Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) company dancers in Crystal Pite’s “Emergence,” which PNB is presenting as part of a mixed rep with three other works through Nov. 15. Photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) company dancers in Crystal Pite’s “Emergence,” which PNB is presenting as part of a mixed rep with three other works through Nov. 15. Photo by Angela Sterling
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Drama was the clear winner with the audience on opening night last Friday, Nov. 6, of “Emergence,” a program of four contemporary works at Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB).

The title work, Crystal Pite’s visceral “Emergence,” was the audience favorite, drawing the only real standing ovation of the evening — a few people stood for other pieces, albeit a surprisingly partial one. Pite’s work, which she revamped for PNB to a rousing reception in 2013, was inspired by Steven Johnson’s book “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software,” coupled with Pite’s view of a ballet company paralleling the social structure and interaction of a beehive.

With sharp-elbowed praying mantis arms, twitching shoulders and the unstoppable single-mindedness of the hive mind, the dancers are fascinatingly insect-like. En pointe has never been so terrifying as Pite’s line of black-masked female dancers marching in unison across the stage almost effortlessly repelling attacking males. Thirty-nine dancers move in perfect rhythmic synchronicity to Owen Belton’s ominous computer-processed score, peppered with the scarily militant sounds of marching and droning bees.

Pite creates the distinctively different universe of “Emergence” with the aid of Jay Gower Taylor’s insect-nest set, Linda Chow’s costumes that suggest insect carapaces and Alan Brodie’s intensely brooding lighting.

Judging by the audience’s vocal approval, the runner-up was Jessica Lang’s short but vivid “The Calling.” Set to the reverential strains of late 12th- or early 13th-century religious chant beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Sarra Sharif, a single dancer stands in the center of a darkened stage in a circle of intense light.

Bare to the waist and fettered by an enormous, clinging white skirt that pools out onto the floor, dancer Dylan Wald slowly twisted, rotated and bent his upper body, sometimes as if in supplication and at others as if attempting to escape the constraints binding him. Wald was riveting. “The Calling” is a fascinating study in what happens in ballet when a dancer is so severely earthbound.

Next in line was the world premiere of the intriguing “Signature,” choreographed by PNB dancer Price Suddarth to music from Seattle composer Barrett Anspach that was specifically commissioned for the work. Two duos led a few corps members through fluid swirls of movement punctuated by sudden pops of action and some ingenious lifts unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The lighting moved on a grid in time to the choreography, as much a performer as the dancers — a brilliant choice.

The fourth work in the program is “Sum Stravinksy,” choreographed in 2012 by PNB faculty member and former company soloist Kiyon Gaines to the titular composer’s “Dunbarton Oaks.” This piece was the most traditional of the evening, albeit with a gently playful sense of humor.

Balanchine’s influence could be felt throughout, from the use of Balanchine blue to the rapid and conventional footwork. Of the three high-octane duos who lead the three movements, sometimes with a supporting cast, Angelica Generosa and Benjamin Griffiths were standouts. Generosa has a feathery grace that is well matched by Griffiths.

Kudos to PNB and its artistic director Peter Boal for shaking up the status quo with modern works and new ways of dancing in a program you shouldn’t miss.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Emergence” performs at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.) through Sunday, Nov. 15. For tickets or more information, visit www.pnb.org or call (206) 441-2424.

MAGGIE LARRICK is a former editor of the Queen Anne & Magnolia News.