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"State of Darkness" raises the barre
Moira MacDonald, The Seattle Times
© © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
May 25, 2007


"You just really feel like you've accomplished something that was right on the edge of human possibility," says Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal. He's talking about dancing "State of Darkness," Molissa Fenley's fiendishly difficult solo, set to Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." It's one of four dances comprising PNB's "Stravinsky 125" repertory program, Thursday-June 10.

Boal's in a rare position to discuss this particular choreographic work: Until PNB's curtain goes up Thursday, he's one of only two people in the world to have ever performed it — the other being modern-dance pioneer Fenley, who created the work for herself in 1988. Boal is currently coaching the three PNB dancers who will perform it on alternate days: principal dancer Jonathan Porretta and corps de ballet members Rachel Foster and James Moore. (Fenley made an earlier trip to Seattle to work with them, and will return this week.)

The challenges of "State of Darkness" begin with the music. "Rite of Spring," with its previously unthinkable rhythmic complexity, premiered in Paris in 1913, to a wildly divided audience. "That single piece of music changed the world of classical music forever," said PNB music director Stewart Kershaw. "He's such a devil, Mr. Stravinsky — he does it on purpose and with very good reason." Because the "animalistic" music's rhythmic meter keeps changing, he said, "you have the entire orchestra sitting on the edge of their seats. It demands the utmost concentration."

Likewise for the dancer, alone on stage, who must remember 34 minutes of intricate choreography bearing little resemblance to classical ballet. "The memory game is such a challenge. I had trouble," remembered Boal, who first danced the piece at New York's Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival in 1999. "Molissa made it on herself, in a studio, so she'd remember what she'd done yesterday and build on that. It was all made on one person's mind — it wasn't designed for other people's minds."

Fenley works in a contemporary idiom, and Boal — a classical dancer then with New York City Ballet — remembers having to learn some very different techniques for the piece. "I was just so struck by Molissa's hands," he said. "We had always held our hands in one position in classical ballet, for everything we did. She had this more animalistic quality — the hands became weapons or paws, these extensions of tension. And usually they want to be tension-free in ballet. But I loved that; it was actually how I found my way into her work, by trying to imitate her hands."

Working with Porretta, Foster and Moore, he's drawing on his own memories of dancing the work. "There's a beautiful middle section that is so quiet, it's like the essence of the piece," he said. "Your heart rate goes down, your breathing become steady, you're overly warm. Your muscles are as warm as they've ever been. These very slow, soft, almost underwater movements.

"That was the greatest pleasure in the piece for me, as it all seemed to center there. You could feel your strength rebuilding, very quietly, to take on the last 12 minutes, which are like a 12-minute wind sprint to the end."

Also on the Stravinsky program are Jerome Robbins' "Circus Polka" and George Balanchine's "Rubies" and "Symphony in Three Movements."

Dance preview

"Stravinsky 125": Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness," Jerome Robbins' "Circus Polka" and George Balanchine's "Rubies" and "Symphony in Three Movements," 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 1-2 and 7-9, 2 p.m. June 2, 1 p.m. June 10, Pacific Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $18-$145 (206-441-2424 or

A preview, consisting of an informal video-illustrated lecture on the four ballets, will be held noon-1 p.m. Tuesday, Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or

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