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caption: Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in a 2017 performance of David Dawson's "Empire Noire"
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Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in a 2017 performance of David Dawson's "Empire Noire"
Credit: photo @ Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Before a mostly-empty theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet has one last dance – for now

I walked toward McCaw Hall Thursday evening full of my usual pre-performance anticipation. I’ve seen hundreds of Pacific Northwest Ballet shows over the past three decades, but I’d really been looking forward to this program, featuring the Seattle premiere of new PNB choreographer-in-residence Alejandro Cerrudo’s epic ballet “One Thousand Pieces.”

The evening should have been like so many others over the years; instead, I was about to watch PNB’s last performance for at least a month.

Governor Jay Inslee’s decision earlier in the week to restrict public gatherings, to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, forced most Seattle-area arts institutions to cancel performances and public events. Public buildings like museums have also closed.

PNB had been scheduled to start a seven-performance run this weekend; ballet company leaders had to cancel, but decided to present one last show. The dress rehearsal would be open and closing nights combined, a performance for video cameras and for a tiny handful of staff.

PNB also invited three arts journalists to attend the show; I was one of the lucky three.

With canceled performances, coronavirus leaves Seattle arts organizations reeling

Normally, patrons enter McCaw Hall through glass doors that open into a wide lobby where we get to ogle pretty ballet tutus and other arty frou frou. For this show, we were ushered through the stage entrance, an inconspicuous gray door facing Mercer Street. Dancers, musicians and PNB staff members flowed up and down the backstage stairwells, stopping for hand sanitizer along the way. The mood was subdued, to say the least.

McCaw Hall is a resplendent venue; it seats 3,000 on plush upholstered chairs that spread across the main floor, two balconies and tiers of box seats. On this night, the cavernous space was all but deserted; fewer than 50 people were scattered about at prescribed social distances: at least six feet apart. Two camerawomen stood in front of the orchestra pit, poised to capture the show.

As the lights dimmed and the orchestra began to play, a confusing swirl of emotions rose up: my normal excited anticipation mixed with immense sadness and deep appreciation that I had the privilege to watch these dancers one more time.

Just before I’d come into the building, one of the dancers had stopped to chat. They’d been rehearsing these ballets for more than a month and they were heartbroken when they found out the show would not go on. The dancer thanked me for coming; I promised to applaud for the thousands of people who wouldn’t be able to show their appreciation.

PNB is one of the nation’s finest ballet companies; the dancers are well trained, the orchestra superb. On this particular evening, I sensed that every artist on the stage and in the pit was giving their all to this one last performance. The effort was visible. Sitting in the fifth row, I saw the emotion on the dancers’ faces, watched drops of sweat spin off their foreheads and backs and chests as they leapt and spun across the stage.

We three arts journalists were invited with the express understanding that we would not review the performance. I can only tell you that it was profoundly exquisite, visually and emotionally.

I found myself hoarding memories for coming weeks without live performance. I treasured watching Elizabeth Murphy dancing with Dylan Wald, strands of her hair flying loose from her tight bun, her body entwined with his; gasping as Miles Pertl descended from high above the stage, like Peter Pan. Suspended in air, he recited a love poem that seemed dedicated to everyone in the room. Elle Macy, Lucien Postlewaite and Noelani Pantastico danced through swirling mists, kicking up sprays of the water that had pooled up on the stage floor, the droplets moving in synch with the dancers’ arms and legs.

This was a performance like none that I have seen in my 40 years as a journalist. Beyond the beauty of the choreography itself, the precision of the artists on this particular stage, this was an elegy for the local arts community, a testimony to the joy and effort and passion our local performers deliver to us on a regular basis.

The immediate future for PNB---and for every regional arts nonprofit---is bleak. The ballet company will lose at least a million dollars this month alone. Arts leaders tell me if the public gathering restrictions go on for months, many arts companies won’t be able to reopen when they’re lifted.

Thursday night, the orchestra played the last notes of the Philip Glass score, and Murphy and Wald walked off the stage hand in hand, heading into an unknown future. We few audience members rose to our feet, clapping and cheering for them, for the evening, for the wider arts community.

Our applause went on and on, until the dancers joined in. Perhaps the collective power of our handclaps could summon the Tinkerbell who would find a cure for coronavirus, conjure the money to sustain our cultural institutions, turn the clock back or ahead to a time where the world feels normal again. I believe, I believe, I believe.