Review – Pennsylvania Ballet’s Speed and Precision

photo by Alexander Iziliaev

by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

Pennsylvania Ballet’s 2015-16 season commenced this week ushering in artistic director Angel Corella’s first line-up of full programming since he became director more than a year ago. Corella stood before an all but sold out Academy of Music to say a few words about the bill he called Speed and Precision. The dancers delivered plenty of both throughout the evening, but not without a few bumps and hazy spots along the way, performing works by Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and George Balanchine.

Corella’s imprint on PAB was already evident in flashes last season, and he was able to take full advantage of ballets already in scheduled by his predecessor Roy Kaiser. The new energy and luster of the company seemed to come into full focus in June for the closer of contemporary ballets that included the artistic knockout premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s Grace Action.

photo by Alexander Iziliaev

On this opening night, Wayne McGregor’s ‘Chroma’ proved to have just as much punch. McGregor created the piece for The Royal Ballet in 2006 and he was here working directly with the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers for this revival. The ten dancers are all dressed in neutral gender silky tunics, as they appear and vanish in front of a rectangular back screen entrance at the back of the stage. The score by Joby Talbot and The White Stripes is a musical mosaic and McGregor’s choreography directly expresses those musical lines with ballet vernacular driven to distorted variants.

The curtain comes up on Jermel Johnson and Oksana Maslova for their opening, intense duet, stating the themes of cryptically expressive dance.   McGregor male-female duets, look antagonistic, but seem more about the choreographer’s study of physicality and instinctual body chemistry. These are dancers in abstracted space. They could be symbolic trysts or not, interpretations are up for grabs. However abstract, McGregor’s choreographic drive has an entrancing dance-theater arc.

The choreography is packed with precarious lift patterns; dancers are tossed around, ballerinas boomeranging up from splits, not to mention leg moves that are so hyper-extended they draw gasps from the audience.

McGregor’s sculptural duets that keep evolving to dramatic, sometime cirque de dance contortions.   A male trio by Amir Yogev, Jermel Johnson and Harrison Monaco plays on counterbalancing male bodies in contrast to male-female partnering is equally sensorial.

The ensemble sections keeps scrambling the stage composition, duets, trios form until other dancers intrude on each other’s space, appearing and vanishing, like chromatic lines in jazz music. McGregor’s style is fast, athletic and full of ‘unballetic’ mystique. There are also very dancey phrases laces through like the fleet chasses and turns by Alexander Peters that rides a vibraphone-string melody line from Ramsey Lewis’ 60s jazz version of ‘The In Crowd.’

The two percussionists on vibes were positioned in boxes right over the orchestra pit giving the jazz elements of this full orchestral a wonderful dimension. All along conductor Beatrice Jona Affron deftly details this score and does a great job the spiking its brassy, propulsive drive in the Academy.

George Balanchine’s ‘Concerto Barocco’ is a signature work for PAB and there is always pressure to perform it with precision without it looking coldly technical. The opening tableaux of modern ballerinas in silky white dance skirts locking into fifth position petit jumps looked wobbly, but the fast tempo ensemble sections later ignited the corps’s razor sharp unison lines.

Lillian DiPiazza and partner James Ihde (the only male dancer) are luminous together in the classic Balanchine pas de deux. DiPiazza flawless artistry and Ihde’s supporting with impeccable Balanchine neo-classical style. Costentino sweeps across the stage with gorgeous carriage and unfussy technical artistry. Those two lead violin lines from the pit are soloists Luigi Mazzocchi and Dayna Hepler in sumptuous tones that engulfed the Academy, they are on stage for the bows with the dancers and rightly so.

photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘DGV : Danse a Grande Vitesse’ also a 2006 commission from the Royal Ballet, with music by Michael Nyman and a metallic set design by Jean- Marc Puissant evoking a modern transit terminal.

DGV has an ensemble of 24 dancers, with the women on pointe, and Wheeldon gives it a show dance dazzle that almost sabotages his more dynamic ideas.  The ensemble sections playing to its general theme of travel and looking, oddly, both frenzied and static – dancers streaming in, for instance, with arms interlocked, pivoting into group geometrics looking a bit like extras in a Busby Berkeley musical. It runs out of steam too fast and, however clever, Wheedlon’s decorous passages are a missed opportunity to show most of the corps de ballet in more dynamic ways.

Fortunately Wheeldon shows his signature strengths in DGV with duets that give it more depth.  All four couples bring immediacy and personality starting right out of the dance gate with Elizabeth Wallace and Edward Barnes dancing with athletic eloquence. Amy Aldridge and Peters also hitting every tricky technical aspect with their lightening attack. Mayara Pineiro and Arian Molina Soca are also radiant in conveying Wheeldon’s more playful, intriguing movement. James Ihde and Lauren Fadeley get to dive out of the frenzied action when the score switches gears as they dance one of Wheeldon’s most meditative and stirring pas de deux.

The program was a good barometer of things to come this season and what an added treat it is to hear live orchestra accompaniment in a contemporary ballet program.

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