Twists and turns in Dove ballets

Lesley Rausch in Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels.’’ Lesley Rausch in Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels.’’ (Angela Sterling)
By Janine Parker
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2009

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BECKET - At one point in Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels,’’ the four dancers perform solos that are so beautiful, so daringly precise, so much a celebration of what the dancer’s body is, that you think your heart will burst. When each dancer finishes, however, he or she coolly walks away, giving a look that suggests you really should pull yourself together.

What’s especially fun about that cheekiness is that, emotionally, it’s a world-and-a-half away from “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven,’’ which opens the all-Dove program that the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting this week at Jacob’s Pillow. This rare survey of Dove’s craft - he died in 1996, only 49 years old - is a generous gift from artistic director Peter Boal. The program’s three works are clearly imprinted with Dove’s choreographic stamp - he was heavily influenced by Lester Horton and Alvin Ailey, and admiring of George Balanchine - and also highlight his impressive range and grasp of content and musicality.

“Vespers,’’ which was originally created for the modern group Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, utilizes contractions, lots of rise/fall, and is danced barefoot to composer Mikel Rouse’s intensely percussive score. “Angels’’ and “Heaven’’ were originally set on New York City Ballet and Royal Swedish Ballet, respectively, use a ballet vocabulary, albeit stretched to contemporary extremes, and the women dance in pointe shoes. “Angels’’ is set to Richard Einhorn’s playfully perverse composition for solo electric violin; “Heaven’’ is set to Arvo Pärt’s haunting, anxious “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.’’ Though the titles suggest an ecclesiastical theme, the program is a secular thrill.

Curiously - on opening night, anyway - the company was weakest in the ballets. An apparent musical miscue at the beginning of “Heaven’’ may have been responsible for some performance jitters. The dancers had to speed into, rather than build up to, he mournful tone of “Heaven.’’ It was sentimental rather than sober. In general, the cast of six lacked the deep groundedness the movement demands, struggling, for instance, through many of the tricky turn sequences (a Dove specialty), their energy seeping out and deflating the turns’ momentum. Hopefully, the company will rally over the weekend: It’s a lovely work filled with resonating imagery.

Whereas in “Heaven’’ the technical brilliance should seem to emanate from some deeply cathartic place - call it the dancers’ souls, if you will - in “Red Angels’’ the dancers must have nerves of steel in order to project saucy nonchalance. Alas, again at times those nerves seemed frayed, though Lesley Rausch and Lucien Postlewaite were commanding, Rausch projecting both spikiness and pin-up allure, and Postlewaite rock-solid in his series of big ecarte developpes. There’s lots of winking posturing, and when the four dancers do pair up, the duets are like especially hostile tangos, replete with challenging glares.

The palpable defiance in “Vespers,’’ however, is directed at an unseen force. At times the six women in their simple black dresses are like repressed schoolgirls who erupt into sweaty runs around the stage before contracting inward, backpedaling, arms flung out as if warding off an authority figure; sometimes they’re conflicted adults who tug at their skirts as if their skin is crawling, or pull those skirts up with sensual tension - or primly sit down, straight-backed, settling the skirts over their knees like a sigh. Moving between two sets of chairs, they pitch forward and arch back, a kind of manic genuflection. “Vespers’’ was inspired by Dove’s memories of his grandmother’s place of worship, and the women of Pacific Northwest Ballet indeed dance as if to drive out the demons.

PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET At: Jacob’s Pillow Wednesday (through Sunday) Tickets: $58. 413-243-0745, or

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