Pacific Northwest Ballet Petite Mort Review: There Are Cacti and They Are Worth Seeing
Pacific Northwest Ballet Petite Mort Review October 6, 2023 | Digital
Swords. Apples. Orgasm innuendos. Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort has captivated audiences since its creation in 1991 for The Nederlands Dans Theater.
When I was a young dancer, before the internet was in the palm of our hands, we relied on bootleg VHS tapes to see new work. And if someone had a copy of Kylián’s Black and White series (which included Petite Mort and five of his other works), you found a way to watch it.
Similarly, if you can see the work live, you find a way to get to that show. Here in New York, people are scrambling to see American Ballet Theatre’s interpretation this fall, which the company hasn’t done since the early 2000s.
Similarly, the provocative work returns to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s repertoire after a long hiatus: its original debut with the company was in 2009 and provides the titular inspiration for their 51st season’s opening program.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Petite Mort Review
Petite Mort translates to “little death” but is more commonly an expression referring to the feeling after an orgasm. Sensuality is not masked in this work – phallic swords, barely-there nude costumes, and biblical apples are swiped, sweated through, and bitten.
The work begins with six men on stage, in nude-colored trunks designed by Joke Visser, with their backs to the audience, and each with a sword balancing perpendicular and precarious on their fingertips. The sound of whirring wind wafts over them and moving to the sound of each other’s breaths, they slash, roll, and bend the swords.
The dancers shine most when delivering Kylián’s humor-infused metaphors and working in pairs, anywhere synchronicity across a large group wasn’t required.
Stiff rococo style dresses on wheels became fabulous props for the dancers to hide behind, creating the illusion of wearing the garment, then promptly pitching the dress to the side (perhaps a symbolic indifference to the frivolous rules of civilization).
Mozart’s Piano Concertos in A and C Major (superbly played by the PNB orchestra) washes over the eventual group of twelve dancers (six in trunks taking on typical male roles and six in corseted leotards taking on female roles).
Perhaps one of the driving qualities of the everlasting beauty of the work, the music is one of Mozart’s most iconic and the soft, slowness of the piano juxtaposes the physically sculptural movement. Enjoyably multitudinous, Kylián’s choreography manages to be perceptive, pliable, symbolic, and sublime.
While PNB’s sword work was a little rusty and out of sync (they never quite catch up to that initial loss of uniformity) they do eventually hit their stride in the second and third pieces in the program.
As a standalone Kylián work, Petite Mort is wonderful but showing it back-to-back with his Sechs Tanze (Six Dances) is delightful.
We start Sechs Tanze seemingly where we left off in Petite Mort – the Rococo style dresses and swords make appearances but now the dancers wear powdered wigs and white makeup and don early 18th century undergarments, trading up from their nude appearance in the previous piece.
Where Petite was a more carnal interpretation of Mozart, Sechs Tanze has a persnickety quality to it; the dancers are more tethered to societal rules. Where undulations were smooth and sensual, here the angles are sharp and the gyrations rigid. Although, ironically, the dancers looked freer in this work as they broke the fourth wall, tugged at each other’s dresses, stuck out their tongues, or comically stomped their feet.
Recently promoted corps de ballet member Luca Anaya brought exceptional charm and comedic musicality to the role, leaning into the abundant playfulness of the piece.
Created as a sort of retaliation to critics and reviews, Alexander Ekman’s whimsical Cacti is ripe with purposely meandering symbolism and even has an oral review of the piece to accompany it.
“What did we see… What does it mean… it is not the ivory pedestals that hold the heartbeat of this work. Instead, it is the cacti. Pulsing with subtext, almost too subtly to detect. But the trained eye sees the truth. And the review is revealed.”
This is very funny because the cacti are not subtle and could quite possibly not mean anything at all.
Ekman’s work echoes similarities to Kylián’s but in the most flattering, reverential way.
Ekman’s creative use of props goes beyond simply having a prop; he explores every facet of it.
Similar to Kylián’s reimagined use of the swords, Ekman gives sixteen dancers square platforms to bang against, sit on, stomp across, flip over, wave up and down, dive behind, and even build a castle with. Physically, this work is a feat of concentration and harmony.
Working off the music and their breaths as a metronome (again, a nod to Kylián), they slap, clap, sniff, and bend in mechanical synchronization. The movements are frisky and comical, pedestrian yet expansive and all impressively executed with severe dedication by the PNB dancers.
For musical accompaniment, a string quartet, lovingly designated the “cac-tet”, takes to mingling with the dancers while they play re-interpretations of Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert.
The theater lights (designs by Tom Visser) are characters all on their own, their crushing brightness used to comically squash the dancers into the floor as they lower closer and closer.
Before the lights crush the dancers, they do fantastic things as personal spotlights, lighting only a few at a time while the others remain in darkness. Or when a mesmerizing illusion emerged of two images flipping back and forth by lighting only the right side of the stage and then only the left – a real life “Camera one, camera two” moment a la Wayne’s World.
The work culminates into the most wonderful meta pas de deux set to a spoken word duet created by Spenser Theberge. The dancer’s accompanied voices say the steps out loud, “Why don’t you place your face here?” and “I can give you my leg.” or even just “Slap.” and the dancers follow through.
One half of the couple makes pancake flat hands and jabs them out as he sashays geometrically upstage muttering “this part feels so weird”.
Enchantingly danced by Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and Christian Poppe, the couple’s conversation morphs from dance steps to “I think we need some distance”. The appearance of a pet cat helps to fizzle out the ending of the perplexing (but pleasing) pas de deux.
Cacti concludes with pretend pretentious monologues and slo-mo meticulous redecoration – the succulents being moved about like centuries old heirlooms. In an endeavor not to get into too much of the meaning, I’ll just say that Cacti did indeed include plenty of prickly plants and they are definitely worth seeing.
Nadia Vostrikov is a former television actress and dancer for Boston Ballet II, Alberta Ballet, and numerous freelance dance companies. She currently works as a Digital Marketer in NYC. (Photo by: Katrina Cunningham)