BECKET — As with its last visit to Jacob’s Pillow in 2009, on opening night the usual luster of the Seattle-based, superstar American ballet company Pacific Northwest Ballet was a bit dulled by what seemed to be a struggle to acclimate.
Distinguished by the high quality of its dancers — formidable performers of, in particular, the works of George Balanchine — the group boasts a wide-ranging repertoire that includes full-length classics alongside contemporary ballets. The Pillow program of four contemporary dances was re-ordered Wednesday night (a change that wasn’t announced to the audience, causing some confusion) with the most physically challenging, “A Million Kisses to my Skin,” switched from last to first. On the one hand this was probably the right choice — the cast may not have had the stamina to get through it at the end of the evening as well as they did at the beginning — but the artistic flow of the program was compromised by this hyper but often shallow ballet.
Choreographed in 2000 by David Dawson as a kind of valentine to his field — Dawson has said the title refers to the heightened feeling dancers can experience while performing — “Kisses” begins as an exuberant response to J.S. Bach’s Concerto No. 1, and indeed, at first it’s breathtaking. Soon, however, there’s no air, aside from the often-lovely middle section shimmering with duets that yield and merge. Mostly, the relentless pace sucks away the largesse of the dancers’ technique; stripped of generosity of phrasing, the dancers must push through by the seat of their pants or risk collapsing the timing and structure of the piece. The whirlwind seems less designed to provoke ecstasy in the dancers than to wow the audience.
The 2008 “TAKE FIVE . . . More or Less,” choreographed for the company by the witty Susan Stroman, suffered a bit, coming as it did on the heels of “Kisses” instead of opening the evening as planned. This tongue-in-cheek little romp set to the jazzy pomp of the Dave Brubek/Paul Desmond medley felt, ultimately, more frivolous than fun, though the women looked enchantingly leggy in William Ivey Long’s colorful, breezy short dresses, the men dashing and crisp in black.
Ironically, the strongest piece on this program is the shortest, and also the subtlest. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s 2002 “Before After” is a spare duet abstractly chronicling a couple’s very final moments before parting. James Moore, a principal, is paired beautifully with corps de ballet member Angelica Generosa, the two negotiating Ochoa’s quietly slippery partnering sequences with precision. There’s a perfunctory quality to their interactions, as if they are politely sparring in a martial arts class; the formality offers the situation more dignity, and therefore more painful melancholy. Ochoa gives us an honest — rather than happy — ending that feels authentic.
With the 1990 “Rassemblement,” the number of Nacho Duato dances offered at the Pillow this season totals three. Given my seesawing feelings about Duato’s work, it was rewarding to see “Castrati” and “Gnawa” again, both of which grew on me (Hong Kong Ballet performed the former in June and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago the latter in July). With this, my first viewing of “Rassemblement,” I’m once again on the fence. Duato’s never one to shy away from heavy subjects, and here the dancers are meant to depict a group of Haitian peasants; hints of slavery and voodoo ritualism snake through the piece. There are passages of the earthy, flat-footed runs spiked with angled, prehistoric bird-like positions that I love, but there are also moments that verge on melodrama. I believe Duato is authentic in his choices, too. Like most art, however, whether the results resonate with viewers can be a matter of taste or a matter of time. I’m waiting on this one.