Review: PA Ballet Carnival of the Animals

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Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

By Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

It’s not often that ballet leaves you gasping one moment and laughing the next but Pennsylvania Ballet’s latest program, a triple bill featuring two classic Balanchine works, Ballo Della Regina and The Four Temperaments, followed by Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals, did just that.

The program opened with Balanchine’s Ballo Della Regina.  Soloist Jong Suk Park stood out—his jumps seemed to go on for days— but The Four Temperaments gave the company a chance to really shine.  Although the classic black and white “leotard ballet” premiered in 1946 and takes its name from the medieval belief that four humors comprised the body and determined its temperament (“choleric” for example or “melancholic”), it’s juxtaposition of classic lines and modern flourishes keep the ballet looking as fresh today as it did nearly 70 years ago.

Flexed feet, jutting hips and Egyptian-esque arms characterize the work, which comprises three introductory themes and four movements and featured an exquisite piano solo by Martha Koeneman.   The most exciting moments, however, occur as the dancers exited the stage.  In one of the early duets, an L-shaped lift saw one couple into the wings and in Melancholic, Andrew Daly walked backwards, his back arched parallel with the floor.

The highlight of the evening, however, was Carnival of the Animals.  Written and narrated by John Lithgow and choreographed by New York City Ballet veteran Christopher Wheeldon, it was the perfect combination of wit and whimsy.  An enchanting tale, the ballet tells the story of Oliver, a mischievous school boy, who encounters a cast of half-human, half-animal characters during a night at the American Museum of Natural History.

The costumes, designed by Jon Morrell, were nothing short of spectacular.  The grownups of Oliver’s world, for example, were dressed as roosters and chickens, complete with red derby hats for the men, checkered skirts for the women, and tail feathers that looked like they really had come from a museum exhibit.  Oliver’s classmates performed Wheeldon’s vigorous choreography in gladiator like headdresses complete with pigtails sticking out the side.  Best of all were the blonde “cinema sirens” of ages past who created an underwater dreamscape in iridescent leotards and gloves that turned their hands into webbed feet.

As the narration unfolded, Oliver’s classmates took a trip to the ballet.  A bit of irreverent cheekiness followed as the show-within-a-show theme came to life: dressed in brown tulle tutus and skeletal makeup, the ballerinas rattled through intentionally mechanical choreography, swatting their skirts as they danced to send puffs of dust into the air.  Julie Diana, who played Oliver’s aging aunt, provided the perfect contrast in her high heels and elbow length gloves.  She danced a restrained but beautiful solo, facing upstage nearly the entire time as she recalled the glory of her formed career.

Young Jonathan Block was earnest and precise as Oliver and Lithgow’s confident delivery kept the work on target, despite a few technical hiccups. Indeed, Carnival was one of the most delightful ballets I’ve ever seen, perfect for children and the child in each of us.

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist.  She holds an MA in Dance Anthropology and is also the co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company.  Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.

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