Listening a thousand times forms complex ballet of 'Rush'

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Paul Gibson, wearing practice clothes still sweaty from the previous hour's rehearsal of "The Moor's Pavane," stood in a crowded rehearsal room last Wednesday, working out a tricky section of his new ballet, "Rush."

It's a fairly chaotic scene, with some dancers running through their own parts — the women's pointe shoes squeaking across the floor, sounding like the cry of little birds — and others milling about, chatting. But for a man whose still-unfinished ballet will have its world premiere in just eight days, Gibson is remarkably calm.

"I'm very happy," he said of the ballet's progress, after the rehearsal. "Really happy with the first and third movements, still working on the second movement. The music is very difficult — the whole ballet is very hard to count."

Set to the driving, spiky lushness of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's "Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani" (reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's famous string score for Alfred Hitchcock's movie "Psycho"), "Rush" is an abstract ballet for nine couples. While the sections worked on in last Wednesday's rehearsal had a speedy and angular quality, Gibson encouraged the dancers to find calmness in the movement, demonstrating by waving a hand through the air as if floating.

"Rush," Gibson's second ballet choreographed for PNB (his first, "Diversions," debuted in 1998), grew from Gibson's enthusiasm for Martinu's music. PNB music director Stewart Kershaw suggested the piece and played it for him, and Gibson was instantly smitten by the dark drama of the score. "It's fantastic — I can't wait to hear it live. For me, everything is about the music when I choreograph. A lot of choreographers, they can do sequences of steps and then stick it with the music. I can't do that. I have to choreograph for the music."

Beginning with the music meant "counting it out, listening to it a thousand times." Then "Rush" slowly began emerging on paper: "I draw little boxes, showing how it'll start, where the couples are going to be. And I start choreographing, dancing around my living room, working out patterns. Then I set it on the dancers, fix it, clean it up."

Building "Rush" from scratch meant collaborating with other PNB artists — lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli and costume designer Mark Zappone. "You come up with all these visions for what you want," said Gibson.

"Mark watched rehearsal, did some sketches and first came up with a longer dress for the women, with some swirl." After some discussion, the costumes evolved into short dresses for the women and sleeveless jumpsuits for the men, in vivid shades of purple, red and gold, draped and twisted like an endless swirl around the body. "They came out great," said Gibson. "Everyone looks amazing."

Gibson, 33, is in his ninth season at PNB. A native of Altoona, Pa., he began his career as an 18-year-old apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet, rising to the rank of soloist in 1993. A year later he joined PNB, and in 1996 became a principal dancer with the company. He's choreographed works for the San Francisco Ballet School, the PNB School and various regional companies.

While he's still got many years as a dancer ahead of him, Gibson is planning for the day when he'll transition away from full-time performing. "It's really hard to dance at the same time as choreographing, to keep switching back and forth," he said. "I definitely want to keep choreographing later on, and I know I want to get into being a ballet master and rehearsing ballets. I like being in rehearsals, not just teaching class."

For now, he moves among his peers, solving traffic problems as the dancers converge at center floor, working and re-working tiny sections. As the rehearsal comes to an end, he laughs comfortably. "It's almost there," he tells his cast. "It's almost there."

Moira Macdonald:

Dance preview

"World Premiere," an evening of four ballets: "Concerto Barocco" (choreographed by George Balanchine), "The Moor's Pavane" (Jos Limn), "Rush" (Paul Gibson), "Voluntaries" (Glen Tetley), tonight through Saturday and Nov. 14-16 at 7:30 p.m; today and Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. Pacific Northwest Ballet, Mercer Arts Arena, 363 Mercer St., Seattle; $16-$100, 206-292-ARTS or