Review: PA Ballet’s Balanchine, Wheeldon, Tharp

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Soloist James Ihde and Former Principal Dancer Riolama Lorenzo
Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

By Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

With Nutcracker season finally over, Pennsylvania Ballet welcomed the New Year with an eclectic and ambitious program at the Merriam Theatre on Thursday night: Balanchine, Wheeldon, Tharp—three very different choreographers treated to three very different interpretations by the company.

Considering the company’s connection to Balanchine through its founder, Barbara Weisberger, herself a student of the acclaimed choreographer, it comes as little surprise that pieces like Square Dance work so well on the company.  Balanchine’s precise symmetry was well preserved and as the twelve dancers dressed in pale blue sailed across the stage, they seemed to multiply in number.

Principal dancer Amy Aldridge nailed the petit allegro with a series of swiveling, syncopated changements on the tips of her pointe shoes.  Her interactions with the racing Vivaldi/Corelli score were so nuanced and subtle that they were almost perceivable—especially with everything else going on onstage—but the audience, ever appreciative, was generous in its applause.

Jermel Johnson’s solo, which did not exist in the 1952 version of Square Dance but was added in the 1976 revival, departed from the work’s earlier exuberance with a series of turns landing in deep, arched back lunges and intricate pirouettes untwisting from even more intricate preparations.  It felt out of place in contrast to the sweet and buoyant couples who do-si-doed around the stage, replacing the square dancer’s traditional skips and hops with pique turns and chasses, but it endowed the work with a greater degree of emotional depth.

Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove, unfortunately, didn’t work quite as well.  To say that Baryshnikov is a hard act to follow is, of course, an understatement.  The 1976 classic is as much about the Russian virtuoso as it about choreographer Twyla Tharp, and although Pennsylvania Ballet’s costumes and staging were true to the original, right down to the signature bowler hats, dancer Zachary Hench lacked the necessary panache to do the lead role justice.  He caught all of the off kilter turns and jumps but there was a certain bravado missing from his nonchalance.  Principal Lauren Fadeley seemed to be the only one who “got” the comedic essence of the work, with some help from Julie Diana.

The highlight of the evening was actually Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, which premiered in 2005 at the New York City Ballet’s annual New Combinations Evening.  Sandwiched between Balanchine and Tharp, Wheeldon’s work was a breath of fresh air danced by three couples in gradient shades of navy and cobalt blues.  Lined up one behind the other, the three female dancers pitched their weight forward with the support of their partners, lifting one leg to the side until it was parallel to the floor.  They froze, but then their legs descended like the hands of a clock, dropping from three o’clock, to six, then up to twelve pushing the ball and socket joints of their hips beyond their limits.

The music of Arvo Pärt was the perfect canvas for Wheeldon’s gravity-defying choreography.  The dancers played in and around the silence provided by the ample space between notes; the violins battled with the piano as the dancers skimmed across the stage, supported on their toes or leaping backwards in space.

After the first movement, which left the stage empty, Hench returned to the stage with Diana for a tender, slow motion duet.  Stripped of their blue costumes, the husband and wife pair returned in simple practice clothes; he in a pair of pants and she bare-legged in a plain salmon pink leotard, point shoes discarded and hair unpinned from its tight French twist.  They ambled and meandered, leaning from side to side as the duet—ever steady in its adherence to the three/four time signature— became more expansive in its use of space and bodies before ending in a simple kiss.

PA Ballet’s Balanchine, Wheeldon, Tharp at the Merriam Theater, Feberuary 7-10

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.

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 www.fieldworkinstilettos.com

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for your comment; the typos have been fixed. Obviously we want our reviews to be accurate as possible but in our support of the Philadelphia dance community, we also aim to publish quickly enough that our readers will be able to catch the show before it closes should they be inspired to do so. The Dance Journal is run as a labor of love with no full time staff so unfortunately, things do fall through the cracks sometimes. With regard to your additional concerns, I apologize for my mistaken recollection concerning the order of entrances and exits in Wheeldon’s piece. In interpreting the work’s final moments, I felt that the kiss was the most climactic and chose to end my review with what was, in my opinion, the most meaningful part. These sorts of decisions are always difficult, so thank you for helping us to paint a fuller picture.

  2. While I appreciate your vivid imagery and descriptive language, I find this review to be somewhat inaccurate. The stage is never left empty in “After the Rain”, for example. The pas de deux couple runs on to take their place before the other couples exit from the first movement…and the couple does not end “in a simple kiss”. They lie on the floor, her body draped over his torso. Your recollection paints the wrong picture for people who did not see the performance.

    Your piece is also sprinkled with grammatical errors (“The ambled and meandered…every steady…”) and mispellings (“…”to do the lead roll justice” and “Julia Diana”) which makes me question your attention to detail. If you misrepresent aspects of the performance and you don’t take the time to edit your writing, how are we to trust your credibility?

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