“Sexy.” “Sinuous.” “Celebratory.”
Those are some of the words I can barely decipher from the scrap of paper I was scribbling on as I refused to tear my eyes from the spellbinding, mesmerizing, breath-catching Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performance of Boléro.
The performance took place this past weekend in the Great Sculpture Hall of the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History, where audience members were placed at a safe social distance from each other on the balcony above as dancers took over the white rectangular space below. Choreographer (and recently appointed PBT artistic director) Susan Jaffe made good use of our aerial viewpoint with an emphasis on horizontal movement and angular lines that had the dancers and their limbs spreading out as much as they spread up. Clad by designer Janet Marie Groom in monotone colors – red for the women, black for the men – the performers moved fluidly across the space, slinking, spinning, and pairing with such athletic grace and flow that I might be forgiven if at times it seemed to me that they were skating on ice rather than dancing on marble. Flesh-toned masks lent the impression that these dancers had been rendered mouthless and mute, making the expressive power of their bodies all the more potent and visceral. Indeed, I felt an almost physical shock the first time two dancers partnered (masked) cheek to (masked) cheek – such has been my psychological conditioning over the last year regarding physical intimacy.
Boléro is a relatively short piece of music, but it’s one that builds in intensity and drive as instrumental voices layer on top of each other and as the key repeatedly modulates above an insistent driving rhythm. It’s a musical composition that feels like it mimics both a heartbeat and the rushing of blood through one’s veins. Jaffe’s choreography likewise built in intensity and drive, moving from solo to paired to ensemble sequences and drawing from the vernacular of modern and folk dance as well as ballet to layer fresh physical tones and moods as the music added new timbres and colors. A line of ensemble members formed an attentive border on three sides of the space and echoed, in slow motion, gestures generated by the soloists and couples in the middle; members of the ensemble moved from the margin to the center as the dance progressed, modulating previous movement phrases and building new ones. As the music writhed its way toward its climactic, dissonant clash, the dancers brought their individual sequences together to create an explosive invocation of the pulse of life.
“All you can do,” I scribbled, before bursting into elated applause at the end of the piece. What did I mean by that? I think I felt, in that moment, as full as I’ve felt since lockdown began. This gift of dance, in a real space – where hearts beat together as audience and artists occupied not just the same physical space but the same emotional space – was a celebration of all we can do as humans to be in this world together, even when we have to do all we can to keep our distance from one another.
Update: If you missed this performance, you will have a chance to see it streamed for free between April 5-11; sign up for notification here.