Review: PA Ballet Tackles Opus Jazz

By Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Aside from their abilities to construct abstract narratives that push the boundaries of classical ballet, choreographers Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins and Matthew Neenan have little in common. This might explain why Pennsylvania Ballet’s final program of the season, N. Y. Export: Opus Jazz, never quite sizzled but the varied program showed the company’s versatility and Thursday’s premiere proved to be a great night for Soloists Lauren Fadeley and Jermel Johnson.

The evening began with Peter Martins’s Barber Violin Concerto. Representing the classical aesthetic, dancers Amy Aldridge and James Ihde gripped the audience with their careful lifts and turns while Laura Bowman and Ian Hussey shook things up in bare feet. Hussey lifted Bowman to his shoulder while she peddled her legs, suspending her body parallel to the floor. She climbed up his leg, supporting herself on his calf then both couples danced together, performing two distinct interpretations of the same musical score.

The work, which premiered in 1988, was well executed, save a minor collision in the wings, and eventually the couples switched partners. With bent elbows, Hussey slowly brought Aldrige over to the dark side (i.e. modern dance), a transformation marked with the unbinding of her hair, and Bowman frolicked between Ihde’s legs, eliciting peals of laughter from the audience.

Matthew Neenan’s Beside them, they dwell provided Soloists Fadeley and Johnson a well deserved chance to strut their stuff. Seven dancers formed a line at the side of the stage while the pair slowly made their way to the front of the stage. Hips and elbows melting together, their gazes remained fixed on the audience. Several motifs emerged, including one that began with five dancers standing just inches away from each other, swinging their arms from side to side like a pendulum. With straight elbows straight and broken wrists, they turned the traditional port de bras on its head. Neenan’s newest work for PA Ballet didn’t have quite the same punch as did The Last Glass, performed by BalletX earlier this year, but it was— as always— visually interesting and just vague enough to intrigue.

The evening’s title piece, N. Y. Export: Opus Jazz started off strong, perhaps because Robbins’s choreography is so smart that it’s still being performed half a century later. The gestures are simple and the movement vocabulary pedestrian (if pedestrians can kick their legs up to eye-level just before diving to the floor, that is) but they’re put together in such a way that a simple snap becomes an element of art, and high art at that.

Unfortunately, PA Ballet’s staid interpretation left me nostalgic for the Gap commercials which introduced my generation to West Side Story and, subsequently, the groundbreaking work of Jerome Robbins. The company’s footwork was spot on and Johnson walked the line between danseur and high school jock so seamlessly that it seemed the choreography was made for him but overall the dancers just didn’t have enough pep to convince me they were actually enjoying themselves. (And with bright, snappy costumes, gorgeous scenery by Ben Shahn and a dizzying jazz score, having fun should have gone without saying.) Nonetheless, N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz was an engaging amalgamation of ballet’s myriad styles and the dancers are to be commended for tackling Robbins’s ballet in sneakers.

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist who holds an MA in Dance Anthropology. Her work can be found at

About Kat Richter

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both dance and cultural anthropology. She is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, Philadelphia's premiere all-female tap company. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and The Journal of Research in Dance Education.

As a professional dancer, Richter began her apprenticeship with the New Jersey Tap Ensemble at the age of 9 and was promoted to Principal Dancer while still in high school. In 2005, she received a scholarship to Oxford University and returned to the UK in 2009. She holds a BA in Dance and History from Goucher College and an MA in Dance Anthropology from Roehampton University. A proud Philadelphia transplant, she blogs at

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