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Sunday, November 4, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m.

Dance review
A night of 4 world premieres, including 1 by Mark Morris, at PNB

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

There's a sort of stern caprice to the early work of German composer Paul Hindemith. And that paradoxical quality is what Mark Morris zeros in on in his new dance piece

"Kammermusik No. 3," set to a Hindemith cello concerto of the same name, had its world premiere at Pacific Northwest Ballet on Friday (along with three new pieces by PNB dancer-choreographers) and it's an intricate, shadowy dovetailing of movement and music.

In its first phase, it's all demonstrative geometries and angular indications. An impeccably precise Carrie Imler serves as chief instigator, accruing around her three lines of dancers whose tight unison soon gives way to fractal ripples, with each dancer peeling off in a slight variation from the next.

This action unfolds against a radiant violet-lit backdrop. But before the friskier second movement starts, a dark back curtain descends, inking out half that light. Still, Hindemith's hectic rhythms prompt Morris to turn comical traffic cop, sending dancers on and offstage in rapid succession, alert to each bounce in the musical beat. Trios of dancers — sometimes linked hand-by-hand — predominate, using each other to soar.

Before the third movement, the black curtain lowers still further — and against the shrunken strip of violet light, James Moore enters in silence. In a slow-moving solo, he tests the empty space around him, leaning into it, feeling for its outer reaches. When Ezra Thomson limps in to join him, you suddenly sense that "Kammermusik" is as much about life's erosions as it is about movement springing abstractly from music.

That's confirmed when dancers start dropping to the ground — by ones, by twos, by threes. It takes Margaret Mullin, slipping into the scene with a delicate backwards stealth, to bring back a sense of returning light and renewal in the closing movement. She's an airy marvel, and Morris gives her just the right send-off as the curtain comes down. Cellist Page Smith and the orchestra, under Emil de Cou, are one with the movement, transparently enhancing the rhythms of the dance.

Andrew Bartee's evening opener, "arms that work," plays with space in a beguiling way as he deploys his dancers in front of and behind a stage-spanning "harp" strung with huge elastic bands. There's both whimsy and drama in the way the performers literally get caught up in the set.

One highlight: Moore and Kaori Nakumura's opening pas de deux where he keeps having to tap her on the shoulder to remind her, "Hey! We're doing a duet." Another lure: Leah O'Connor's willowy slow-motion gyrations, always finding a different rhythm in the score than the other more antic dancers do. The score itself is a world premiere by Seattle composer Barret Anspach (brother of PNB dancer Jessika Anspach), and its curious mix of fizziness and hesitancy is just right for the piece.

Music and movement feel more at odds in Mullin's "Lost in Light," inspired by the death of a much-loved friend. Dan Coleman's original chamber score catches a sense of something lyrical taking a wrong or disconsolate turn. But the dance itself, fashioned in the classical ballet style of Antony Tudor, is a bit too abstract to connect with emotionally. That said, there's some alluring partnerwork in it, especially between Kiyon Gaines and Carli Samuelson.

Gaines' own "Sum Stravinsky," the evening's closer, is set to Stravinsky's neoclassical chamber symphony "Dumbarton Oaks." But it might as well be called "Rhapsody in Blue," given all the variations on blue bubbling up in Pauline Smith's costumes and Randall G. Chiarelli's lighting. And the dance itself is full of champagne energy, too.

Gaines is positively Morris-like in the way his movement springs from the quirks in the music. And he has just the right dazzling dancers — especially couples Imler and Jonathan Porretta, and Maria Chapman and Karel Cruz — to achieve frothy, elegant lift-off.

Michael Upchurch:

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