PA Ballet’s Strength & Longing – Expert Ensemble Flexes Its Muscle

For Four -193-by_iziliaev
Photo By: Alexander Iziliaev

by Gary L. Day for The Dance Journal

Whenever the Pennsylvania Ballet presents a new program of contemporary work, other local dance ensembles must hang their heads. Not in shame, mind you, but in humility in the presence of the most talented and technically proficient dance ensemble in the region. No matter the nature of the program, the Ballet always puts forth a world-class performance.

The current program is Strength & Longing, a selection of four shorter works, all premiered by other companies,The first segment of the program was “Without Words,” choreographed and designed by Spanish-born Nacho Duato, who took took the pastoral music of Franz Schubert and composed a series of trios and duets marked by grace and fluidity. Then piece started with two men and a woman then segueing to a series of different duets before accumulating more people until finished up with an eight-person ensemble. The dancers were in perfect harmony throughout as they flowed across the stage, as if carried by a gentle breeze. Originally premiered in October 1998 by the American Ballet Theater in New York, I can’t imagine anyone giving a more refined and controlled example in modern ballet of beauty for beauty’s sake.

Photo By: Alexander Iziliaev

After the first intermission, the program resumed by presenting us with Justin Peck’s “Chutes and Ladders,” a duet featuring Lauren Fadeley and Craig Wasserman. Set to a rather dissonant score by Benjamin Britten, Peck’s lovely choreography seemed at odds with the atonal avant-garde music, but the charismatic dancers somehow made it work. They told the love story (and isn’t that what most duets are? Love stories?) with a precision that would have been clinically cold were it not for the fact that the two of them possessed an almost palpable chemistry. First premiered by the Miami City Ballet in April 2013, the Ballet has fully taken ownership of “Chutes” by dint of its superior artistry.

Next up was Christopher Wheeldon’s compelling “For Four,” also set to a beautiful Schubert score. “For Four” was unique among the evening’s programs in that it utilized an all-male ensemble, adding elements of strength and athleticism to some choreography already chock-full of grace and precision. Individualized by color as well as personality, the four dancers were nevertheless in perfect sync, fit together like a well-crafted jigsaw puzzle, where each piece is distinctly different, but together form a cohesive whole. “For Four” was premiered in February 2006 by Kings of the Dance in New York.

Photo By: Alexander Iziliaev

Last up with the evening centerpiece presentation of Jerome Robbins’ “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz.” This is the only piece presented previously in the Ballet (in 2012), but it actually premiered many years before in 1958 at the Festival of Two Worlds, Spoleto. This piece is drastically different from the rest of the program in that it owed little to the language of classical ballet and everything to the chaos of jazz ballet, disciplined to tell a story as a classical ballet does. In this case we are telling to story of a group of 50’s teenagers living and frolicking on the streets, a la West Side Story. The dancers run and leap and frolic with all the arrogant insouciance of teenagers on the prowl, snapping their fingers as a sort of 1950’s style of emoticon. The poses are all butts out and Bob Fosse lines and angles (though Robbins probably came up with the style first). The energy is brash, the style exuberant, and the feeling fresh and new, astonishingly so given the time war to the 1950’s.

The wasn’t a false step anywhere in the evening’s program. Of course, one expects this level of artistry from a company like the Pennsylvania Ballet, which has a world-class reputation. It’s just—the higher one’s expectations, the further there is to fall. However, there was no falling during Strength & Longing, only the constant flight of dancers and choreographers at the top of their form.

Strength and Longing
Pennyslvania Ballet
Duato, Peck, Robbins, & Wheeldon, music by Britten, Prince & Schubert
February 4, 2016 to February 7, 2016
Merriam Theater



  1. I attended the performance on Saturday evening and it was disappointing as is your ill informed review. The Robbins piece, which is probably one of his weakest works was completely misinterpreted. But I cannot fathom why it is in the repertoire at all given the greatness that Robbins created. The Wheeldon piece was miscast. Using four dancers of such different abilities and sizes doesn’t work at all when the choreography is of breakneck speed. In the performance I attended, there was actually a collision of arms at one point. This is an evolving company with a talented creative director and some very capable dancers. Sadly, this performance was not up to what they can do.

  2. This was the favorite ballet that I’ve seen yet. Granted I started attending shows in 2014, but this was my favorite non-classic (Nutcracker or Swan Lake). The orchestra did a magnificent job on the scores and the dancers did as well of course. My favorite was the first piece Without Words.

  3. I loved all four performances last night. I sat with a smile on my face all night. As a former dancer and teacher, I found the dancers fresh, and beyond talented. I must comment on the amazing OKSANA MASLOVA. What a future she has! I look forward to watching many more performances of the Pennsylvania Ballet.

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