Artistic Director’s Notes: The Personal Element, Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, Ghost Variations

It happened. On September 22, the curtain rose, the orchestra played, bejeweled costumes caught the light, and dancers floated. It was exactly as we had witnessed countless times before, and yet, it felt like the first time. After the very real threat of losing something we loved, PNB’s return to live performance seemed like an epiphany. Now it’s time for Chapter Two.

Jessica Lang was the first choreographer to attempt the creation of a new piece for our Digital Season. She arrived in August of 2020, stepping off a flight from New York, clad in face mask, face shield, gloves, and goggles. Our email dialogue leading up to her arrival was almost laughable, as we navigated ever-changing CDC guidelines, paired with PNB health and safety protocols. We tried to determine if Jessica and her husband Kanji would need to work from another studio, or behind a plastic shield, or in a plexiglass box. At one point, Jessica volunteered to mop the floor after each rehearsal when others refused to enter the space. Jessica was undeterred and completely willing to make art against all odds. Her efforts and optimism were shared by her dancers, costume and lighting designers, pianist, rehearsal director, and every individual who recognized the importance of continuity and creation in a dark time. Ghost Variations emerged like a first spring bloom after a long harrowing winter. What a thrill to now present it for a live audience.

I have long admired Alonzo King’s choreography. He infuses a zest for movement in his work. Dancers stretch beyond their own expectations, slicing air with limbs, and carving space with authority. The Personal Element was created for Vail International Dance Festival as a hybrid project involving four dancers from Alonzo King Lines and four from New York City Ballet. Pianist/composer Jason Moran’s alluring score serves as a point of inspiration for this work. Alonzo and Jason have successfully collaborated on multiple creations. Meredith Webster staged The Personal Element in record time with care and precision. This was a bit of a homecoming for Meredith. She was a Professional Division student alongside Kiyon Ross, Lesley Rausch, and Lindsi Dec. Welcome home, Meredith!

The work of Ulysses Dove burns with passion. At a time when ballet was more focused on love stories, sorcerers, and princesses, Ulysses boldly addressed issues of the time—real issues from real life. Ulysses dug into untold stories with raw emotion. His works turned a lens on subjects like domestic violence (Episodes), the strength of Black women in churches and families in the South (Vespers), the allure of an underground culture of gay men (Serious Pleasures), and an ever-present theme of religion. Taking a broad view of Ulysses works is like reading his memoir, written through movement, choreography, light, and sound. Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, created for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1993, addresses death. Ulysses spoke of having lost 13 people, including his father, the year before creating Heaven. Many of his friends and peers were lost to the AIDS epidemic. Ulysses recalled of his own inability to process such profound loss. He found a way. We can’t help but feel painful parallels between the devastation felt during the AIDS crisis and what we are experiencing today. Sadly, Ulysses, lost his own battle against AIDS in 1996.

I had the singular pleasure of working with Ulysses on his last two creations, standing by his side when I could, helping him enter the studio, walk home, fly to Paris to see Red Angels for the last time. He loved life and dance and deserved to live past the age of 49. I always felt his presence when dancing, watching or rehearsing his work. He’s still in the room. Our rehearsal director, Anne Dabrowski, staged Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven with true reverence to the choreographer. We welcome his younger brother, Alfred, who serves as custodian of Ulysses work—a keeper of the flame.  

Peter Boal

Featured photo: James Kirby Rogers and Christopher D’Ariano in Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, photo © Angela Sterling.