REVIEW – The Pennsylvania Ballet Messiah

by Kat Richter, MA for The Dance Journal

Attentions spans aren’t what they were when Handel’s Messiah first premiered in 1741; as such, it’s little wonder that most twenty first-century theatre goers know the Hallelujah chorus and little else.  But add dance?  And costumes?  And special effects?  Now we’re talking.  In fact, thanks to Robert Weiss and Pennsylvania Ballet, the eighteenth-century oratorio is more than palatable; it’s a feast for both the eyes and ears.

Weiss created Messiah in 1998 for Carolina Ballet.  Ten years later, the work premiered in Philadelphia and this is Pennsylvania Ballet’s second time performing the ballet.  The curtain rises to reveal St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, as represented by three larger-than-life windows suspended from above.  The dancers enter the stage dressed in robes and the choreography, although reminiscent of baroque dance in its curvilinear floor patterns, steers clear of pastiche with flexed hands and buoyant assembles.

Highlights included the appearance of the angel, who emerged from the center of the stage flanked by a pair of bright, metallic wings, and the silent yet poignant dressing of the Virgin Mary in her traditional blue robe.  Although Zachary Hench’s portrayal of Jesus fell a bit flat in the third act and seemed too righteous in the first (call me crazy, but the rigid posture required by classical ballet seemed at odds with that of the compassionate friend to sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes that I learned about in Sunday School), Hench danced the baptism and crucifixion scenes with great poise.

The ballet’s strength comes from the fact that most of the references to the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ are oblique; aside from the baby doll passed, rather awkwardly, between the members of the corps towards the end of the first act, the biblical imagery relies mainly upon long swaths of silk fabric, shadows and simple yet powerful tableaus.

Comprised of over 50 “scenes” danced to various arias, recitatives and choruses, the “story” was hard to follow at times but Messiah is definitely an ensemble work.  The dancers melted from circles and lines to pinwheels and symmetrical motifs, sometimes exploding with energy and sometimes tiptoeing silently, as if walking a meditative labyrinth.  Folding their bodies upon one another, they created a single line like the disciples depicted in The Last Supper and holding hands while balancing en pointe, three female dancers drew their legs into a develope a la second in perfect succession.

In the third act, Arantxa Ochoa and Ian Hussey performed an exquisite duet in which each represented one half a dove (which was itself a representation of the Holy Spirit).  On both dancers, one arm was elongated into a fluttering, white wing; together they formed a wingspan measuring well over ten feet.  Hench’s final duet with soloist Barette Vance Widell had audiences on the edge of their seats—how could she lean so far back without getting dropped?—while the final “resurrection” was dizzying for all involved, especially Hench.

Although Handel’s Messiah is generally reserved for the Christmas season, it was originally conceived and performed for Easter.  Weiss’s re-interpretation pays homage to the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ without getting “preachy” and the elegant, understated result is the perfect way to celebrate the coming of spring.

Messiah performances at the Academy of Music:

  • Thursday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 10 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, March 11 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 17 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 17 at 8 p.m

Tickets to Messiah are on sale now, with prices ranging from $20 to $140. Tickets are available online at, by phone at 215.893.1999, and in person at the Kimmel Center Box Office..

Photo Credits: Alexander Iziliaev.

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