When the curtain goes up on Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 40th season Friday night, there will be two remarkable differences from past openings.
For one thing, the two weekends of performances represent the culmination of PNB’s first-ever residency by a visiting choreographer, a six-month visit by the legendary Twyla Tharp.
For another, Tharp’s world premiere, titled “Waiting at the Station,” which she created during the residency for these performances, reflects a new kind of ballet for her, a departure from her signature pure dance pieces.
Although the idea of an artist residency is new for PNB, Tharp is not. She first worked with the company in 2006 when she set “Nine Sinatra Songs” on PNB. In 2008 she created two new ballets for the company, “Opus 111” and “Afternoon Ball.”
Since then, PNB has added two other existing Tharp works to its repertoire — “In the Upper Room” and “Waterbaby Bagatelles” — each time building a deeper understanding of her groundbreaking style, a combination of ballet, jazz, ballroom dance and simple, everyday movements.
During the current residency, Tharp set her rarely seen “Sweet Fields” on PNB’s professional division students, which they performed in the spring.
She also set “Brief Fling,” created for American Ballet Theatre in 1990 but new to PNB this year, on the professional company.
That work, along with “Nine Sinatra Songs” and “Waiting at the Station” complete this month’s all-Tharp program.
“Brief Fling,” with its Scottish-inspired movement, receives raves wherever it’s performed, and the elegant “Nine Sinatra Songs” is a perennial audience favorite.
The most hotly anticipated piece is “Waiting at the Station,” partly because it’s a world premiere, but also because of the new direction that Tharp takes with it.
“Waiting” showcases much of Tharp’s signature style, but the narrative elements add an additional dimension.
Although it’s far from a story ballet, “Waiting” has distinct characters and what Tharp calls a “dramatic focus.”
Like many artists, Tharp is generally reluctant to talk about what her work means, but in an interview she was extremely candid about the inspiration for “Waiting.”
She described how she was inspired by the 1951 Vittorio De Sica film “Miracle in Milan,” the story of a Christlike figure who is given the problematic power to grant wishes to anyone who asks.
Tharp said she was struck by the similarity of the main character to the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.
Having achieved great wealth in his later years, Tolstoy determined to give away his riches before he died to the great consternation of his wife and family.
In “Waiting,” Tharp builds a loose narrative thread around a Tolstoylike central figure and casts the dynamic PNB principal dancer James Moore in the role.
Tharp says she was struck by Moore’s superb acting ability and his strong, clear dancing.
“Waiting” has challenging roles aplenty for other dancers as well, and one of the greatest joys will be seeing some of PNB’s younger and under-the-radar company members come into their own.
Tharp is noted for her sophisticated musical sense and “Waiting at the Station” is set to nine jazzy new songs by New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint.
Toussaint will appear on piano with the PNB Orchestra the first weekend; after that, PNB pianist Allan Dameron is scheduled to take over at the keyboard.
The Pacific Northwest Ballet presents “Air Twyla” from Sept. 27 to Oct. 6 at McCaw Hall, 31 Mercer St., Seattle. Ticket prices range from $28 to $174 and may be purchased online at www.pnb.org. Call the box office for more information, 206-441-2424.