female choreographers, compelling world premieres by Penny Saunders and Jessica Lang, both conceived, rehearsed, and produced during the pandemic, bookending older pieces by Twyla Tharp and Susan Marshall.

In Britain, Birmingham Royal Ballet audiences still purr with delight at the thought of Lang’s delightful Lyric Pieces and Wink, made for the company during David Bintley’s directorship. Her new Ghost Variations would have them sighing with happy contentment. It’s a compelling and delicious evocation of the music: the theme and two variations from Robert Schumann’s Ghost Variations, and his wife Clara’s solo piano arrangement of ‘Mondnacht’ from his Lierderkreis; along with the first movement from her own Three Romances and Scherzo No. 2 in C minor, all played movingly by Christina Siemens.

Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in Jessica Lang’s Ghost VariationsPhoto Lindsay Thomas
Elle Macy and Dylan Wald
in Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Helping create a sense of period are costume designer Jillian Lewis takes on period dress: the women in calf-length black tuille dresses that owe a lot to Romantic tutus but with modern side slits and chic tops, and the men in open shirts and formal black trousers.

Lang made the 19-minute ballet in August 2020 during the global pandemic. Despite having to follow all the distancing protocols, which meant splitting her eight dancers into two bubbles of four, she deliberately set out to make a ballet for the stage that can seamlessly transfer to live performance when circumstances allow. It will.

While not narrative as such, the emotional backstory to the music comes through powerfully. Ghost Variations was the last work Robert Schumann wrote, just prior to being committed to an asylum for insanity. He believed he was being haunted by composers from the grave who were dictating the theme to him. Ghosts haunt the ballet too. That Lucien Postlewaite’s opening solo is a representation of the troubled genius is inescapable. As he dances in lighting designer Reed Nakayama’s moonlit half-light, ghostly shadows appear on the scrim, dancing along before breaking off, seemingly walking towards and overpowering him. Those figures reappear again and again.

Lang’s choreography shows off the dancers’ classicism and lyricism to the full but also comes with a contemporary edge. An unusual feature is that most of the duets or small group dances are same-gender, with only the final pas de deux having the traditional male-female pairing. I loved a dance for a male trio, and a lyrical pas de trois for three women is a delightful fondant of whirls and airy leaps.

Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in Jessica Lang’s Ghost VariationsPhoto Lindsay Thomas
Elle Macy and Dylan Wald
in Jessica Lang’s Ghost Variations
Photo Lindsay Thomas

The penultimate dance sees a compelling, quite contemporary solo by Kyle Davis. Haunted and ridden with anxieties and as the composer, he seems to be talking to himself, arguing with himself, perhaps trying to convince himself about those ghosts he sees at every turn. Yet, while the dance is tortured, it also carries a strange beauty.

The final pas de deux is haunting. Lang’s choice of ‘Mondnacht’ could hardly be more appropriate since the song was chosen to be performed at Schumann’s musical commemoration ceremony in Dresden on 22 September 1856, a couple of months after his death on July 29.

Elle Macy and Dylan Wald may be light and elegant, but the mood is deeply melancholic, the dance filled with private sadness and sorrow that comes from deep inside. The final moments tug at the heart as Macy (Clara) clings on as Wald (Robert) seems to slip away.

There are ghosts too in Penny Saunders’ Wonderland, described by her as “a love letter to the performing arts.” A made-for-film piece, it pays homage to the magic of live performance, the ‘Wonderland’ of the title not being Alice’s but the theatre.

Saunders makes the most of PNB’s McCaw Hall home, not only putting dancers on its stage, but also in the orchestra pit, wings, aisles and one of the upper loges. Even without an audience, theatres never feel empty. Here, as the camera pans across the auditorium’s velvet seats, or pulls back to reveal its vastness, spirits of audiences and performers past can be sensed in the expressionist scene created by the lighting of Trad A. Burns.

The eclectic musical choices give each dance an individual mood but, thanks to some perfectly timed transitions, the collage never jars. Melanie Burgess’s close-fitting black and white costumes are sleek and rather chic.

Elizabeth Murphy in Penny Saunders’ WonderlandPhoto Lindsay Thomas
Elizabeth Murphy in Penny Saunders’ Wonderland
Photo Lindsay Thomas

An engaging opening duet to music by Michael Wall features elements of street dance rippled through with surprise balletic moments. A second couple appear from behind the pit wall like a couple of glove puppets for a quirky pantomime. Flying high to one of the upper levels, we find Lucien Postlewaite. His arms stretch out in a yearning solo that matches perfectly the beauty of Jean Phillipe Goude’s ‘Fermer les yeux pour voir’ from his aux solitudes album. The title means ‘close your eyes to see’. You won’t want to do that but you will get lost in your imagination. When the camera pulls right back, his tiny figure appears to be surrounded by twinkling stars as he drifts in the void of space.

Back on stage, and to Erik Satie, just as haunting and mesmerising is a second elegant and enigmatic solo by Elizabeth Murphy that captures perfectly the many emotions of the times. The feeling of emptiness and space, of being alone is palpable. Her arms in particular, emphasise the absence of others. It ends with her sinking into what one suspects is a restless sleep.

Lucien Postlewaite in Penny Saunders’ WonderlandPhoto Lindsay Thomas
Lucien Postlewaite in Penny Saunders’ Wonderland
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Also enjoyable is Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in an intimate and slow duet as they sit side by side in another reminder of what many miss right now. Less engaging are three dancers filmed from above, who dance as they lay on their backs, limbs appearing as crooked hands on three clocks. The whole is haunted by fleeting glimpses of a woman in a red gown.

I have been back in theatres for performances but still found Wonderland incredibly poignant.

The short excerpt shown of Twyla Tharp’s 1994 piece, Waterbaby Bagatelles gives the men a chance to show off to three bathing beauties in costumes by Santo Loquasto that make them look like they’ve just stepped off a Busby Berkeley set. Beneath rows of fluorescent light tubes, the bare-chested men leap, pirouette, turn and generally show off in a sort of mating audition. Set to percussive music by Mickey Hart, drummer for rock band Grateful Dead, it’s high energy and fun.

When premiered in New York in 1984, Arms by Susan Marshall was called “a small masterpiece” by The Village Voice. It’s appeal comes in the way the choreographic commas and full stops are built into the dance. The repetitive gestures carry little emotional resonance, however, and for all the clarity and razor-sharp work of Leah Terada and Miles Pertl, the piece soon becomes tiring.

Noelani Pantastico in Penny Saunders’ AlicePhoto Bruno Roque
Noelani Pantastico in Penny Saunders’ Alice
Photo Bruno Roque

Among the wealth of bonus material for the Rep 2 programme is Saunders’ quite brilliant Alice, a 10-minute companion piece to Wonderland, made in collaboration with Seattle Dance Collective. Directed by Bruno Roque, it takes us to a small white room where Noelani Pantastico sits at a mirrored table. The “tidy little room with a table in the window” of the book, perhaps.

Pantastico is incredibly expressive as she illustrates Lewis Carroll’s text. Who would have thought that the White Rabbit could be so simply depicted using just two fingers (as ears)? Her disappearing down the rabbit hole is a super piece of editing. The fun moments just keep coming. I especially enjoyed the meeting with the caterpillar. And that red dress from Wonderland puts in an appearance too.

Alice is an absolute gem that demands repeated viewings. If it doesn’t win dance film awards, I will be very surprised indeed.